Deep sighs of relief

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
Teaching can be as stressful as any other job, but there are ways to minimise the effects on your state of mind and your health. Anne Holmes offers some advice.

Stress is blamed for many medical conditions, and those it does not directly cause it is thought to exacerbate. The stresses felt by the teaching profession appear to be unparalleled. Consequently the cost to schools of covering for teachers with stress-related illness and the burden on remaining staff, is rising dramatically.

On top of all the obvious pressures of the job is the fact that a teacher can communicate with up to 200 different personalities each day, and any attempts to influence poor pupil behaviour can only be done through sheer force of character. Not to mention the environmental stresses of often poor working conditions, the latest slight on the profession being drip-fed through the popular media, poor remuneration, and ever increasing job insecurity.

All this would put even the most balanced and serene to the test. In fact, it does. Figures produced as evidence for the 1989 Select Committee report for the Department of Education and Science showed that only 46 per cent of those who started teacher training were still in the profession after two years of teaching, a staggering drop-out rate.

How can you equip yourself to deal with the pressures you face? Visit your GP and beg him for tranquillisers to calm your mind and ease your day? Consulting your doctor over any health condition is sensible, but they are mostly limited to allopathic (conventional) treatments which at best mask your symptoms and rarely rectify their initial cause. Chemical props offer only short-term alleviation.

For this reason, it is essential to take an holistic approach to the stress you feel, and there are many techniques which can easily be learned, and incorporated into the teaching day. These can have a dramatic effect in reducing stress, and its related impact on our bodies. You simply need motivation to curtail tensions, or reduce them to manageable proportions. For those resisting already, this doesn't mean major lifestyle changes. Subtle alterations of behaviour and attitude are just as effective.

Helping yourself through stress and related problems essentially means becoming self observant. As you practise this, you will find yourself able to tune into your body, and recognise the insidious effects of stress.

Stress is not to be taken lightly. It is life threatening. When you recognise that you are feeling mentally or physically stressed, it is important to stop, be it for a minute, an hour, a day or longer. No one will be adversely affected - in fact those around you will probably benefit - and you will have the opportunity to gather yourself to deal with the cause of your stress.

Once you have recognised that feeling, you can try to use the de-stressing techniques that work for you, that ease you towards a state of equilibrium.

Deep, rhythmic breathing is the teacher's best ally when it comes to alleviating the onset of stressful feelings. It can be employed in all situations at all times, without anyone but you knowing. Get in the habit of breathing slowly and fully, because this calms the body's processes. Practise it in meetings, in assembly, while on playground duty, while writing on the board, in the car; as often as possible throughout the day.

As you breathe deeply, unclench your jaw and place your lips softly together with your teeth slightly apart. This will relieve tension felt in the face, and preserve energy that was previously directed to keeping this area of the body rigid.

Once your breathing is calm, and facial muscles relaxed, you can address your posture. Periodically check to ensure your back is straight, and your head poised whether you are walking, standing or sitting. Correct posture relieves pressure on internal organs, enabling them to function more efficiently, helping to prevent general fatigue. It also helps you to feel better about yourself. With deep breathing and right posture, your movements will naturally slow down leading to a greater feeling of serenity.

One of the most damaging pressures so many teachers feel is that there simply isn't time to perform tasks to personal satisfaction. Related to this is the often crippling state of resourcing in schools. As a teacher it is essential to be able to observe this situation, but not absorb it. Know that you are doing you best in the circumstances. If necessary, learn to say "no" and mean it: there is no limit to what you could become involved in, if not alert enough to assess whether you truly have time to take on extra duties.

When tasks are piling up, and all of them are "urgent", a list is a life saver. Write down what needs to be done, then modify the list so that it only contains pressing tasks that you have prioritised. Set realistic goals for yourself.

However busy you are, the negative effects of stress get worse if you do not take regular breaks from the pressure of the day. The dinner break is just that - a break in your work time so you can eat. If you are already committed to working through your break by providing a club or activity for pupils, or attending a meeting - manic headteachers seem to introduce break-time meetings when the Office for Standards in Education looms - then allow yourself at least 15 minutes to eat, uninterrupted.

Dashing into the staffroom with only two minutes to down a mouthful of food simply gives your body self-destruct signals. Cultivate the view that over-working is detrimental: its effects will be felt in every aspect of your life, including work.

Try to focus on only one thing at a time. If you are marking, put all your attention into that. Only when you have finished the pile should you start to think of the next task. Giving your undivided attention to whatever you are doing not only speeds up the process, but inevitably makes it more enjoyable. Divided attention leads to tension. Remain in the present.

One of the most common complaints of teachers constructively assessing their approach to stress is the level of noise they experience each day, whether in their own classrooms or in their colleagues', at break time, or between lessons. Try to reduce the noise in your day. Have at least one section of each lesson you teach in silence, or aim to end each lesson with a few moments of quiet before pupils go to their next lesson, or activity. Many pupils relish this opportunity to experience directed stillness; they suffer from stress too!

Schools are notoriously poor work environments, often cold in winter, hot in summer, and in desperate need of decoration. Try to create a comfortable environment for yourself. Decorate your classroom with "peaceful" scenes, put some plants around, and ventilate your work space so the air does not become stagnant. Although cash available for repairs may be limited, push for essential improvements to be made to your classroom.

One of the most damaging effects of stress in the workplace is the feeling of isolation that it can lead to. Many people find it extremely hard to admit to themselves and to others that they are feeling the ill-effects of stress, perceiving it as a sign of weakness. Encourage an open forum for the discussion of stress in your workplace. Keeping anxieties to yourself does nothing to promote cohesion and trust among colleagues, and generally leads to a degeneration in work performance, hence more stress.

Although these techniques can certainly alleviate stress symptoms while you are at work, you should aim to build up and maintain a solid basis of sustained good health and vitality. Going to a relaxation or meditation class once a week encourages your body and mind to calm down. With practise this feeling of serenity will spill over into all aspects of life, making for a balanced state of mind. Improving your diet by cutting down on refined foods and eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, and taking regular exercise enables your body to function more efficiently. Laughter is unequalled as a therapeutic "feel-good" act, so actively seek amusement!

Once you feel in control of the stresses in your life, treat yourself to regular health maintenance sessions. Find out what complementary therapies can do for you in terms of topping up your energy stores, and helping to immunise you against the ill-effects of stress.

Taking an holistic approach to stress is ultimately the healthiest option. In fact, enlightened NHS trust managers are now employing holistic health care practitioners to give subsidised treatments to their staff, having reached the conclusion, usually through bitter experience, that preventing stress is far cheaper than dealing with the consequences. The benefits expected are not only reduced levels of time off, but greater retention of staff and a happier working environment. Surely this should be the ultimate goal of our headteachers as well?

Anne Holmes was a head of history at a West Sussex high school and now writes on health and education issues

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