21 December 2013

...Managing Pressure

Every year, since I began teaching, I've found the approaching winter break brings as much pressure as it does festivity. In fact, I've not once experienced a 'winding down' toward the end of a term. Instead, I tend to feel particularly wound up. Well, this post is concerned with professional pressure, whenever it occurs - and how to manage it.

Perhaps it's the number of loose ends that need tying up as the end of term approaches: Assessments to be finalised, reports written, and exercise books marked? Or is it more to do with the temporal aspect of immovable deadlines - including the fact that the school building will be locked up, so we're to be out by X hours..?

If the pressure we are feeling continues to build, or is endured for too long, it can reveal itself in physiological and emotional symptoms indicative of stress. Sometimes these signs are the first indications that something is wrong, even though a person may have been struggling to manage for extended periods. Even the sufferer themselves may be oblivious!

Now, I'm not well versed in medical knowledge, but I understand a little about notions of cause and effect. In terms of stress, if you feel threatened or upset the body produces more adrenaline and cortisol, which heightens alertness, lowers response times, and helps us to maintain our concentration. I suppose the acute symptoms of stress are due to prolonged dependence on this physical reaction to perceived difficulties.

If you're feeling stressed, panicked, struggling to cope with your workload, or feel under pressure through demands being made of your time, then let me share some of the guidance that I've picked up over the years. But first, let's come to an agreement about the pressure you feel: The chances are it's not due to any shortcomings, personal failings, or from not trying hard enough. In fact, it's probably an indication that you've been trying too hard, for too long. It's simply a signal that your body and mind are overdue a rest.

Managing pressure...

1 - Identify the source
Pressure and stress are abstract terms, but which represent very real feelings, emotions, and physical reactions. They can affect our behaviour, relationships, efficiency and effectiveness. But these outcomes can be a distraction from the actual source of the pressure.

So, when you feel under pressure consider the following: Where is the pressure stemming from? It there something that can be done, to reduce the sense that I'm under pressure? Am I putting unnecessary pressure on myself? The key is to identify the cause, and either eliminate it or plan ways of doing so.

2 - Prioritise tasks
Easier said than done, but essential. I'm an expert in prioritising easy jobs, that have little impact on my real workload. This is foolish.

Consider this carroll diagram. In which boxes would you place tasks that you have to complete? Some tasks that are important only become urgent if left unaddressed. You should prioritise avoiding urgent tasks which aren't inherently important, but become important by reason of their urgency. Empty box 1 first. Work in box 3. Ignore box 4?

3 - Know your limit 
I suppose this is about knowing when and how to say 'no' to people who know you're likely to say 'yes'. If you're usually efficient and reliable you're someone that others will turn to when they're under pressure. So, if someone tries to dump something into your 'box 1' then let them know your conditions. If you tend to say 'of course, leave it with me!' Then try adding '...I'll be able to give it my full attention next week.'

If despite this you remain overloaded, with continuous feelings of pressure, then it's time to act. Particularly, if the quality of your work, or your efficiency, are being jeopardised by the pressure you are under then it's time to act.

4 - Communicate
Sometimes it's just a matter of telling someone. The earlier you share the problems you're experiencing, the sooner they're likely to be resolved. Don't be afraid of sharing them with a line manager, for example - it's in everyone's best interests that you're happy, working efficiently, and that things are getting done - but do tell them what they need to know, and what can be expected of you. Have suggestions; a recovery plan.

And don't forget that those close to you need to know too. Personal relations are unlikely to understand the expectations placed on you, unless you tell them. And although they may have noticed changes, they can't help if they don't know the reasons for them.

5 - Perspective
Finally, think positively, and act positively. But only aim to control what you can control. Avoid worrying about things beyond your control; they'll resolve themselves one way or another. And remember that, in time all our genuine problems - the things we do have some control over - eventually resolve one way or another too... so why worry about them?

References and further reading

Bennett, H. (2006) The Trainee Teacher's Survival Guide. London: Continuum

Birrell, G., Taylor, H. and Ward, H. (2010) Succeeding on your Primary PGCE. London: Sage.

HelpGuide - www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_signs.htm

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Regards, DJA