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40 Hour Workweek

Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Oct 21, 2018

Navigating teacher anxiety when you’re drowning in work

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Navigating teacher anxiety when you’re drowning in work

By Angela Watson

This episode of the Truth for Teachers podcast is for educators who struggle with anxiety and feel like you’re just drowning in work. You’ll find an encouraging audio message you can replay anytime you are feeling anxious.

I use the term “anxiety” loosely here to include those of you who have been clinically diagnosed, as well as those who just can’t seem to shake that anxious feeling when you think about work.

I know from consuming so much audio content myself how much benefit there is to repeatedly listening to positive, encouraging words spoken into your mind and heart. There’s nothing better when you’re feeling anxious than hearing reassurance from someone who understands what you’re going through, validates your feelings, and helps you work through those feelings in a practical, uplifting way.

Some of you might have a positive, supportive mentor or partner or therapist who encourages you on a regular basis and gives you strategies for working through your anxiety when it feels overwhelming. But not everyone does, and that might not be enough.

I wanted to be able to offer a sort of “virtual mentorship” and walk you through different aspects of teacher anxiety and help you figure out a new way to think about your work. So whenever you’re feeling isolated, discouraged, and unsupported you can listen to practical encouragement and reassurance. And over time and with practice, you will be able to “retrain your brain” to think in ways that FINALLY create freedom from anxiety and overwhelm.

What follows is a special written and audio message which does exactly that. It’s part of a set of digital tools that I created last fall, and it’s called: Finally Free: The teacher toolkit for conquering anxiety and overwhelm.

Click to listen to one of the Finally Free modules on my podcast,

or read the transcript below

Be present and recognize the magnitude of your accomplishments, even when it feels like it’s not enough.

When you feel like you’re drowning in work and obligations and can never do enough, one of the most important things you can do is to recognize how much you are actually accomplishing already. That sense of inferiority or guilt or overwhelm can stem from thinking you’re not measuring up to your own expectations, or others’ expectations, and it seems impossible to try to do everything you “should.”

I know that you are under tremendous pressure right now. You’re feeling pressure to do more, test more, take more data, be more accountable … and everything has to be done perfectly, starting right now.

My friend, please don’t internalize this pressure! Be kind to yourself and show yourself grace. The weight that a classroom teacher carries is heavy enough on its own. Don’t add to it by buying into the myth that you must be a super teacher, performing miracles at every turn, compelling all students to work on or above grade level simply through the sheer amount of energy and time that you expend.

What you do is miraculous, but it’s not always measurable. And it doesn’t have to be. Getting a student to open up about the hard times he’s having at home. Supporting a child who doesn’t speak English in making new friends. Instilling a love of learning in a student who hates school. Moving your class toward skill mastery in small, uneven steps. You’re working miracles. You might not be recognized for it, but you are.

Showing up every day and giving your best as you work to meet the diverse needs of every student in your care is enough. You are enough. Your students are enough. Learning is a lifelong process, and we all get better with time and experience.

Don’t wait until all administrators, parents, and legislators show kindness and grace to you. Even if your principal is demanding, your students’ parents are impossible to please, and your district leaders keep piling more responsibility on your plate … stay focused on the kids. Connect with them. Care for them. Show them love.

Don’t let the pressure from every side keep you from remembering why you went into teaching in the first place. Focus on making a difference. Your students won’t remember everything you taught them, but they will always remember how you made them feel. They are people, even when the school system treats them like numbers. And you’re a person, too. Dismiss those nagging thoughts that insist you’re not doing enough. Redefine the role of a teacher for yourself.

Celebrate your small moments of accomplishment. Every day of being a teacher is filled with moments of potential joy and satisfaction. I use the word “potential,” because you have to pay close attention and really be present if you want to grab onto those small, beautiful moments.

There were many, many days when I was distracted and completely missed them because I was in such a hurry to get to the next thing. I rarely took time to stop for even a second and revel in what my students and I had achieved.

