Getting over barriers: why it can be hard to change

Kathryn Lovewell, author of 'Every Teacher Matters; inspiring well-being through mindfulness' offers these top tips to keep your energy high and your focus sharp throughout your teaching day:

Stress

Don't argue with reality.

There is no point complaining and whining if that generates additional stress for you. Remember, if you argue with reality /-/ you'll only lose 100% of the time! A simple example /-/ "I can't believe it's raining again!" Can you change the weather? How harmful are your thoughts, expeidally if you repeat them again and again. Stop! Shift your focus to healthy, helpful thoughts. This will lift your energy instantly.

Assess what you can influence and what you cannot.

There are certain things you can affect in your teaching life and certain things you cannot. To master the art of keeping cool in school and remaining calm in chaos, identify what you can steer and what is out of your hands. You cannot control whether Jonny wants to listen to you, you cannot control if Sid sets off the fire alarm for a laugh. The only thing you can control is your response. You can not be on top of everything. Don’t expect that of yourself.

Take charge of yourself via your breathing.

If you are stressed, you are in a state of red alert. This is usually a recipe for confrontational exchanges, heightened emotional states and poor classroom management. Focus on your breathing to take charge of yourself. Do this before a lesson, during a difficult conversation and after a lesson. Seven slow deep breaths in followed by seven slower, deep breaths out will increase the relaxation response in your body and help you feel stronger instantly.

Smile.

To increase your relaxation response, take a deep breath, exhale and smile. This is my favourite technique. It is simple and no one need ever know you are using it. You can do a cheesy Wallace and Grommit grin or a subtle Mona Lisa smile - either way you will release endorphins that will help restore your sense of wellbeing. Don’t stop at one. Keep breathing and smiling. You might find yourself chuckling your way to the staffroom. And you may just brighten someone else’s day too when they see your smile.

Validate your own feelings.

Give yourself permission to feel all your feelings. Anger can drive you into action (I find I do the housework twice as fast if I’m cross) and can inspire you to stand up for justice. You are often justified to feel outraged or incensed.  You may feel powerless to change it or you may be able to take healthy action.  Either way, recognise what shows up, do not stuff it down. However, while you acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, you do not have to buy into them. If you feed them, they can eat you up. Instead, acknowledge and move on. 

Identify your options.

 One of the biggest causes of stress is the feeling of having no choice - that your back is against the wall, that you feel cornered. Remember, that is only stress talking. You always have choices. They may not be easy choices, but they are choices nonetheless. Be honest and assess what you can do to support yourself in that moment.

Talk it through.

If you are experiencing stress, especially because of bullying, talking about it can alleviate it immediately. Teacher Support Network is a starting point for personal support. Talking about issues can help you regain perspective.

Go outside.

Leave your classroom. Go outside during break times. Get some fresh air! Leave the school grounds. Walk the dog after school. Go for a walk around the park with a friend. The action of walking releases muscle tension while extra oxygen in the brain generates clearer thoughts.

Staying energised

Go Natural! Enjoy a cup of freshly squeezed hot lemon water first thing in the morning.  This is a great way to start your day.  Lemons boost your immune system, aids digestion and increases concentration.  It won’t shock your body like a strong coffee will.  It cleanses your liver and kidneys, helps remove toxins and it tastes great too!

Always have Breakfast!

  Breakfast is exactly that - breaking the fast.  Hopefully you’ve had a good long sleep and your body will be ready for refueling.  Make time to give your body what it needs.  You wouldn’t expect your car to start if you hadn’t put any petrol in it would you?  A hearty high protein breakfast (with veggies) may take a bit more time than a bowl of cereal, but it will give you tonnes more energy.  If you like to get into school early, having a hearty cooked breakfast may seem impossible, but a quick cup of coffee and a cereal bar just won’t cut it - you’ll want to eat your white board by break time!  Eggs are perfect, quick and easy to prepare and consume.  There are lots of high protein options and even if you don’t want to invest in a cooked sit down at home, you can always take some cooked chicken, veggie sausages or fish for breakfast at school.

Drink lots of Water.

You know the benefits of water.  Water will keep your brain and your body hydrated. Your tissues and organs are mainly made up of water. Muscle consists of 75% water, your brain consists of 90% water, bone consists of 22% water and your blood consists of 83% water.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why you feel better when you drink water regularly.  Keep sipping your bottled water throughout your day.  Your mind and body will thank you!

Take a Break at Break Time! 

