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Your Career• 3 Min read

10th March 2020

Dealing with teacher anxiety

When you search for ‘teachers and anxiety’ on the internet, the search results quickly merge into how teachers can help and prevent student anxiety (also a crucial topic, but not what was searched for). Which is shocking when it’s no secret that teaching can be a stressful profession. Teachers themselves have to be feeling mentally strong in order to be able to help their students with their mental health. There clearly needs to be more talk about teacher anxiety.

The job is a demanding one — you are standing in front of a classroom of students all day, so you can’t switch off for a break when you want or wander off to make a cup of tea. You often take work home. You are assessed on measures which you can have little control over (such as students’ grades) and you have to achieve high expectations (with continuous cuts to funding and tight budgets in state-funded schools). These issues are challenging for all teachers, but especially those who are suffering from anxiety. 

It is no wonder that the results of a survey from Education Support found that 75% of teachers said they had experienced anxiety or stress-related symptoms in the last two years.

What is anxiety?

We all feel anxious from time to time and that is perfectly normal, but anxiety as a condition means that the anxiety is more severe and constant, affecting your daily life. 

Anxiety can be generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) or can be the main symptom of several conditions, including:

  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Phobias 

The symptoms of anxiety can be physical as well as psychological and they can have a knock-on effect. For example, if you have difficulty sleeping due to anxiety, the resulting tiredness can make your psychological and physical symptoms worse. All this can also lower your immune system so that you pick up the bugs circulating around school more easily. The list is endless, but symptoms can include:

 Psychological  Physical
 Trouble concentrating  Chest pains
 Feeling time speeding up/slowing down  Feeling or being sick
 Inability to relax  Dizziness
 Rumination  Heart palpitations
 Derealisation  Headaches and teeth grinding
 Depersonalisation  Skin rashes

The Psychiatric Morbidity Survey indicated that in the UK there are around 6 million people who are suffering from some form of anxiety (approximately 3 million with an anxiety disorder and 3 million with depression as their main problem).

What can cause anxiety for teachers?

Some people feel a constant sense of anxiety all the time, without any distinct trigger. Teaching however, can often be a trigger for anxiety as teachers can find that they experience ‘burn out’ where they go through long periods of stress. Sometimes a stressful situation is obvious, like a student or parent who is challenging you. Often the stress can be low-level and constant so that you don’t notice it until you start to feel physical symptoms. 

Feeling anxious as a teacher can be exacerbated if you feel unsupported and isolated. The nature of the job can be isolating, because a teacher spends most of the day talking to children in the classroom, only coming together with other adults to talk in the staffroom.

Teachers are also often highly conscientious people by nature who have an exceptional drive to help others, and so put unrealistic pressure on themselves. Teachers can also deal with issues that can be emotionally challenging in schools, such as pupils being taken into care or taking on a role as a pupil’s confidant as they talk about difficult situations at home. 

If you have always been a naturally anxious person before teaching and find that the job is making it worse, then it is vital that you seek help from your GP and talk to your school so that you can enjoy your work again. 

Coronavirus and teacher anxiety

At times, it can seem like anxiety and teaching go hand-in-hand, but the Covid-19 pandemic brought entirely new challenges and pressures into play. Uncertainty around school openings, staff shortages, difficult virtual working arrangements and balancing teaching with childcare are just some of the issues teachers have faced. 

Like the rest of the population, many teachers have also had to deal with Covid-related illness, worries and grief. When lockdowns ended and schools reopened, teachers were some of the first employees back into work, leaving them more vulnerable to Covid-19 transmission than many others.

Of course, keeping children away from classrooms during those lockdowns had a huge impact on pupils’ mental health and studying routines. Having to teach unfocused students virtually made the job of teaching an even more delicate and difficult one than usual. 

Understandably, for all these reasons and more, teaching anxiety has spiked dramatically during the pandemic. More than a quarter (27%) of UK teachers needed medical help for their mental and physical wellbeing from April 2020 to April 2021. In addition, 23% of teachers took medication to help them cope.

How to manage and mitigate anxiety as a teacher

Do not suffer alone — there are ways of overcoming anxiety so that you can have a happy and healthy career.

Ask for help

Your first port of call should be your GP. If you have diabetes then you don’t question going to the doctor for treatment. Yet many people put off going to the doctor about a mental health condition.  It is vital that you do go, because your doctor will be able to refer you to the appropriate treatment, whether it is medication, counselling or both — the results can be life changing!

