Compartmentalizing Stress in Teaching

Imagine this: What if a tough moment only ruined a couple of hours of your day instead of the whole week? That angry parent email comes in at 8:10 a.m., and you’re over it by noon. Or that rehearsal was a complete disaster, full of interruptions, instruments seemingly falling apart as you look at them, and your soloists and back up soloists are absent; by the next period, you’re back on track? Or your group is about to take the stage at a festival, and your snare drummer sends another student up to you to break the news that they definitely have their sticks, but they left the snare drum back at the school? Wouldn’t it be great to move on and not have to stop yourself from giving dirty looks to Mr. Air Drummer?

stressed out man holding hand to his face

Stress-Free Doesn’t Exist

Stress and conflict only occur when people are involved. If you are going to be around people, stress will be present.

We can stress ourselves out by wishing for a situation that will never happen. We must release the desire, wishes and ambitions for a stress-free life because it doesn’t exist. The kicker is that the quicker we accept this, the better we will be able to handle the stress that comes our way. We need to have some stress. It tells our body when situations require our attention. What we don’t want is a full system overload where every decision becomes stressful. We typically find that new or unfamiliar situations that require our decision can cause a lot of stress.

The First Time is Always the Hardest

Remember that first time you stepped in front of the classroom? You were bubbling with anxiety, speaking with a little shake in your voice and trembling as you held the whiteboard marker. The next day? A little better.

Talking to a good friend or your significant other? Easy. It’s like we’ve always known each other. But that first conversation or approach? A knot in our stomach, and an endless supply of “what if” questions running through our brains.

The same can be said for any situations with conflict or that require a decision. Posting those audition results the first time? Nearly debilitating for some. I don’t know if this ever gets to a point of feeling good, but it does become manageable and even predictable. Or that first meeting with a parent. You’re 20 years old and speaking to a 40-something parent who entrusts you with their most prized possession. That’s a little nerve-wracking. But it keeps getting more manageable each time you interact. You notice that you still get a little nervous before parent-teacher conferences, but it’s only the hour before as opposed to all day. We’re looking for progress everywhere we can get it.

two women turning their backs on each other

Rehearse for Stress and Conflict

If it’s always going to be hard the first time, then we can manage stress and conflict by rehearsing, just like we prepare for a concert.

My colleagues and I love playing the “what if” game.

  • “What if a parent bursts in right now and demands to see us in rehearsal because we didn’t perform a piece the parent performed in high school?”
  • “What if the principal asks us to give the solo to the school board member’s son?”
  • “What if our star students all get caught up in a test scandal, and they’re out for the festival tomorrow?”

We can go on for days, and some of these become pretty humorous, but they all have a common theme: an issue that has must be solved that may not have a clear-cut solution. We talk these issues out, workshop a few different solutions, understand the repercussions and ultimately come up with a few scripts that could play into the Breath, Reflect, Respond method (see below).

We find that situations typically come up in the following categories: students, administrative, colleagues, parents and community. Talk with a friend and play “what if.” You may find that your collective responses help you to approach these situations in ways you didn’t think of.

You may also find that some of the most off-the-wall scenarios you come up don’t even hold a candle to what really happens! I wish I had thought about what I would do when I found out that students were sneaking in George Foreman grills to cook breakfast sandwiches behind the lockers and sell them for a quick profit, and how this might be an OSHA issue and a violation of the school’s food-service contract. But this particular “what if” never came up.

young man sitting on basketball court, looking up and taking a deep breath

Breath, Reflect, Respond

In most cases, we don’t have to respond as quickly as we think. Emergency situations, yes, but let’s make sure we define what a real emergency is. Some broken bones or a true safety situation? Absolutely. A parent who demands, “We need the fundraiser information now!”? Nope. At least, not my emergency.

Let’s say two students come up to you. They’re fighting over who gets to play the piano today, or they’re arguing over playing the solo, who sits on the end or who gets to take the classroom pet home today (which is a stuffed frog named Nothing But Treble). If you’ve dealt with this before, you probably have some initial solutions, and realize how much of a nothing situation this is. However, if it’s your first time, these situations can absolutely drain your energy while they filleth your cup of stress. So, try this.

Breathe: That’s right. Breathe. As long as the kids aren’t being a safety risk to themselves or others, just take a breath. In through the nose, out the mouth. Find a word that brings you some peace and say it in your head as you exhale, like water, beach, wind. My word is “cabin” because when people are arguing around me, I think about being alone in a cabin in the snowy mountains for some peace and quiet. That, or I imagine that they are in the cabin for a time-out.

woman writing in notebook and looking off

Reflect: Now, we’re going to reflect based on the information we have. In new situations, if possible, you want to give yourself some time. It helps to have a script before entering this phase.

