Stress! The teacher’s enemy. How many times have we heard that teaching is a stressful profession. The workload is stressful. The children’s behaviour is stressful. New initiatives are stressful.
Ross Morrison McGill recently wrote a blog post about stress and teaching. It read as though stress is necessarily bad. It read as though stress is something that should be avoided and that there might be some stress free utopia out there – abroad. The implication of the post was that stress is bad with a capital B. I have some news for you – and Ross. Stress is not all bad. You it right. I’ll say it again – stress is not all bad.
We all need a certain amount of stress in order to function. A certain level of stress gets us out of bed in the morning. This is why some long term unemployed people don’t get up in the morning. They’ve lost hope and they have little stress; they really don’t have a reason to get up.
Have you every wondered why the vast majority of people work to deadlines? It’s stress. Most people have a certain level of stress that will spur them into action. Until that level of stress is reached they won’t do anything, but when that crucial level is reached then they get on with the task. It is stress that makes them do the task. It takes time for this system to be calibrated which is why young people need help with this. Also, if the task is not perceived as important then is won’t trigger a stress response and the task will not get done – sound familiar?
As you can see, stress is unavoidable and it can be seen as a good thing and a call to action. Having said that, some stress can be very difficult to deal with. There have been psychological studies that show that the level of stress at the top of an organisation is far lower that at the bottom – the reverse of what many mangers think. The reason is control. Those at the top of an organisation have complete control over what they do. If there is a task that they’d rather not do or is too difficult for them, it gets delegated. Those at the bottom have no such luxury. They have to do all the tasks given to them. This problem gets worse when that person has several bosses (head of department, head of year, etc) who are all loading tasks onto the lowly individual. They have no control over the tasks that they have to complete and they can easily get overloaded. This lack of control leads to real stress as it cannot be avoided. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many young teachers leave the profession.)
In fact, if an individual experiences too little stress, little gets done and what is achieved probably won’t be done that well. As stress increases to the trigger level I mentioned above, actions get more effective and efficient. You will be performing at your optimum level and probably feeling really alive and happy with life. When stress gets too far beyond this optimum level then performance drops off again and this is when people feel ‘under stress’ and anxious. They don’t know which task to do next and the tasks that they do perform will not be completed very well.
Interestingly, there has been some work done looking at how stress affects health, and it may well change your attitude to stress. Kelly McGonigal has recorded a TED talk about this. One of her main arguments is that stress itself is not bad for us; it is the belief that stress is bad for us that damages our health. It is not stress itself that is unhealthy; it is our response to stress that can be unhealthy. This is not at all self evident but it does in fact make biological sense. If you want to know more, watch the video from the link above, it really is worth the time.
We need to acknowledge that stress is a necessary part of life and we need to train ourselves to better deal with the stress that we are under. We need to accept that stress is a necessary part of live and that it is preparing our bodies for action. Also, we need our bosses to acknowledge that overloading people leads to poor performance. In fact, a good manager will be ensuring that their charges are at optimum stress levels most of the time to give the best results. This would also mean only one person managing each individual in the organisation, and the management structure of most school being redesigned. I’ll leave you with that thought!