Category: Teacher Wellbeing

Rachael Roberts’ strategies to survive overwhelm

Rachael Roberts’ strategies to survive overwhelm

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If you can relate to the post card a friend sent me recently – the image above – then Rachael Robert’s presentation at the IATEFL MaWSIG PCE on 18 June 2021 was full of tips and ideas that might interest you. And so, in this post, I’d like to share some of Rachael’s insights with you as well as my own take on the issues of stress and feeling overwhelmed.

Now, Rachael was mainly thinking about freelancers in the ELT world, but I’m sure a lot of people can identify with her opening statement. There are two main scenarios that cause stress: Too much work, and not enough work. Whether we’re overloaded with work or facing a bit of a drought on the work front, the result is the same: We worry. 

As Rachael said, especially freelancers need to make sure that they stay visible and ‘market’ themselves and their skills in order to be offered further paid work in the future. And anyone worrying about facing a scarcity of paid work in the future, might end up spending a lot of ‘work’ time on the ‘getting your name out there’ side of things – or take on too much work in the present to earn enough money for potential low periods in future. A bit like bulk buying loo roll! (That’s my comparison, don’t blame Rachael!)

I think we can all agree that this situation can cause us stress. 

Now, as Rachael reminded us, the impact that stress has on our brains and bodies is not negative per se. I mean, we evolved to feel stress for a good reason! Stress, and the hormones it makes our bodies release, is helpful for getting things done. It’s the body’s “fight or flight” response to situations perceived as a threat. So stress can help us to ‘step up’ and deal with these short-term challenges (or ‘threats’) we’re facing. However, this biological reaction is most beneficial when it is temporary. Once you’ve fought or flown from the threat, the brain and body should go back into non-stress mode.

What I guess most people mean when they say they’re “stressed”, though, is that this temporary biological reaction to challenges has ceased to be temporary! Chronic stress seriously impacts on our  physical and mental health. It can lead us to be forgetful, indecisive or really irritable, or to have trouble sleeping or maintaining our weight. In my experience, it can sometimes feel like chronic stress swallows us up and prevents us from seeing options for improving the situation. We can’t see the way out for all the loo roll, so to speak. 

And it’s here that Rachael’s talk offered very useful, practical advice for us all. Let me summarise.

  • Try to avoid taking on too much in the first place. We need to carefully consider our options and do our calculations before taking on work. Rachael mentioned a few traps to try to avoid:
    • Our natural bias makes us focus on the benefits of a current opportunity rather than the costs, such as time and energy invested and missing out on the benefit(s) of any other work we won’t be able to do if we take on this current job. Rachael suggests carefully tracking your hours and pay over time to help you make more informed decisions.
    • Another natural bias makes us think we can do more work, more quickly than we realistically can. Again, Rachael suggests keeping track of how long things really take and using that information to help us make decisions in future and hopefully avoid this bias. 
    • Don’t fully book yourself with ‘actual work’ – remember that you’ll need time for admin, meetings and self-marketing, etc. as well. If you don’t plan for this, it will basically be done during unpaid overtime hours.
  • Develop good time management strategies. Using your time effectively not only helps you to get everything done that you need to, but helps you to feel on top of things and prevent overwhelm. Here are some concrete strategies Rachael suggests:
    • Make a to-do list so that you don’t try to keep all of your tasks in mind all the time. Try to separate out task types and break large tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks to go on your list. 
    • Prioritise and aim to spend more time on important but not urgent tasks, then you’ll have dealt with these things before they become urgent. 
    • Use your “Prime time” effectively – everyone has a time of day when they can concentrate and think best: don’t use that prime thinking time for unimportant things like admin or things that could be delegated or postponed; do those at times when your energy levels are low.
    • Don’t multitask, but focus on one task for a block of time – especially important things which require focus and cognitive energy. Rachael particularly recommended starting the day with a ‘block’ of important but small tasks, or first doing the tasks which you feel least like doing. 
    • Use apps to help you stay focused and to reward yourself when you do. For example pomodoro apps, or website blockers.
  • Learn to manage your energy as well as your time.  Rachael explained this much better than I can. She reminded us of the need to achieve a balance between things that motivate us, threaten us and soothe us. This can best be achieved through rest, rewarding play, and exercise. 
  • Just stop. If you’re struggling with something and feeling overwhelmed, or if you’re trying to work but not getting anything done. Stop, rest and recharge. 

I think all of us who attended Rachel’s talk felt inspired and better armed to avoid overwhelm after listening to her calmly present these tips and justifications for them. Definitely better able to deal with the million ‘tabs’ that are open in our brains, without overdosing on loo roll!