You have to train your brain to find and dwell on those moments of accomplishment. Don’t mentally replay the moment when a student disrespected you or a colleague was condescending: Return your mind to the instant when you finally entered all that data into the computer, or cleared out your email inbox, or finished the lesson plans for the week.

You worked hard for those accomplishments! Don’t skip over them and hurry on to the next item on your to‐do list. Celebrate yourself. Give yourself the encouragement and praise you would give a student: Yes, you did it! You’re on fire today. Look how much you got done! You didn’t want to do that task, but you pushed through it, anyway. Good job.

As you do these things, stay in the present moment. Don’t let the joy of watching kids learn get muddled by the off‐task behavior of another child nearby. Redirect as needed, but keep your thoughts centered on the good stuff that’s happening right in front of you.

When you leave school at the end of the day, think back on those little wins. Treasure them and use them to inspire you to go back into the classroom the next day and give it your all once again.

Choose to focus on the students you made a difference for. If there is even one child in your class who cared about the lesson you taught and made an effort to learn it, you have done something worthwhile. Use that student to motivate you to get up in the morning. Look over at him or her when you start to feel discouraged during a lesson. Press on toward more lightbulb moments with that child, which will give you the motivation you need to keep reaching out toward everyone else.

Being truly present in the classroom will help you practice reframing your work to recognize and appreciate the magnitude of what you do. In those moments of full presence, you will start noticing all the small wins and celebrating the lightbulb moments. You’ll find yourself getting back in touch with the reason why you entered this profession in the first place. You’ll start to realize what a tremendously important job you are doing every single minute of the day. And then you’ll be able to reframe how you view your work.

Do you think you spent the last 15 minutes tying shoes and zipping coats? No, you smiled at each of your students as you bundled them up to protect them from the cold. That might be the most loving, nurturing gesture some of those kids got all day.

Do you think you just wasted an entire afternoon in a data chat meeting? No, you got to step back and look at all the hard work you did compiling and analyzing information over the past week. You got to see all the evidence of just how well you really know your students, and you got to learn even more information that is going to empower you to take your kids to the next level tomorrow. Who cares if someone else in the meeting had a bad attitude and made the meeting miserable? Look at what YOU did! Look how ready YOU are to meet your students’ needs because of your hard work! Don’t let anyone take that away from you!

Do you think you just taught a developmentally inappropriate learning standard that less than half the class truly understood? No, you helped 12 or so kids meet an incredibly difficult objective. 12 different kids, all at the same time! And you planted a seed for another dozen (or two dozen) kids who are now a few steps closer to understanding the concept when you re‐teach tomorrow.

This is not overly optimistic thinking — this is realistic thinking. It’s reality. This is exactly what you did.

You show up, day after day, and work these little miracles all day long without even realizing you’re doing it. You’re probably so focused on everything you didn’t do that you don’t realize how much you’ve actually accomplished. I am urging you — stop for a moment. Be present. See what you are doing. Really, truly, see it.

Your work is important. Ultimately, whether someone else tells you that or not is irrelevant. You must choose to perceive your own work as something meaningful and valuable, because it is. Be present in every moment of it. It all matters, and it’s all worth it.

You’ll NEVER get it all done — so build some boundaries, and save your energy for what really matters. (from Dan Tricarico)

Here’s the bottom line:  You’ll never get it all done, anyway.

I know that’s hard to hear. But there will ALWAYS be more. Teaching could be a 24/7 job, if we let it. We could always be doing more thinking about teaching, more planning, more grading, more organizing, more rearranging the furniture in our classroom.

But when does it end? The answer is: It ends when you SAY it ends. You have to build some parameters. Some boundaries. And you have to respect the boundaries you’ve set. We respect other people’s boundaries. And why do we do that? Because we care about them.

What if we learned to care about OURSELVES enough to respect the boundaries we set for ourselves instead of saying, “Oh well. It’s only me. And I don’t matter, anyway.”

Does that kind of internal self-talk sound familiar? I’ll bet it does. How do I know? Because I do it, too! But I’ve learned to make honoring my own boundaries a habit and a priority. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m getting better! And yes, that may sound selfish, but it’s not. There is a difference between self-care and being selfish.

