The Stress Mirror


I have been asking questions about this adventure called teaching a lot this year. Why is teaching so different from other professions? What sets teaching apart from all else?

And then, one afternoon, my answer was experienced. I had a momentary swirly eddy of stress that day – the kind that seems to pop up out of nowhere amid the general thrumming of my classroom. In the teaching world, these are much like a bull ride; wild and crazy, but usually much longer than eight seconds. I captured the moment in a conscious stream of thought during my lunch break that day. Here it is:

Five minutes to lunch – a middle schooler is on full meltdown because her PowerPoint did not save and she will JUST DIE if she has to redo it. I begin the search on her very old, very slow computer. All the while, another kid is spitting mad that so-and-so stole his mechanical pencil lead (mechanical pencil lead…the bane of my existence!). Another student tips back and falls out of his chair and hits his head…yet again. He is sent to the office to get an ice pack, only after it is determined through a ro-sham-bo who gets to walk him down so he “doesn’t concuss and stuff” (his words, not mine). I make a note to check his pupils when he returns and to give his mom a call at lunch. PowerPoint girl is still melting down. “I HAVE TO HAVE IT!” Computer is Still. So. Slowly. Searching. An ironic counterpoint to the frenzy. A kid (you know the one) brings up a book that has the last 20 pages missing and the NEED to finish it RIGHT NOW to take a reading test – do I have the same book? (How did you not notice the gaping spot where the pages should have been?)

Teachers teach students far more than just content every single moment of every single day. There is a concept in neuroeducation called mirror neurons. This concept holds that when a person witnesses an action or emotional response to an event, areas of their own brains light up as if they themselves had participated in the action of event. It is one reason why athletes are able to use visualization techniques to perfect a move.

More importantly for educators, it is the reason why students sense our reactions and moods surrounding events and build these into their own schemas of emotional regulation as to how they should respond to such stress in the future. If we get angry and frustrated in dealing with the on-going stresses in our classroom, students learn to get angry and frustrated too when they feel stressed. If we approach stress as simply a part of teaching and can detach ourselves from its grip enough to just witness it as a response to events unfolding, we are far more like to respond calmly. Students “mirror” this calm in their own brains.

Teaching is unlike any other profession in that we must keep our game-face on the entire workday; there is no escape – no cubicle to retreat to, no office door to shut, no water cooler to take a quick walk to just to get some perspective. No, we must stand in our shoes and cope with the constant thinking/decision-making/problem-solving and the constant calling out of our names. There is no retreat.

We handle this all not to just keep our jobs or even to check a box on the Marzano Focused Teacher Evaluation Model. (There is no box for it anyway.) No, we manage our emotions because we have students watching us, learning from us and ultimately becoming us. That is a heavy burden to carry and is one of the things that sets teaching apart from other professions. When my Bored Teachers feed pops up on Facebook with its funny “stressed to the max teacher” memes, it reminds me I am not alone. This burden is carried by many hands.

Yet, there is always a grain of truth in humor. The Bored Teachers memes speak to the stress inherent in teaching that sometimes can be overwhelming. It is this type of stress that was examine in the Quality of Worklife Survey of over 30,000 teachers by the American Federation of Teachers. Some striking findings? Overall, 73% of respondents stated their workday was often stressful. With this high of a percentage of stressed teachers, it is not surprising 26% of respondents say that in the last 30 days, their mental health (stress, depression, emotional challenges) was not good for 9 or more days. Whoa. This is not good for teachers and certainly not good for students.

The world of learning has embraced the importance of teaching social emotional regulation for students. But what about teachers? Bearing in mind the aforementioned survey’s findings, it would be wise on many levels to allocate professional development dollars providing teachers with high-end stress management strategies for regulating in the moment. Imagine a classroom with a teacher at the helm who had learned powerful insights into their own emotional reactions to students’ behaviors alongside strategies for how to stay calm throughout the swirling stress eddies of the day. That is a powerful learning environment.

Phone rings – no more ice packs for chair tipper; sending him back with a Ziplock full of ice. (I know this will be leaking within minutes of the kid’s return and he will be eating the ice, which will irritate the kids around him.) Oh! Blessed relief! Pencil boy found his lead. But, now he refuses to apologize to the accused. Accused is red-faced mad, but sitting in silence, arms crossed. I make another mental note to pull both of them out of the lunch line for a quick chat to resolve this when everyone is a little cooler.And then the magic…THE POWERPOINT IS FOUND! A gush of intense joy! Big hug!

“Thank you, thank you, thank you! Mrs. C, you saved me!”

“You are welcome,” I say as I steal a peek at the rescued PowerPoint.

It consisted of one, single slide with a title on it. “Freinds” -misspelled and all.


The lunch bell rings.



5 thoughts on “The Stress Mirror

  1. Amy

    Thank you for this well written piece! You masterfully described the intensity of teaching and kept it positive. In another school it might have gone down like this: the girl is is lashing out at you, she insists the computer problem is because you and the school don’t want her to succeed, and the boys are now fist-fighting, while the other 26 students have their phones out, recording it.. And that’s one reason why we have a teacher shortage.

    1. Gretchen Cruden Post author


      I have been talking with my “teacher friends” lately and asking them if they would encourage their own children to become teachers. The answer tends towards no. The reasons as to why are varied, but the stress of teaching often rises to the top. It seems to be teachers often come from a long family line of teachers. The lines are being broken. This saddens me.

  2. Jan Kragen

    Stress? What stress? You can’t IMAGINE how many permutations of font size and type she went through to get the exact right one. And the color choice. Oh my gosh. That took, like, hours. Of course she had a meltdown thinking she’d lost all that work.

    Spelling? Who cares about spelling?

    You gave me a much needed giggle.

    Not often, but sometimes, I can look at the stress as it whirls around me and find the ridiculousness right then in the moment. If I can laugh–as it’s happening–that’s a surefire way to lighten the load.

  3. Gretchen Cruden Post author


    I can quite tell-you have been in the eddy too! Teaching is a wild ride-not for the faint of heart!


  4. Lynne Olmos

    This post was like a “mirror” for me! This sounds like my afternoon. I needed “we must stand in our shoes and cope with the constant thinking/decision-making/problem-solving and the constant calling out of our names. There is no retreat.”

    To me that is not a negative. And I can tell you are cut of the same cloth. We are there to be models of patience and steadiness in a swirl of chaos.

    You are so right in saying that stress management is the key to happiness in this career. We need to mentor aspiring and new teachers to roll with the everyday madness and take time to look back and giggle at the funny moments, too. 🙂


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