Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

I just finished my first day of professional development for the year, and woah. I didn’t realize exactly how into “summer mode” I had burrowed myself into. I am not ready to leave summer mode. Helpful as the professional development was, it did send tiny sirens of panic into my head. Questions about classroom management, discipline, teaching effectively, and all that other good stuff left tiny stressful voices sprinting across my brain within the first few hours of the workshop. So this post is about stress, and dealing with stress.

This isn’t just for teaching, but it’s especially important, I think, for teachers. So much of the profession demands your attention and energy that it’s easy to forget that you need to keep a little energy and attention on yourself. I’m sure that this will become easier as I continue to teach, but for a new teacher, I need regular check-ins with myself to make sure I’m taking care of myself and not just taking care of my job. Consider it a mental garden: sometimes, you just gotta go in and pull some weeds. These are my favorite weed-pulling or weed-prevention strategies for that mental garden.

1. Learn when to say no and when to say yes in your personal life. I had friends who, during their first year teaching, all but disappeared from my life. They were and are wonderful friends, but one side effect of teaching was that it felt so draining to them that they almost forgot how to socialize. If you say no too often in your personal life, whether it’s seeing friends or talking to family or strengthening other relationships, you’re going to eventually feel isolated and even more stressed. Doing the opposite, though, can be just as damaging: I tried to overdo my social life when I began teaching. I had this stubborn mindset that I could have everything I had before I began teaching (why not try to socialize every day, train for a marathon, start three or four new hobbies, all while starting a new career? This is actually not an exaggeration for me). I had to learn when to say no to friends during the week. Other people I know had to learn when to say yes. This is going to be a learning process: if you’re feeling absolutely drained that day, tell your friends no. If you’re feeling that way for a month, maybe grit your teeth and go to yoga. You may feel better. Pay attention to your patterns of behavior and reflect on whether you’re overdoing the yes’s or the no’s.

2. Start paying attention to your body and what it needs. Nobody wants to hear “eat healthy and exercise,” but dammit, eat healthy and exercise. There’s no need to overdo it – balance it everything, of course – and sometimes you’re going to need that bag of chips and a good, long evening with your butt on the couch watching your favorite movie. But if you exercise regularly, and you avoid the junk food, you will feel better. You will handle the stress better. Exercise and eating healthy won’t be the one-size fits all, only way possible of dealing with stress, but it will help. (My personal favorites for relaxing after work: rock climbing/bouldering, yoga, running, hiking, biking.)

3. Meditate. When I was so stressed last year that I could barely see from November to December, I was trying everything I could find to help lower my stress level. I stumbled upon meditation. There’s a lot of “woo-woo” out there about meditation, and I’m sure I’ll write a separate post specifically on meditating at some point, but suffice it to say (for now) that there is a surprising amount of legitimate research out there to support the theory that meditation is really good for you. I now meditate for about 5 minutes in the morning every day, and I’ve personally noticed a difference. For stressed-out first year teachers, I’d suggest meditating right after getting home from work; I did that last year and it helped me separate work and home mentally and more quickly get out of “teacher mind.”

4. Use a notebook to record your days and reflect on everything. During my first year of teaching, I had a problem that I called the hamster wheel problem: I’d get on this hamster wheel of thought patterns and just go, go, go, around the wheel. I’d continue this thought pattern, whatever it was – I’m not sure if teaching is for me, I’m worried about this student, I’m so stressed out, etc. – and I would feel worse as I stayed on the mental wheel. When I began writing regularly about a problem, or about teaching in general, I found it easier to stay off the hamster wheel. I don’t have a strict rule about writing, just a few times a week, sometimes specifically choosing a topic to write about and sometimes writing with no plan in mind. It helps to write it all down (bonus: you’ll want to look back and remember all that crazy stuff that happened your first year and laugh later).

5. Get outside. This will definitely be something I write about in the future (hello, modern hippie here), but I think people drastically underestimate the effect that nature has on their bodies. We like pretending that we are above and beyond the outdoors; we’ve evolved past it; nature is just for those weirdo hikers and snowboarders and other fitness hippies (I am in all categories and hope you are, too). We aren’t above and beyond it. Our bodies recognize the deficiency and it does affect us. Please note that I am not saying you need to climb a mountain every other day to relax. Nope. Just walk around your neighborhood if that’s all you’ve got or all you want. Get home, walk around for fifteen minutes and stare at the trees (my case: cactus), stare at the sky, feel the sun and the breeze on you. I promise, I promise, you will feel less stressed.

Remember that no one solution is perfect forever. Vary how you process and deal with the stress of teaching, and know that tomorrow is a new day. Know that, however you’re dealing with the stress (in a healthy way!), you’re taking care of yourself and that is critical for not just this job, but for life.

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