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Don’t Lose Your Head

Few jobs are as emotionally stressful as teaching. But there are many ways to help keep burnout at bay.


By Sheree Crute

Laughter is a lifesaver in Eric Hines’ fourth-grade classroom at Willow Cove Elementary in Pittsburg, California. It’s his buffer against the sheer frustration of trying to fit the needs of 32 rambunctious fourth-graders into a curriculum that sometimes “takes the teaching out of teaching,” says the 17-year veteran.

 Diane Gonzalez has a more physical outlet for keeping her work-related emotions in check—plenty of exercise, at home or at school. “You have to manage your feelings, because the kids are on their own emotional rollercoaster,” says Gonzalez, a science teacher at Chestnut Ridge Middle School in Chestnut Ridge, New York, of the mental fortitude needed to teach and nurture a room full of seventh-graders. Add to that a million teacher tasks, such as facing mountains of paperwork, to keep you on your toes, says Gonzalez.

Every job has its challenges, but teaching has its own special mental and emotional stressors. High-stakes testing, crowded classrooms, “a lack of support from administrators and low morale” are mentioned often, says T’Wana Warrick-Bell, a counselor at Oxon Hill High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and chair of NEA’s Counselors Caucus.

Because teachers have so much responsibility but increasingly little say over what goes on in their classrooms, they’re at risk for feeling inadequate or concerned that they’re not doing enough for students, Hines adds. As rewarding as teaching can be, combine the pressure kids may bring to school from unstable home environments with teachers’ personal desire to do their best, and you’ve got a work environment that’s a perfect incubator for emotional intensity, stress, and anxiety—even depression. 

“Teaching is emotional work,” explains Rosemary Sutton, a professor of education at Cleveland State University’s Department of Curriculum and Foundations. “We all regulate—or work to control—emotions,” says Sutton, one of the few American academics actively studying emotional regulation, “but teachers spend large amounts of time regulating [their own]...emotions.” Unlike workers in many professions, she says, educators form complex relationships, with children, parents, co-workers, and administrators—all while striving to be effective in the classroom.

Research has shown that the psychological labor involved in emotional regulation can sometimes lead to burnout, especially for people in service professions. There are times when the pressure to put your best face forward for students, while enduring other sources of stress, is enough to crumble the most dedicated educator’s resolve. That’s when it’s time to take a new look at managing the psychological trials of school life.

Surviving and Thriving

Protecting your mental health while putting joy in your job is possible, no matter how high-pressure your school is. NEA Today asked education experts for their advice on taming school stress and beating unhealthy emotions before they get the best of you.

Face reality. Parents work longer hours than ever before, kids bring more problems to the classroom than in previous generations, and many schools lack needed resources. In short, “Society has changed...accept it and prepare for it,” says J. Allen Queen, a professor of education and curriculum at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of The Frazzled Teacher’s Wellness Plan. Queen, who conducts research and designs programs to help educators deal with stress, advises that a well-managed classroom and a balanced life are key to handling the realities of teaching.

Grace Under Pressure

NEA Member Tip

Being a substitute teacher means being prepared for just about anything—on a moment’s notice. That’s why Doug Provencio, who teaches in Oakland, California’s, large urban school district, has worked hard to develop strategies for tough situations. “Students are sometimes angry just because I’m unfamiliar,” Provencio says.
Whether you’re dealing with a cranky high schooler or a third-grader with a bad temper, Provencio advises:
  • Have students analyze their feelings and write down the reason(s) for their frustrations or resentment. 
  • Point out that it’s OK to feel anger, but teach them that how they feel can be separated from how they behave. “I explain that everyone can have a really bad day and ask if the student wants to talk to someone else, perhaps a guidance counselor,” Provencio says.
To keep his own cool under pressure, Provencio remembers to:
  • ”Acknowledge that I work in very frustrating and stressful situations and that I’m not the only teacher dealing with this.” 
  • Work at being calm and not taking things personally.
  • Let someone know—even if it’s just a brief comment in casual conversation—if you’re having a really bad day.

Balance the scales. “In my research, I’ve observed that three things have to work in harmony to control negative stress,” Queen says. “I use the image of a triangle: one side is time, the other side is priorities, the remaining side is natural, positive stress, and all sides must be equal. If any one side of the triangle becomes longer than the other, you’re going to have almost constant distress, and that’s the real threat to your mental well-being.”

The solution? List your priorities. Be realistic about what you need to do to accomplish them. Then organize your time so you can satisfy those goals. Have contingency plans in place for times when kids’ behavior problems or unscheduled meetings mess up your day.

If you know that organization is just not your thing, get help. It will be well worth the effort at school and at home. Seek advice from colleagues or research one of many Web sites, such as .

Practice prevention. In her research on middle school teachers, Rosemary Sutton found that educators who worked with students to create a positive classroom atmosphere had the most success controlling their own emotions. Keeping their emotions in check helped teachers be more effective in the classroom, while protecting their own psychological health.

“These teachers kept a two- or three-week diary to track when they experienced problem emotions at work so that they could look for patterns,” Sutton says. Other strategies include stepping back and telling a joke to diffuse tense situations; eliminating tough lesson plans on high-stress days; keeping problem students apart; letting students know when you’re not feeling well; and taking a quiet “time out” between duties by stepping into the hall, teacher’s lounge, or restroom for a moment of silence to calm rattled nerves.

Reclaim your classroom. Veteran teachers and newcomers alike may want to try these resources for time-tested advice on restructuring the classroom to create and maintain a positive environment:

  • Send an e-mail to JAQueen@ to learn more about his classroom program that has been put to work in more than 200 schools nationwide.
  • Log on to for advice from the University of Pennsylvania’s education esearchers.
  • Put science to work for you. “Thanks to research, we now know a great deal about negative stress and how to fend it off,” Queen says. “Try eating to resist stress,” advises Ronald Benner, an NEA IDEA Resources Cadre member at Madison Elementary School in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Studies show that sticking to a balanced diet and limiting sugar, caffeine, and alcohol help keep your blood sugar—and therefore your moods—on an even keel. “And see your support specialist at your school—a psychologist or counselor—or talk to fellow teachers,” Benner says. Building a support network helps keep things in perspective, a great help when dealing with depression and stress. “Learn to meditate, take long walks, or just go sit in your car at recess and crank up the music, if that’s what works for you,” Queen says. 

Live life to the fullest. Most teachers teach for one reason—they love the job and the kids they get to encourage and help each day. But as important as teaching may be to you, Queen advises, “Don’t neglect the rest of your life.” Narrowing your focus and limiting your interests can also lead to depression and stress. Participate in activities outside of school—charity work, your church, a sport. Make time for family and friends and consider a new hobby. Find something that enriches you outside of your job.

The prescription for a healthy mind and spirit is easier to follow when you take good care of yourself and embrace the challenges of being an educator. Enjoy the rewards of positively contributing to hundreds of young lives while creating a nurturing, structured environment for you and your students. Each day you step into school, you’ll find that your load is a little lighter.

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