Strategies to help you fight stress

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Anne Cockburn finds there are some simple measures that enable teachers to counter that familiar overloaded feeling

Teaching under pressure seems to be unavoidable as class sizes grow, pupils become more disruptive, the paper mountain increases and money seems to be in ever shorter supply. As a teacher said to me the other day: "We all seem to do too much in too little time for too little recognition." It is not hard to point fingers and assign blame but - while we are all waiting for a miracle to happen - what can primary teachers do to ease their burden?

Judging by my survey of 335 Norfolk teachers, and other interviews I have conducted, part of the answer lies in predicting and avoiding potential pressure points and overload whenever possible. In so doing, teachers feel more in control and are less likely to collapse in a heap at the end of every term with 'flu and a chronic sore throat.

Several teachers I interviewed used a similar strategy as an extension of daily planning. "Before I leave work every night, I map out the next day, ensure that everything is available, that there will not be constant demands on my time, and that there will be time both for high-quality teaching and a bit of a breather," was one fairly typical comment.

A variation of this technique is to reduce the possibility of overload when your brain is whizzing away with numerous ideas and chores to be tackled. Try keeping a notebook handy, and whenever inspiration strikes or yet another job to be done comes into your head, jot it down to stop it distracting you from the task in hand. At the end of the day, review the list, throw out any unnecessary tasks (do you really need to do X and Y?) and arrange the remainder in priority. (Incidentally, it can often save time to group jobs which can usefully be done together.) Then give yourself time to mull over the ideas you noted, for they may be the catalyst for some really interesting and effective teaching.

Given that teaching is often unpredictable, however, one cannot always rely on such precise organisation. A complementary strategy is to extend the flexible approach that primary teachers are so well-known for and not feel bad about it (that's the hard part!) Thus, when attacked by "time bandits" who are saying, "We want your time now", you can postpone what you are doing if the bandit merits your attention, or you can carry on as you were, thus refuting a Year 6 teacher's claim that "as a profession we are incredibly bad at saying 'No'".

Sometimes such flexibility is called for when - quite simply - you have had enough and P has just been sick and Q and R are being pains. Why not stop the session at this point and do something completely different with the children - songs, a story or some exercise for the more energetic. You can then return to the original work as and when appropriate. When stressed, Brenda, a Year 1 teacher, resorts to whole-class lessons. She feels guilty and apologetic about it, but recognises that, although the quality may not be great, "at least each child has produced a piece of work" and, more importantly, her sanity has remained intact.

Taking a step back, it is important to remember that there is more to life than teaching so that, in the years to come, you never have to say: "My family deserves better" and "I have missed my children growing up." It is a question of priorities: why do schoolwork half the night when you are exhausted, not to say, ineffective? I appreciate that much of the planning and paperwork has to be done, but perhaps you need to compromise and recognise that it may be unrealistic to work to the very highest standard both in and out of the classroom.

Marianne, an experienced teacher, said: "I think many teachers are like me, and have this sort of professional perfectionism. You're always trying to do your best . . . and there is just too much to do and never enough time to do it."

Rather than settling for being exhausted, mediocre teachers who have no personal life, some people recognise the importance of setting clearly defined limits, "I rarely work after I've eaten at night. So if I have something to do, I'll do it and then eat so that I can switch off with a clear conscience. " That does not mean stopping schoolwork only to start on the housework. Obviously the chores need to be done but, rather than feeling guilty if any of them is neglected, why not find a cleaner, gardener or whatever to share the load?

If all else fails, stand back and take some credit, for, as one Year 2 teacher said: "I think many teachers find it incredibly hard to stop and take stock of their achievements, but it is about time we learned to celebrate our successes. "

* Anne Cockburn lectures in primary education at the University of East Anglia. Her book, Teaching Under Pressure: looking at primary teachers' stress, was published last monthby Falmer Press.

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