“Hey, thanks for bringing this to my attention. I need to think about this and then I’ll get back to you, OK?”

If you have a class coming up or some more urgent matters, write down the issue with some notes. This will help you to remember the details later, but the primary goal is to just get it out of your head for now so you can free up space for other issues.

Then sit down and reflect on this. How long? It depends on the issue. For a small disagreement, I tend to spend no more than 10 minutes ruminating on the issue. Larger situations may need an hour or two with some deliberation amongst colleagues. Huge issues? Most often these need to become the responsibility of someone above me, such as an administrator.

Respond: It’s time to either invite the parties back to discuss further, or I just deliver the decision. I understand that some unpopular decisions may lead to a little more stress: parents emailing to disagree with the decision, for example. If that happens, I handle that situation. I respond based on my core responsibilities — a primary focus on safety and education, along with the moral, ethical and legal obligations tied to these responsibilities. That’s a mouthful, but it’s important because educators are responsible for acting with authority in some gray areas.

Sometimes we need to breathe-reflect-breathe-breathe-breathe-reflect-breathe-again-then-respond!

man holding up his hand

Plan For Five Things to Go Wrong

So, we have given up on wishing for stress to just disappear, and we’re rehearsing how to deal with stress. Now, we can begin to expect it. One trick that has greatly helped me is planning for at least five things to go wrong each day. Just knowing that things won’t be perfect and that challenges will come up that will require my expertise and response puts me in a much better place. I’m not always calm, but I’m not out of control and don’t have to spend energy regulating myself.

What about when the sixth thing goes wrong? That’s when I start stressing a little bit. We all need to let it out at some point. Just make sure that you directly communicate to a colleague that you need to vent.

Expecting a small number of things to go wrong helps immensely when traveling with a group or participating in any new experience. If you’re new to the profession, at least double this number. Don’t expect things to be perfect. Besides, no one ever sits around the dinner table talking about how things went to plan. Our most interesting stories and interactions come from the unexpected and our ability to respond in the moment!

Here are some more sample scenarios to consider. What would you do in the following situations?

closeup of someone using a box cutter

The Box Cutter: You discover that one of your most reliable students has a box cutter in their backpack during a routine check. This student works at the local big-box store overnight to help support their family. The school’s policy is very strict on this. Also, you have a concert tomorrow, and this student has an important solo that no one else can cover. How do you handle this situation?

  • One possible answer: School policy states that teachers must report these items, regardless of intention. Chances are, the school will still enact their consequences; however, the teacher can still share the student’s story with counselors, administrators and other decision-makers to highlight the student’s character. Policies are important, but they should be applied with context in mind. Unfortunately, we must act as our school requires.

The Field Trip Sabotage: An upset colleague attempts to undermine a meticulously planned music field trip. How do you address internal conflicts without compromising student experiences?

  • One possible answer: This is a case of two colleagues who care about their classes and programs — you and the upset colleague. Try to understand and acknowledge their feelings. In this case, I would speak directly to the colleague — no email or phone call, just set up a meeting. Try to find common ground and address any valid concerns. Keep the focus on what is best for the students.
viewpoint of someone in a wheelchair looking down a school hallway

Inclusion Causing Discontent: Striving for inclusivity, a student with special needs joins the ensemble. Other students, however, feel this is a distraction and want to quit. How do you approach this situation responsibly and ethically?

  • One possible answer: This can be a difficult situation for everyone involved. I would consider speaking with the concerned students. Work together to come up with solutions, such as having a peer buddy or even adjusting rehearsals while still making sure that you are working on behalf of all students in your classroom. In some cases, it may be worth working with the school counselors to make adjustments to where students are placed to ensure success at all levels.

The Battle Over Budget: You and your colleague face off in a heated debate over the allocation of a limited department budget. How do priorities align with program needs?

  • One possible answer: Some decisions are above our heads. If you are not a department chair or someone involved in allocating the expenses, then there is not much you can do. In the case above, one music teacher received more money than another for their program. I would be open to hearing the colleague out and potentially look for solutions where you can work together. In this case, I find it helpful to work with the other colleague and let them know how they can request funds in the future from administration.
overly exuberant man holding one fist in the air

The Overzealous Music Booster: A music booster parent bypasses the director, making decisions that could alter the course of the program. Where does the line between support and overreach lie?

  • One possible answer: It’s great to have support, but there’s a fine line between helping and overstepping. The director makes the decisions. This could start off as a friendly conversation to thank them for their support while reminding them of the importance of following the proper channels. Encourage parents to share ideas with you, but let them know that not every idea will be able to be enacted. Unfortunately, if there is pushback, you may need to speak to administration about this.

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