By Daniel Clausen
Teachers are people, too. We face the same types of problems as others. We stumble into the burdens of bad relationships, we suffer calamities outside of our control, we make very avoidable mistakes.
In addition to our human problems, we are also burdened with problems unique to our profession. We must maintain discipline in our classrooms, find ways to motivate seemingly unmotivateable groups of students, deal with a never ending number of assigned roles and duties (often dreamed up by bored administrators who imagine we are as bored as they are)…and I haven’t even said anything yet about overbearing parents or low wages.
For English instructors working overseas, they may feel stress from adapting to another culture, from prolonged separation from their family or loved ones, or in some cases from poor living and environmental conditions.
What are some of the keys to resiliency and mental health in the EFL profession?
While I don’t have all the answers, my readings and discussions with colleagues have helped me to come up with some good tentative answers.
Sleep, Exercise, Diet, and Music (avoid excesses). Teachers should take good care of themselves. They should sleep well, exercise when they can, and follow a healthy diet. And yet, in many of my jobs, it seemed that colleagues struggled with these basic things.
Like many of the tips in this article, it is more about habit-building than intelligence.
Finally, for me, good music always gets me through the worst days. There are plenty of free music channels on Youtube to help you relax. I suggest finding a favorite one. Twenty to thirty minutes a day of relaxing music — whatever that means to you — does the soul a world of good.
Beware Troubles that Come in Threes. This was an idea that I first came across in Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Steven M. Southwick and Dennis Charney. However, I’ve also had this lesson passed down to me as folk wisdom by my wiser colleagues: beware when several types of trouble attack you at once.
For example, a family member passes away, your car breaks down, and one of your students curses at you in class…all in the span of a few days.
Of course, sometimes trouble doesn’t come in threes. Sometimes it happens in fours and fives, but the principle is the same. These are the times when you’re the most vulnerable.
A simple awareness of this principle helps to overcome the problem a little. Knowing that you will not always be living in a world of three or more tragedies at a time — that this too shall pass — helps you to overcome your setbacks. When setbacks are (or at least seem) permanent, it’s important to remember that time has a way of taking the rough edges off our tragedies, providing us with the occasional blessing as well. Consulting with others who have had their own troubles in three or more can also be an enormous help.
This brings us to our next concept.
Build Your Resilience Network. A strong social and professional network can be important for many reasons. Your network can help you find and land a job, provide you with much needed expertise and assistance on projects…but it can also help you cope emotionally during hard times.
If you have already established a strong network, sometimes the hardest part is acknowledging when you need help. People aren’t mind-readers. You’ll need to speak up and let your friends know that you need their support.
Just as important as receiving emotional support is giving it. For some, the act of giving encouragement will be more therapeutic than receiving it. After all, sometimes just realizing there are others struggling like you — that you’re not alone — can help you cope.
Keep a Journal. Is your support network kind of thin? Do you have trouble sharing your problems with others? Is therapy a bit outside your financial means? Try writing your problems in a journal. I’ve kept a journal since high school and I’m amazed at how much stress I can relieve with fifteen minutes of writing a day. Journaling can also be a fantastic way to explore problems and come up with creative solutions. I’m amazed at how often solutions to problems just magically appear on the page as I’m writing.
Stress Inoculations and Constant Training. It’s often been said that what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. I don’t necessarily believe that. Sometimes what doesn’t kill us actually makes us weaker, jaded, or just plain miserable.
However, I do believe in the power of mild (or just right) stress inoculations. Sometimes, the best way to prepare for something difficult down the road is to give ourselves difficult or uncomfortable tasks to do in the present. This is difficult in practice since our natural tendency is to settle down and become complacent in good times.
Here are some stress inoculations you can try:
- Try a new language, technical skill, or something that you’re normally bad at. Wallow in the feeling of being bad at something for a while.
- Try socializing with a group of people outside your comfort zone.
- Deprive yourself of things that give you comfort (for me, coffee, sugar, and hot baths) for a week or more. Try taking cold showers or even sleeping on the floor for a few days.
- Involve yourself in rigorous physical training.
- Try fasting.
As a young man, T.E. Lawrence would often give himself tests of endurance, depriving himself of food and water for days. This training proved essential for his later trials in desert warfare. What training regimen might you use to prepare for a stressful teaching job?
(Continuously) Develop Options. The professional with many options is never stuck in a bad situation very long. This advice applies to almost anything in life. The logic is simple, but the nitty-gritty of developing options is hard. For the time being, however, I would simply like you to realize that options come in many different varieties — emergency funds, job opportunities, good relations with family and friends, mental flexibility, a strong social and professional network, and so on.
Consider the various ways you might say “no” to a stressful job that is unrewarding and is causing you health problems.
If you have another job lined up, then the answer is easy indeed. If the money at your current job won’t be matched by another, then you have the option of changing your mindset toward the importance of money in your life. Frugality is always an option. Radical asceticism is an option. Living with your parents may or may not be an option. If you have adequate savings, you might simply quit and try your chances looking for a new job.
The point is that, like the stress inoculations, you shouldn’t be complacent. You should start thinking about developing options before the horrible things start to occur.
A Sense of Humor…also, Looking at the World with a Sense of Humor. One of my favorite scenes from any movie is the ending to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where poor ol’ Brian finds himself being crucified. Luckily, Eric Idle is next to him also being crucified and is able to give him some good advice in the form of a song.
If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
I don’t know how to grow a sense of humor. I don’t know if it can be purchased at a store or pickpocketed from some unsuspecting comedian. But if you have no sense of humor about the world, if you can’t tell a joke or understand one…well, just try singing along with Eric Idle (Always Look on the Bright Side of Life).
And if that doesn’t work, just try making every serious thing you say sound as serious as humanly possible. Chances are some poor sap will take it as sarcasm and…voilà…you’re funny.
Other Things You Might Want to Research. Obviously, I haven’t covered everything.
There are more tricks to be learned, more insights to be had. Off the top of my head, here are a few that have come up in my readings and discussions.
- The power of optimism and strong core values. People who have stronger values and optimism usually have stronger “why” answers to the great questions of life. With stronger motivation comes greater resilience.
- The power of deep meditation. This was something that was very useful for me in high school, but which I have since replaced with vigorous exercise. Time to bring it back?
- The power of good classroom management (and self-management). Most classroom stress comes from not being able to control your students. The more tricks you learn about classroom management, the more resilient you will be. Unfortunately, parents and administrators are another beast altogether. Sometimes they allow themselves to be managed, but more often than not they want to manage and over-manage you. So, you might need to manage yourself, including your emotional reactions to their behavior.
- The power of creativity. More creativity means more options. More options mean less reason to worry.
- Advanced empathy training. Sometimes, the behavior of others around you cannot be changed.
Sometimes people cannot be reasoned with. However, if you are able to step outside yourself and look at things from the perspective of others, the actions of those surrounding you might be more bearable. You might even learn something in the process.
Find Your Own Coping Recipe. There is a vast literature on stress alleviation and resilience for teachers.
My advice is to ignore 99 percent of it. The sheer volume of it will stress you out. Instead, devote yourself to the habits of good self-care outlined in this article and just about every other book on stress.
Remember, it’s more about habit than intelligence.
Occasionally, you do find a gem. One fantastic book is Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney (you can find a simplified version here.
As you grow and learn, develop your own resiliency recipe. And then, once you have it, keep perfecting it. Make it a little bit better over time. And remember…Always look on the bright side of life… (gentle whistling)…