December 13, 2013

Teachers and secondhand stress

Filed under: about me,deep thoughts,Teaching and Learning — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:07 am

We all do it, especially in December. We rush around, telling our colleagues and our students how busy we are and how much there is to “get done” before [insert your holiday or academic deadline here]. A recent Wall Street Journal article cautions against the spread of “secondhand stress.”

Uh-oh. Guilty as charged.

In the classroom, we let our own deadlines and work requirements spill onto the kids. If the Common Core changes or the latest iteration of high stakes tests have thrown our planning process out the window, the kids feel it.  If a change of school administration or a new teacher evaluation system has us on edge, we are probably just like the boss confronted in the article, “your volume goes up, your pace of speaking goes up, and you’re not fully in the conversation.” Just as a business environment incubates a contagion of secondhand stress, so can our classrooms (and schools). The kids cannot name it or explain why, but they feel some of the same responses the article describes from secondhand stress:

(#1) Have your elementary students started to take on your mannerisms in the way they talk to other students about “getting their work done”?

(#3)Has a parent ever told you their child was “afraid” to ask questions?

(#4)Has a student ever chased you down the hall on your way to your next class or duty?

(#2 +#5) Do your students throw away their own work? Have you ever found the papers/plan book from your desk in the wastebasket (most likely in middle school)?

Though the business world Sue Shellenbarger discusses in the article is an entirely different culture from school, there are glaring similarities. The faculty room can certainly be a stress-infection zone, teeming with the stress virus. And don’t think we don’t take the virus right down the hall to the kids.

So what do we do about it (and can technology possibly help ease the burden)?

1. Make our classrooms a community of learners instead of a boss-worker environment. Start with a wiki as a class “hub” and give ALL students access to edit it. Then show them how, valuing their additions by commenting on them and encouraging them to “discuss” things you say via constructive criticism. There are LOADS of collaborative tools you can use to build on community. Link to them from that one hub so they are easy to find.

2. Try a writing prompt taken from the WSJ article: “If I were a household appliance, which one would I be?” You may discover signs of secondhand stress — and will least learn something about each student. Be sure to write along with the kids and let everyone share what they have to say. If you have a class blog, that’s perfect.

3. Include prevention of secondhand stress in the class rules your class generates at the start of school.

4. Value and make time for questioning by someone other than you. Make a question page on the class wiki for kids to enter questions as they do homework. Give extra credit to kids who ANSWER them. Handle unanswered questions (and highlight great answers) at the start of class. Who should answer? Hopefully anybody EXCEPT you. Be willing to say, ” I did not realize that was so confusing. I learned from you!” Message: Questions are not “interruptions.” They are a valued part of learning for all of us.

“Yeah, yeah, I know that,” you say?  I am sure you do. Sometimes it just takes the observations of a peer (or student) to remind us that we are virulent spreaders of stress. Maybe there is a New Years resolution in here somewhere.


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