I hope that this summary helps even more people feel less stressed. And maybe also inspires you to hear more from Rachael, for example over at her website:

Writing/Working at home – Less is more

Writing/Working at home – Less is more

I’ve been working from home for exactly a month now. I’ve left the house about five times in that period and during the day I’m on my own here. I’ve been inundated with emails from students and colleagues, and phone calls and online meetings, as you’d expect. But just over a week ago, I noticed that what I’ve really been doing is just working non-stop but still not getting very far. I started in the mornings when I would leave the house to drive to work (7 am) and basically work through until around 5.30 pm, but somehow most evenings I just didn’t feel like I had got much done,  and sometimes ended up thinking about work all evening – and even dreaming about it! I spent so much time working or thinking about work, but I realised that I wasn’t working very effectively and I wasn’t taking care of myself so that my brain would be fit enough for all of the new challenges that online and distance teaching bring with them. 

I’ve been preparing materials for a semester which is going to start on Monday but looking back over them I was quite disappointed with my performance. So, I stopped to take stock and figure out what I would need to do to keep myself from burning out whilst working at, and teaching from, home this term. In this post I’d like to share some of the ideas that I’m trying out and that seem to be working for me. Maybe they’ll be helpful for other people to! The overall motto is: less is more!

First of all, I’ve tried to limit the number of hours spent doing work things to the same number I would work at work. And quite honestly, even with my full-time EAP teaching position it’s probably only about six real hours of effective work I do per day on average. So that’s what I’ve set myself for this period of working full-time at home. I have to say I’m not really strict with myself on this and some days I do half an hour longer or so. But still far less than from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. In this case, slightly less is definitely more! At the absolute latest once my husband gets home I shut the computer down – even if that means stopping in the middle of something. At least I know straight away where I’m going to pick up the next morning! 

I’ve read a bit about pomodoro technique and so on, and I realised that I had been trying to multitask, letting myself get distracted by every email as it came in and basically not focusing so well on the lesson plans and materials I was writing. What I do now during my self-imposed 6-hour working day is set a timer, shut down my email program and turn my mobile phone onto completely silent. I usually go for about 90 minute blocks and not start until about 8 am in the morning. I do two blocks in the morning and one in the afternoon, plus checking emails and and talking to colleagues on the phone. Some people and techniques recommend shorter chunks than this – I don’t know if less is more here; perhaps it depends what you’re working on. But working for concentrated blocks of time has really helped me to stay concentrated, and, looking back over the plans and activities I have written, there is a much clearer linking thread through a lesson or a material, so that saves me time having to edit later. This is definitely something I can recommend and I’m going to carry on doing.

In between those blocks I take breaks away from the desk and try to do something completely different. I do a little bit of cleaning, some colouring, or some exercise like yoga, hula hooping or a stint on the elliptical trainer (and then shower!). For me, doing especially exercise in shorter sessions helps me to get motivated to actually do it! (There it is again, less is more!). And I have even found that, during some rather monotonous activities like colouring or or on the trainer, that’s when some of my best ideas come to me. I sometimes also use that time to make a mental to-do list or plan for my next 90-minute work block. Sometimes I just do laps of my garden looking at the spring blossoms, the fish in the pond, or get lost in my thoughts. I also walk around the house when I’m on the phone to colleagues, which means I’ve easily got my 10,000 steps per day in most days since I started working from home, often without even noticing it! I’m sure the physical movement is also helpful for getting oxygen to my brain to work more effectively! 

Some days (if I’m feeling particularly restless),I let myself have a little quiet time after lunch. I usually just lie down and listen to some music to get my mind off of work tasks. Of course, occasional thoughts about work do sneak in, but somehow in a less hectic way. And sometimes I get flashes of inspiration during these little rests.

In the evenings and at the weekend I take a complete break from working at the computer. I try to do activities that are completely different from my work for example baking, gardening, puzzling or watching TV. And of course catching up with friends on the phone, etc. If the weather is nice I tried to spend as much time outdoors as possible, even if it’s just reading a book in the garden. I’m pleased to say that this has really helped me to stop thinking and worrying about work stuff at the weekend. And sometimes when I get back to the computer on Monday a task that felt so challenging or where I felt I had got stuck the week before suddenly seems a lot easier or more manageable. I learnt and from previous mental health issues how important weekends are, and I think I had maybe lost sight of that a bit. But now that I have reclaimed my weekends and completely work free, I’m much more able to produce better work during the times that I am at the computer.


So, as a quick re-cap and handy list, here are my tips for working more effectively at home:

– Stick to a (limited) number of working hours per day.

– Break these working hours into timed blocks during which you’re not distracted.

– Take breaks through the day and do things that are clearly different from your work. Do exercise, for example.