I know I know, you’re thinking “you’ve got to be kidding” right?  For years my idea of a break at break time usually meant dashing to the loo if I was lucky!!  But that’s not good enough!  Stop!  Breathe! Go to the loo. Get a drink. Sit down and drink it.  Have a healthy snack and take some more deep breaths. And if you want to deliver a really stonking lesson after break – get some fresh air too!   Same goes for lunch!  Never miss a meal otherwise you’ll be grouchy teacher from hell if you don’t! 

Avoid Caffeine! 

Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others, but even if you feel you have a high tolerance, best keep your intake to a minimum as caffeine will increase stress on your body long term.  Try herbal teas as a gentle alternative to keep your body hydrated, balanced and relaxed.

Get Organised! 

Do your best to prepare healthy lunches for the week.  I know it feels like a right pain, but it will make your week easier if you know you’ve got the basics covered for your school day.  I make big batches of veggie Bolognese, red lentil stew and other delicious concoctions and freeze portions to ensure the whole family has something wholesome and hearty after a long day.  If I don’t get organised I can guarantee I’ll be reaching for the easy option - bung in the oven, zero effort pizza or other processed ready meals.  Not very nutritious.   Do yourself a favour and give your body supportive, nourishing foods.

Avoid sugary snacks and high carbohydrate meals. 

You know this one, but it’s sooooo easy to grab a biscuit or a bun on the run, especially in school where time is on hyper drive.  Be vigilant and invest time to ensure you have the right fuel to keep you energised and alert. Too much sugar or refined carbohydrates at one time can actually deprive your brain of glucose – depleting its energy supply and compromising your brain's power to concentrate, remember, and learn. Mental activity requires a lot of energy!

The Right Foods for the Best Outcome.

 My friend accidentally put petrol in her new diesel car.  Have you ever done that?  You can guess the result.  Bang went the engine.  You’re no different.  It may not be so immediate, but it will cause stress and fatigue, especially if it’s a chronic habit.  Give your heart and blood the right fuel to help keep your engine running smoothly.  Aim for a high alkaline foods such as green leafy veggies and keep acidic foods such as white bread, alcohol and soft drinks to a minimum.

Protein Snacks!

 Keep a protein snack with you at all times!  You never know how long that meeting after school may take. Travel packs of nuts and seeds are easy to carry, discreet and great for emergency nibbles.  You can buy in bulk to help the budget and decant your favourite mix into a Tupperware container.  Easy!

Eat Mindfully!

 This is best practice and one that I still have to consciously remember to do each meal.  Stop! Sit down. Breathe. Bring all your thoughts to your breath and your body.  Then pay attention to your lunch and slowly chew your food.  Thoughts may be flooding your mind – the hundreds of things you must prepare in the next 40 minutes, but just stop!  Be fully present with your food, notice how it tastes and enjoy the textures dancing around your mouth. If you can give yourself another minute or so, you may even like to immerse yourself in grateful thoughts for your delicious food and how fortunate you are to have it.  Even if you give yourself 5 minutes to be still, this is better than nothing and will undoubtedly recharge you on all levels.  You will be revitalized, refreshed and ready to deliver another great learning experience.

Learning to say no

Teachers can find it very difficult to say no. Think back to the reasons why teachers tend to take on more work. It can be difficult for teachers and tutors at any stage of their career to say no. Often you want to impress, you feel guilty about disappointing pupils, students or even colleagues and then there is the threat of capability procedures or redundancies. There could also be a genuine fear of conflict. If your workload is becoming a problem, you do need to find a way to say no. It is not easy and will take a lot of practice. Try these techniques:

Be Respectful.

“Thank you so much for asking, but…”
“I would really love to, but…”
“Normally, I would be happy to help, but…”

Have a clear reason.

Think of these ahead of time, so that you are not struggling to come up with a response on the spot.

“…but I am fully committed this term.”
“Unfortunately, I am not available.”
“My priorities this week have to be X and Y.”

Be honest. They need to be real reasons. Be brief.

Buy time.

Eventually, you will still need to say no.

“Can I get back to you on that?”

Suggest others.

By saying no, you might actually be giving someone else the opportunity to develop.

“I can’t do it, but how about x?”
“Have you thought about asking X?”
“I think that X would be very good at …”

It might also be useful to understand how people may react to have techniques to respond to them.

Seven distinct types of people and how to cope with them.

Know-it-alls

Symptoms: Apparently very confident, the condescension implicit in this behaviour is hard not to resent. A know-it-all may actually know what he is talking about, but can equally fake or falsify knowledge to maintain the same aura of invincibility. The know-it-all, however, usually brooks no opposition or admits any other opinion.

