Long hours, high stress levels and sky-high piles of paperwork. There’s no denying that teaching is a pressurised job. So how can you stay fit, healthy and happy through term-time and during your leisure hours? Charmaine Yabsley finds out.
Teaching is supposedly an easy career. Short school hours, weeks of holidays in which to relax, what’s not to love? However, according to a study from Deakin University, teaching is one of the more stressful professions of all. Forty-one per cent of teachers report high levels of occupational stress compared with 31 per cent of people in nursing, 29 per cent in managerial jobs and 27 per cent in professional and support management occupations.
There are ways though to help reduce your stress levels. The first port of call is taking care of your health and wellbeing – eating well, exercising regularly, and ensuring regular time out to recharge your batteries, will go a long to reducing your body and mind’s negative response to work pressure.
Look after your body
“It’s very easy to put exercise on the backburner when you’re stressed and busy,” says personal trainer Chris Van Hoof ( www.chisel-fitness.com.au). “However, exercise should be your first option when you’re feeling tired or under pressure.”
Research by the American Psychological Association found that exercise may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress. The researchers believe that it may be that exercising makes your body practise being stressed; it forces the body’s physiological systems – all of which are involved in the stress response – to communicate much more closely than usual.
Fitting in exercise is all about finding the time that’s best for you. “For many teachers, the end of the day is usually when you need a burst of energy,” says Van Hoof. “As you’re continually giving your energy to students and colleagues throughout the day, it can lead you feeling flat and tired.” Van Hoof suggests that a walk is the best way to unwind, or get into some sort or routine. “Your job requires routine, so adding in exercise time is second-nature to you. Either a walk, or a relaxation class, is a good way to rejuvenate you. Especially during deadlines and longer terms – making sure you have some time for yourself, preferably outdoors, to keep the stress at bay.”
And don’t forget to make the most of your holiday times. “Go on an activity holiday to make the most of your free time – or take up surfing, windsurfing, skiing, anything that gives you a change of scene, mentally and physically.”
If your finances don’t run to an activity holiday, then take advantage of your free time by joining in council-run activities (which are usually free or charge a minimal amount), meet up with friends for a walk or run or try a new activity such as rock-climbing, paddle boarding or yoga. Daytime classes are usually cheaper than evening ones and less crowded too.
Stay safe and healthy online
With the increasing number of teenagers online, not to mention the amount of hours adults personally spend posting, updating or commenting (around seven hours a day), it’s important that, as a teacher, your online presence need to be monitored. Recently, the Victorian State Government released guidelines designed to help protect teacher’s reputations online.
“That boundary between being a teacher and a friend is one which teachers have to sometimes tread very carefully,” Minister for the Teaching Profession, Peter Hall, said. “It’s important to provide parents with the confidence that their teachers have the knowledge available for them to do their job well.”
The following guidelines have been launched to help direct teachers in the correct behaviour when it comes to online conduct:
Teachers are cautioned against –
- Contacting students by mobile phone or email, “without a valid educational context”.
- Posting any “offensive or slanderous” material about students, parents or colleagues.
- Sharing content from personal social media sites, such as their Facebook accounts, with students.
- Uploading images of themselves that have “potential to negatively affect their reputation”.
- “Venting” about their work, or posting personal or political opinions.
Mind: mental health, stress management
According to a report from the University of Queensland, teaching ranks as one of the top five most stressful professions, alongside cardiac surgeons and flight traffic controllers. “It’s dangerous to generalise,” says Professor Steve Dinham, Research Director of the Teaching, Learning and Leadership research program at the Australian Council for Educational Research. “Most teachers say that their job, the core business of teaching, is satisfying. However, what we have found is an increase in factors outside a teacher’s control – imposed change, societal criticism, greater expectation, role conflict and ambiguity – which are causing stress and a larger workload for teachers.” He says that teachers are now expected to not just teach the basics, but at the same time, are meant to remedy the problems of society.
The main cause of stress for teachers is the extension of their typical role. “Issues which would have been handed by the church, family, village or town, there’s no longer that structure and it’s given to schools to pick up those roles,” he says. “The role of a teacher has become much more complex and subject to scrutiny than we’ve seen in the past.”
