One of the biggest stressors for teachers is the possibility of being moved to another grade level or school (and in some cases, being “surplussed” or pink-slipped and having no position at all). I’ve heard rumors about who might be surplussed the following year as early as November of the current school year! And throughout May and June, the teacher’s lounge is always abuzz with nervous energy and speculation about who’s retiring, who’s taking leave, and what’s going to happen to everyone else.
There were several years when it seemed highly probable that I’d be moved to another grade due to student population shifts. The first few times, I freaked out and worried constantly. As I practiced new ways of thinking, I found myself responding differently. When everyone (and I mean everyone) asked if I was worried, I’d shrug and answer, “Nah. I’ll either get moved to fourth grade, or I won’t.”
They always looked perplexed. “But what if you DO?”
“Then I’ll teach fourth grade.”
“But…aren’t you mad you’re going to have to learn a whole new curriculum and move all your stuff to a different room?”
“If I have to, then I’ll deal with it then. But for right now, I’m teaching third grade, and that’s all I’m thinking about.”
That answer was usually met with blank stares. People just didn’t know how to respond. They’d either start worrying about their own situation again, or say wistfully, “I wish I could be as laid back about it as you are.”
I’d usually laugh at that point, because I’m NOT naturally laid back, and my instinct is to get a bit hysterical at the thought of involuntary change. I had simply practiced not anticipating problems, and in the process I’d re-trained my mind.
As it turned out that year, another teacher voluntarily moved to the fourth-grade slot and the problem never materialized. I felt a great deal of relief, not because I wasn’t changing grades — I had already made peace with that possibility — but because I hadn’t stressed myself out for months over nothing.
Fear is useful; anxiety is not
You see, anxiety, worry, and apprehension are completely useless emotions because they’re based on potential problems in the future. Unlike fear, which is a response to problems we’re facing in the present moment, anxiety does not produce anything positive.
Fear can be a very useful emotion because it enables us to respond appropriately to current threats. Our bodies were designed with effective fear responses like fight or flight. But when we kick these reactions into gear with anxiety, our bodies’ stress levels rise despite the lack of immediate danger or threat. We inadvertently prepare ourselves mentally, emotionally, and physically to fight or flee…but the problem is an imaginary one in the future. We’re left holding the tension in our minds and bodies with no outlet for it.
Trying to foresee issues is also dangerous because it diverts energy away from the tasks at hand. You become quickly wrapped up in fabricated problems that are impossible to predict, and when a real-life matter presents itself, you’re too distracted and irritable to handle it.
And, anticipating problems is an especially dangerous habit in the field of education, where policies and procedures seem to change on a dime for no apparent reason and against all logic. It’s absolutely impossible to predict the next demand coming down the pipeline.
So, we have to consciously set our minds on the present reality and remind ourselves that the majority of problems we anticipate never happen. Here are six steps to help you do that.
1) Allow yourself time to productively problem-solve.
People like to anticipate problems because it makes them feel prepared. No one wants to be blindsided, and it’s a natural human reaction to think about problems that may arise and start devising coping strategies.
Anticipating problems is actually a good thing IF you use that anticipation to think of pro-active ways to prevent the problem.
If you know there’s a possibility that your observation on Friday will be postponed, you may want to brainstorm ideas for a back-up lesson. If there’s a possibility that you will be absent next week, make sure you have your emergency sub plans in order. If a student is likely to be disruptive during a lesson, think of strategies you’ll use to engage him or her. If you’re anticipating a phone call from an upset parent, take a couple minutes to jot down key points to share with him or her, or take the initiative to call the parent first.
Can you see how this is different from simply complaining about the problem or worrying about what might go wrong?
When you feel anxious about something that might happen in the future and need to think about your course of action, go for a fifteen-minute walk and allow yourself to think about possible outcomes and positive responses. The fresh air and exercise will keep you from getting bogged down in the problem.
End the walk by repeating (and possibly writing down) the thoughts you’ve chosen to dwell on instead of dwelling on the anxious thoughts. Create a list of any actions you need to take to prevent the problem or work toward a more favorable outcome.
2) Counter worry with the two outcomes strategy.
When I get caught up in worrying about all the possible things that could go wrong, I like to remind myself that there are ultimately just two possible outcomes: something “bad” that I imagined will actually happen to some degree, or it won’t. That’s all. It’s really not that complicated.
Either way, my worrying won’t affect the outcome (though it could make things worse if I make myself sick from stress). I try not to think about how I’ll respond if an unwanted outcome occurs; there will be time for that if it happens, and I trust that I’ll have the necessary wisdom to handle it at that point. I don’t want to waste the mental energy on something that’s not a reality.
I know that worry will always lead to regret. If nothing bad happens, I’ll regret having spent my time being anxious for no reason. And if something bad does happen, I’ll regret having wasted my last few days of peace when I could have been savoring every day of this situation that I’m so desperate to hold on to.
Rather than feeling anxious about what’s possible to come, you can choose to get prepared and then relax. The best possible use of your life is to maintain your joy. No matter what happens, you’ll look back and think, Yep, I had the right attitude and the right mindset. I made the most of every day.
3) Recognize that you’re anticipating an imaginary problem and label the thought as such.