– Allow yourself some quiet time. Spend some time outdoors, for example.

– Do not let work encroach into your evenings or weekends. (Or, depending on your situation, set other clear days/times when you DO NOT WORK.)

– Do not beat yourself up about not having done a ‘perfect’ day’s work every day.


Looking after your voice

Looking after your voice

Alongside psychological issues, voice problems are a major cause of illness among teachers. 

I recently attending a workshop on how to look after your voice as a teacher (held by Frank Gutjahr at Universität Trier), and in the post I’d like to share the practical tips I heard. They’ll probably be relevant for anyone who does a lot of public speaking. 

Tip 1: Drink still water.

Here in Germany, people seem to be somewhat obsessed with sparkling water, but the carbon dioxide bubbles can irritate the vocal chords. I know a lot of people drink herbal or fruit teas, too, but even these can actually cause you to have a dry throat. Apparently, the best thing to drink if you need to speak a lot is still water. If you have a dry throat, try inhaling sage or sage essence in hot water.

Tip 2 : Breathe!

Our natural breathing rhythm consists of breathing in, breathing out, and a brief pause. During this pause, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax, which is why it is so important. If you try to rush your breathing rhythm and don’t pause between exhaling and inhaling, you’ll quickly get out of breath and have to strain your vocal chords and larynx to be able to speak loud enough. Also, this brief pause in your speech breaks what you’re saying into units of thought, which makes the content of your speech easier for your audience to understand.

It is important to use the muscles in your torso to push the air out when you exhale and speak, otherwise you put all the pressure on your voice box! You can practice breathing like this by singing along to a song – which will also warm up your speech apparatus. One of the best warm-up songs I’ve found is “What’s Up?” by 4 non blondes.

Tip 3: Warm up.

To ensure you articulate clearly, you need to warm up your speech apparatus – your jaw, lips and tongue. There are several funny exercises you can do to warm up. For example, use your tongue to ‘clean’ your teeth – stretch your tongue into the corners of your mouth and run it along the inside and outside of your teeth. Or, if you’re alone, poke your tongue out and try to paint circles in the air with the tip of your tongue. You can also make circular movements with your bottom jaw, as if you were chewing a big chunk of something! To warm up your lips, swap between grinning as widely as you can and pouting. Reading tongue twisters slowly and with exaggerated enunciation can also help, especiall yif you find ones that focus on vowel sounds. Repeat after me: “Roberta ran rings around the Roman ruins.”

Tip 4: Watch your posture.

Apart from being good for your back, good posture ensures that your lungs and diaphragm have enough space to ensure your natural breathing rhythm. Sitting or standing up straight, without over-straining, will mean that you can inhale more deeply and have enough air to speak loudly, and makes spaces for the muscles in your torso dto do their work! If you slouch, it can also mean that your breathing becomes audible, which makes you sound out of breath and distracts from what you’re saying!

In general, the most important tip I head from Frank Gutjahr is: Relax! If you’re preared and follow these tips, you’ll be able to speak well as a teacher, and protect your voice for all those lessons and speeches that are yet to come! And remember: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!


Stress Awareness Discussion Points #teacher5aday

Stress Awareness Discussion Points #teacher5aday

April is Stress Awareness Month – a perfect time for reflecting on your own well-being and how you tackle stress in your life and work!

The aim of this article is to raise awareness of some of the more theoretical work that has been done in the area of (tackling) stress and burnout, particularly among teachers, and to provide impetus for reflecting and discussing with colleagues. The post can be used to support stress awareness discussions in staff meetings and other developmental groups. If you’re unable to join a discussion in person, please add your comments and answers to the ‘Talking Points’ in the comments box below. 


One of the most widely used definitions of the complex construct of ‘burnout’ was developed by Maslach & Jackson (1981).  Their research explored the organizational contexts which often provide a background to burnout and similar syndromes, and they developed the multidimensional Maslach model, which includes emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a sense of reduced personal accomplishment as its three main symptoms. Maslach, Jackson & Leiter (1996) described these symptoms of burnout in more detail. Emotional exhaustion is linked to feelings of anxiety and fatigue, for example, and a general feeling that one’s emotional resources are depleted. Highly correlated with exhaustion is depersonalization; the development of negative or cynical perceptions of others. The third aspect, reduced personal accomplishment, refers to dissatisfaction and prevailingly negative self-evaluation regarding professional activities.

This model of burnout and the self-diagnosis tool derived from it, the ‘Maslach Burnout Inventory’ (MBI) (Maslach & Jackson, 1981), have promoted a vast amount of research over the last few decades, and many studies have shown the MBI’s reasonably high internal consistency and test-retest reliability, and as well as good levels of validity, both concurrent and predictive.

