Teacher Stress: You’re Not Alone

Rule of thumb: treat yourself at least as good as you'd treat this guy.

Rule of thumb: treat yourself at least as well as you’d treat this guy. (Photo credit: Britt Selvitelle)

Hi. Happy May. My name is Jenson. I was a 2006 corps member in NYC, and I taught first grade in Brownsville, Brooklyn at P.S. 156. Ready for the acronyms? I have been a CMA once, a CS twice, an MTLD thrice, and I am currently coaching a team of CSs and LSs preparing for Tulsa Institute 2014. When not reciting acronyms, I’m a third-year doctoral student at UT Austin in counseling psychology. This part of my life involves doing lots of things: working with children in a psychiatric hospital, learning how to therapize, attempting to ward off soul-crushing debt. But here’s the part that might interest you: I research teacher stress.

As you might have guessed, I didn’t have to enter academia to learn about the issue.  Between teaching six-year-olds how to read and teaching teachers the wonders of behavioral narration, I’d gotten a pretty good read on the situation. What interested me most was the way teachers experience stress; what, specifically, most stresses them; and how in the world we might support the mental health and well-being of those in the world’s most important (and stressful) position. The following is a list of some of the things I have learned in three years on the academic side of the field:

  • CMs and alums are stressed. For my preliminary doctoral research, I surveyed 62 current and former CMs (all currently in the classroom) and two-thirds ended up in the “stressed group.” Shocker.
  • But they’re not alone. Current research suggests that chronic stress plays a significant role in the rising attrition rate for novice teachers in general. Studies also show that pressure to raise student test scores causes teachers to experience more stress and less job satisfaction.
  • You’ve got a friend. Relationships among colleagues in school buildings have a huge (maybe even the largest) impact on teacher well-being. This is true for administrators as well. There may be more than one good reason to attend that Thursday-night happy hour…

Cognitive Restructuring Part 2: Taking Steps to Change Your Thinking

(Photo credit: Emilian Robert Vicol)

Look how happy she is now! (Photo credit: Emilian Robert Vicol)

This week’s post is the second part in a series about cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is the technical term for the process of challenging our irrational thoughts. This process involves first paying attention to thoughts and recognizing when they are irrational. If you read last week’s post, you have probably begun to notice some errors in your thinking. You may have realized that there are certain categories of irrational thoughts that you are more prone to engaging in than others. The next part of cognitive restructuring involves challenging irrational thoughts and learning replacement thoughts and behaviors. Let’s break this next part of cognitive restructuring down into concrete steps.

The following four-step process is taught at Harvard Medical School, and it’s one way to help derail stress that is caused by distortions and negative thoughts. When you notice yourself engaging in irrational thoughts, you can do the following:

Step 1: STOP. Consciously call a mental time-out.

Step 2: BREATHE. Take a few deep breaths to release burgeoning tension.

Step 3: REFLECT. Ask some hard questions regarding the rationality of your thought. The following is a list of “Challenging Questions” that can guide you in assessing the accuracy of your thoughts:

Cognitive Restructuring Part 1: Changing Our Thinking in Powerful Ways

(Photo credit: Bernard Goldbach)

(Photo credit: Bernard Goldbach)

“I should have spent longer preparing for that lesson.”

“I’m always failing as a teacher.”

“I feel like a total mess.”

“I’m sure my students won’t do as well as I want them to.”

Do you ever find yourself engaging in thoughts like these? It’s called “irrational thinking,” and we all do it at times. In fact, it can become so habitual to think this way that we don’t even realize the extent to which we are doing it. One of the most helpful things I’ve learned through my graduate training in counseling psychology is a concept called “cognitive restructuring.” This is a way to notice the thoughts I’m having that are irrational, and then come up with ways to change these thoughts so that I can have a more positive outlook on life and ultimately be more productive and happy. In this post as well as next week’s post, I will give you the tools to conduct this process on your own.

The first step in cognitive restructuring is to identify the type of irrational thought you are having. Most irrational thoughts fall into one of the following ten categories, called “cognitive distortions,” as outlined in the work of David D. Burns. Take a minute to read through them and ask yourself whether you engage in these types of thinking:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure: “One part of my guided practice did not go as planned, therefore my entire lesson was bad.”

Extra Help: How to Find a Mental Health Professional

(Photo credit: Sara V.)

(Photo credit: Sara V.)

Making the decision to see a mental health professional can be difficult. Sometimes people are unsure whether they are truly in need of help; other times, the stigma attached with seeking help can make people fear that they might be “crazy” or that others will look down on them. The truth is that seeing a professional can dramatically improve your quality of life, because there are times when all of us could use some extra help in order to feel like ourselves again.

