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Teaching, Stress and Breathing In

Author: Frank O'Neill

Picture: Tero Vesalainen, Pixabay

Teaching, Stress and Breathing In

Retired headteacher Frank O'Neill suggests a fresh perspective for those in education who feel stressed out.

Teacher stress is well-documented and features regularly in the press. This article is for teachers who are struggling to manage the demands of being a teacher and achieving a healthy work-life balance.

A teacher recently told me: ‘I’m so busy, I hardly have time to breathe!’ Although teaching can be the best job in the world, even the most positive and committed professionals feel the strain.

So how is your breathing? The verb ‘to breathe’ in Latin is ‘spirare’, from which we derive the word ‘in-spire’ – to breathe in.

To be an inspirational teacher, you need to find time to in-spire, to breathe in and replenish your reservoirs of faith, hope and love.

Take Time To Breathe

However, sometimes what we most want is what we fear most. What happens if I pause my activity? Will I fall behind, or attract criticism, for not keeping up?

If you dare to take time to breathe, you may discover you are carrying wounds from living out your teaching vocation.

People in education are human beings, vulnerable to difficulties arising from life experiences. Add in pressure from colleagues, students and parents, along with the relentless drive of ‘the system’, and we find people in need of healing from the inability to constantly meet others’ expectations.

There is a pernicious narrative in education which says you are only as good as your last set of results, lesson observation or Ofsted inspection.

From a Christian perspective, the question for teachers is: How does God see you? What is God’s narrative, in relation to your role as teacher?

Teachers As Servants

We find many examples in the ministry of Jesus which reflect the issues regularly faced by teachers.

  • Jesus spotted the potential of Simon and Andrew. (Matthew 4:18-20) Though they were ordinary fishermen, Jesus led them out (the meaning of “education” from its Latin roots) to live their lives more fully. Teachers are always seeking to nurture students’ untapped potential.
  • When Bartimaeus called out, Jesus heard him, healed him and changed his life. (Mark 10:46-52) Whenever teachers try to heal students, whether a scraped knee, or emotional or psychological healing, they act like Jesus.
  • In the healing of the paralytic, Jesus forgives the man’s sins before healing him physically. (Mark 2:1-12) When teachers offer young people forgiveness and a second chance, they act like Jesus. Note that the scribes criticised Jesus. This story affirms teachers who forgive, despite those who criticise them for being soft.  
  • Jesus went alone to a lonely place to pray. (Luke 5:15-16) Whenever teachers find time to pray, they imitate Jesus’ example and connect to the power source which enables them to be effective. As the classic saying goes: ‘If you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy.’
  • Jesus shared table fellowship with sinners. (Mark 2:13-17) Teachers are called to reach out to ‘sinners’: the outcasts, those whose lives are chaotic. When we do so, like Jesus, we can expect criticism.

"To educate is an act of love"

These examples will not reduce teacher workload or remove deadline pressures. However, they do add significance. Work which can seem monotonous is gifted with a new dignity when seen as part of God’s plan. Pope Francis said: To educate is an act of love; it is to give life.’

I retired from teaching in 2017 after 30 years, over half of which was spent in senior leadership in Catholic schools.

I pray every day for former colleagues, that they may be healed from ‘injuries’ they pick up and feel affirmed that they are doing God’s work.

May they hear God’s words to Jesus at his baptism: ‘You are my child, whom I love. My favour rests on you.’ (Mark 1:11)

  • If anyone is interested in further exploring these themes, look out for a workshop for educators during the 2018 Celebrate Weekends: www.celebrateconference.org

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