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Calm in the Eye of the Storm

Alix Robertson

“I have taken a career break in the hope of staving off burnout – like many teachers I felt I was on the precipice of a breakdown.”

2018 survey respondent

Does this sound familiar? It sums up the worrying message we received earlier this year as part of our research that surveyed over a thousand of teachers, including several hundred who had left the profession.

Whilst some had left teaching to pursue a different career or lifestyle, for many, it was the intolerable stress of being a classroom teacher that led them to leave.

As one teacher put it:

“Morale within the profession was just depressing, it seemed that every teacher I spoke to was frustrated, stressed and I didn’t want to be working in that environment.”

Our research into these stories chimes with our own experiences- most of us have been teachers in the past and experiences like these are all too familiar. That’s why this spring we’ll be holding an event on teacher mental health and wellbeing to explore these issues in more details.

Last week, Hannah Jarvis – a teacher herself – asked “how do people keep themselves calm during a school day? What strategies do you use?”

It’s an important question given that teachers are so often deeply committed to young people and the profession, but frequently find their working conditions untenable.

Of course, general well-being is not the same as a chronic mental health issue, and any teacher struggling with their mental health should seek proper professional advice. However teachers grappling with their day-to-day wellbeing and self-care might want to consider the following suggestions from the online community:

1. Get moving

Many teachers suggested combatting that frazzled feeling by getting some exercise. Suggestions from the twittersphere ranged from a stroll around the playground to a sneaky pre-work yoga session. Primary school teachers also said that getting involved in “The Daily Mile”, a campaign to get pupils jogging each day, was a good way to shake off the cobwebs.

2. Be organised

Teachers explained that staying organised helped them cut down on stress. Making lists and ticking things off was one option, while breaking tasks into small chunks also helped make things more manageable.

Lots of suggestions focused on getting ahead of the game, for example by getting photocopying done a day in advance or coming into school a bit early to set things up.

3. Have a break

Break time and lunch time aren’t just for pupils! Use these opportunities to sit down with a cup of tea and a biscuit or a magazine rather than cramming in extra marking and planning.

Teachers differed in who they thought it was best to spend their breaks with. For some, catching up with colleagues in the staffroom was a helpful way to let off steam, while others preferred quiet time to themselves.

4. Find your magic ingredient

There were plenty of ideas when it came to sights, sounds and smells that helped teachers to de-stress. One teacher had filled a large clear bottle with water and different coloured glitter which they used to provide a dazzling kaleidoscope to distract themselves from the day’s worries, others had a mini diffuser and essential oils on their desk (particulary handy for secondary school teachers desperate to counteract the lingering whiff of Lynx Africa).

Music was popular too- whether Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off (with the classroom door locked and the blinds drawn), or cheesy classics while year 10 write an essay.

5. Be mindful

Even if you are someone who finds mindfulness as unappealing as a long-bearded millennial eating designer cereal in a pop-up Shoreditch cafe, there are a number of techniques that might be worth trying:

A number of tweets referenced the importance of taking some deep breaths when things start to feel a bit much and there are various apps that could help. Teachers particularly highlighted Headspace and Breathe+.

6. Talk to your line manager

If a specific issue is aggravating you, speak to your line manager or someone with the experience needed to provide constructive advice.

One teacher pointed to the concept of a ‘circle of control’. If the problem is within your control, prioritise acting upon it. If it lies in your circle of influence, move it the direction of those who can deal with it most effectively. If it is in your circle of concern (i.e. something you care about but have no control over), accept that it may be something you can’t change right now.

7. Friends

If something you’re struggling with or stressing about isn’t serious enough for your manager perhaps you just need to chat it through with a colleague in the staffroom. “A chat to the gang does me so much good,” one teacher wrote. Comparing notes and laughing about things that have gone pear-shaped it is a great way to let off steam.

Another wise idea was to “avoid mood-hoovers”. Every staffroom has someone who can see the down-side to every up-side. Keep your distance and find the bubble of joy who instead sees the upside to every downside – they’re the people who will keep you mindful of why you joined the profession in the first place.

8. The bottom line

On which note… a lot of teachers said that getting through hard days is a hell of a lot easier if you keep in mind why you’re there in the first place. Visit other lessons and chat with pupils about what they are enjoying. One teacher said she kept a book of funny things children had said to make her smile, while another pointed out that “you could be one of the only positive people in that child’s life”.

Whatever works for you, think through what you can do day-to-day to keep yourself doing the job you’re passionate about.

It’s not always easy, but remember just how much of a difference you are making, and just how good the good days feel.

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