What needs to happen now to reduce teacher stress and burn-out?

When I started out as a young, naive and super keen music teacher I was told by my peers and mentors that I needed to brace myself and toughen up as this was going to be an exhausting career that only the strongest could survive and thrive in. “Don’t expect to have any evenings to yourself” and “to only expect to have time for yourself in the holidays”.

At 22 years old, who was I to question these seasoned professionals?

So off I went in my career, building successful programmes, sharing my love for music, running many extra-curricular groups, delivering concerts, plays and musicals whilst keeping on top of the hectic classroom timetable. I was attending meetings, planning, writing curriculums, assessments policies, huge department handbooks (that no one ever read) and all of this had to be delivered to the highest standard or you were letting the ‘team’ down. Then add in OFSTED, NC levels, GCSEs, A Levels, lack of budgets – it just kept coming.

But don’t get me wrong, teaching wasn’t all doom and gloom or I would never had stayed in it for a quarter of a century. In a totally cliché way the students kept me in teaching. The ability to help hundreds of young people grow both in musical ability and develop their individual identity is just joyful. Watching that scared little Year 7 student arrive in your classroom for the first time and then seeing them transform into a young, confident adult, going out into the world and being brave to try new things for themselves is so special. I have so many treasured memories and I have been blessed to teach amazing students who are still in touch to this day and have grown into wonderful human beings.

However, if I could go back and chat with my 22 year old self I would tell her that the mentors were WRONG!

Encouraging young teachers to work at burn-out levels from the very start is a ridiculous idea and it’s no wonder that so many new teachers don’t go past 5 years before leaving the profession. Learning to teach great lessons whilst developing effective behaviour management strategies for 30 students in a class is hard enough for the first few years, let alone being expected to do ridiculous paperwork and meetings on top that serve no purpose other than tick an admin box. I’ve been working in a school recently where the management insisted that all staff stay for 2 hours of PD every week, on top of meetings, parents evenings and other after school events. Staff were lucky to get 4 prep periods a week and were teaching 30 children in each class. So it was no surprise that the teachers were tired, grumpy, burning out and fed up. You could see it as clear as day in the staffroom and hear it in conversations. But who also loses out in this situation – the students. Unhappy staff means that you have unhappy students which of course leads to a rise in behaviour problems within a school and impacts teaching and learning. Parents get fed up, grades don’t improve and then you have a high turnover of staff. So no – encouraging teachers or any professional to work at burn out levels week upon week (regardless of experience) is a recipe for disaster. Yet we still don’t change it!

Had my mentors given better advice along the way I know I would have been a much healthier and happier teacher. When did we get it so wrong? Why are we not helping staff with stress management? Why is there so much shame, guilt and blame placed upon teachers who are struggling to juggle their hectic schedules? Why is it that there are still admin and colleagues who try to make other teachers feel guilty and inadequate when they say no to adding another school show or concert to their over-extended term, particularly those departments with only one music teacher?

About five years ago I was struggling with burnout without realising it. I loved teaching and running all the groups but the anxiety of going into work was there everyday. I was working in a school culture of negativity where there was little trust and clear divisions across the school. It created a toxic work environment and I used to dread going in, the phone ringing and opening emails. One day I was sat thinking is this really the best it gets? Is this what I have worked for all these years? Do the students really deserve worn out teachers? I knew at that point that I needed better coping strategies and I wasn’t getting them in school PD sessions. After significant research, I discovered a wealth of personal growth strategies that were being used in other industries and professions that were never shared in schools!

So my mission – to help teachers like you and I find better coping mechanisms to work in an out-dated system that still runs demand-relationship styles of leadership. Until this changes (and I really hope it does), we need better strategies.

So what are PIES??

You have probably heard the term self-care thrown around over the last few years. I’ve sat in training during the pandemic where we were told to do a little walk and have a lunch break and that would solve all the problems! However, self-care is more than that. We all need continuous growth in different areas of our lives for us to feel fulfilment, growth, happiness and to continue to develop our confidence. When we don’t do this we will often find ourselves slipping into those negative thoughts and feelings that impact our confidence and sense of worth. We then find we doubt ourselves and overthink everything which leads our mind to be stuck between anxiety of the future and depression from the past.

Our brains want to protect us at all costs and any fears our ego senses, it works doubly hard to protect us and keep us safe from danger. But, to feel better we have to quieten the mind, be aware of those limiting beliefs and outdated stories and step into the unknown with courage to keep growing. What acts of self-care really does is brings us into the present moment and takes us out of the constant anxiety and negative self-judgement in our heads. It helps quieten the mind and shut-up all the constant chatter! Self-care is such an important tool for calming the mind, body and our breathing.

PIES stands for Physical, Intellectual, Emotional and Social / Spiritual growth.

Physical growth includes all types of exercise whether that is a simple walk with the dog, pickle ball or training for a triathlon. Exercise is a great way for reducing tension and stress, as our brain creates dopamine and endorphins that makes us feel happier. However much we don’t want to do exercise at times, let’s be honest we all feel happier after the exercise than before we started. Physical growth also includes improving our sleep patterns and diet.

Intellectual growth. It’s been proven in research that our brain loves to learn and that we need to continually stretch ourselves in this area. Now it doesn’t have to be just related to our career but it can be any area of our lives. Reading each day, listening to podcasts, reading blogs, watching video tutorials are amazing ways to keep stretching ourselves. It gives us new things to think about, try and share with others. I loved learning about personal growth and wellbeing so much that it is a daily part of my life and I love sharing what I learn with others in the hope that what’s helping me could help others feel healthier and happier.

Emotional growth. This leads me on beautifully to the importance of connection and feeling good. Being with loved ones, friends, great colleagues and people who are positive influences on your life is so important. Finding joy in taking part in your hobbies and passions is essential and taking time to do the self-care activities that make you feel better has to be at the top of your to-do list. Journaling, meditating, exercise, dancing, singing, playing music, arts and crafts are just some of the ways that you can experience joy and be at one with your emotions. You really can’t feel angry and gratitude at the same time.

Social / Spiritual growth. How often do you spend time with the people that bring joy to your life? How often do you connect with others? Even if you are not religious, taking time to connect with the universe, being in nature and studying meditation is a great way to help you find happiness and calm on a daily basis. Humans need social connection at all levels and we see how important that is for our students everyday as teachers so we need to ensure we do this for ourselves too.

If you were to consider the four areas of PIES – what do you do on a daily, weekly or monthly basis in those areas? Are there any of the PIES that you aren’t doing or neglect when life gets hectic? For me, when feeling stressed or overwhelmed, it is always physical that is missing – exercise, sleep and eating healthily. So be honest and consider what aren’t you doing enough of and make that a priority for the next 21 days. I promise it makes a difference focusing on the four different PIES and keeping a healthy balance as part of yourself-care routine and personal wellbeing.

Remember – our mentors were wrong to encourage us to work to burn-out levels. Yes teaching is hard, tiring, demanding at times and of course an incredibly rewarding career. BUT you have to look after yourself before you can help others. You are no good to anyone burnt out. For a very long time I was led to believe that self-care and thinking about myself was actually selfish – but that was so wrong! I now know that daily self-care is so essential for my wellbeing, reducing stress and helping maintain a positive mindset. It takes daily practice and dedication but when you get it right you will thrive in all areas of your life.

So look after yourself and spend some time focusing on your PIES this holiday and into 2023!

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