How to manage end-of-school-year stress

Jill Provost recently interviewed me along with several other authors of stress management books as research for her NEA article called 7 Techniques for Beating End-of-Year Stress. I really enjoyed sharing ideas from Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching with Jill. Her post is now live on the NEA site, and offers some very helpful ideas to help you get through the coming weeks when spring break is behind you but the last day of school feels like it’s ages away. Make sure you check it out!

I thought I’d also share the full text of the interview. Here are the questions Jill asked along with my responses:

What are some of the biggest sources of end-of-school-year stress for teachers?

After standardized testing is finished, many students feel like they’re done for the year and lose their motivation. Behavioral issues become a big problem. There’s also an incredible amount of paperwork for teachers to do at the end of the school year. Students often take advantage of the fact that their teachers are tired and preoccupied with all the forms and data they have to turn in.

You mention on your site that alleviating stress isn’t just about getting enough sleep and eating right. How does one change their mindset to manage stress?

The first step is to be mindful of your thoughts and notice how they affect your emotions. When you complain or put yourself down, it makes you feel tired and discouraged. Those negative feelings then give rise to more negative thoughts. It’s a vicious cycle, but it can be stopped by replacing negative thoughts with more empowering ones.

Are you saying it’s all in your head? What kind of attitudes or behaviors can augment stress—and why?

There are lots of pessimistic thought patterns that create stress in our lives, like catastrophizing (magnifying the negative aspects of a situation while discounting the positive ones), permanence thinking (assuming that setbacks are going to last forever and problems never improve), and false helplessness (assuming–without evidence–that you are powerless over a situation.) These types of thoughts make us feel hopeless, and that leads to burnout. So it’s important to replace those kinds of thoughts with more accurate ones: usually a stressful situation is not the end of the world, will not last forever, and can be improved in at least a few small ways by the actions we choose to take. Changing your mindset toward stress isn’t positive thinking mumbo-jumbo where you have to pretend everything is wonderful: it’s about letting go of destructive and inaccurate thought patterns so you can regain a healthier, more accurate perception of reality.

What do you say to people who say, it’s not me, it’s the students or my coworkers or the administrators?

Other people can certainly contribute to our stress, but it’s disempowering to think that someone else has caused it. The truth is that the way we think about our stress has a huge impact on how we feel about it. If two teachers have the same tyrannical administrator, one of those teachers may enjoy her work and not let the boss get to her, while the other person may dwell on how awful the principal is and convince himself that there’s no way he could enjoy teaching unless the principal is replaced. The circumstances of both teachers are identical, but their mindsets are different, and therefore, the outcome is different. Similarly, we’ve all seen people who feel miserable in perfectly fine situations, and others who exude joy in terrible ones. That’s because we can create or reduce stress through our mindset. We have a tremendous amount of control over how much we enjoy our jobs and our lives in general: our circumstances don’t have to determine how happy we are. We may not be able to change the stressor, but we can change our attitude about it.

That end of year crunch equals too much work, not enough time, grading papers, fitting in the curriculum. Can you provide some time-management techniques to help teachers tackle their workload?

My advice is to begin your end-of-year tasks as early as possible. Try not to tackle too much of the paperwork during instructional time, as student behavior will probably get worse if the kids think you’ve just given them busywork. Students can take some ownership over decsontructing the classroom, though, and help prepare it for the summer break.

Also, is there a way to approach your workload so that it doesn’t feel so overwhelming?

Breaking down larger tasks into smaller ones and setting deadlines for each component can make major projects seem more manageable. Use a prioritized to-do list so that you can see what really needs to get done and what can wait. And make sure you’re not adding to your own workload by creating unnecessary tasks. You may be able to cut out some things you think you have to do but don’t, like changing all your bulletin board themes each month.  Or, you may be able to delegate some of the responsibilities to students. Try to get the least enjoyable parts of your job done during school hours, so if you have to stay late or take work home, at least you’ll be doing tasks that you somewhat like doing.

From a mindset perspective, it’s also important not to anticipate problems or continuously make mental lists of all the things you need to do. If you continually build up your to-do list in your mind and tell yourself, “I’m so busy. I’m so tired. I have so much to do. I’ll never get all of this done,” you’re going to wear yourself out and those thoughts become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, write down tasks whenever they task pop into your mind, no matter how small or insignificant they are. (I keep my lists on my phone so they’re always with me and easy to update.) Once things are written down, you don’t have to clutter up your mind with a massive list of stuff to do, and you can refocus yourself on just the task at hand. It’s not necessary to get everything done or planned out right this second. You have to trust that you’ll know what to do when the time comes, and you’ll be able to handle whatever happens. But that trust will only come once you remove the extraneous thoughts that distract you from what’s important in the moment.

