Teacher Anxiety Management: Gratitude

22 Apr 2020

In between full-time Daddy mode with my two year old and battling through the online teaching world, I am writing ‘The Anxiety School Kit’. I want to try and do something positive inthe current situation, so all my royalties from the book are going to Anxiety UK. My wonderful publishers, John Catt Educational, have agreed to increase this to a hugely generous 25%.

It is a bit of an epic undertaking, but I am trying to get the manuscript completed for a September release. It is all so unpredictable at the moment, but I think the start of the next academic year will be very anxiety inducing for teachers and pupils, and hope the book might support with easing these feelings. Any feedback on how to improve this early chapter draft would be hugely appreciated.

WHY: When we go through our days in a tunnel vision of anxiety, we forget to acknowledge the positive things that will be happening around us. Being more explicit about the emotion of gratitude can help not only to alleviate anxiety, but to develop more positive thought patterns.

An Anxiety Anecdote

It had been a Monday that Emily would like to quickly forget, one that seemed to pass in a manic fog of tiredness. The Sunday night sleep had, again, been full of tossing and turning and anxiety about the busy week ahead. It seemed like an impossible cocktail to manage: a parents’ evenings, a shed full of marking and yet another data collection to complete.

Before leaving the school, Emily made the obligatory check of her pigeon hole. Its redundancy seemed to never be recognized, it still clung like a relic from the past against the torrent of emails.

Surprisingly, this was not the usual futile search: there was an envelope with ‘Miss Henderson’ written on the front. Intrigued, she read the read the opening paragraph:

“Dear Miss Henderson,

I am writing to thank you for all the support and help you have given me in the past year. I have always really struggled with Maths but you were so patient with us as a class (even, somehow, with David) and explained everything so well. You really care about Maths as a subject I felt like you always made time for me. I will always be grateful for that”

Stopping reading Emily glanced around her – blinking hard to repress tired tears. This student had barely said a word to her all year, yet in this quiet moment of gratitude, they had almost single handedly validated what had felt like a long and challenging year.

Transitions

Moving schools is without doubt high on the anxiety inducing spectrum for teachers: the safety, comfort and relationships are all left behind for a completely new beginning. It seems to me to be one of the many aspects of teaching as a career that is fairly unique.

After five years teaching in London, I found the first year of teaching in a new school in the North-East a real battle. None of this was down to my new school itself, which was full of wonderful staff and pupils. The toxic environment of my previous school, in which I had taken on a leadership position that required me to be a version of myself I was never comfortable with, seemed to have completely altered how I felt and behaved in a school. After I had burnt out quite spectacular and handed in my notice in the January of the school year, I had faced six months of stressful and unpleasant experiences in that school.

A later chapter on post-traumatic stress for teachers will unpick the lasting consequences of toxic schools and environments. The reality is that the ethos and nature of a school can have lasting ramifications, both emotionally and physically on both students and teachers. Transparency and sharing narratives of this as a profession is profoundly important: some schools function in ways that are anything but healthy.

During this first year in my new school, I found myself really struggling. I was waking up every morning around 4 o’clock for the day feeling utter panic; struggling to cope with the changes and feeling like I couldn’t think clearly.

Mind Distortions

There was nothing inherently stressful: I had left behind all responsibility and was concentrating on classroom teaching. Yet even the smallest provocation would inspire torrents of anxiety.

The earlier chapter on the way anxiety impacts the mind is one that rationalizes this process – yet at the time I was left feeling utterly confused about the way my mind was responding. It created a vicious cycle of internal criticism: I had struggled to cope in a demanding leadership role, now I couldn’t even cope as a classroom teacher?

When people experiencing difficulty with their mental health talk about life being like a fog, it is an entirely apt cliché. I had no ability to see outside of this filtered perspective and felt like I was utterly lost. My mind was completely distorted to perceive things negatively.

Stereotypes also exist for a reason, and I was undoubtedly ‘masculine’ in my perception of dealing with mental health. I buried my head in the sand and was convinced there was nothing wrong with me. I even applied to return to a leadership position in a different school – believing it was the loss of responsibility that was impacting my self-esteem. I blamed others and looked at everything other than myself and how I was feeling.

Eventually my wife talked me into going to see a therapist. I will repeat this message about the importance of seeking professional help throughout this book: it was a difficult, but transformative experience for me.

