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A High School Teacher's 10 Strategies for Handling Anxiety of a New School Year

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Two weeks and one day — the countdown to the start of school. I’ve been avoiding the back-to-school aisle at Target because I cannot bear to see the physical reminders that summer is almost over. In two weeks, I go back to being Mrs. Skar. (I shed that persona a few weeks ago and really don’t feel ready to put it back on.) I think many students assume teachers are excited to go back to school. Maybe some are. I am usually not. I enjoy my summers with my children: sleeping in, reading books, playing at the park, and going to the gym. So when it’s time to head back to the routine, I tend to get a little anxious.

I teach high school English, which means nine months of my life are devoted to reading novels, poems, short stories, and student essays — and grading those essays. It’s a lot of work, and I expect a lot of myself. My high expectations can cause a lot of anxiety.

However, during my 12 years of teaching, I have found some strategies to help me cope, and sometimes even avoid, school stress. This year, I plan to share them with my students.

1. Show up. This is one of the most important life lessons you will learn from school. Show up. If you’re one of those students who’s always late or pretends to be sick, this is the one thing I want you to take away from this list. I know you because, for a time, I was you.  I was nervous about what was in store for me. I was anxious because I didn’t feel prepared for the day. I was scared to face the consequences. So I’d miss school. Guess what? All of the things I was scared of were still there the next day, but there were more added. Sometimes just showing up is the hardest part, but it’s also the most important part. Show up.

2. Prioritize. Use a planner to make a list of what needs to get done, when it needs to be done, and how long it will take. Not only will this help you plan ahead, but it will also take away the burden of remembering everything you have to do. Realize not every assignment will take hours to complete; some may take only a few minutes. I like to start with one, easy-to-complete task before I start a more difficult one.  I treat it like a warm-up for my brain so by the time I’m done, my brain is ready to work on that next difficult task. If you’re one of those “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” people, this will be life-changing for you.

3. Listen to your teachers. They kind of know what they’re talking about. Whether it’s a life lesson or a homework reminder, there’s so much you can garner from these people who have seen it all before you have (remember, they were once teenagers). For instance, if your teacher tells you not to wait until Sunday night to do the reading, I’d suggest taking her advice. There’s probably a reason.

4. Get to know your teachers. Did you know teachers were once students? Did you know teachers are actual people who go home after work? Did you know they have lives outside of school? Your teachers are not the enemy. Most of us became teachers because we enjoy working with students. (Seriously, I love working with high schoolers because they remind me what it was like to be young and they are hilarious.) Getting to know your teachers will help you feel more comfortable asking for help when you need it. Will there be some teachers you get along with better than others?  Yes, but that’s life. You still need to be respectful to the teachers you don’t like.

5. Ask for help when you need it. The critical thinking process is important,
so while it’s good to ask for help, you need to make an honest effort first.

6. Find your learning style. Your teachers are not responsible for your learning — you are.  You need to find what works best for you. Whether it’s listening, visualizing, or experiencing, figure it out and play to your strengths.

7. Don’t demand perfection of yourself. No one is perfect, so don’t try to be.

8. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Making mistakes is a vital part of the learning process. Learning isn’t supposed to be easy. It can even be a bit painful at times, but you often learn more from the mistakes you make. Some of my students are so afraid of failure that it freezes them. They will sit and stare at an empty computer screen for 50 minutes in fear that their first sentence won’t be perfect. It probably won’t be. My advice to them is to write whatever comes to mind and don’t worry about grammar, spelling, etc. You can always go back and make changes, but only if you write something.

9. Don’t stress about grades. Easier said than done, I know. Grades are important, but they are not the most important thing. The most important things you’ll learn in high school do not come from a textbook. You should learn how to think for yourself, how to form an opinion, and how to be a decent person. If you do not learn these things, you are wasting your time.

10. Take time to be a kid. Many of my students are involved in so many activities that they run from one thing to another, then go home, eat, do homework, and sleep. They have no time to be kids. Being in activities is great, but you need to limit yourself. It’s OK to cut one activity. Instead, make some time to read a good book, go to a movie, go on a picnic with your friends, or go for a run.

The school year will be starting soon. I’m already having some anxiety thinking about it, but going through my strategies helps. It reminds me of what’s important and why I went into teaching in the first place. Every school year is a chance to start new. Take that chance.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: August 4, 2016
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