TALKING POINT: Have you ever experienced any of the symptoms of burnout (in bold in the text above), or other negative effects of stress? Have you ever noticed any of these symptoms in your colleagues? How did these symptoms manifest themselves concretely in your life? What would you advise other teachers to watch out for when it comes to catching burnout symptoms early enough to do something about?


A strong sense of well-being, then, is the positive antithesis of burnout; something we should all strive for. The term ‘well-being’ is used to imply a sense of balance between being under-stimulated and overwhelmed, with regard to various facets of life. Holmes (2005), for example, denotes four intrinsic sub-categories of well-being: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Physical well-being starts with the absence of illness, and extends to being in good physical shape. For an individual’s emotional well-being, they need to be able to suitably handle the emotions they feel and apply this to maintaining healthy relationships with others. Within Holmes’ definition, intellectual, or mental, well-being involves having a positive attitude to developing both personally and professionally. And finally, spiritual well-being is the ‘ability to be constructively self-conscious and self-critical when a sense of greater good is being pursued’ (Holmes, 2005, p.10). This four-category definition of well-being provides a useful framework for any work or discussions pertaining to well-being training and awareness.

TALKING POINT: What do you do to maintain or improve your own well-being?  What do you do to help others maintain or improve their well-being? How do these activities relate to the four categories in Holmes’ definition? Did you choose these activities deliberately to counteract stress? What activities would you recommend to other teachers?




Holmes, E. (2005). Teacher well-being: Looking after yourself and your Career in the classroom. London & New York: Routledge Falmer. 

Lee, R.T. & Ashforth, B.E. (1990). On the meaning of Maslach’s three dimensions of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75(6), pp. 743-7. 

Maslach, C. (1982). Burnout: The cost of caring. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Maslach, C. & Jackson, S.E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behavior, 2. pp 99-113. 

Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E. & Leiter, M.P. (1996). Maslach burnout inventory manual (3rd edition). Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists press.


It’s the simple things in life…

It’s the simple things in life…

Many teachers have just started a new teaching term, maybe a new job in a new school, or teaching new students. And we all know the statistics on just how many teachers suffer from stress and burnout. I know this first hand! 😦

And so I thought it might be a nice idea to share simple little things that you, teachers or anyone, can do to look after your well-being and avoid burnout, depression, etc.  Before you turn to the drink in the photo above!! These are ‘tried and tested’ tips of mine, which are also based on some research findings on easing stress and depression. 

So, my CHALLENGE for you, (if you’re the kind of person who likes challenges, otherwise, they’re just ideas!), is to try out some of these simple things and let me know how it goes and how helpful it is for you!

 – Try out cooking something from a new recipe.

 – Paint / draw / colour a picture. 

 – Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and listen to music. 

 – Open the window, stick your head out, and take deep breaths for a few minutes. 

 – Get photos printed and make an album or scrapbook. Or frame one for your desk!

 – Plant up a pot of colourful flowers.

 – Find an inspirational quote and design a postcard with the quote on. 

– Take a bath, or go to the sauna/whirlpool/spa, and don’t take a book etc with you!

 – Go for a walk and take photos of everything beautiful you see.

 – Send a friend or colleague a surprise card/present.

 – Tidy up your desk. 

  – Share you ‘simple things in life’ tip as a comment below or on Twitter: @Clare2ELT

11 Things

11 Things

So… I’m really slow and have only just discovered this blog challenge from a couple of years back! But I think it’s a great chance to use my blog from some professional networking, so I’m joining in anyway, and hope that I can somehow revive it!!

Here’s the challenge:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated.

And here goes:

1) I don’t actually know Kevin, whose blog I nicked this idea from, but stumbled across his his 11-things challenge whilst reading another post. And so he didn’t actually nominate me. Here’s the link to his:

2) 11 random facts about myself:


One:  I have A-levels in French, German, Psychology and Contemporary Dance. I “only” got a B in French, though, and cried on results day.

Two: I’ve lived in Germany for 9 years and still import British tea-bags!

Three: My younger brother travels around the world to watch England play football, but he has never been to visit me in Trier


Four: I used to work at Greggs Bakers, and still always eat a Cheese & Onion Pasty whenever I’m back in the UK!

Five: I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a teacher – as a kid, I used to line up my teddies and dolls and teach them by writing on my little chalk board! 😀

Six: I am blessed and very grateful to have very supportive parents, who have never doubted my life choices, are so proud of everything I’ve achieved, love me unconditionally, and don’t seem to mind that I’ve set up home in a foreign country.

Seven: I’m also very bless to have such a great partner who is behind me no matter what, understands my passion for teaching and my general madness, supported me through burn-out and depression, has seen me at my worst and has still recently asked me to marry him!