Finding the right counselor for you can be a tricky process, so here are some helpful points to remember during your search:

  • There are many different types of mental health professionals, so finding one can be confusing. They are, in short: 1) psychiatrists—medical doctors (MD) who primarily prescribe medication for treatment.  Some, but not most, also engage in talk therapy; 2) psychologists—usually a doctoral-level provider (PhD) who provides counseling, psychotherapy, and assessment, but typically does not prescribe medication (this does vary state-to-state, however); 3) licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed professional counselors (LPC), and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), all of whom have a master’s degree in their respective area and provide counseling and psychotherapy; and 4) primary care providers, who, while not actually a mental health provider, often prescribe psychiatric medications.

Cultivating Happy Habits

(Photo credit: Elizabeth M)

(Photo credit: Elizabeth M)

If you are reading this post, it means that you didn’t let my cheesy headline deter you. I realize that it could have—I mean, how lame does the phrase “happy habits” sound? But I’m hoping you’ll soon understand that cultivating happy habits can actually be a very useful and powerful practice.

To give some background: as part of my training program in counseling, I participate in various field placements that give me the opportunity to conduct therapy in a variety of settings with a diverse set of clients. Currently, I am working with the U.S. Department of  Veterans Affairs. As part of my experience with the VA, I’ve helped lead a group that provides an introduction to mindfulness. Our group provides the group members—veterans who have often experienced trauma and are now dealing with subsequent anxiety and depression—with tangible things they can do to achieve improvements in their lives. One thing we encourage is the mindfulness practice of developing happy habits.

So what are these habits? Happiness researchers such as Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, have found that certain routine practices have been shown to literally improve one’s level of happiness in a rather short amount of time. Achor suggests a set of five simple things you can do every day that will make you significantly, noticeably, measurably happier:

My Struggle with Standardized Testing

(Image credit: Oliver Tacke)

(Image credit: Oliver Tacke)

You don’t need me to tell you how obsessed educators often become with state tests. At my first placement school, we held pep rallies to inspire confidence and excitement in students. At the next school I worked at, an after-school club produced a music video devoted to the state test (check it out—it’s pretty amazing). Entire school days were devoted to taking practice tests.

Even though I hated many of the things about the state test, it was very easy to get caught up in my schools’ energy and become completely consumed by testing. I found myself spending hours creating questions that mirrored those that students would see on the tests. I made sure every lesson had some connection to testing.

Then one Monday, I got my wake-up call. My school had devoted the previous Thursday and Friday to practice testing. These practice tests would serve as one of our school’s final gauges of student preparedness and what still needed to be accomplished before the real tests were to take place. I cheerily entered my principal’s office to greet him and find out how my students had done. He handed me my class’ scores. My heart sank. My students were nowhere near where I expected they would be, where they needed to be. I burst into tears. It was unlike me to display such emotion in front of a colleague (or this early on a Monday morning), but I couldn’t control it. I had been placing so much weight, importance, and expectations on these scores. It felt like all my hard work was wasted.

In Search of Perfection: Part II


(Photo credit: Marco Sama)

In my last post, I discussed the pernicious effects of perfectionism, which, when left to its own devices, can wreak all kinds of havoc in our relationships and on our emotional state. At this point, you may be asking yourself how this applies to you and your role at TFA, but I assure you that it does. Even those of you who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool perfectionists will bump up against events in your life that will test your ability to accept and let go. In the classroom and in many areas of life, you very likely feel that you are in control of most things that occur on your watch. But one of your challenges at TFA (and in life) is to learn where your power is and where it isn’t. If you find yourself not being in control all of the time, this does not necessarily mean that you’re failing. In fact, if you can give yourself a little leeway by not getting too invested in things turning out a certain way, you may be surprised at the outcome.

In Search of Perfection

(Photo credit: Vestman)

(Photo credit: Vestman)

We have all encountered some version of perfectionism within ourselves. But while perfectionism and its outcomes may have some benefits, there’s a downside to its allure.

On the positive side, striving for flawlessness can often mean that you are thorough and scrupulous when approaching projects, which can be a useful skill. In fact, it is a close cousin to “relentless pursuit.” It means working tirelessly and unremittingly until you reach a goal. There is no question that in order to make significant gains in much of life, a level of relentlessness and even perfectionism must be present. You might have seen this in yourself when, after decorating and arranging your new classroom for the first day of class, you spent another half hour rearranging the desks in an effort to maximize student interaction. Some level of perfectionism might even be partly responsible for your acceptance into TFA in the first place: a great resume, excellent grades, a well-thought-out lesson sample, and perfect interview responses. This all contributes to the success that you have achieved thus far. Like I said, being a perfectionist can come in handy.