Don't worry, be happy

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Teaching is a stressful activity - it must be, because every teacher says so. The problem is that people say that just about everything, from driving into town to booking a holiday, is stressful: the idea of stress has been devalued. Stress is more than being tired and fed up. Stress is when you cannot sleep, when you are in tears, when your personal relationships are affected, when you start to be physically ill because you can see no escape from a mountain of work which is too difficult for you. Teaching, properly managed, should never be like that.

So, how does the new teacher make sure that teaching continues to be a pleasure? One of the basic principles of stress-management is to look beyond the general, frightening picture, and focus on the individual elements, each of which can be controlled.

Here are few of the ingredients that feature in teaching stress.


Realise that you cannot put in the same amount of preparation time that you did on teaching practice. There will be many lessons for which your written preparation is in brief note form, and there will be others for which you simply make a mental reminder to "continue what we were doing yesterday."

Make sure, too, that you prepare around the available resources. Too many new teachers will choose a curriculum area just because it interests them, or because they did it at college. What they should be doing is preparing something for which the school is well resourced with books and equipment.

Starting the day

Experienced teachers will tell you that they hate being late for class in the morning, because for the rest of the day they feel as if they are running to catch up. So get in early - 8am will do - and spend up to 40 minutes thinking through the day and checking whether you and your pupils will have everything necessary to hand.

Rehearse in your mind the things that might go wrong, and make sure that you have the means to put them right. You will not think of everything, but you will have made a good start, and will feel in control, which is important in the management of stress.

Leave yourself time to go down to the staffroom to meet colleagues and have a quick coffee with them. You must not cut yourself off completely, not least because important gossip and information is about at this time. Which brings us to . . .


There is heavy emphasis in schools these days on teamwork. Being a good team player, though, does not mean that, even as new teacher, you sit there and take everything that comes. Gain respect by making well-researched suggestions, starting with ones that are non-controversial and fairly sure to be accepted. Conversely, if you need to stand up for yourself, remember that the basic rule is to not to criticise the person, but the proposal. Most importantly, perhaps, do not waste time wishing that people behaved differently. Find ways of working with them as they are.

The boss

A lot of sleep is lost by teachers worrying about the attitudes of heads and senior managers. Much of this insomnia is wasted on sterile self-justificati on. Similarly, some teachers waste time gossiping about the failings of their seniors instead of finding ways of working with them.How does this help the education of the pupils?

Remember that senior teachers are busy and imperfect souls who may well themselves be under stress. If necessary, and if you are justified, be pleasantly assertive to seniors. So the response to "You were late getting out on playground duty!" might just be: "I was dealing with a distressed child in the cloakroom. It might be an idea to have another teacher pop into the cloakroom at that time."

Keep things under control

Show me a teacher who wants to do everything perfectly and I will show you someone who is a prime candidate for stress and illness. In some occupations you can tackle one task at a time, moving methodically on as each is completed. Teaching, though, is filled with false starts, incomplete conversations, classes that arrive before you are ready for them, homework assignments that demand to be marked late on Sunday night, and heads who want you to lead new initiatives. Do not strive for all-round perfection. Make priorities and be ready to do some things just to a degree that is defensible.

Be ready to say no when you are asked to do one thing too many. Do not try to get brownie points by volunteering for everything - if necessary say something like: "I'd like to be involved in that, but at the moment my priority is with my own teaching group." Say it pleasantly but assertively,and sensible experienced teachers will respect you.


This is not an article about classroom management and discipline. However, if discipline becomes a problem, then it must be a priority for you, before it starts to cause unacceptable stress. Do not cover it up. Seek support from your mentor and from other sympathetic senior teachers. Remember that if you have a major difficulty with a particular child or group, this should be a whole-school issue and not just your own private problem. In some schools - thankfully not many these days - senior management will be happy to let you fight the battle alone just so long as you keep quiet.

Be assertive. Ask for time to talk about the problem, and make it clear that you need support. Try hard - and this is difficult - not to take a pupil's misbehaviour as directed personally to you. To do so is a prime cause of unhappiness. You may well reach the point where a particular child's face keeps swimming into your consciousness. You may even have dreams about him. Be assured that the child does not hate you, and he is certainly not having dreams about you. Ask for feedback. Teachers get too little feedback from management - everyone is busy and takes everyone else for granted. Ideally, a head would call in a teacher and say: "Sit down for a moment, I just wanted to tell you how pleased I am with the way you are teaching reading at the moment."

Sadly, it hardly ever happens. So try asking for it - as a new teacher you are in a unique position to do this. Ask for a private moment and then do not just say: "How am I doing?" Make it more focused: "Could you tell me how my teaching of reading is shaping up?"

The discussion will then surely broaden out. In a gratifying number of cases the head will be slightly surprised that you have doubted yourself, and will then go on to feel a bit guilty about not having talked to you earlier.

Give feedback

Say to colleages such things as: "I want you to know how much I appreciated your help with that dinner queue today." This will make both you and the colleague feel better, and will encourage others to support you and take notice of you.

Get a life

Anyone involved in amateur theatre or music knows that fewer teachers are now taking part. This is a shame, because the teacher who leaves a team, or a choir or a drama group because of pressure of work has, frankly, lost a sense of what is important in life. The decision to leave is a downhill step which is bad for self-esteem, for mental health and for the ultimate well-being of pupils. Remember, too, that taking too much work home can put pressure on your personal relationships.

Keep fit

There is no doubt that being physically fit helps for a number of reasons.Taking exercise is in itself therapeutic; feeling fit is good for self-esteem; being fit helps you get through a tiring week.

Make time for this. The issue is whether you, in a job which involves so much giving to others, can devote a tiny proportion of the week to your own health and well being. If you have no favourite way of doing it, consider splashing out on joining the sort of gym where you can feel cossetted by pleasant staff and good changing facilities.

Focus on the manageable

I started by moving the focus from "teaching" to particular teaching tasks. You could keep doing this. So instead of thinking "I find class B difficult and I cannot cope", start thinking of exactly what (and who) makes the class difficult. Then go on to devise ways of dealing with these individual issues.

Of course this isn't easy, but it is considerably more positive than simply wringing your hands at the prospect of seeing that dreadful Class B yet again.

And finally. . .

Celebrate your success. It is in the nature of conscientious people that they dwell on the things they have done wrongly. Try hard to give as much mental time to the things you have done well - there will always be plenty of them.

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