Eight: I still like to go out partying, getting dress up, dancing IMAG0611the night away, enjoying a few cocktails, singing some karaoke, and generally not behaving the way people in my village think a woman of my age should!! I still feel too young to have children. And anyway… I’ve got parents-(nearly)-in-law instead!

Nine: Some of the best support and inspiration for my teaching has come from people with less teaching experience than me. (As opposed to what I always expected – experienced colleagues, ‘big names’, textbooks, etc.)

Ten: I have recently decided that the PhD route is probably not for me, but I would like to move into materials writing for ELT / EAP. I’ve started out by reviewing some textbooks, like here: and sharing some of the worksheets I’ve made, like here     I’m still waiting / looking for my big break though…

Eleven: This list was the hardest things I’ve had to compose in a long time. I’m sitting here wondering who will read it and/or care. But at least I’ve made it to number 11!

3) Kevin’s 11 Questions:

One: What’s your earliest memory of using the internet?

AOL chat rooms after school in an internet cafe!

Two: What games did your grandparents used to play as children?

Well what I used to play with my nans was tiddly-winks, connect four, ludo, and, when we were a bit older, Mastermind! Ah, tiddly winks reminds me of one of my first posts on here:

Three: Who is your favorite social theorist and why?

I’ve never thought about having one. But I supposed I could say Karl Marx, as I live in his birthtown!

Four: What are three teaching/learning beliefs that you hold dear?

 – A teacher is not better at everything ever than the students; and both can learn from each other.

 – The deepest learning happens without a teacher.

 – A certain level of challenge keeps the classroom alive.

Five: What’s one life lesson you’ve learned from a student?

There’s so much support out there, so many people willing to help, if you just ask.

word cloudSix: What’s your favorite teaching tool/object and why?

The old-fashioned over-head projector. Because it’s quick and easy, and you can face the students whilst writing on it. You can use different colours. You can prepare transparencies in advance and write on them during the lesson. And because in most of the classrooms here, the alternative is a chalk board!

Seven: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Hopefully with my name on a new published ELT book! 🙂 But still doing this amazing job that I love!

Eight – 2008 : iphone :: 2058 :

Worryingly, I guess by then we’ll all have implants which communicate everything about us to anyone else who might want to know it. Or, we might have got sick and tired of technology and gone back to basics? Here’s hoping!

Nine: If you could eliminate one of your five senses to substantially strengthen the others, which one would you choose to eliminate?

Definitely sense of smell. I think you can manage your everyday life pretty well without smelling things. And nice things like memories can also be saved and triggered by images, touches, sounds, etc.

4) List 11 bloggers

James –

Joanna –

Sandy –

Nathan –

Rachael –

Hanna –

Gemma –

Jennifer –

Dan –

Zhenja –

Anna –

Image credit: Pixabay

5) Questions for nominated bloggers (and anyone else who fancies answering!)

One: How are you feeling today?

Two: What book is closest to you as you write this? And would you recommend it to others? Why (not)?

Three: What’s your top tip for de-stressing after a hard day at work?

Four: Have you ever learnt any foreign languages? How has this helped you be a better language teacher?

Five: Describe your teaching style by comparison to an animal, and explain the similarities!

Six: What are your areas of specialism & expertise within ELT / teaching, and your strengths as a teacher?

Seven: Which are the most recently used smiley/emojis on your mobile phone/whatsapp or instant messenger programme?

Eight: What was the most recent photo you took?

Nine: Where are you based, and would you recommend working there to others?

Ten: What’s your best memory of a lesson you’ve taught?

Eleven: What would you like to say to me, now that I’ve nominated you for this challenge?!

Beating Burnout & Avoiding Stress: Top Tips from/for Teachers

It’s such a big topic, we hear about it all over the place: Burnout. Sadly, though, few people seem to take it seriously and build up strategies to prevent themselves becoming Burnout’s next victim. I learnt this the hard way. And once I admitted to myself that I was suffering, I started to ask others for tips and advice. The diagnosis ‘burnout’ was the most helpful step for me, but for anyone who’s feeling stressed or pressured, I decided to collect some tips especially from & for teachers, to help us all to beat burnout and avoid stress taking over our lives! Here’s the collection – feel free to add you own ideas in the comments box below!

Martyn, a Deputy Head Teacher from Alton (GB), keeps busy with his family, doing “Footie training with my girls Monday night, Running, Gymnastics Thursday with the girls, Ballet and tap Saturday” [don’t know if ballet/tap are Martyn himself or the girls…?!]