Don’t judge yourself for it, simply observe: I’m thinking about something that is not a problem at this moment. It’s just something I’m imagining could happen. Everything is fine right now.
Reminding yourself that there is no immediate danger or need to act will de-escalate the situation in your head and ward off the fight-or-flight adrenaline response that comes with panic.
4) Choose replacement thoughts.
If your mind doesn’t replay the potential problem, someone will probably ask you about it, so practice what you will tell yourself when you are tempted to start worrying again: Everything is fine at this moment. When the time comes for me to take the next steps, I will know what to do, so I don’t have to think about it now. I’m choosing not to worry about the situation and instead, stay in the present moment.
Every time you start anticipating a problem, dismiss the thought immediately and replace it with constructive thinking. The idea is to replace unwanted, anxious thoughts with positive, optimistic ones even if you don’t believe them or feel like it yet. The more you repeat the positive outlook, the more you will train your mind to default to that perspective.
5) Talk about your concerns openly with only one confidant.
You don’t need to tell everyone how much you’re worried. The more you discuss a source of stress, the more you create a stress response in your body. And if you confide in people with negative mindsets, they will respond in ways that create even more anxiety.
I recommend telling only your significant other, best friend, or closest family member about your anxiety, and make sure he or she is in the mental space to give a wise, encouraging response.
I prefer to complete the previous four steps before talking to anyone so that I am already calm and in a positive state of mind. Not only does this keep me from giving voice to endless rambling concerns, it also makes it easier for the other person to be supportive. Many times, I have already gotten over my anxiety by the time I talk to my husband and am just filling him in on a potential concern and my chosen response to it.
Remember, the anticipated problem is in YOUR head. Don’t dump everything on another person and expect him or her to fix it. Only you can reset your mind.
6) Dismiss and replace anxious thoughts whenever the topic resurfaces.
Once you’ve made a decision about how you will respond to the anticipated problem, don’t waver from it. Repeat your replacement thoughts, and if other people talk about the issue, repeat your replacement thoughts to them. They’ll either find your outlook refreshing or will stop trying to get you to join in on their negativity because it’s obvious you’re not going to feed into it. Either way, you win.
Finally Free: The teacher toolkit for conquering anxiety and overwhelm
If you struggle with teacher anxiety and found this episode helpful, I want to let you know about a new resource that you may want to check out. It’s the first new product I’ve made for teachers in three years, and it’s called Finally Free: The teacher toolkit for conquering anxiety, overwhelm, and the pressure to do more.
The toolkit is a collection of audio resources somewhat similar to this episode, in which I’m walking you through different aspects of teacher anxiety and helping you figure out a new way to think about your work. It was created as a resource for all the isolated, discouraged, and unsupported teachers that I hear from on a daily basis, so you can listen to practical encouragement and reassurance whenever you are facing overwhelm and anxiety. That way, over time and with practice, you will “retrain your brain” to think in ways that FINALLY create freedom from anxiety and overwhelm.
I’ve partnered with Dan Tricarico to create the toolkit. You may have heard Dan on the show before (S4Ep10, Creating focus, simplicity, and tranquility in the classroom.) Dan is a high school English teacher in San Diego and is known for his book and Facebook community called The Zen Teacher. Dan was the absolute perfect person for me to co-create with because his message and mine complement one another perfectly, and he’s able to lend a different, fuller perspective to the topic of conquering anxiety than I could ever do on my own. Dan has added guided meditations, reflection exercises, and lots more to the toolkit to help you transform your mind.
So the idea is that when you feel like you’re not able to focus because so many things are demanding your attention at once, you can play the MP3 about freedom from urgency, which gives you about 20-30 minutes of Dan and I speaking directly to that issue in a way that is meant to be encouraging and helpful. It’s something you can listen to over and over again, whenever you’re struggling with that feeling.
There are 10 modules in total: freedom from guilt, freedom from perfectionism, freedom from worry over students, freedom from comparison. You can go through and complete them in order like a course, but we were really intentional about calling it a toolkit because we don’t want this to be one more thing you feel pressure to do and can’t keep up with. So instead, just listen whenever you need to, and though you do get a PDF version of the transcript, it’s audio based, so you can just listen during your commute, or while exercising, cooking, cleaning, and just going about your regular routines. We chose audio because we believe you’ll get the most benefit from repeatedly listening to positive, encouraging words spoken into your mind and heart. There’s nothing better when you’re feeling anxious than hearing reassurance from someone who understands what you’re going through, validates your feelings, and helps you work through those feelings in a practical, uplifting way.
If you’ve ever wished that you had a positive, supportive mentor who would encourage you on a regular basis and give you strategies for working through your anxiety when it feels overwhelming, this toolkit will allow Dan and I to sort of be your virtual mentors.
Please know that anxiety, worry, and anticipating problems are super common issues that almost every teacher faces, and you don’t have to try to work through them on your own. I think the Finally Free toolkit will be a resource you can come back to over and over, again, whenever you need encouragement and support in finding a new way to think about your work.Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its troubles; it empties today of its strength. -Corrie Ten Boom Click To Tweet
This post is based on an episode from my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 15-20 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.