Stress: September’s Song

Students of SASTRA in their classroom
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September. Students and parents are not the only ones coping with the stress that comes from this time of transition. Teachers — from kindergarten to grad school – are also faced with a plethora of unknowns, eager anticipation, unrealistic expectations placed on them by parents, students, administrators, and perhaps of themselves.

While a quick Google search yielded many articles on how children, parents, or college students could cope with back-to-school anxiety, there was not a lot of background information on what teachers can do to minimize the anxiety that naturally comes with the start of each school year. Some of the stress these educators feel are healthy, according to Academic Journal. It all depends on how stress affects an individual — “good” stress gets the adrenaline pumping with excitement and anticipation, the bad kind can totally overwhelm and immobilize a person.

Regardless of what or where they work,, all teachers have multiple stressors to manage — from 30+ kids in a first grade classroom, each with different needs, behaviors, and personalities; to keeping 200 students engaged during the 3 hour lecture in the History 101. Of course, there are parents, administrators, and a whole lot of inflexible bureaucracy to contend with too.

What can stress do to the body? The Mayo Clinic notes that reactions include headaches, insomnia, fatigue, depression, anger, tension, anxiety, or even exacerbation of chronic illnesses like diabetes. The American Stress Institute lists 50 (fifty!) common effects of stress on the body – and there are probably more that never made the list.

Finding balance is necessary, but often difficult. It’s hard to manage goals and expectations when it’s enough time to manage getting out of the house on time. Peer support is very important, according to the Association for Psychological Science. So is letting go and leaving the strain of the day back in the classroom. However, in today’s 24/7 world, that can be a real challenge.

There’s no doubt stress is a risk to health. So why do teachers get up at 5 or 6 every morning, spend countless hours preparing lesson plans, grading papers, going to workshops, and dealing with the daily demands of dozens of children, parents, administrators, budget cutbacks, mandatory testing, burnout, and low pay? I can’t answer for every teacher, but I can answer for myself.

I am an adjunct instructor for several college-level communications classes for adult students. The term begins today, with 69 students in 3 courses. Over the next 15 weeks I will grade 240 essays, monitor 17 discussion boards, and answer who knows how many email. At the end of the term, I will spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s compiling grades and narrative evaluation of each student’s outcome.  Stressful? Absolutely. Worth it? Totally.

When I see the intellectual leaps made between concepts and reality, when I read an essay that demonstrates new insight on a topic, when a student emails to thank me for opening his or her eyes, any stress that accompanies being a good instructor seems to melt away. Teaching and stress go together. But, the satisfaction of turning on that lightbulb for even a handful of students is immensely gratifying. I imagine most of my colleagues and teacher-friends feel the same way.

Education is not filling a pail but the lighting of a fire. ~William Butler Yeats

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