Gemma, an EAP/EFL tutor working in St Gallen (Switzerland) says: “To prevent work taking over my life – I have detailed ‘to do’ lists for each day, that way I can see how I’ll fit in not only planning for classes but also PD activities such as reading blogs, going on twitter etc, as well as non teaching activities such as exercise. This stops me feeling overwhelmed and ensures I always include non-work related activities. I try to manage my work so I don’t work at weekends, or if I do limit it to a few hours. That way I can have at least a good day and a half break. After a stressful day or week at work I usually try and do some reflective practice – journal writing for example to help me think everything through a bit more clearly. This also helps me finish the day/week on a more positive note and helps me to set goals for the next class. … After a stressful day or week at work I usually try and do some reflective practice – journal writing for example to help me think everything through a bit more clearly. This also helps me finish the day/week on a more positive note and helps me to set goals for the next class.”

Joanna, an online Business English teacher based in Crete (Greece), agrees: “It is very easy to get lost in your work, especially as an online teacher. That is why I always try to do things that will allow me to decompress or avoid burnout. I like to paint because when I paint I am so focused on what I am drawing that I zone out. I also make sure that I do things outside the house like pay bills offline or workout. I am a big planner and I actually even plan fun things to make sure I don’t spend the whole day inside working on my computer!!”

Danielle, a university lecturer in Germany, sent me a link to this article on Scientifcally Proven Ways to Have a Better Day.

Mark, based in Bath: “I’m principal of Kaplan International English in Bath and do little in the way of teaching these days, unfortunately. Previously I was a teacher in Madrid for 10 years, then DoS for 6 years at the school where I currently work. I always found it harder to maintain a healthy work/life balance as a teacher than I do now – I suppose this is because there is no limit to how carefully and meticulously a teacher can plan and prepare lessons. Perhaps it’s also because CELTA courses tend to obsess over lesson preparation and give new teachers the idea that a lesson’s effectiveness is proportional to the amount of preparation which goes into it. In my experience this is anything but true! So my advice to teachers now, in order to combat stress, would be to not hang all your expectations of a lesson on a particular fixed outcome. Have an intended learning outcome in mind when planning a lesson, but at the same expect the actual learning outcomes to be different. Embrace uncertainty in the classroom, and enjoy/relish the unpredictability of the learning process rather than attempt to contain it. Stress in any walk of life is the result of a failure to accept what IS and instead fixate on the gap between reality and how your mind feels things SHOULD BE. And join a gym! I took up Cross Fit a year or so ago and it’s been a life-changer in many ways – you can’t lift weights safely while you’re worrying about concept checking questions for tomorrow’s elementary class!”
Kate, a Critical Reading & Writing Instructor at the University of Toronto (Canada) provides some tips especially for teachers: “Don’t grade everything; some tasks can just be practice. Put clear limits on how much feedback you will give on an assignment. Don’t check work email at home. Remember Liz Gilbert’s advice: Done is better than perfect. Find ways to transfer work to the students, e.g. If you don’t have time to write a full model outline of a text, have students work in groups to finish it during class. And in general, get enough sleep. Drink enough water and coffee. Exercise. Make art. Say no to things that don’t make you excited.”
Beci, a Freelance English Trainer, based in France first told me “I’m not sure I can say much that’s positive in that respect I’m afraid as I don’t manage to manage stress and my work-life balance is pretty disastrous!! Keeping a healthy work-life balance as a teacher is a real challenge. I am self-employed, so I teach in four different schools: sometimes 3 in one day. I am lucky in that they are all pretty close together, but that’s still pretty hard to manage at times as it means having to juggle different working styles, student needs, systems of evaluation, etc. It also means that I have to carry my office on my back like a tortoise, which means that my home is overrun with folders and homework and textbooks. I try to keep everything in one place in my office and not to let it spread around the house and “infect” (is that too strong a word?!) the other rooms. And being a teacher also means working evenings and weekends, of course, which doesn’t help!” But then she also came up with this: “Since the birth of my daughter, I have found that I no longer have the energy to stay up until 1am planning or marking, strange as that may sound. It has forced me to be more organised and to squeeze marking and prep into any moments of downtime I might have between lessons. I suppose I manage stress by trying to have time to myself. I ride which means I get to spend time outside with my horse, again, sometimes between lessons, I try to have a 20 min break where I just sit with her and try not to think about work. Of course this very time-consuming hobby is also a big commitment and not always as relaxing as it sounds..! Every year I say I must take on less work, and every year I find something new to take on, so I must love teaching, despite the stress. I really enjoy the time I spend in the classroom with the students. I suppose the students, depsite being a huge source of stress at times, are really the only thing that keeps me sane!!”