Selfishness is when you say, I want this thing for me and I want more of it than everyone else, and I want it because it’s going to benefit me and I should benefit more than others.

But self-care is when you say, I am going to take care of me and respect my boundaries and listen to my mind, heart, body, and spirit for signals about what I need so that I can renew and rejuvenate and then I can be in a better place, not only for myself but for others. Not only so I can do more for me, but so that I am more ready to help, to serve, and to give to others in a way that benefits everyone.

The truth is: You are worth taking care of. And as I often say, if YOU aren’t going to take care of yourself, then who will? So one strategy for not feeling like you have to do it all is learning to say no. And not only learning to say no, but learning to say no without guilt. I know that’s not easy. Teachers are by nature givers, so it’s critical that we learn to take some things off our list.

But like anything else, it’s a habit. It takes practice. But think of what would happen if you pulled that off?  If you said no, thank you to the new committee at school? The book club you no longer wish to be a part of? The volunteer work at the church you never wanted to do in the first place but felt obligated to do?

I feel a deeper breath coming on just thinking about it.

I’m not saying NEVER help others or NEVER do things to serve. Far from it. I’m simply saying save yourself for the things that matter. Save your energy for where you’ll do the most good and have the biggest impact. You won’t have ANY impact if you’re burnt out, stressed out, or full of tension.

So how do you get off that treadmill? The first step is to prioritize. Ask yourself what’s most important. What are your non-negotiables? What are your essentials? And then the second step is to remove some things that aren’t quite as important as you thought.

Another step we can take is to learn to respect the signs that our mind, body, and spirit are giving us to stop. This is not always possible, of course, but learn to listen to the signals. When you’re tired, rest. When you’re overwhelmed, stop. Those signs are there for a reason. But we often don’t listen to them.

What if our cars didn’t have a gas gauge? What if we just kept driving and driving and driving without listening to any signs about what kind of shape the car was in? Before long, we would run out of gas and be stranded and stuck and wondering how we were going to get home.

Sound familiar? But we can conserve our fuel by listening to the signs and focusing on the things that are important.

Here’s a good way to figure out what’s essential: Make a dialectical journal with two columns (in my class, I just call it a T-chart) and in one column, make a list of all of your MUSTS and in the other column, make a list of all of your WANTS. The goal would be that you get ALL of your MUSTS and as many of your WANTS as you can. But you’ll probably never get them all. And that’s okay.

I have a sign hanging in the window of my classroom office. It’s a quote from a book called Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. As the name of the book suggests, it’s about paring things down to just those that are essential. The sign says “LESS, BUT BETTER.”

The idea is not to crowd our calendars with all sorts of things so that we never have a moment to breathe just so we can feel busy. In fact, we need to STOP glorifying being busy as if it’s a badge of honor. Sure, that’s a subversive idea in our society. But that’s okay. We’re different. We’re marching, as Emerson says, to the beat of a different drummer now.

The idea, according to that sign on my window, is to do fewer things, to have less scheduled, but to do what’s left BETTER than we used to. To hone in on what’s essential and make it happen with a higher level of quality. And if we do that, the bonus is that we will have more energy and joy left over for the things that we WANT to do. We need to reduce things to their essence. We need to embrace simplicity. We need to see where we can streamline, eliminate, reduce, so that’s all that’s left is what absolutely NEEDS to happen.

And only THEN do we add on other things that we either need or want to do.

The key word here is SUBTRACT: Take away everything that isn’t completely necessary. And then add back on as you feel you can.

In the classroom, we are often bombarded by a truckload of new obligations, responsibilities, and duties that we have no control over, that we would not ourselves choose to do. It seems as if there are always more students, more testing, more technology to learn, and more meetings. And it seems that, more often than not, these things come down the pike with very little to no more support, funding for supplies and materials, or compensation for us. And that can create a great deal of pressure, stress, and tension.

So one way to deal with that in a healthy way and retain more of your sanity is to look around and see where YOU can streamline, where YOU can reduce and subtract the systems in your own classroom to make room for all of these other things.

