Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 16. Taking Care of Yourself to Minimize Stress

One of the most difficult aspects of your first year as a teacher is feeling so vulnerable in your probationary position. It is not unduly paranoid of you to feel like everyone is watching you, critically evaluating your performance. In fact, your students, colleagues, and the administration are watching closely to see if you have the right stuff to make it in this profession.

BEING EVALUATED

As a student teacher or beginning teacher, your work in the classroom will be evaluated many, many times. Most districts have a policy in which you are regularly observed during the first year, perhaps three of which observations will be the focus of formal, written assessments of your performance.

Initially, this is an unnerving experience, knowing there is someone in your room who is watching every move you make, forming impressions about your competence and worthiness as a teacher. It seems like the people evaluating you walk in at the beginning or middle of a lesson, stay a few minutes, and then leave. You feel like they don’t see the whole picture. Much of this stress can be alleviated if you prepare yourself ahead of time, rehearsing the things you will do and say once you are subjected to scrutiny. Of course, you can’t always control what happens in your class on a given day. Administrators realize this, which is why they return so many times to give you the benefit of the doubt, especially on those days when it seems you are not functioning at your full potential.

Some things are within your control, regardless of how the students act or how well a particular unit goes. Keep an upbeat attitude. Work from a position of strength. Be prepared. Keep your lesson plans and seating charts up to date. Always have an alternate idea in mind in case your timing is off, a lesson is completed sooner than you anticipated, or students fail to comprehend an important point and are not ready to move on to the next step. Maintain your grade book on a regular basis, averaging grades frequently.

It’s perfectly natural to feel nervous when an administrator enters the room. My secret (Ellen’s) is to take a deep breath, welcome the person, and help him or her find a place to sit (not always an easy task). Next, I provide the visitor with a copy of the book or resource materials I’m using. Sometimes, I give the observer my copy and I share with a student. This gives me time to gain my composure. Then, I continue with my plan.

Some administrators will visit for an entire class period. Others will check in on your class at the beginning, the middle, and the end—and not necessarily in that order. Don’t worry that they have missed your opening activity if they walk in during the middle of a session. They may ask you about it at a later time, or perhaps they are looking at another area of your teaching. Most of them have teaching experience, and if you are performing in a competent manner, they do not necessarily stay very long.

Communicate informally with your administrators, as well, especially your evaluator, about what is going on in your classes. These days, most administrators have hall duty and lunch duty. Find out where their assignments are and visit with them from time to time. Invite them to see your room or to stop by at a particular time when you have something special planned that would be of interest to them.

THINGS TO EXPECT

As in most things in life, you can considerably reduce the stress of being evaluated if you know what to expect. Familiarize yourself with the evaluation forms that are used by your administration. Ask to see samples (with names deleted) of evaluations that are particularly glowing as well as those that are deficient. Before you are subjected to formal evaluation by an administrator, ask an experienced colleague to visit your class and give you preliminary feedback. This can act as a dress rehearsal for the real thing, and you can get used to being observed while you work.

The beginning of the school year is a very busy time for everyone. Most administrators do not observe during the first couple of weeks. They will give you time to get to know your students, institute your policies, and set up your routines. If you are not informed by the teacher’s manual or during your orientation when the evaluation deadlines are, you can ask the other teachers or your department chair. Perhaps you will notice when the administrators are walking around the building with their notebooks. You can anticipate a visit soon thereafter.

Some districts inform you ahead of time that you will be formally observed. If you have a test scheduled for that day, let the administrator know. You need to be observed in action, demonstrating your energy, your skill, your content knowledge base, and your rapport with the students. Some presentations are more reflective than others of what you do in a classroom.

Inform your students that administrators may be coming to observe the class so they don’t overreact to the visit. Under the best of circumstances, they will cooperate in such a way as to show you at your best. Most secondary students are used to administrators visiting in the classroom.

The review of the observation will generally take place a day or more after the visit. Most supervisors will write a narrative description of the behavior as well as complete a checklist. Districts often include “directions for the future” no matter how good you are, so don’t be put off by a list of “charges.” It may be a recommendation to continue a particular teaching strategy, monitor student behavior, or get involved in extracurricular activities. As a novice, expect a critical review. Some administrators believe they aren’t doing their jobs properly if they can’t find fault with some things you do, no matter how small it seems to you. Use the comments constructively.

Most evaluation forms require that you sign them, indicating you have read what is included. You are given an opportunity to respond if you like, but be careful that you aren’t perceived as defensive or unwilling to accept feedback. Try to be gracious and grateful for whatever feedback the administrators offered.