Larissa, based in Portlang (USA), for whom this topic is so important, she wrote this long, but very helpful text for me: “We’ve all seen the effects of stress. We get irritable. We get sick more often. We are more likely to have a negative attitude about ourselves and others. Our relationships suffer. And we don’t think as clearly about our work. Often times, it’s simply priorities and boundaries that are the differences between a chronically stressed teacher (or any person) and one who is enjoying his or her days with a little more ease.By priorities, I mean that it’s important to prioritize yourself and your needs. We too often put our self-care on the back burner while attending to the needs of our jobs, students, families, friends, colleagues, animals, homes, cars, and so on. If we see ourselves as just as important as the rest, we will treat ourselves with more care. Imagine you are your best friend who you love dearly. What advice would you give him? Give and follow that same advice for yourself.

By boundaries, I mean knowing when to say no and knowing when to say yes! Many of us, particularly women, don’t believe it’s okay to say no. Guess what? Sometimes, it is! What a relief, right? So feel free to say no to being on a third committee, or say no to going out to dinner with your friends when all you really need and want is a hot bath and a good book (or, gasp, a t.v. show) after your long week.

One example of how I say “no” in my work is this: I structure my classes so that I can say no to students taking make up tests, quizzes, or exams without it being catastrophic for their grades if they miss a quiz. (Of course, if they miss the final exam, they usually can’t pass the class. In rare cases, I will make an exception for a student who has approached me in advance with a provable, unavoidable, legitimate reason for needing to schedule the final exam at a different time.) I used to allow for make-up tests, but I saw how many extra hours a term this cost me. And I also noticed that when I stopped allowing for make-up tests, students really showed up on test and quiz days! Those who didn’t were almost always those who weren’t passing anyway. You may not agree with this, and that’s perfectly okay. Maybe this isn’t something you’d feel comfortable saying no to. The point is to give an example of how you, with boundaries around how you use your time professionally, you can free up more time for grading, sleeping, eating, and other important things. Speaking of grading, there is another way I save time for myself as a teacher. I don’t collect and grade every weekly quiz (if I’m giving a weekly quiz in a class, which can take hours a week to grade depending on how many students there are, how long the quizzes are, and how many classes I’m teaching that term). So I mix it up. For example, in the advanced reading class I taught last term, I told students at the beginning of the term that there would be a vocabulary quiz each week on the novel they were reading and a short chapter quiz each week on the text book. I also told them that some weeks, I would collect the quizzes, and other weeks, they would correct them themselves and not be graded, and other weeks, there might be no quiz at all (even though the prepared for it). I reminded them that what is most important here is learning, not a test. So if they studied and were prepared, they are doing great. The weekly quizzes are a significant part of their grade, so they take them seriously. The way that this serves students (and not just me) is that it keeps them on their toes when it comes to quizzes. They are curious about what will happen when they come to class that day. Quiz? No quiz? Graded quiz? Not graded quiz? It takes some of the monotony out of weekly assessments. The reactions to “No quiz today!” are sometimes hilarious.

Some key ways to prioritize yourself and use boundaries to have a less stressed and more balanced life are these: Say yes to enough sleep! Say yes to pampering yourself at least once a week (and a tiny bit every day) – in whatever way this works for you. Make yourself as important as your students and the rest of your job. And act accordingly. When you’re a happier, calmer, healthier you, you will be a clearer thinker, more creative, and a more supportive presence in the classroom.

Lastly, frame of mind is critical when it comes to reducing stress. I have two pieces of advice for you. First, imagine there is no such thing as a problem. There are only different types of circumstances. When you stop using the “problem” language, you change your subconscious reactions. Some examples of problem language are, “That’s a problem!” or “This is the worst situation ever.” When you don’t judge a situation as problematic, and you just see it as another situation or set of circumstances to be handled (or not), you are less likely to react and activate a stress response in your body. You can allow some ease around it. Your shoulders can relax. You can breathe easier. Second, let go of your vice-like grip on ideas, people, beliefs, and things. That grip creates tension and stress and the illusion of problems. For example, you can love and be proud of your best friend. But ease your grip on him. Enjoy him. Have normal, human attachment. But don’t cling to him with your thoughts or actions. If he wants to move away or gets a new friend he spends time with, you will have much healthier thoughts and less stress regarding the situation if your care is strong and your grip is loose. This same idea applies to everything. Have and care about these things, but let go of your vice grip on your identity as a teacher (you’ll be surprised how freeing it is), your judgments of others and yourself (so important), grudges against those who’ve done you wrong, future plans, stances in an argument with anyone, your favorite travel mug you can’t find. You can still accomplish everything and have healthy attachments without holding onto every thought and thing you care about for dear life. In fact, you will be less rigid, nicer to be around, and more able to flex with situations in the classroom and in life, which we all know rarely go according to plan – no matter how attached we are to said plan.”

