At the start of this academic year I moved to a new country. I started a job which sees me working in a very intense environment, regularly dealing with the demands of parents and class teachers as well as my students, and getting to grips with an entirely new set of coursebooks. I have seen several colleagues quit. My boyfriend’s father has also suffered severe health problems, meaning that Keiran has had lots of (often short notice) trips to the UK. In short, it hasn’t been an easy year.
Teaching (and EFL teaching is definitely included in this!) is a stressful job, and adding life’s other stressors on top of this can make things seem unbearable. I’ve been forced to rethink how I approach and deal with my own stress, and as an experienced teacher, I’ve also had other teachers come to me with the weighty question ‘Does it get easier?’. I often tell my teenage students life doesn’t get easier, but you do get better at dealing with it – and the same holds true here. What can we do as teachers to minimise our own stress levels and keep ourselves doing the job we set out to do? I don’t by any means have all the answers, but I can share some things that work for me.
Number One: Focus on the positives.
I’m not suggesting that everyone should start bouncing around like some kind of pedagogical Pollyanna. However, all of us had a reason to start teaching in the first place. If it was to give you the opportunity to travel, think about the amazing sights and places that you otherwise would have been unable to experience. If it was to work with children or to inspire people to learn a language, remember the times when you have genuinely enjoyed doing this, even if you have to force yourself to do so. Your student said or did something funny? Great! Make a note of it, remember it, write it down.
Number Two: Talk it out (but remember to talk about other things too).
Remember, you are not alone. Chances are that if you’re feeling stressed out, other people are too. Struggling with a particularly rowdy class or a seemingly useless coursebook? Maybe colleagues can offer advice, and even if not, sometimes it helps to simply have a good moan. Be careful though: complaining can become a bonding mechanism, and once started it can be hard to step outside the cycle of negativity, especially if it’s threatening to take over the staffroom! Sometimes it can be helpful to give yourself a self-imposed ban on talking shop – particularly if, like me, many of your friends and your significant other are also teachers. I always find that I feel better after a talk about films, books, holidays, boys, or really anything other than work.
Number Three: Try to minimise your planning time.
Time spent planning is time spent thinking about work, which is time spent working. We all know teachers who proudly proclaim that they spend ‘no time’ planning, and who simply walk into the classroom and let the magic happen. I am in no way suggesting that you become one of these teachers. If, however, you’re a year or two (or more!) into your teaching career and still find yourself spending hours planning every weekend, it’s worth looking at what you could do differently.
- Tip 1: Speak to other people. Even if you’ve never so much as seen this coursebook before, chances are you have colleagues who have. They know what works, what doesn’t, and may have suggestions for good supplementary materials that work well with the lesson you’re about to plan. Ask them!
- Tip 2: Limit the number of extra resources you use. One thing I’ve noticed is how easy it is to lose hours sifting through Google search results for ‘past continuous activities’ or the like. If, however, you limit your searches for extra resources to a set number of books and websites that you know you like, you can streamline the whole process. The best thing is that as you get more acquainted with the resources you’ve chosen, you’ll start to learn what is where. Eventually time searching can be time spent photocopying, because you already know which book to look in for which activity.
- Tip 3: Reuse if possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean laminating the carefully cut up bits of your worksheet so you can reuse those exact ones (although it certainly can!). However, if you have two classes of the same level who are studying the same topic, you can definitely use the same activity more than once, even if it means saving it to use it three months down the line. Even if your classes are different levels, if the activity can be easily adapted, go for it and use it again!
- Tip 4: Set time limits for yourself. One thing I often find about my own working style is that tasks have a tendency to expand to fill whatever time I allocate them. If I start lesson planning with my time completely open-ended, my planning takes far longer, and (this is key) that extra time spent doesn’t necessarily yield better results. If I have plans for after my planning, however, which necessitate that everything is done by a particular time (I’m planning in a gap between lessons, I’m meeting a friend for coffee, or even a firm resolution that I will be home by 3pm) my planning tends to be more efficient, more effective, and, most importantly, much, much faster.
- Tip 5: Don’t reinvent the wheel. When supervising newly-qualified teachers, this is one thing that I’ve noticed takes up huge amounts of planning time. Sometimes coursebooks can be dull, uninspiring, or simply inappropriate for a class. However, they were written the way they are for a reason, and often they can and will work with your class. Adapting heavily and using hundreds of photocopies does ot instantly make a lesson ‘better’ than one taught straight from the book, it’s simply more time, more paper, and more stress! As an addendum, however, sometimes that reinvention is necessary. If you know exactly what you are looking for, it can be quicker to make your own worksheet, rather than spending time searching for someone else’s creation which perfectly matches the image in your head. (I normally realise this about 20mins into looking). For more hints and tips about when to (and when not to) adapt have a look at my post on the topic here.
Number Four: Have a life outside of work.
I realised that I needed a hobby around the same point that I realised I was lying to my students every time they asked what my hobbies were. Or at least that I hadn’t engaged in any of my professed ‘hobbies’ for between several months and several years. And no, ‘surfing the internet’ or however you attempt to justify the hours spent refreshing Buzzfeed and Facebook does not count as a hobby.
Everyone is different, however for my own sanity I’ve found that at any given time I need to have two hobbies I engage in regularly: a creative hobby and an active hobby. How these actually manifest themselves varies, but at the moment my ‘active hobby’ is running. A couple of colleagues and I will be taking part in the Prague Color Run at the start of June, and as I’d like to run the entire 5k and ideally not die shortly afterwards, I’m aiming to spend half an hour or so every other day training. My ‘creative hobby’ currently alternates between crochet and adult colouring books, both of which I find wonderfully relaxing and mind-numbing.
Friends who are not teachers are also immensely valuable for your sanity. I know, particularly if working in a smaller town or city, that it can be easy to end up trapped in a bit of a TEFL teacher bubble. At times, though, it can be genuinely refreshing to realise that the people you are talking to are completely oblivious to the trials of New English File or the terrors of 3C.
Number Five: Acknowledge what you are doing.
Teaching is hard! As with focusing on the positives, make sure you take the time to recognise the good things you are doing, even if almost everything seems like a complete disaster. You didn’t kill that annoying child? Well done! Your class proved that they actually took on board something that you said? Go you! You remembered to take some time out of talking about/thinking about/doing work, met a friend and took a walk outside? Brilliant! You rock! Sometimes we all need to be our own personal cheerleader a little bit.
Number Six: Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
At the end of the day, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Your DOS or ADOS or Senior Teacher or mentor is there to help you. Maybe they can simply offer more support. Maybe they can suggest solutions for a particularly troublesome class, or one where the students just don’t seem to be the right level. If you’re reluctant to reach out in person, remember that the internet can be a great resource too. Sandy Millin shares this wonderful post based on her IATEFL talk on time management. Anne E. Hendler opens up about her experiences with stress and burnout here. At the end of your day, while it may be a substantial part, your job is only part of your life – and no job is worth losing your health or your sanity for.