I still finished a long year of battling through these various issues questioning if I could go on with teaching. I felt exhausted and drained, the challenge of maintaining a ‘front’ of coping had left me without confidence. It is why I am now so passionate about this notion of self-care and wellbeing for teachers – it really it is an integral component of thriving in the profession. Without it I would argue that teaching is too challenging to cope with.

A Gratitude Discovery

That summer, I was using one of these early morning awakenings to surreptitiously raid the book shelf of a friend I was staying at (a fellow English graduate with impeccable taste!) A book caught my eye: Oliver Sack’s ‘Gratitude’.

I would be a fairly terrible English teacher if I wasn’t prone to having emotive reactions to the power of words, but the two hours or so it took to read this collection of essays Sacks wrote at the close of his life really moved me (in the spirit of masculine openness – tears were definitely shed).

Sacks was eighty one when he was diagnosed with cancer of the liver, and told he would have only months left to live. The following two paragraphs have appeared in all of the three books I have written, and this repetitiveness highlights just how transformative they were for me (or my clear lack of imagination!) They proved instrumental in recognising how I had lost this capacity to recognise and celebrate what was good in my own life:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Importantly, this started to change my perspective on gratitude. I had felt it was entirely non-British before – shmaltzy and superficial. There is perhaps some degree of correctness in this cynicism: gratitude can seem condescending or inappropriate when forced upon us. Being locked in a toxic school, to take an educational example, is not the time to be expressing gratitude – it is the time to leave!

Yet, when we start to see gratitude as something that can be a contributing factor to tackle the negativity of anxiety and stress, we can begin to recognise how it can be helpful in enriching our lives and providing more of an inner balance.

Later in the same essay Sacks highlights his intention to using his final months to “live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can”. That summer I more or less stole Sacks’ wisdom and set up my first blog: teachergratitude.com. The aim of this was to express gratitude for the joys of teaching, to pause at the end of every week and write about something that I had to be grateful about in my professional role.

Predictably, this had a readership for months that would be generous to deem miniscule.
This idealistic nugget from my first ever blog post, ‘‘The Joys of English Teaching’ gives some indication why:

“Every day we communicate with a diverse range of young people, each who bring their own unique vision of the word. Sometimes it is important to remind ourselves what a genuine privilege this is, something we should feel immensely grateful for. Young people are inevitably frustrating, capricious and exhausting, but they also wonderful – in their many guises, in their fascinating views, in their diverse humour, in their idealistic desire to make a difference in the world. It is a cliche but true: young people make sure that no day in teaching is exactly the same.”

I am not a natural writer and the laboriously slow process of trying to form some sort of coherence from my ramblings was part of changing how I perceived teaching as a profession. Far from being still driven by anxiety, I was beginning to recognise some of the positives of my work throughout the week. Not that the process was easy, my whole school experience previously had almost indoctrinated me into seeing people’s flaws, and had the threat section of my brain running on overdrive.

As Alex Korb writes in ‘The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time’ however, ‘Gratitude can have such a powerful impact on your life because it engages your brain in a virtuous cycle. Your brain only has so much power to focus its attention. It cannot easily focus on both positive and negative stimuli.’

Repeating this process for a whole year helped to train me to think more optimistically: to see beyond the petty frustrations of my week and recognise more positive aspects.

The Philosophical Argument

“Count your blessings” has not just been the beckoning call of our parents and grandparents, but one that is steeped in philosophical argument about how to live a positive life. The stoics heralded this idea of a noble acceptance of what we have in life. Seneca, a chap who spent nine years banished on an island, encapsulates this: “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.”

The importance of gratitude has been a fundamental focus of religions including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Wouldn’t it be delightful to channel the single minded perspective of the Buddha for a day or two: “You have no cause for anything but gratitude and joy.” Not entirely sure that would work in the face of a rowdy class of thirteen year olds last thing on a Friday.

Neuroscience also appears to offer convincing support of the power of a gratitude practice.
Production of dopamine and serotonin increases, and these neurotransmitters then travel neural pathways to the “bliss” center of the brain. The more times a certain neural pathway is activated (neurons firing together), the less effort it takes to stimulate the pathway the next time (neurons wiring together).

While we might not need gratitude rationalised to us in terms of its benefits in influencing our happiness – how do we practically implement in it in our lives?

Start with the Small

Urging ourselves to think positively is unlikely to have the required result, it will merely leave us frustrated as we slip back into old habits that are inclined more towards the negative. Forcing ourselves to try to behave in ways that express gratitude is clearly unrealistic and will only generate waves of inner criticism: “Why am I always so miserable?”, “Why can’t I be more optimistic?” It will also remind us of enforced periods of gratitude that we resented as youngsters: remember having to write endless thank you letters to express thanks on receipt of gifts?