Do one thing every day that’s not work.

This is not a challenge; you don’t need to tip water over your head, take a photo of yourself with a sign, or post anything at all if you don’t want to! This is about YOU. And it’s just my suggestion of a small first step in making sure work doesn’t take over your life.

I’ve borrowed the title from adapting the lyrics of Baz Luhrmann’s “Class of 99” – where he sings/says: Do one thing every day that scares you!

This may sound dramatic but it is a serious danger in the teaching profession. More and more frequently, I read newspaper articles, blogs, etc. about the lack of work-life balance teachers are having to live with. This doesn’t seem to be limited to any one country or system; it seems to me that there’s something about the teaching profession and the kind of people who become teachers that makes burn-out an inherent risk. That probably sounds more negative than I mean it to! I just have the impression that, especially in places were teachers are poorly paid, most of the people who have (nonetheless) chosen to pursue this career do so out of a motivation to help, share, inspire, and so on. We want to do our best for our learners/students. And since a lot of our work (preparation, marking, etc.) necessarily takes place outside of the classroom, it’s all too easy for it to spill over into our homes, our evenings, our weekends, and so on. And it can start to take over, if we’re not careful. Yes, I speak from experience.
And so I try to live by the motto of “Do one thing every day that#s not work”. This may sound really easy for you. For others less so. But a lot of it is to do with noticing, re-categorising how we see things in our minds. For example: cooking dinner. Yes, you’ve got to eat, and that generally involves cooking something. But by mentally noting the time you stopped working, and enjoying focussing on the tears the chopped onions provoke, the smell of the chicken in the oven, the creamy consistency of the sauce, or whatever, and categorising ‘cooking dinner’ into something positive that you have achieved today, you’ve already changed your mindset from eating being something to squeeze in between marking essays and planning tomorrow’s lesson. Win!
Here are some other things I do which I count as my “one thing”:
– gym
– phoning a friend for a chat
– watching a film
– writing a blog post
– baking a cake (sharing with colleagues the next day can count as another “one thing”! 🙂 )
– paying bills online
– cleaning the bathroom
Some of these may sound silly and not very fun. But the aim is to make yourself consciously aware of something that you have done that was not related to work – this tiny change can make all the difference in times of stress. Of course, the bigger the “one thing”, the better you will feel, and I would suggest that if your “one thing” is paying bills five days in a row, then you maybe need to get help! But as I said, this is one small step in preventing work from taking over entirely.
I was writing this and thinking of starting the hashtag #onethingELT so that we can all share our “one things” – I can imagine that sharing makes the experience even more rewarding! Then I discovered #teacher5aday the more advanced version, let’s say, where teachers (not only ELT) are encouraged to five things per day: notice, connect, learn, exercise, volunteer. See here for more details.  You can choose which hashtag you use; I’ll see both. And I look forward to sharing and inspiring each other. Let’s beat burn-out together!
Another way to make it rewarding is to use an app like photo365 where you take a photo of your “onething” each day and make a collage to be proud of!

Baz Luhrmann also sings: “The race is long and in the end, it’s only with yourself!” So look after yourself, and you’ve already won!

How to get started on #teacher5aday

This is such a great idea and I can’t find enough ways of sharing it! I know so many of us teachers who are actually already suffering from stress and sometimes some pretty severe consequences! It seems to me that we can’t expect too much help from outside (from governments/public who think we all have too much holiday, or from institutions who are only interested in meeting targets or making money) and so we have to help ourselves! And this is a brilliant inspiration to do so! I’m so glad that I have come across this idea, albeit rather late! But it’s never too late to start looking after yourself and protecting your well-being at work! Some of the suggestions on the list are things that I/you/we might already be doing, but categorising them mentally in a new framework highlights how good they are for me/you/us, and brings a whole new level of satisfaction/sense of achievement into the frame. Brilliant idea – thank you, and keep sharing!!

27 years a teacher

The start of #teacher5aday – different sides of the same coin

Happiness is on the rise globally, according to an end-of-year survey of 64,000 people in 65 countries.

The launch of #teacher5aday has contributed very positively to my happiness this month. Lots of support and positive feedback for the initial idea shared here A number of #well-being superheroes have shared their ideas about how they will start looking after themselves more and therefore look after their students as well.

There is also a collection of #Nurture1415 blogs, a great idea from @ChocoTzar in which people review last years achievements, and talk about their hopes for this one.

In January I hope that teachers will continue to discuss their well-being either as a tweet (daily / weekly) or via a blog. Using the ideas shared in the links above or the John Muir framework below I’m hoping…

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