TEACHING WOULD BE STRESS-FREE – IF WE DIDN’T CARE…

David Bott

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At home, I have a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. There is nothing that brings me more joy than cuddling them, playing with them and watching them grow up. Every morning, I feel a profound sense of gratitude for their presence. They bring me so much laughing, love, and learning.

And…

With the arrival of my kids, I have never, in my life, felt such guilt (when I’m away travelling for work) concern (for their welfare), disappointment (in myself every time I get parenting a little wrong), annoyance (it’s 3am again – for the 10th night in a row – why won’t you just sleep?!), and deep sadness and frustration (when they are hurting and I can’t make the hurt ‘go away’).

My kids come bundled with a life-long package of positive and negative emotional experience.
Because they matter.

Perhaps in a world where we increasingly seem to value ‘growth’ and ‘development’ and ‘accomplishment’ and ‘success’ and ‘passion’, we sometimes forget that when we choose to pursue anything meaningful in life, an unavoidable pathway of positive and negative emotional experiences lies ahead.
Because we’re choosing something that matters.

As educators we have chosen, what I believe to be, the most beautiful, impactful profession on the planet. There is no profession that has greater influence on the lives of the next generation or that touches the future more directly.
Teaching matters, deeply. And that’s why, sometimes, it hurts.

When I was speaking with friend of our Institute and Positive Psychologist, Dr Maria Sirois recently, she said it this way: “As teachers, you have chosen to steward the lives of other human beings. With that choice comes joyous wonder and endless, heartfelt struggle.”

This is reflected in the research literature which consistently finds teaching and school leadership to be extremely stressful. Approximately one in five Australian principals is overwhelmed by stress (Riley, 2017), 20% of classroom teachers report feeling tense about their job most or all of the time, and one in three of Australian teachers will likely have at least one day off work this year as a result of workplace stress (De Cieri etal., 2015). And outside of these worrying statistics, every good teacher I’ve ever met feels stretched and stressed regularly.
We wouldn’t be stressed if we didn’t care. But we do. Because our work matters.

Factors contributing, of course, to the ongoing stress that we feel include: increasing demands, the huge quantity of work (reporting, marking, email, EMAIL!), community attitude to authority, lack of time and resources, and evolving accountability and regulatory requirements. Very little, if any of these, do we have any control over. No wonder stress is so ubiquitous!

So, is there nothing that we can do about all this?

Well, the answer is ‘no’ and ‘yes’. Obviously (as much as we might like to), we can’t just delete all of our emails or reports or student work. And we can’t roll back regulation or create more time.

But…

In our ten years of applying wellbeing science in education, we have noticed two important patterns.

First, stress is not abnormal or weird. Some educators, sadly, are experiencing chronic and / or acute distress that that causes debilitation and suffering. That stress is not normal and needs compassion and professional care. But for many of us, most of us, maybe all of us, there is a pervasive level of stress that comes with the job. Because it matters.

Second, some educators deal with this stress more effectively than others. Partly, this may be due to personal or environmental variables. But often too, it is because these educators are actively doing something different. There are, it seems, teachable, learnable strategies, tactics, and techniques that we can practise in real-time that help us manage stress more effectively. These evidence-based interventions have, mostly, been adapted from traditional psychotherapeutic approaches including Cognitive-Behavioural (CBT) and Acceptance & Commitment (ACT) therapies. When, as educators, we learn, adapt, and successfully practise strategies from these approaches, we directly expand our ‘stress-management-toolkit’ – giving us a greater sense of control and efficacy.

Some examples of these evidence-based strategies include:

Getting perspective (Prof Kevin Ochsner, Columbia University)

o   Imagining the event / experience happening to someone else;

o   ‘Watch’ the event from a bird’s eye view;

Reappraising the event / experience (Prof Kevin Ochsner, Columbia University)

o   Is it possible to see any value in the situation or outcome?

o   Is it possible to derive any sense of meaning in the situation?

o   Is it possible to see any opportunity in the situation?

‘Unhooking’ from unhelpful thoughts (Dr Russ Harris)

o   Recognise that all people have unhelpful thoughts, sometimes.

o   Learn to ‘step back’ and separate or detach from our thoughts.

o   Remember that our thoughts are just that, thoughts!

o   Accept thoughts that come to our mind rather than fighting against them.

‘Expansion’ (Dr Russ Harris)

o   Mindfully focussing on the area in our body in which we physically feel the unpleasant emotion, typically stress.

o   Mentally ‘creating room’ for this unpleasant feeling until it feels comfortable enough.

None of these techniques eradicate stress. There is no magic bullet here. But when we explore them, practise them, automatise them, then we have them at our fingertips to use when we need them.

Stress will always be a part of the profession we have chosen. But when we learn to manage stress more effectively, we become more effective teachers.
And that really matters.

For more information on evidence-based stress-management approaches, we recommend you check out the below resources:
‘Free-stuff’ relating to ACT-based resilience at Dr Russ Harris’s website
Dr Sarah Edelman shares how we can fight teen anxiety with CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)


David Bott


David Bott is the Associate Director of the Institute of Positive Education. David has been involved in training thousands of teachers from hundreds of schools around the world in designing, implementing and sustaining individual and whole-school approaches to wellbeing.