Coping: Be prepared is the key motto here: make sure that you have a solid grasp of all key facts. State your position in a less dogmatic, more open way but be careful with correcting errors: leave him a way of saving face. This coping strategy is, at first sight, submissive, but the aim is to get the over-confident person to accept you so that you can work together. Controlling a situation does not always involve being dominant.

Moaners

Symptoms: Complainers are usually easy to spot. They often are people who are very comfortable in the way they themselves do things but feel powerless to change the issue at hand. They may be very prescriptive, so that any deviation from their accepted norm is automatically a source of complaint. Complainers rarely offer solutions, however, as a solution may involve challenging their own perfection.

Coping: The best initial strategy is often to take the moaner at his or her own self-worth. Listen carefully to the complaint and summarise it back to show that you have understood it. You can then reflect the complaint back to the person by asking for solutions: “what do you want to happen?” “how would you handle this?” You therefore engage the moaner into the conflict resolution process and force the person to look for positive responses.

Procrastinators

Symptoms: Delay and indecision characterise the procrastinator, but this does not necessarily imply weakness. Apparently indecisive people can often have a particular solution in mind and they use stalling tactics until they get their way, or they may simply be unable to represent their actual position confidently. Such people may be highly sensitive to external opinion.

Coping: Procrastinators will often need your active support to make clear the reasons for their indecision. You have to work to make communication easy for the person and instil confidence that they will be heard. Try to avoid putting such a person on the spot: having drawn them out, work actively with the person toward a solution.

Bullies

Symptoms: Hostility, anger and selfishness are all qualities associated with the bully. They may be immediately apparent, or concealed behind civility and adherence to social norms. A bully’s attempts to assert dominance may sometimes take physical form.

Coping: Bullies try to overwhelm opposition, so you have to make your point cogently and with confidence but non-aggressively. Give them the opportunity to say their piece: let the bully run out of steam and take a more tractable attitude.

If you feel in physical danger, maintain eye contact and try to get the person seated. You will probably have to deal with the issue raised there and then. To that extent, the bully may be perceived as having got his or her way, but the key thing for you is to discuss rationally the point in a way with which you feel comfortable. Persistent or serious bullying is a form of harassment and is covered by legislation. If you have tried reasonable measures to cope with a bully and have had little or no success, you can take more formal action, either by yourself or with the help of colleagues. Keeping a record of your attempts to deal with the bully may be helpful later. If your school has an anti-harassment policy, you should read it before deciding the best action to take. With any such case, you can get guidance and support from Teacher Support Line and your union. Being on the receiving end of bullying behaviour is never pleasant and can be very stressful. You do not need to be alone as you consider your best options and develop your coping skills.

The quiet ones

Symptoms: These people handle difficult situations by shutting down, withdrawing all but the basic minimum communication methods. This can be aggressive as well as defensive behaviour, deliberately withholding a response to sabotage a process. The key difficulty is that because of the withdrawal of communication, you have less information on which to assess the behaviour and plan your tactics.

Coping: You need to provoke some sort of response, so you should ask open questions, ones which cannot be answered simply by Yes or No. You may need to invest a good deal of time in this process. When they finally do open up, engage with the person actively but sympathetically; let them steer for a while. If no response is immediately forthcoming, end the situation yourself and arrange another time for a meeting. Do let the person know what actions you intend to take as a result of the meeting.

Killjoys

Symptoms: Killjoys disagree with anything put forward, and sometimes even with the process itself. Often, such a person actively seeks to pick holes in whatever is presented, just for the sake of it. This person may have some personal issues, but in work-related cases, such an attitude is often linked to a feeling of powerlessness and disappointment.

Coping: The main strategy is to accept their pessimism while projecting optimism yourself. You can also raise potential problems and negative points yourself, so as to pre-empt negative comment. Make sure all points are discussed before promoting your own solution but ultimately, you may need to be prepared to take action on your own.

Nice people

Symptoms: Nice people cause difficulties too. Someone can be personally agreeable, apparently sincere and supportive, but will they deliver? For them, keeping everyone happy can be more important than dealing with solutions.

Coping:Since these people have a need to be liked, show that you like them. Then you can actually begin to address the issues. Often this means dealing with personal matters before the real issue at hand, such as enquiring after family. Often nice people make a lot of jokes, which can hide deeper issues, so listen carefully to them.

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