By Sandra Heidemann, M.S., coauthor of The Thinking Teacher
Recently, I was driving to a meeting when I got a phone call. My heart sank because I remembered I was supposed to be somewhere else for another appointment. I apologized and said I would reschedule. When I got home, I received an email reminding me about an assignment for an online course that I had not completed on time. I sat by the computer with tears running down my face. I felt like such a failure. After a few minutes, I thought about how I had gotten to this point. To be honest, I was overwhelmed, but I had told myself I could do it all. This was my warning signal, letting me know I needed to slow down, pare back, and reflect on my commitments.
Stressors pile up. It happens to all of us. It’s not always from overscheduling, though. Maybe you work hard to prepare a new lesson plan for a particularly challenging class, and when you reflect on how the lesson went, you realize it flopped. You feel disappointed at the outcome of your class, and that’s when a parent chooses to call or email with a complaint about how you spoke to her child. You walk out at the end of the day feeling discouraged and like a failure.
Here is another situation that can keep you up at night. One student (or several) struggles to stay on task and follow rules, disrupting other students and making your days drag. You know it is going to take a lot of work to help that student learn routines and follow them. And you just feel tired.
Or, your supervisor has just informed you that you will have a new curriculum next year and that you will need to increase the amount of training you receive. But it is also the year your oldest is graduating from high school. Immediately you think, “How am I going to do it all?”
Any of these situations may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. But it is the accumulation of stressors that gets to be too much, not just one event.
Let’s take a step back and examine ways to avoid this stressful spillover and the resulting self-blame. Here are some of the strategies I use:
- When you feel yourself becoming stressed, stop and breathe. Yes, breathe! Science shows it can help reduce your levels of stress hormones and lower your blood pressure. (Check out this story for more on taking a moment to breathe.)
- Do something for yourself to refuel your energy—walking, reading, being with your family, listening to music, cooking, or giving yourself an hour to just do nothing. Finding your joy, whatever it is, can feed your soul.
- Talk with other teachers, friends, or family members about your struggles, overwhelming feelings, or discouragement.
- Engage your learning community in exploring the stressful issue, such as a new lesson plan or an uncooperative child. Sometimes just going through a problem-solving process with peers can energize you.
- Get more information about your problem through training, reading, or watching videos.
- Be willing to give up something if you are overwhelmed because you agreed to take on too much. Think about which things you want or need to continue to do and which you might stop doing or delay until another task is done. Pace yourself. If you have a class with challenging students, try to plan simple activities that don’t require as much preparation. Incorporate more sensory activities than usual to help calm down the children.
- Learn the ways you demonstrate your stress. Do you cry more easily? Do you become harsh with your family or students? Do you start to shut down with friends? We won’t ever become free of stress because it is a part of life, but we can learn to manage our reactions to stress so we don’t become emotionally overwhelmed by it. Learning to take care of yourself before you melt down will benefit your class, your family, and most of all, you.
If you react too quickly, make mistakes, ignore a child’s request, or become short with either children or parents, don’t be too hard on yourself. We are all balancing tasks, feelings, events, and demands from both home and school and so are families. Acknowledge your mistakes and make reparations.
For example, when I realized I hadn’t done my class assignment and had made two appointments for the same time, I immediately called and rescheduled the missed appointment. Then I emailed my instructor, apologized, and told her when she would see the missing work. After doing that, I felt relieved and ready to tackle these tasks. I also told myself to be careful not to make any new commitments until my schedule had settled down. If you are short with a child, go back to that student and tell him that your frustration was with another situation, not him, and apologize if necessary. Let him know you want to hear what he was telling you.
We are often our own worst critics. We reflect on our mistakes far more than we reflect on our successes. Be kind to yourself. You will be more ready to solve problems when you are feeling better about yourself as a teacher.
How do you reduce the stress in your life? What strategies do you use? We are all unique and find the paths that work best for us. But it is so helpful to hear how other teachers stay centered and responsive.
Sandra Heidemann, M.S., is a decades-long veteran of early childhood education with an emphasis on special needs. A past board president of the Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children (MN AEYC), Sandra has published in Young Children and Exchange magazines and is the coauthor of Play: The Pathway from Theory to Practice, published by Redleaf Press. She lives in Minnesota.
Sandra is coauthor of The Thinking Teacher: A Framework for Intentional Teaching in the Early Childhood Classroom.
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