OTHER SOURCES OF STRESS

Although being evaluated is one source of stress in your life, it is hardly the only one (see Table 16.1). Teaching is a physically and mentally demanding profession. Every day is different. You are constantly on your feet, under the gun, making quick decisions, responding to one situation after another. Mistakes and misjudgments are inevitable. You will need to be forgiving with yourself and your limitations; after all, you are a beginner.

In addition to the self-inflicted stress caused by your own unrealistic expectations and fears of failure, there are also those related to the profession itself. You are overworked and underpaid. You have far too many students in your classes and far too much work to complete within the time available. It’s difficult to prioritize.

Table 16.1 Sources of Stress

Student-induced Stress

Work Environment-related Stress

angry outbursts

time pressures

accusations of incompetence

school politics

dysfunctional behavior

unreasonable rules

withdrawal

non-supportive peers

parental meddling

supervisory incompetence

student dropouts

excessive paperwork

poor performance

torn allegiances

Self-induced Stress

Event-related Stress

perfectionism

legal actions

ruminating about others

money pressures

need for approval

major life transition (divorce, emotional depletion, relocation, etc.)

self-doubt

change in job responsibilities

physical exhaustion

economic cutbacks

unhealthy life style

physical illness

excessive responsibility for students’ welfare

world events (war, famine, terrorism)

The politics in your school can eat you alive. Common to any human organization, gossip can be treacherous. Backbiting, infighting, and building coalitions in times of conflict are routine. Administrators are often less supportive than most teachers would prefer. They have their own pressures to face, with limited budgets and resources and multiple demands on their time.

Some students will be a source of stress in your life. They will haunt you at night, invade your dreams, as well as preoccupy your waking moments. At times, you will feel helpless and frustrated, wondering why some students treat you so poorly and are so unappreciative of your best efforts to help them. Some parents, as well, will attempt to make your life miserable. They will blame you for their children’s problems and hold you responsible for every misfortune in their lives. Sometimes, they will speak to you in ways that are rude, disrespectful, and hostile. All of this can take bites out of your soul.

There is an expression among mental health experts about not allowing others to live in your head “rent free.” What this means is that it’s hard enough to put up with abusive individuals at school. What you do with those events afterward is completely up to you. If you choose—and it is a choice—to invite difficult students, parents, colleagues, and administrators to invade your private time, then your stress levels will escalate. If, on the other hand, you accept that being around some annoying people comes with the job and you shrug it off as best you can, you are likely to metabolize struggles and conflicts much easier.

Some schools are simply not very healthy environments. With overcrowded buildings, involuntary “clients,” unappreciated staff, inadequate resources, and a pressured atmosphere to improve academic achievement, a certain amount of stress is a given. When morale is low, political fighting is high, administrators are not sensitive to teacher issues, and students are unmotivated and underachieving, your stress load will be even higher.

We don’t mean to discourage you, merely to be realistic about what you can expect. Being realistic will allow you to metabolize problems more easily when they arise. You don’t have to get bent out of shape when you hear colleagues complain a lot. You don’t have to become unduly upset when you observe teachers being mean or insensitive to one another. You don’t have to be surprised when someone works behind the scenes to sabotage you or an angry parent unloads on you. All of this comes with the territory. It doesn’t have to be a big deal unless you make it so.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

There are number of things you can do to help yourself deal with the pressures and stress you will face every day.

Write your story. Keep a journal of your first year as a teacher. Talk to yourself on paper every day or at least several times per week. Write about the frustrations you are feeling and what you intend to do about them. Set goals for yourself. Make priorities about things you intend to change. Analyze your own behavior as well as that of the people around you. Confront your own whining and complaining. Force yourself to think positively about what you are doing. Be forgiving of your lapses and mistakes. Try to find some meaning in the struggles you are going through. Learn from what you are living through so you can make yourself stronger and more resourceful in the future.

Structure your days sensibly. Make an appointment with yourself to take care of paperwork. Note deadlines, and identify what information you need to fill out reports. Do the preliminaries first, such as reporting tardies and absences and averaging grades. Also, be sure to build in time every day for rest and relaxation. Exercise faithfully. Eat properly. Make sure you have some fun every day.

Prioritize. Not all requests for information must be completed and submitted immediately. Deadlines will vary. Decide which of the many tasks—reports, lesson planning, grading papers—need to be completed first. You might even create a list of when things are due and note on your calendar when you will do them.

Take breaks. Use the time between classes to relax, to chat with a neighbor teacher, and to greet the incoming students. Let yourself enjoy your lunch period.

