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How to Cope with Teaching Anxiety

A young teacher nervously bites at her fingernails.

Teaching anxiety is common—but it's also treatable.

Anxiety is a common—if often overlooked—issue in the United States. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that 40 million adult Americans—about 18 percent of the population—are affected by anxiety disorders. The ADAA notes that a mix of genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events contribute to anxiety symptoms.

In a field as fast-paced and important as education, teaching anxiety is prevalent. With the right strategies, though, teachers can learn to cope with anxiety.

Anxiety in the Classroom

My colleague Maya had teaching anxiety, and it seemed to get worse as the school year went on.

Further Reading: 5 Tips to Help Teachers Cope with Sunday Night Anxiety

"It got to the point that I was having trouble sleeping," she says. "I started out in September with such enthusiasm, and by January I was depressed and dreading every Monday morning. Honestly, I wasn't sure I'd make it through the year."

Maya had been living with low-level anxiety before she started teaching, and she had no difficulty identifying the factors at school that were making it worse: the curriculum was new and unfamiliar, some of her students were disrespectful, and the previous year had been taught almost entirely by a number of substitutes. Maya struggled to manage her challenging classroom effectively.

Maya's experience is unfortunately all too common—but it's also possible to overcome.

Helpful Coping Strategies

As Maya's anxiety worsened, she took creative steps toward improving her mental health and gaining confidence in the classroom. For example, she asked her colleagues to visit her as she taught.

"Just their presence as another set of eyes seemed to help kids behave better," she says.

Maya took her colleagues' advice about classroom management and assigned seats in clusters, which separated distractable buddies. She implemented active reading and student participation activities that helped establish order. When she gained control of the classroom, she gained confidence, and the organization, control, and adaptability she displayed helped improve her anxiety.

One technique that really helped, she said, was to put a yellow ticket on a student's desk. The ticket simply said "Please see me after class" and provided no further context. Maybe it was for a word of praise, an idea about how a paper could be better, or a suggestion about improving behavior.

"Kids loved it," Maya says, "because it singled them out for attention."

Focusing on what she could control seemed to temper her teaching anxiety. She couldn't change the administration. She couldn't change the curriculum. She couldn't change the unannounced classroom observations. But she could—and did—change classroom behaviors. She was still teaching with anxiety, but it was becoming manageable.

Finding What Works for You

Developing strategies to reduce your stress is key to handling teaching anxiety. Practicing lessons can help you feel more confident in your teaching ability. Having a contingency plan or a backup lesson is helpful in the event of random schedule changes or interruptions. Healthline suggests focusing on self-care, such as going for walks, writing down your thoughts, adjusting your diet, and meditating. These strategies can help teachers feel more confident and in control.

For some teachers, teaching itself can help manage anxiety. Tom Rademacher, Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2014, has lived with anxiety for most of his professional life, and he says that it's been an unexpected boon.

"Teaching gave me the tools to live with anxiety, and my anxiety issues gave me the empathy and perspective to teach better," he wrote for Education Post.

The ADAA reports that anxiety disorders affect as much as 25 percent of kids 13 to 18 years old, and if their anxiety is untreated, these students are more likely to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and abuse drugs and alcohol. Teachers like Maya and Tom Rademacher, who know anxiety symptoms firsthand, can identify anxiety in their students and help them manage it.

Gaining Control

Still, some teachers find that, despite self-care and the employment of various classroom techniques, their anxiety continues to get in the way of feeling as though they're in control of their environment. In cases such as these, seeing a doctor or counselor or taking medication can help reduce anxiety. Some schools have employee assistance programs, which can provide counseling or referrals.

For Maya, moving to another school district was the best choice for her anxiety and mental health. At her new school, she felt healthier and better able to manage her classes and her anxiety.

"Things are a lot better," she says. "I still get anxious, but this school is well managed, the kids are generally respectful, and you pretty much know what's going to happen tomorrow or next week. And I still practice the self-care strategies I learned last year."

Further Reading: 6 Strategies to Relieve Teacher Anxiety

Anxiety is common among teachers and students, but it is treatable. You can identify and reduce stress factors. You can focus on self-care. And if anxiety gets in the way of performing your job, you can pursue counseling and medication. It's important to remember that you don't have to go it alone.