Did you know that some stress is good for us?  Stress that comes and goes is healthy for us, but distress or continuous (chronic) stress is toxic to our brain and body. Low performing schools are toxic with chronic stress and apathy and this type of stress is very bad for behavior and learning. Recent studies suggest 30-50% of all students feel moderately or greatly stressed every day. For those from poverty, the numbers are even higher.  Poor children are exposed to more intense and longer lasting stressors and have fewer coping skills than students not living in poverty.

Students living with chronic stress experience harmful effects from that stress such as; greater impulsivity (blurts, talking back, less reflection, more scattered), poor working memory, anger or detachment, academic struggles, and less effort put out in class.  As stress rises in our schools, so do the serious risks related to stress.  

There are 2 filters we use when stressed:  Relevancy and Sense of Control. When we feel a lack of control we feel greater stress, but when we have a sense of control and the situation has relevance to us, our brain manages that stress better, and the result is a sense of excitement where we feel up to the challenge. Research shows that control over what you do and how it is done can boost long-term memory for the better.

How do we provide greater student control?  There are activities that increase sense of control over one’s life, which lowers stress. Activities such as teaching and modeling coping skills, increasing the amount and kind of choice students have, encouraging creativity by strengthening the use of the arts, increasing movement and physical activity and setting up a mentoring system in the school. Teachers should

  • provide choices (then “sell” the choices)
  • encourage input (voice, vision, 1:1 time, suggestion box..)
  • provide leadership opportunities (team, class, project or group leader roles)
  • set up real world or meaningful “classroom”  jobs
  • encourage reflection and student self-assessments

Unfortunately students are not the only ones affected by stress. Chronic stress is a very real issue in schools for both students and staff. There is a real shortage of teachers at this time, due to the stress related to teaching and the perceived lack of control that teachers have. Teaching today is stressful.  The demands and expectations are enormous. Effective teachers fill many roles for the students.  Effective teachers deliver content in meaningful and engaging ways, they entertain and nurture, and they are cheerleaders, disciplinarians, alleys and at times therapists. Teaching today requires more passion, commitment and resilience than ever before.   The world has changed therefore children have changed, and the profession of teaching is desperately trying to catch up.                      

When I graduated with my elementary teaching degree in 1991 I was not alone. Applying for teaching positions was a race and the competition was fierce. I remember applying for my first job, and learning that I was one of 100 applicants! How to stand out? How to impress? How to get my foot in the door…    Flash forward to today and school districts do not have 5 quality teachers on substitute lists, are lucky to get 3-5 quality applicants for an open position, especially in the world of special education and in areas of high poverty. These impoverished districts are hiring teachers with temporary certificates and “not so clean” records, to get people in the seats.   

Schools are in the business of kids.  It has never been a school’s job necessarily to address the stress level and health of its teachers.   However, helping teachers manage their own stress will help them teach students to manage stress.  Should stress management be part of a school district’s plan? Should stress management be part of the training programs in colleges and universities that are training and preparing new teachers for the field? It makes sense that incorporating time for teachers to de-stress and learn to manage stress, as a group, would result in more people going into, and staying in, the profession. 

We could all use some stress relief.  This year, more than others, I feel stressed and I feel the stress of my colleagues. It’s important that we all remember to take care of ourselves. Try some of these de-stressing activities!

  • Decrease worry by accepting the worst case scenario and then setting a plan to improve it
  • Interrupt negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones: use the 1 week rule (Will this matter in a week?)
  • Keep a joy journal
  • Develop deep relationships with others/ talk it over with a friend or colleague
  • Allow time every day to unplug, recharge, and re-focus your mind
  • Sleep and drink enough water
  • Increase movement during the day/ exercise (preferably outside)

-Geri Massey