8 ways to remove stress from your school

Julie Leoni

Julie Leoni is a psychology, counselling, yoga and meditation teacher whose PhD investigated the links between emotions, gender and deviance in schools. She has written three books on well-being and coaches pupils and staff. She regularly writes for Psychologies Magazine and offers free resources on stress, domestic abuse, meditation and well-being at www.julieleoni.com

Julie was recently interviewed on Radio Shropshire to discuss her latest article The psychology behind how schools need to re-open. The interview can be found here

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Originally published on 20th September 2016. Originally published on 20th September 2016.

‘Too much to do and too little time’ is a cry I often hear in schools, and yet how is it that some people have enough time and other people don’t? An ex-colleague used to say: “If you want something doing, give it to a busy person”. So is it that busy people are better with time management, or could it be that they have less to do than they are letting on?

In a previous article I gave statistics for the time lost from teaching as a result of stress. Stress is caused when the perceived demands we face are bigger than our perceived ability to meet those demands, and very often our perceived lack of time is a major cause of stress. This article will offer practical strategies for rethinking and managing time.

Our circadian sleep/wake rhythm is controlled by endogenous pacemakers including the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN). Studies have shown that when external zeitgebers, or signals such as daylight and nightfall or social cues such as meal times and alarm clocks, are removed our"Use group Skype calls at times which suit staff." body still maintains its rhythm of around 24 – 25 hours. So time is therefore, on one level, biological. Even in the North Pole where the winter is almost entirely dark and the summer almost entirely light, a circadian rhythm is maintained.

However, the way we structure our time; wake at 07:00, school from 08:30 until 16:30 and bed by 22:30 is a social construct which impact on our biological drives. For example, research shows that teenagers naturally wake two hours later than the rest of the population and schools which have changed their start time to 10am and found that behaviour has improved and exam results have gone up. Here are eight methods for making your school a happier, less stressful place:

1. Times in the School Day

Monkseaton School changed the times of the school day to improve efficacy and schools have some control over the timings of their day and there is no ‘right way’ to do this. Some schools have very short breaks to minimise social time conflicts. While this minimises the stress of dealing with those issues, it can increase pupil and staff stress, and there is very little time to get food and relax. Some schools start early and finish early - others, vice versa.

The thing is to notice what is working for your school. If you are in the north of the UK, early starts in the winter when it’s dark may not work for all of your school population. Ask your staff what works for them. Can they juggle an early start and their own childcare? Can the time of the school day be changed to avoid rush hour traffic? What do parents need? What works for the young people? So often we take time structures as given, we don’t take time to observe and ask the people within those structures what they need.

2. Minimise meetings

  • Too many organisations have meetings ‘because we always have’ or because they ‘should’, and then oblige people to attend the meeting and stay even when there is no real need. Start by asking yourself: “why are we meeting?”
  • If it’s to disseminate information – would emails work, or could you cut down meeting time by asking people to have read the information before hand and then just use the meeting for questions.
  • If it’s for collaboration – large groups don’t function as easily as smaller groups, so would it be better to talk to people in twos and threes about work they are doing?
  • If it’s for planning and creating – do you have enough time? Creative thinking and planning need a total focus and immersion to be most effective, and short meetings just pay lip-service to this. Is school the best place for original thinking? Getting out
  • of school can offer new perspectives and more free thinking.

3. Change meetings

  • Use group Skype calls at times which suit staff.
  • Use email for information and only meet to follow up.
  • Cancel meetings that aren’t needed and end them when there is nothing more to do. Be aware of people’s energy levels; there is no point meeting when people are so tired they can’t think.
  • Meet with smaller groups, with more focus and keep them focused.
  • Consider shorter meetings which are more frequent – just as the students work best when they have small chunks to focus on at a time, the same is true for adults. Short, punchy meetings with one clear focus and outcome might work better.
  • Make meetings enjoyable and healthy – go for a walk as a department and plan, create and problem solve as you are walking. Meet in cafés, parks, get outside on a sunny day. Well being leads to better performance so filling people with cake and
  • Making them sit still is counter-productive at the end of a long day.
  • Meet in the mornings rather than after school.

4. Emails

Emails can take up our time and intrude on our attention. Encourage and support staff to have an ‘email window’ during which they look at and respond to emails, leaving them free from the obligation to check during the rest of the day. Allow them to set up rules regarding their emails, which manage when emails arrive and the expectation of when they will be answered.

5. Do less

It sounds obvious, but if there is too much change, too much to do, everything gets done less efficiently, and stress increases. Focus and prioritise. What is the one key thing you want your staff to give their time and attention to? Allow time for this to be explored, developed and embedded before moving on to the next thing.

