Time to chill

18th July 2008 at 01:00
Accept that you have a life outside work if you want to beat stress, says Tom Lewis

Accept that you have a life outside work if you want to beat stress, says Tom Lewis

Stress is not unique to teaching. However, because of the nature of the profession, it is one of the five most stressful sectors in the UK, alongside health, local and central government and finance. Throughout my time at the Teacher Support Network (TSN), and during the 16 years I worked in primary schools, I've come across many teachers who are struggling to cope with the pressures of the job.

Unlike many vocations, there is hardly any let-up for teachers: no ignoring the phone for half an hour, few opportunities to get away from the workplace and often not enough time to get all the work done.

Stress can come from many sources. Poor pupil behaviour and conflict with colleagues are frequently cited, but they're not the sole causes. One newly qualified teacher I spoke to recently was struggling with an unbearable workload. She'd taken on lots of extra responsibilities on top of her already taxing role and was finding even routine aspects of her day overwhelming.

Another experienced teacher, who'd been described in glowing terms in previous inspections, had become exceedingly anxious about Ofsted's forthcoming visit. His classroom and school were successful, but the impossibly high standards he and his colleagues set for themselves convinced him that it would go badly.

Often problems are exacerbated by other factors. Some teachers are reluctant to admit that they're having trouble because they are concerned about being judged as weak or incapable. This can lead to isolation, particularly if they don't want to "worry" their families. Our advice would always be to talk to people: either trusted colleagues, friends or the Teacher Support Line.

Many teachers are unable to say no. This is particularly true of new teachers who are keen to impress. For many I have coached, the realisation that they are allowed to say no can be a massive relief. At the least, teachers should feel free to give negotiated yeses, where they are willing to help out with extra work, but not at all costs.

The passion many teachers feel for their profession means that it can take over their lives. We often ask callers to list their priorities. When we ask where they (and their needs) stand on this list, it can cause a dramatic awakening - they are often at the bottom or not on it at all.

It is important in these circumstances to re-establish yourself as a person who happens to be a teacher, not someone whose sole purpose is to serve their school.

Combating stress is the responsibility of the whole school community, not just individual teachers, and this process often starts with senior management.

Senior managers are in the best position to take the lead: to say it's OK to admit to overwhelming pressures; to make sure staff aren't working excessive hours, and to avoid a culture of blame. Different teachers will cope with things in different ways - schools must create an environment that helps them do so.

Keeping teaching innovative, without reinventing the wheel, is another way of reducing stress. There's a wealth of resources online that can help, as can sharing knowledge between teachers in your school and beyond.

Organising your time properly seems like an obvious suggestion, but even small, simple changes, such as prioritising your tasks, making a to-do list (which will also act as a gratifying ledger if it includes everything you do in a day) and avoiding putting things off too much, these can make dramatic differences to your emotional wellbeing

www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561

Tom Lewis is a counsellor, adviser and coach with the Teacher Support Network. He taught in the West Midlands for 16 years and was an acting deputy headteacher for eight

Breathe easy

When we're stressed or anxious, our breathing becomes much shallower. This ensures a less effective supply of oxygen into the body, causing an imbalance of carbon monoxide, which can increase the sensation of distress and helplessness.

The trick is to learn to breathe through from the diaphragm, not just from the chest.

Breathing exercises are calming and can be done anywhere, anytime. Start by exhaling all the air out of your lungs. Breathe in gently through your nose, counting up to five as you do so. Hold it in for five seconds.

Exhale all the air again as you count to five. Repeat the process as many times as you need to, aiming for about 10 big breaths every minute.

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