I vividly remember the morning of Tuesday, September 6, 2005. At 8:45am, around twenty Grade 10 students poured into Room 28 in Geraldton Composite High School. At 8:50am, O Canada played over the intercom, followed by the morning’s announcements. I stood nervously at the front of the room facing the blackboard for a few seconds and I could feel beads of sweat forming over my body. It was the first day of school and the first day of my teaching career. When the announcements were complete, the collective attention in the room focused on me. The stakes of that first day felt high, matched with a very high level of stress. But, I took a breath and started the class. I managed to get through the day despite feeling that cloud of anxiety around me. Now here I am, fifteen years later and in a new role, still dealing with some anxiety-filled days and definitely many days filled with stress. We know the dangers of stress. What we don’t know is the balance between stress as a threat and stress as a motivator.
There are many stressors that I contend with on a daily basis. First-and-foremost is the safety and well-being of my students. This isn’t something that necessarily keeps me up at night, but it’s always in the back of my mind, punctuated with higher-risk activities that I do need to be more concerned about, like outdoor education ice fishing treks, sports trips to different communities on winter highways, planning for an overseas excursion… I need to know all the details, I need to plan for emergencies, and I need to know that at the end of the day, I maintain a level of culpability for everything that happens – and believe me, stress-inducing situations most definitely happen. Yikes.
There are also the stressors of the daily operation of the school, and because these happen at a rapid-fire pace I find that these situations have the ability to quickly overwhelm – often because many of them happen at once. We are in the midst of labour action. The new staff member requires orientation, the parent is calling again requesting answers about an incident in class, there are so many unread-yet-important emails in my inbox, students are roaming the halls, three people called in sick and there are no replacements so I am currently without a secretary in the office, budget planning has to happen, and a student may be expressing suicidal ideations. And this all happened before lunch. Even writing about these examples, (which, by the way, is an account of a recent morning), makes my blood pressure rise.
In many cases, it’s not always as easy as “taking a breath and moving on”, (though this does have its place). There is a pressing urgency to build a toolbox of strategies to get me through stressful days. Ongoing high levels stress is not sustainable and not healthy. According to research from the United States National Institute of Health, chronic stress can alter the structure of the brain, decreasing neuron pathways and negatively affect our immune system (Mariotti, 2015). I know the risks of heart attack and stroke when I’m dealing with chronic stress. I can feel it in my body. I’m (mildly) aware of the body’s release of cortisol to trigger fight-or-flight responses within our primitive brain. I sometimes hear the argument that stress is a motivator, and while I do feel that I work better under pressure and do subscribe to the belief that I operate effectively within the chaos of my job, I am learning more about brain chemistry and the science behind engagement and stimulation that is triggered by more “positive” encounters with stress. (I highly recommend Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain as an accessible starting point for this science from the perspective of oppressed students.) When I reflect on how I deal with stress, a growing concern is how I might minimize the effects of stress on my body when I chalk everything up to “being motivated to work harder and work better.”
So what’s in my toolbox? Honestly, sometimes it’s pretty empty. I try to remember that I cannot solve all problems, (and am certainly not expected to, either), that organization is paramount and procrastination the devil, that being a “yes person” is a dangerous flaw, and most important, that it’s important to talk when stress builds up. My toolbox also includes an amazing school team and over the past six months I feel that the work I’ve done building relationships is paying dividends. Our staff does a good job of checking on one another, (including checking on me), and this is probably the best tool around. As a school leader, I know I can delegate tasks as appropriate to my colleagues because of their professional knowledge and abilities. Although I lead a single-administrator school it is far from a one-man-show. There is also the value in workplace laughs, conversations with students that remind me why I became an educator, celebrating all of the awesomeness that happens in my school on social media, learning to leave work at a consistent time, (and actually leave it!), and finding solace in nature. These are all important deposits into my emotional well-being bank account.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that I’m nearing a stress-induced burnout, or that I’m living in fear of a heart attack, (actually, my Apple Watch-created ECG above looks pretty normal). Instead, I want to express that I’m aware of the impact of stress – and you should be aware of your stress levels, too. If I’m aware of the stress and managing it with the aforementioned tools, then I’m a better school leader and a better person.
Now, time for a walk outside so I can take a breath or two.