Remember that your mental health comes first

Officers in the army are taught to look after themselves first on the battlefield as only then can they be of use helping others — they need their strength to be able to physically and mentally help those in need. The same applies to teachers! As a teacher you need to be mentally fit and well; it is a fundamental prerequisite for quality teaching and inspiring your students.

Set work boundaries

Teaching can be all-encompassing, particularly if you are a perfectionist. But you have to set boundaries or you will end up working all hours and may suffer from teacher burnout. It helps to set up a routine and stick to it. For example, limit staying behind after school to one-hour maximum. Have a set bedtime and nighttime routine. Don’t leave weekly lesson planning until Sunday night. You can put alarm reminders on your mobile phone. At first, you will find it hard, but in time your body will synchronize with the new routine and you will relax. It’s amazing how much more productive you can be when you have limited time to complete a task.

Find pursuits outside school

Teaching can take up your entire life if you let it. So it is vital that you take some time to carve out some interests outside school. Consider things like an art or music class, a choir or a book group. Meeting new people and relaxing with them will give you the respite you need. Alternatively plan trips — from local trips to the theatre or travelling abroad in the school holidays. Making meditation part of your daily routine can also help to reduce your stress levels and there are meditation techniques and breathing exercises which you can apply during quiet times in your school day. Meditation apps and videos online will help guide you and many only require a few minutes of your day. 

Diet and exercise

Exercising regularly will trigger the feel-good endorphins in your body triggering a positive feeling. Finding something you enjoy and which is sociable will add to this — something like zumba, horse riding, cycling or swimming. If you are short on time, work exercise into your commute, lunch breaks and walk as much as you can within the school grounds. You can also volunteer for sports teams and activities.

It is important to combine exercise with a healthy and nutritious diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain. What you eat can also make some anxiety symptoms worse. Avoid caffeine and processed foods, drink plenty of water and limit your alcohol. 

Find a school that suits you

Schools and local areas can vary enormously so it pays to research before you apply for the job. Some teachers prefer a small village school in the country while others thrive in an inner city school. Your environment can affect your mental health so choose wisely. Don’t feel like you are stuck in a school which isn’t right for you — if you need to move location to feel better, do so. Those working full-time might also consider looking for a part-time position to help gain a better work/life balance. If you are working for a teaching agency, make sure that you communicate this to your consultant and they will be able to find you the perfect job and school in your ideal location.

Ways a school can prevent teacher anxiety

You need to be open with your colleagues if you are suffering from anxiety as the likelihood is that you won’t be alone in your experience! They can offer you support if they know about it. Anxiety can be hidden well by laughter and a smart appearance so communication is vital. 

Schools need to be supportive to teachers suffering with anxiety. Not only is this kind, but will also prevent a high teacher turnover rate, sick days and low student morale and grades due to unhappy staff members. If you are looking for ways to make your school more supportive, consider these ideas:

  • Recognise what teachers are doing well throughout the year — they need positive feedback and encouragement from staff members.
  • Teach stress management and coping mechanisms. 
  • Watch out for signs of low self-esteem amongst your colleagues.
  • Offer mentorships for newly qualified teachers. 
  • Promote mental health in your school with social-emotional learning (SEL). programmes for students that will also be beneficial for teachers.
  • Make sure all staff members have time during the day to take a break.
  • Make the most of your well-deserved break during the school holidays.
  • Focus on learning rather than league table pressure.
  • Make sure work responsibilities are evenly spread across staff.

Helpful links:

Education Support — https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/helping-you/telephone-support-counselling/

Anxiety UK — https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/

Mind — https://www.mind.org.uk/

Rethink Mental Illness — https://www.rethink.org/

NHS, Every Mind Matters — https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/anxiety/?WT.tsrc=Search &WT.mc_id=Anxiety&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIuKXk_qvN5wIVWODtCh32AQqiEAAYASAAEgLmdvD_BwE

Careers with Engage

If you would like a new role teaching on a permanent, long-term, or short-term basis, full or part-time, our expert team will be able to find the perfect role for you in an environment suited to your aspirations at one of our wonderful partner schools. 

Support Education is the UK’s only charity which provides mental health and wellbeing support services to teachers. As an Engage teacher, you will have exclusive access to the Support Education Employee Assistance Programme, providing you with support 24/7, 365 days a year.

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