Because you’re dealing with people and people’s problems, “then it’s hard to switch off”, agrees Dr Dinham. “Self-advocacy is very important. Keeping track in how you feel about your job, and how you’re coping is important.” Each school does have professionals in place to deal with personnel issues, “although the waiting list can deter people seeking help,” he says.
If you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, seek help through the professional channels at your school, or a personal psychologist. For access to private psychologists in your area, contact the APS Find a Psychologist Service on the toll free number 1800 333 497 or www.findapsychologist.org.au.
Victoria Kasunic, clinical psychologist, suggests the following tips to help you deal with stress:
- Allocate time to relax each day.
- Don’t take your work into the bedroom, and keep your schoolwork at school.
- Speak to your colleagues if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
- Seek professional help if you are suffering from insomnia, feelings of depression, lack of motivation or wishing to withdraw from socialising.
- Daily exercise will help with stress, as will a healthy, balanced diet.
Feed your mind, without blowing the budget
“As a teacher, you spend a long time on your feet,” says Emily Houlahan, Accredited Practising Dietitian. “So you need to follow an eating plan which gives you constant energy throughout the day.” To work out what you need to eat it’s important to understand the role certain foods have when it comes to energy. To put it simply, our bodies get energy from carbohydrates. But not all carbs are created equal. “Low- GI [glycaemic index] carbohydrates are the best to help sustain your energy levels and help you get throughout the day,” says Houlahan. “GI is the rate at which carbs are absorbed: low-GI foods are absorbed slowly and so your body won’t experience great highs or lows. An easy way to find out if the food you’re eating is low-GI is whether or not it’s close to its natural state.” Some ideal, minimally processed foods, which are low-GI include: fruit, vegetables, grainy bread – where you can see the seeds and grain, pasta, beans, lentils, milk and yoghurt.
Your ideal eating day
“Try porridge, muesli or eggs on grainy toast,” says Houlahan. Snack “At morning tea, it’s important to have a snack to help recharge your energy levels. An apple or a banana is a good choice, or a tub of yoghurt, especially Greek yoghurt which is high in protein.
A simple sandwich is sufficient to ensure you’re getting some carbs, or enjoy leftovers from the night before.”
To help reduce the dreaded afternoon slump, “it’s good to have something around the 3.30 or 4.30pm time period which will tide you over until dinner time,” she says. Try cheese on wholegrain crackers, a piece of fruit, yoghurt or nuts (if you’re outside the school). “If you’re busy and stressed throughout the day there’s a risk of leaving your food choices until dinner when you’ll undoubtedly overeat. Which isn’t so great for waistline, or for eating a varied, balanced diet.”
Your evening meal is a good chance to not only balance out your day’s eating, but also save some money. “By cooking up batches of food you’ll save money on your lunches throughout the week,” says Houlahan. “Plus, you’ll be less tempted to buy something sugary or fatty, if you already have a healthy and nutritious lunch made for you,” she says. “Meat, chicken or fish are ideal for an evening meal, served with vegetables,” she says. “Soup is also a good option, as they’re cheap, they’ll fill you up and the taste will improve over the week. Another tasty, and inexpensive option is casseroles. Add some cheap meat cuts to some veg, and freeze the excess portion,” she says. “Eating healthily doesn’t have to cost a lot. Frozen veg are just as nutritious [as fresh] as they’re snap-frozen so they hold their nutrition. Don’t forget to add grains such as rice or quinoa, which are packed full of nutrients, really cheap, and are filling too.”
A matter of thirst
“Two litres of water a day is the recommended benchmark, so sip frequently throughout the day to keep hydrated,” she says. Remember that dehydration can lead to fatigue, which in turn can lead to overeating. Don’t shy away from a cup of coffee if you enjoy it. “Coffee is fine,” assures Houlahan. “As long as you don’t have more than three cups a day. Be aware that the kilojoules from the milk can add up over the course of a day, so you may be unknowingly eating more kjs.”