Be playful. Beginning teachers can be so grim, so over-serious. This is important stuff you are doing, but it isn’t rocket science in which a single slip will destroy the universe. Try not to take yourself so seriously. Students, in particular, really appreciate teachers who will sometimes loosen up a bit, play with them, and try to create some fun. When you are enjoying your job, then students are more likely to enjoy their learning.

Set realistic goals for yourself. Keep your ambitions high, but realize it will take time to accomplish your goals. As a new teacher, you will need considerable preparation time. With experience, you will become more proficient at what you do and will be able to use your past experiences as a basis on which to improve in the future, rather than constantly inventing new solutions for how best to teach a lesson.

Diversify your life. Structure your lifestyle in such a way that you take time away from teaching to do other things. Hang around non-teachers. Pursue or create interests in other areas so when one aspect of your life isn’t going as well as you like, you have others to help you feel fulfilled.

Nourish yourself with love. Surround yourself with others who love and care for you and whom you can love in return. If you don’t currently have a supportive family, a loving partner, or enough stimulating friends around, look hard at yourself and what you can do to fill in these gaps. If needed, get some emotional help for yourself in the form of counseling or support groups.

Get enough sleep. People can occasionally forgo food much easier than they can forgo sleep. After school, go home and take a nap. Reenergize for the evening ahead, so you’ll have the energy to socialize, pursue other interests, or do school-related work later on.

Teach your friends and family what it means for you to be a teacher. Educate them about the stresses and strains you face every day. Keep them informed about your struggles. Invite them to become part of your teaching world, or they will be left behind.

Leave your personal problems at home. Focus on your students during the workday. If you allow yourself to become distracted and distressed by other issues in your life, you will not only frustrate yourself because you can’t do much about them at school, but you will also shortchange your students. If you have some real problems in your life, get some help.

Seek counseling and continued growth. You don’t have to have severe problems or major issues to get some help from a professional. Counseling is highly recommended for beginning teachers because of the pressures you experience and the personal changes you undergo. There will be few times in your life when you encounter so many new things about yourself and the world. A counselor can help you make sense of what you are living through and integrate those insights into your work and life.

DEVELOP A SUPPORT GROUP

If your school or district doesn’t schedule time for you to meet with other new teachers, arrange to do so on your own. Getting together with other novices will allow you to share your experiences, exchange suggestions for improved practice, and help you see that you are not alone in your experiences. As mentioned above, emphasize the positive. Stay away from playing “I can top that. Would you believe what happened to me last week?” There will be bad class periods, even some bad days, but there will be good ones, too. Don’t let your enthusiasm be crushed. The learning curve is tremendous the first year—Analyze what is working well and how your students are progressing, and make a point of continuing with the strategies that are proving effective. Plan some strictly social activities, too. Plan an early breakfast with the other new teachers. Have a potluck dinner with all of your families.

INTERNET SUPPORT

Many teachers find that electronic bulletin boards and chat rooms provide a convenient means by which to interact with other beginning teachers. If you wake up at 3:00 in the morning alert and ready, you can go online and find other responsive souls. There are always live chat rooms with ongoing conversations and scheduled topics. You can also find archived discussions. Participants post questions and receive answers related to teaching specific content, developing relationships with mentors, responding to administration, ideas for lessons, and so on. They share personal examples, offer support, and give feedback. These are ongoing professional discussions you can benefit from, and all you need is a computer and an Internet connection.

You will find there are predictable phases that new teachers experience along with the daily and weekly ups and downs. In August, there is the excitement of obtaining the new position. By the end of September, teachers begin to feel overwhelmed by all the expectations from students, parents, and administrators, and move into a survival mode. As the year ends, teachers experience frustration at the lack of time needed to accomplish all they had hoped to do. Then, as the two-week, end-of-the-year vacation takes place, there is time for relaxation, time for friends and family, and time for reflection on what has been accomplished. As the second semester continues, feelings continue to change toward the positive as many procedures become routine and teachers can plan for the rest of the school year. The end of the year tends to be a stimulating time as teachers look back over the first year with pride in their achievements and think about changes they would like to make for the next year. And so, once again they feel the excitement and dedication a new year brings.

FINDING BALANCE

A certain amount of stress in your job is not only normal but desirable. In moderate doses, stress is another word for excitement and activation: it means you care deeply about what you are doing. It is also normal to worry a bit about what you are doing, and how you are doing it; remember, you are facing a new set of challenges every day. Your job, however, is to keep the level of stress within manageable limits so it does not significantly deprive you of sleep or reasonable peace of mind. If you find yourself in over your head (as you sometimes will), you must ask for help from those you trust. After all, isn’t that what you teach your students?