A habit is more likely to form if it is easily implemented and repeated. Writing down two or three things at the close of a day that have gone well can be one way to achieve this. It takes five minutes, and it means that the day is closed off in a positive way, rather than a negative one. Starting with the sentence ‘Today I am grateful for…’ sets up the focus. Doing this slowly and without putting significant pressure on ourselves means that it will be an enjoyable and pleasurable experience – one that we are likely going to want to repeat.

If you can’t think of anything, asking the question “What am I grateful for right here, right now,” usually leads to some fruitful results. Channeling the spirit of Maya Angelou’s beautiful quotation is always helpful: “This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” It is a reminder that every day is packed full of new opportunities and things to reflect on, and how we approach it is down to our perspective on events.

If you repeat this process for two weeks, you start to go through a day mentally filing away things to write about – rather than storing away things to be anxious about.

Once the benefits of the process of gratitude are secured and the habit is ingrained, it can be useful to then move to having a weekly gratitude habit. This doesn’t require having a spectacularly cheesy journal with a corny title written on the front – it can just take the form of a normal diary.

It then becomes something that happens once a week: taking some time to write down things throughout the week that you are grateful for. They don’t need to be profound, and I would avoid trying to hit a particular target – like hitting five things. Instead, it might be just one thing that week that stands out, but could be explored in more detail.

Recognising others

Once we begin recognise moments and aspects of our life we are grateful for, it is useful to then turn this quality outwards. The example that opened this chapter is illustrative of just how powerful receiving such feedback can be. It makes us realises that we are all interdependent – not functioning on our own in our isolated bubbles and classrooms. Everything we do is the result of something that has come before, and gratitude helps us to see all the factors that influence our own work and lives.

It doesn’t have to be anything hugely profound or detailed, but recognising and expressing gratitude towards others is hugely powerful. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, the bestselling author and Wharton professor, has spent a significant amount of time researching gratitude. In going through this process he spent a week writing emails to the 100 people who mattered most in his life, explaining what he appreciated most about them.

“It’s one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done. It taught me something about what I valued: the two most common themes were generosity and originality.”

Grateful Schools

I now teach in a comprehensive in Edinburgh. Every Friday at break the Headteacher comes to the staff room for one simple purpose: to say thank you to people who have done something throughout the week. This is often a long and specific list that recongises and shows value for people’s efforts.

This process of gratitude, and the recognition that it encourages in others is undoubtedly contagious. I have never worked in a school before in which this is so visibly manifested: staff thank each other and acknowledge things that have been done all the time.

Mary Myatt in her book ‘High Challenge, Low Threat’ devotes a chapter to the importance of gratitude in schools in generating positive relationships. The gratitude practice in my own school would appear to embody this rationale:

“The most valuable resources which leaders have are their colleagues. So they express gratitude to them. They say thank you, and often. But the thanks are not cheap, off-the-cuff platitudes. They are deep and heartfelt and they come from noticing. Noticing is one of the most powerful things that thoughtful leaders do. They notice the small staff, the things that make a person tick, the small triumphs and gains.”

Role Modelling

The reciprocal nature of gratitude is also evident when it comes to lessons. Role modelling gratitude to young people: taking time to thank them for contributions; acknowledging their strengths and contributions sets up the atmosphere for positive and meaningful relationships.

In that kind of ethos, receiving that longed after thank you at the close of a lesson, or indeed a card at the end of the year is that bit more likely.

Taking practical steps to try to adopt a mindset that makes more space for gratitude is not going to result in an instant dissipation of all feelings of anxiety. It is, however, going to encourage us to think more positively and recognise that good things do exist. It may also help us to adopt the next mindset that can assist in reducing anxiety: kindness and generosity.

A Serene Summary

To help counter feelings of anxiety, first start by writing three things that you feel grateful for at the close of a day. Then start a journal that is kept once a week, in which you take time to consider what positives can be drawn from that week. Use this momentum to try to express more gratitude to the people around you, for all that they help you to achieve and do. In your teaching, try to role model to young people the value and importance of gratitude.

Thank you for reading. Any feedback on how to improve this early draft would be hugely appreciated. I am also looking for teachers to share their own strategies for coping with stress and anxiety, so please do get in touch.

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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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