Make no mistake: We ALL know — even The Powers That Be know — that you’re doing too much. That too much is being asked of us. And the funny thing is, since teachers are givers, we always seem to find a way to do it. The unfortunate thing is that this sets an ugly precedent. The perception often becomes Well, they did it before, I’m sure they can incorporate this as well. And the insidious part is that they know the rationale they give us will always make us take on more. All they have to do is remind us that, “It’s for the kids.” As soon as we hear that, we say, “Then I’ll make it work.” And we do.

But if we’re not careful, that can put us on the path to anxiety, overwhelm, and stress. And the irony is that if we spend too much time there and have to leave the profession, then everyone loses. If you end up having to leave teaching and end up working in an office somewhere in corporate America, then you’re not pursuing what I’m assuming you see as your gift and your calling.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those kinds of jobs, but then you really AREN’T helping the kids in your classroom. So if we are interested in staying in the classroom, it becomes imperative to set and respect the kind of boundaries that I’m talking about here. Before long, you will see that you are conserving more energy this way and leaving more room for your own sense of peace and self-care.

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Maintain perspective by viewing your current workload as temporary and changeable.

Another helpful perspective to consider when you feel like you’re drowning in your workload and can never do enough to keep up is realizing that everything you are facing right now is temporary. The intensity of the demands can make even a few days feel like an eternity, but taking a step back and remembering that no problem or situation lasts forever can help you muster the energy to keep going.

Practice reminding yourself that the way you feel right now will not last all school year. You cannot look at your current workload and low energy level and start questioning, “How in the world can I keep this up until the end of the year?” Allowing yourself to think this way will deplete whatever little bit of energy you have.

If you want to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, avoid the presumption that your current situation is permanent. Resist the urge to assume things will stay this difficult for a long time, because as we know, life is always changing. New challenges will come your way, and old challenges will be resolved.

I can guarantee that you will not be dealing with this exact same set of problems a few months from now — your workload will change, your students will change, and you will change. Some of it will be for the better, and a few things will change for the worse, but it will be DIFFERENT. You will not feel exactly like this every day for the entire school year.

So, practice viewing your challenges and the demands in your life as temporary, as well as changeable. No one has a crystal ball, so most of the time, we don’t know for sure if a bad situation is going to be pervasive (keep getting worse), permanent (go on for a long time) or be impossible to change (leaving us hopeless). Pervasive, permanent, and powerless are the hallmarks of a pessimistic outlook on life.

Most pessimists think they’re being realistic. But deciding that a situation is hopeless and unbearable is not being realistic. It’s simply your perception. If you’ve never challenged your assumptions about your situation, you’ll automatically be convinced that the way you perceive things is factual, when it’s actually a result of the way you talk to yourself, and the story you tell yourself about your life.

You may not be able to change your circumstance, but you can change the self-talk that colors everything you see. Challenging pessimistic thought patterns means choosing to see things as they really are, not as they appear to be through the lens of a negative interpretation you’ve applied.

So avoid making a negative guess, assumption, or prediction about how your situation will go and how long things will be this way. Your perspective will determine whether you feel courageous and accomplished, or discouraged and defeated.

Choose to tell yourself that good things are happening and are worth focusing on, that problems will not last forever, and that your own efforts are making a positive difference. While the pessimist sees setbacks as permanent, pervasive, and powerless, the optimist sees setbacks as temporary, situation-specific, and changeable.

You can even choose to see your current dissatisfaction and overwhelm itself as temporary, situation-specific, and changeable. It’s a reality that you’re not really loving your job at the moment. That is a fact. But you can choose to interpret your disillusionment as something that you’re facing right now — something that won’t go on forever, won’t continue to spiral and get worse, and most importantly, won’t be something that’s out of your control.

It’s easy to get sucked into pessimistic thinking when you try to take on too much at one time.

You can fight disillusionment by concentrating on one day a time. Resist the urge to worry about how you’re doing to balance everything next month, next quarter, or next year. It’s impossible to predict how certain problems will improve and which new issues will crop up to take their place, so don’t expend too much mental energy on this or start making negative assumptions.

