How to be a Happy Teacher by @TLPMsF

A couple of tips to remind us to be positive and happy...

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Rebecca Foster and published with kind permission.

The original posts can be found here and here.

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Tip #1 Smile

Teaching is an inherently stressful profession. It’s a lot like spinning plates. You’ll have one spinning beautifully but there’s no time to enjoy its mesmerising whirl because you have the others to attend to. Before you know it, you’re dashing maniacally up and down a line of plates on sticks desperately trying to avoid losing control – nobody wants to drop a plate and be left with the broken crockery of inadequate spinning.

Image by seanbjack (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Image by seanbjack (CC BY-ND 2.0)

I understand that all of the plates are important and that you are a very busy bee. You’re masterfully spinning: the behaviour plate; the half termly reports plate; the differentiation plate; the performance management plate… (I could go on). But if you want to be a happy teacher you need to somehow try and do it all with a smile on your face.

I don’t know when you last saw somebody actually spinning plates (have a look at Erich Brenn) but, the chances are, they were smiling. Part of that is probably the smugness of doing the practically impossible but part of it is because they’re entertainers. It’s not a new analogy but we teachers are performers too. If we want people to have confidence in us then we need to show that we have confidence in ourselves by smiling whilst we manage the very challenging role of being educators.

You might well now be asking how smiling through it all will make you a happy teacher? Good question. We know that when we’re happy we smile but does smiling make you happy? According to research the answer is yes.

In 2012 a study entitled, ‘Grin and Bear It: The Influence of Positive Facial Expression on the Stress Response’ was published in the Journal Psychological Science. A group of 170 participants were asked to complete stressful tasks whilst holding chopsticks in their mouths that either produced a Duchenne smile (think smiling eyes and mouth), a standard smile or a neutral expression. When participants were recovering from the stress they’d been put under, the smiley lot had (regardless of whether they were aware of smiling) lower heart rates, especially the Duchenne group. The study found that there were both physiological and psychological benefits to maintaining a positive facial expression during stress. Smiling is good for you.

So, if you’ve been feeling stressed – especially in the run up to exams – why not give smiling more a whirl. Even if you’re feeling like it’s the last thing in the world you want to do, smile. It might just make you a happier teacher.

Tip #2 Ring-fence some time

It is a truth universally accepted that the job of a teacher is never done. Trying to get to a stage where there is absolutely nothing more you could do for your students, your department or your school is an exercise in futility. If you let it, school work will seep into all of your evenings, your weekends and even your dreams. If you want to be a happy teacher, do yourself a favour and ring-fence some time for you.

What do I mean by ring-fencing? Essentially you protect a portion of time and treat it as sacred. No matter how busy school is, no matter how long your to do list, that time is for you to spend doing whatever it is you like to do to unwind (according to this piece in the Guardian, that might be anything from collecting shopping lists to sculpting but I rate sleeping pretty highly). Over the years I’ve tweaked the arrangement a bit but generally speaking I ring-fence one evening in the week and a whole day at the weekend. Maybe that’s why I’m still enjoying my career nearly a decade in. I love teaching but I have a life beyond the limits of my classroom.

Of course you have to be good at compartmentalising for this to work. If you spend all of your ring-fenced time worrying about the work you’re not doing, it’s all been for nothing. I’ll let you into a secret that might help you to let go and enjoy this work-free time… Giving yourself time to relax, and therefore less time to work, can actually make you more productive and efficient in the time that you do dedicate to working. Instead of feeling perpetually tired, and possibly resentful, you’re more likely to have a fresh head and a bit of enthusiasm.

All too often I see teachers burning themselves out. The received wisdom seems to be that it’s OK to work like a mad thing during term time because we’re all looking at the carrot dangling from the stick on the horizon – half term, Christmas, Easter, Summer  – and deferring our rest and recuperation*. The problem with this is that teachers often make themselves ill, and if not ill then miserable, by the end of the 6, 7 or even 8 weeks of term (Autumn Term is a killer). I certainly don’t want to spend my half term cradling a mug of Lemsip and waving my fists in the air at the injustice of it all. Attempting to get a work-life balance during term time will make you a happier, and healthier, teacher.

* A teacher at a school I taught at would, at the full staff meeting at start of every term, faithfully tell us how many teaching days we had left until the next break.

Rebecca Foster is an English teacher and soon to be Lead Practitioner. Keen amateur of the blogging/Twitter world.

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