Our cups overfloweth. Literally, every day. We overflow with the stress of it all. As I talk with educators, children, and families throughout the day, I continually think back to how Heather T. Forbes illustrated the zones of stress tolerance in her book Help for Billy.
Our windows of stress tolerance look a lot like Billy’s right now. We have plenty of things causing stress in our lives and we have very little tolerance available for the additional stressors a day inevitably brings. I cannot tell you how many educators have started conversations with me recently by saying this, “I don’t even understand why this little thing is bothering me so much.” Well, I don’t pretend to know everything but I do know why those little things are pushing you to your breaking point. And it is not your fault, so quit adding blame and shame to the mix of bad feelings you are dealing with right now. Take a couple seconds and do this exercise for me–get a little more comfortable in your chair, relax your shoulders, take a deep breath, and as you are releasing the breath slowly say this to yourself: “I am doing the very best I can, and that is enough.”
Now that you are relaxed and you have stopped blaming yourself, let’s take a look at why even the little things seem so hard right now.
Way before the global pandemic struck, I created this graphic to apply the concept of the window of stress tolerance to teachers. Notice the small window of tolerance teachers had before they got to their breaking point, even pre-COVID. That window available for additional stress is filled with the unique challenges each day brings–an inconsolable homesick child in your classroom, a colleague who takes his/her emotions out on you, forgetting your lunch, spilling coffee on your white shirt, etc. Even back then, it wasn’t hard to get close to our breaking points.
We educators have huge hearts, which makes us wonderful role-models and caretakers for children, but it also means that we often put others before ourselves. We are fixers. We want to fix everything for everyone, even when it is out of our control. We take on the stress of others, so it is understandable that we get close to our breaking point on a regular basis. Now, take a look at that list above and mentally cross out all the things that have been taken off our plates now that so much has been added. If you are like us in Michigan, we cannot cross off one single thing. Not one.
Here is a COVID-world version of the Window of Stress Tolerance for Teachers. Nothing has been removed, but some big things have been added. And that small window of tolerance for the additional unique challenges of every day has been reduced to a teeny-tiny window. And that, my friends, is why the small things that we could easily brush off in the past are pushing us to the breaking point today.
Do not feel despair, because all hope is not lost. Understanding why we are feeling the way we are feeling does not equate to accepting it. There are things within our control that can help us widen that window of stress tolerance.
- We can remove some of the stressors ourselves. For instance, we can decide not to worry about achievement testing this year. Yes, this is coming from the mouth (well, keyboard) of a principal. We can do great teaching and students can do tremendous learning in our classrooms AND at the same time we can let go of the achievement norms we expected in the past. Let’s face it, we are educating children during a global pandemic and nothing is the same.
- We can prioritize our own wellness, both emotional and physical. We are stronger mentally and physically when we are taking good care of ourselves. A colleague and I were talking the other day about exercise being one of the first things to go when we are stressed out, yet it is one of the things we need to feel strong enough to handle our stress. I tend to eat my emotions, but in reality I feel empowered by eating healthy. We cannot do it all at once, and we certainly don’t want to set unrealistic goals that will backfire on us, but we can set one goal each week or each month that will help us take better care of ourselves. Here is a blog with some great ideas.
- We can celebrate small wins BIG TIME. You know how those small stressors seem overwhelming, but we easily ignore small wins? That is not fair. We deserve to feel big emotions with those small wins. Did you knock one thing off your to-do list today? YOU ROCK! Did you smile under your mask at your colleagues even though they can’t see your smile? WAY TO GO! Did you pause before firing back an email to an upset parent who has no idea how hard you are working? YOU HAVE THE PATIENCE OF A SAINT! Did you ask for help even though it is hard for you to do? YOU ARE WISE BEYOND YOUR YEARS!!!
- We can develop a mantra that helps us breath through the hard times. My mantra is, “I am enough.” I wear it on a ring on my finger and I say it to myself as many times as the day necessitates. It reminds me to not feel shame or guilt and to instead appreciate who I am while having an open heart and open mind. I know others who use mantras like, “I can do hard things” or “Good enough is good enough right now.” Looking for some mantra ideas? Check this out.
- We can focus on WHO we want to be rather than WHAT we need to get done. I do it too, I get caught up in playing “Whack-a-Mole” as I address the things that pop up throughout the day while thinking hopelessly of all the things I need to get done that are not getting done. When I do that, my patience runs thin and I make decisions too quickly. When I slow down and focus on the person I want to be for everyone around me and let go of the things I need to get done, I feel so much better about my interactions with everyone I encounter. And, somehow, I end up getting more done. It’s remarkable.
- We can wear our Emotions Deflectors. When we put on our Emotions Deflector before getting dressed for the day, others’ emotions bounce off us and right back to them. We know that our colleagues and our students will get to their breaking point periodically, and that some have more trouble with regulating their emotions than others. We don’t have to take on their emotions, however. The Emotions Deflector allows us to empathize with them but walk away from the interaction maintaining our own sunny disposition for the day. We work too hard to keep ourselves going to allow someone to steal our pleasant mood away.
If you have read all the way to this point of the post, please pause for a moment and give yourself a pat on the back. You are perfectly poised to take control of your window of stress tolerance because you have the will and determination, and now you have some additional tools. YOU are enough. YOU are a gift to your students, colleagues, and families. Thank you for all you do and thank you for your desire to continuously learn, grow, and take care of yourself. I would love to hear about your journey–feel free to comment on this post or tag me on Twitter with #SerendipityEDU.
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