The technology of teaching, pt. 1

At the base of this job is the body. No, not the student body (though if it were not for a group of needful students, there would be no teachers.) I am focusing this post on the teacher’s physical body, his/her main machine, the vehicle through which he does anything, including teaches.

If a teacher’s health goes, it is a sad thing.  I’ve seen cancer and stroke and diabetes take good teachers whose bodies could not stand up against the disease. Of course, a lot of disease is related to DNA, and the teacher has no control over these kinds of illnesses. They are another ironic fact of existence.
But other diseases are tied to chronic stress, of which there is plenty in the teacher’s job. And since chronic stress is manageable, the teacher can stand up to, and even learn to dance with the constant pressures of the job. S/he can learn to thrive in the stressful place.  A new book published by ACSD, Mike Anderson’s The Well Balanced Teacher (2010) gives advice on how a teacher should look at job stress, and how s/he can manage it.

Anderson is honest about the inherent stresses of the job. As I’ve noted elsewhere in this blog (here, for instance), public school teachers are being asked to do continuously more with continuously diminishing time. Anderson comes right out and says it:  teachers are being asked to do the impossible. And if you want to stress anyone out, give him/her a job s/he can never come close to mastering. 

Anderson does a good job explaining potential toll of chronic stress on the whole system of relationships–on the teachers themselves, their friends and families, and their students:

More important than the actual monetary cost of illness and stress is the damage that can be done to our personal relationships. When we are overburdened with work, it can be hard to make enough time to spend with our friends and family. When our stress level is high, we may not be able to give them the full attention they deserve, or our mood may sour to the point where people don’t enjoy our company. If we allow our personal relationships to slip, it becomes even easier to retreat into our work, and the problem worsens. The added stress of strained personal relationships of course has a negative impact on our ability to be joyful and energetic at school, which can deepen the downward spiral. We must make time for friends and family, not just to enhance our own health, but also to maintain the good health needed to be great teachers.

Most important, we should care about our emotional health because of its effect on our students. This impact has become strikingly clear as I have watched my own children head off to school. Their moods and attitudes about school are largely shaped by their teachers’ energy and attitudes. When their teachers are relaxed, happy, and healthy, Ethan and Carly bound onto the bus each morning. When they have had teachers who are constantly stressed out or disconnected emotionally from their students, they are more anxious and less enthusiastic about school.

Anderson closes his first chapter with some helpful advice: stay in healthy equilibrium with the job. (The rest of his book promises to supply the prescription for getting there, which is why I will want to read this book.) His jet-liner cabin example is apt–when inevitable drops in pressure happen, one needs to take counter-measures to remain functional. Likewise, the teacher must not not let his/her pressure-drops affect him/her in the classroom (emphases mine):

Stressed-out and unhappy teachers mean stressed-out and unhappy children. What does a flight attendant explain when you are on the plane getting the safety prep before take-off? If there is a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall from above. You must first put on your own mask before you try to help someone else. If we try to put others’ needs before our own, not only will we not make it, but neither will the ones we are trying to help. Quite simply, you cannot give what you do not have. If we are to be healthy role models for our students and create happy, energetic, and safe learning environments, we must take good care of ourselves.

I am not alone in wanting to be happy, energetic, and safe for my students every day. In subsequent posts on the technology of teaching, I will reflect on what I have found works for myself and what I have observed works in teachers who are in it “for the long haul,” teachers who “dance” with the pressures, not get down from them. I do so because I would be one of these well-balanced teachers at the dance.

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