What are some signs of burnout? And how can you “reset” yourself so that you don’t just coast through the end of the year to the summer?

I actually like the last few weeks of the school year, because some of the pressure for testing is lessened and the need for review means you can do some engaging projects with students. Try to plan a few activities that you really enjoy, and incorporate topics you’re passionate about (if possible) so that you can bring a lot of enthusiasm to your classroom in the final weeks. It’s also important to stick to your routines and procedures, and hold students to consistent behavioral expectations. If they feel like the teacher doesn’t care anymore, they’ll stop caring; if the teacher just wants the year to hurry up and end, so will the students. Kids follow the teacher’s cues, and you can make this principle work in your favor by staying focused and completely engaged in what’s happening in the classroom.

Any tips on how to spend your summer to rejuvenate so you can return to work with a better attitude/greater resilience?

Some teachers like to take the entire summer off and not think about work at all. I think that’s fantastic! Personally, though, I enjoy reading education-related books and working on unit and projects over the summer. Getting new ideas (even just from surfing Pinterest!) makes me more excited to return to school in the fall. It sounds counter-intuitive to rejuvenate yourself after work with more work, but it’s very invigorating when you’re directing your own professional development and learning about things that interest you and will directly benefit you and your students later on.

What are some productive ways to handle disagreements with students or coworkers?

When you can’t see eye to eye with someone else, you might find yourself asking, “What world is he living in?” The truth is that we ARE all living in our own separate realities: everyone has their own unique worldview and perspective which has been shaped by all their life experiences. Our viewpoints are all perfectly valid and reasonable within our own seperate realities. When we can appreciate this fact, we stop trying to figure out why people think and act the way they do, and the stress we feel over disagreements dissipates. Stay focused on your ultimate goal, which is not to convince your colleagues that you’re right, but to work as a team to provide the best possible education to students. Give other people space to be themselves, and allow for different ways of solving problems. Remember, you can’t control other people: you can only control your reactions to other people.

Teachers have a lot to complain about – but how can they vent in a healthy way? Some research suggests that venting actually increases stress and negativity if it doesn’t involve problem-solving.

Here’s the trouble with venting. Each time you replay a situation in your mind or rehash it with a colleague, you’re recreating negative feelings. You end up experiencing the original stress reaction all over again, and if the conversation devolves into a complaining session, you feel even worse afterward. So if you really need to talk about something, choose one confidante (rather than complaining to everyone you see) and tell him or her, “I just need to get this off my chest. I don’t want you to agree with me that it’s a horrible situation and talk about how unfair it is. I just need you to listen while I try to regain perspective.”

How can teachers make the most of their down time between classes, during lunch and after school to decompress?

I’ve found it’s better not to attempt important, time-sensitive tasks during your prep/planning time. You never know when the phone will ring, or an urgent email will come through, or an emergency with a student will arise, and if you’re counting on your prep time to complete a task you need done that day, you’ll find yourself very stressed out when that prep time is taken away. Instead, use whatever downtime you have to handle less pressing tasks that don’t require as much concentration, and do the more important stuff when you can be uninterrupted before or after school (in your classroom or at home.) I like to leave the classroom lights out when students aren’t in the room and just use a desk lamp: it’s very relaxing, especially if I play my favorite music at the same time.

What are YOUR tips for beating end-of-year stress? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Elisa Waingort April 13, 2013 at 7:20 am

Dear Angela,
You provided great responses to the interviewer’s questions. What stood out for me was the issue about venting and how best to do it, because we all need that space every once in a while. It is important to get things off your chest in order to gain perspective and then move on or decide to take some action as a result. I haven’t been very good about that this year. I feel like I replay negative or unfair situations in my mind and with various people, really anybody that wants to listen. Who doesn’t love a captive audience?! Of course, that doesn’t help me move on and let go, so to speak. When I can do that – control my thoughts so that I can control my actions – then I do feel happier and more relaxed and able to focus on my students. Thanks for the reminder. I am going to try to make this a goal, front and center, in my life as it doesn’t only apply to work situations.
Cheers!
Elisa

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2 IamBullyproofMusic April 29, 2013 at 3:58 pm

There is so much truth in this post–it’s a gold mine. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. haha I believe we have a song for every one of your points so naturally I’m excited to discover all this written out! So much stress is truly in our heads, isn’t it? We create it. Dim the lights, everyone. Learn to breath, you’re so right. Nothing has to feel like a battle. And kids absolutely follow our lead. I find that as long as I’m chill, so are my students. I can always get them to laugh. For me, it’s remembering to never take myself too seriously. I’m just a spec of dust to an astronaut looking down on the earth, not even that. NOTHING is that big a deal! In a week or two? Most of it’s long gone. You’re so spot on!

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