6. Unstructured time

Google famously allocates 10% of work time to employees own projects and to their own thinking time. Their buildings are designed so that there are social spaces where people can just ‘bump into’ each other and spend unstructured time. Google knows that having space and time to think and chat is where innovation is nurtured. So much of school time is structured and busy, and there can be a feeling that if people aren’t busy they aren’t working. We don’t just need worker ants in schools, we need thinking, creative reflective practitioners, and this comes when people are chilling and chatting and connecting without an agenda or a time frame.

7. Change the culture

Encourage staff to become aware of their own energy levels so that they can avoid stress as much as possible. Some people are larks; they think well in the morning and fade out in the afternoon. Other people can only grunt first thing but are on fire as the day goes on. How can you support staff in attuning to the times when they work best and how can you be flexible in your systems and structures to facilitate their rhythms?

Busy does not mean productive or effective. The people who look busy and run round telling people they are busy are not necessarily the staff who have the most impact. Eric Berne’s psychological description of the harried housewife is equally true of the harried teacher: so busy that nothing gets done well.

Stop rewarding and recognising people who take on more than they can manage and then take time off for illness or stress, or people who multi-task and drop balls or snap at people. Start noticing and focusing on the people who calmly get on with their work, who do things well and with consideration. Too often we notice the visible people who make sure we know how busy and stressed they are. Stress is not a sign of efficacy, being too busy is not a badge of importance or success. Make your school a Zen school; encourage focus, attention, patience, awareness and reflection.

Schools are made of individuals who all have their own psychologies and drivers, but having a leadership and a school culture which is supportive of calm focus will encourage even the most disorganised employee to work differently.

Taking time to do nothing often brings everything into perspective” – Doe Zantamata

The Dalai Lama, when asked how he fitted meditation into his busy life, smiled and replied that on normal days, he meditates for one hour in the morning. He then smiled even bigger and said that on extremely busy days, he meditates for two hours in the morning. Although this sounds counter-intuitive, being busy can often be a sign of what I call ‘headless chicken syndrome’ - when we are just running around because we are so stressed that we have forgotten to ask what our main purpose and values are. We need to calm the mental noise and the ego’s need to be seen to be doing something in order to feel important or valid and stop. The busier we are, the more we need to challenge why we are so busy and to prioritise and focus on what matters.

8. Help staff manage their time

Many teachers make lists of ‘things to do’, which although captures their tasks, does not maximise their efficiency. One of the most well used time management tools is Covey’s Urgent Important Matrix. This allows staff to think about what is urgent, what is not urgent, what is important and what is not important, and to manage their time accordingly. Try making a copy of the matrix and asking your staff to fill it in for the week. Get them to look at the ‘not important/ not urgent’ box and invite them to cross everything out. Ask them to consider what ‘important’ means to them.

Another time management tool uses the metaphor of rocks, pebbles, sand and water, and you can demonstrate this in assemblies and staff meetings. Take a clear container, some rocks, pebbles, sand and water, and ask people the order in which those materials need to be added to the container in order for it all to fit. The big rocks have to go in first, then the pebbles, then the sand and finally the water and the smaller pieces fit around the bigger. If you fill the container with pebbles and sand first the bigger rocks don’t fit in.

This is the same for our time. The big rocks are the most important things, the things which move us forward towards our goals and they have to be prioritised when our energy is highest and then the less important things can fit in around them.

I use my own time management tool which is a table with ‘Want to / Have to /Could’ at the top of three columns. "All too often exercise and diet go by the wayside as the term goes on."Just asking myself what I ‘have to’ do clarifies my thinking, as it really makes me focus on what I have no choice but to tackle. The ‘want to’ column is exciting, fun and energising. This is where I might put in subject reading, planning, my more creative work. Sometimes I start with something I want to do as it energises me for the things I have to do. At other times I do the things I have to do first knowing that there are things I want to do awaiting me.

Encourage staff to include wellbeing, family time and social time in their time management. A sick teacher is an absent teacher, which serves no one, and contact with friends and family is vital for stress reduction and support. All too often relationships, exercise and a healthy diet go by the wayside as the term goes on, and it is no surprise that sickness and absence rates increase. Therefore, planning for these parts of our lives serves the school as well as the individual.

If you don’t make the time to work on creating a life that you want, you’re eventually going to be forced to spend a lot of time dealing with a life you don’t want.” – Kevin Ngo

Give staff pocket-sized notebooks with blank pages to doodle and draw their time management tools in so that they carry their tasks there, and not in their heads, thus freeing up creative thinking space.

Encourage staff to clear their desk at the end of the day, even if not everything is finished. Make sure they allow themselves time plan for the next day before they leave. This means that when they arrive the next day that can hit the ground running as they know what to do. It also means that they leave school at school and can relax a home, knowing that they have time for themselves.

"The way we spend our time defines who we are.” – Jonathan Estrin

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