Instead, trust that you’ll have the wisdom and the strength for each day as it comes. You will know what to do when each problem arises. Choose to be okay with taking two steps forward and one step back—don’t let that discourage you, because even with the setbacks, you’ll still come out ahead from where you started.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Be present and recognize the magnitude of your accomplishments, even when it feels like it’s not enough.
  • You’ll never get it all done — so save your time and energy for what really matters.
  • Maintain perspective by viewing your current workload as temporary and changeable.
  • View your current workload as temporary and changeable: the challenges and demands will always ebb and flow.
  • You may not be able to change your circumstances, but you can change the way you view them.

If you enjoyed this episode, check out the full set of audio messages in Finally Free: The teacher toolkit for conquering anxiety and overwhelm. You’ll get to hear my words of encouragement which you can listen to anytime you’re feeling anxious about all the things that need to be done. And, you’ll get to hear wonderful teachings from Dan Tricarico — he’s a high school teacher in San Diego and the creator of the Zen Teacher Project.

What you just heard or read is the 2nd of 10 modules. We cover freedom from guilt, freedom from perfectionism, freedom from worry over students, freedom from comparison, and much more. You can go through and complete the modules in order like a course, but we were really intentional about calling it a toolkit because we don’t want this to be one more thing you feel pressure to do and can’t keep up with. The idea is that you can listen to the audio in the toolkit over and over again, whenever you are feeling a specific type of teacher anxiety.

Click below to learn more or get the entire toolkit:

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!

This episode is brought to you in part by, Peergrade, a platform that makes it easy to facilitate peer review in your classroom. Students review each other’s work, while Peergrade takes care of anonymously assigning reviewers and delivering all the relevant insights to teachers. With Peergrade, students learn to think critically and take ownership of their learning. They also learn to write kind and useful feedback for their peers. The best part? Peergrade is free to use for teachers and students. To learn more, visit thecornerstoneforteachers.com/peergrade.

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go! A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Very engaging article. The teaching profession is noble. It entails a significant sacrifice of one’s time, thoughts and effort, that’s why it is easy for teachers to succumb to anxiety and overwhelm. Cultivating balance is among the most effective ways for teachers to be healthy and happy in their lives and careers. Kudos to your concern in helping teachers overcome their troubles!

  2. Angela, Thank you so very much for everything you are contributing to the education of our children by starting with the most important person in this process, the teacher. I have bought several of your books and joined the 40 Teacher Work Week. I continue to find validation through your words with every effort I’ve made. My biggest accomplishment is that I have been able to say almost every day, for the first time in my 11 years as a teacher “I LOVE MY JOB”. This is a result of using just some of the tools that you provided. I’m looking forward to learning and changing more as I as able to apply more of your techniques/knowledge/wisdom. I’m also dreaming when I get the 40 hour work week! I have had the opportunity to share your web site, books, etc. with many teachers in my building and district and will continue to share. Thank you!

    1. Vickie, thank you so much for the kind words! It’s so wonderful to hear that you love your job almost every day. I understand how challenging that can be when the profession is so demanding. Thank you for sharing my resources with other teachers and helping to spread the word. I would love for more teachers to experience what you have! I appreciate you letting them know it IS possible.

  3. I’m a first year teacher struggling with overwhelm and anxiety. I work 12 and more hours a day and try to do a lot of planning on weekends. I expected to do this my first year. Is this what a first year teacher should do? Forty hour weeks would never work!

    1. A 40 hour week is definitely not a realistic goal for any first-year teacher! However, there are lots of things you can do to streamline and simplify . The club is about helping each teacher pick a target number that works for their unique teaching context. There is a cohort beginning in January if you would like support, community, and resources centered around this. But regardless of whether you join or not–please know that that the long hours and overwhelm are quite normal in this profession. It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It takes time to figure out what you can eliminate and to find processes for simplifying.

  4. Thank you Angela for your podcast and articles. I am a 15-year veteran teacher and am finally breathing easier and putting my job and life into perspective. Thank you for helping teachers be strong enough to set boundaries.

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