podcast for teachers episode cover: reducing teacher stress 5 lessons from Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Reducing Teacher Stress: 5 Lessons from 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' (Best Books for Teachers Part 2)

podcast Nov 03, 2023

Teaching is Stressful: Let's Focus on the "Big Stuff"

Teaching is stressful. There are a thousand moving parts, personalities, and distractions. Every day is filled with a million little stresses that can pile up and feel overwhelming. One of the most productive ways we can avoid teacher burnout and stress is to differentiate between the "big stuff" (worthy of stress and immediate intervention) and the "small stuff" (make like Elsa and "let it go!") If your nervous system responds the same way to a student wearing their baseball cap backward as it does a student hurling desks then you are going to be constantly triggered, stressed and exhausted.

In this post, I take a look at Dr. Richard Carlson's classic book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” and pick out the top five simple yet powerful ideas from the book to help teachers let go of minor irritations and avoid every day in the classroom feeling like a stress marathon.

Tip #1: Let Go of the Idea that Gentle, Relaxed People Can't Be Super Achievers

The myth that the teacher who stays at school until dark, volunteers for everything, and appears constantly busy is a better teacher needs to retire. Being highly effective has nothing to do with a frazzled persona. Kind, calm teachers who leave on time have just as much impact through building connections. Give yourself permission to back off the frantic pace. Learn how to set healthy boundaries. And stop being secretly judgy of teachers who don't sacrifice themselves on the altar of overwork. Somehow we've created a toxic culture of thinking that anyone who doesn't volunteer massive hours of free overtime to teach is not doing their job effectively.

Tip # 2: Be Happy Where You Are

Don’t put off happiness waiting for the “perfect” grade level, students, or school. Sure, we all have preferences about what grade to teach, which classroom we want, and which students and parents we would love to have on our roster. The perfect class doesn't exist. The school year is going to move through its 180-day cycle no matter what. Decide to make the best of things in the situation you find yourself in. Make peace with the imperfect. It's a human tendency to think that the grass is always greener somewhere else. Life has taught me that the grass is greener where you water it. Start nurturing where you are instead of always thinking it's going to be better somewhere else.

Tip # 3: If Someone Throws You the Ball, You Don't Have to Catch It

There are two aspects to this. One has to do with getting defensive and getting pulled into arguments. We know this with classroom management, right? The first rule of dealing with hostile students is "do not engage." What if we took the same stance with aggressive parents, disgruntled co-workers, and others in our path? When they throw us a ball, we can choose not to engage. I like to visualize myself taking a side step and watching the ball fall on the ground and roll away.

The same goes for issues not directly related to you and your students. Getting riled up over other teachers’ problems or district issues that don’t directly concern you only breeds more stress. Save your energy for what’s in your control. Activism matters, but choose wisely what you invest your energy in. Sometimes, it simply boils down to what I've told students for many years, "Life goes smoother when you stay in your lane."

Tip # 4: Spend a Moment Every Day Thinking of Someone to Thank

Simple gratitude transforms outlook fast. Make it a daily habit to thank someone – a custodian, bus driver, parent, student, or colleague. Science validates that spreading thanks boosts your own mood, too. One easy way to accomplish this is to look at your e-mail inbox as a treasure trove of positive interactions (yep, that's a mindset shift for sure!) I like to think, "Who can I thank today?"  Many of those who email you from your school district office probably have pretty thankless jobs. A simple response to an email that says, "I appreciate you" can go a long way.

Tip #5: Look for the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein, who said,

"There's only two ways to look at the world: either nothing's a miracle, or everything is." 

That's one of the reasons I loved spending my day with younger students - they still have that sense of wonder. Consider the fact that we live on a rock, orbiting the sun in perfect proximity for life to flourish, held there by an invisible force. It's extraordinary. Consider how the name for the invisible force was discovered, an apple falling from a tree, and a man wondering, "Huh? How come things always fall toward the ground?"

One way that I incorporated this into my daily teaching was to go on an "I notice and I wonder" walk with students. We'd go on a little walk, take our journals, and sit and contemplate for a few minutes the things we noticed and what we wondered about them. It's the foundation of all science, right?

Turning up the wonder can help diminish stress and also help you see things with a greater perspective.


Teaching will always include big, real challenges. But by keeping little frustrations in perspective, staying present, and nurturing relationships and optimism, you can find more daily joy. What matters is choosing peace along the journey. 


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