A Quiet Problem That is Spinning Out of Control

Teachers are forgoing their lunch breaks to cover unsupervised classrooms, monitor lunch lines, and become substitute bus drivers. Students are being subjected to longer bus rides and diminished lunch options. Principals are still searching everywhere they can to fill dozens of open positions, including those that have opened up since September.

These are just a sampling of the havoc that widespread staff shortages are wreaking on the nation’s 3.8 million teachers, 91,000 principals, and roughly 3 million support staff who work in public schools, according to interviews with educators and administrators and an Education Week analysis of local media reports.

Forty percent of district leaders and principals describe their current staff shortages as “severe” or “very severe,” according to a survey conducted Sept. 29 to Oct. 8 by the EdWeek Research Center.

When it comes to SPED Directors finding quality teachers to fill the growing gaps, the picture isn’t any prettier. Crucial job openings that would normally attract many applicants are going to candidates who are underqualified or remain empty.

Those students in desperate need of services are suffering, and the anxiety levels of SPED Directors are going through the roof!

In an attempt to cope, many SPED Directors choose to self-medicate, with coffee, colas, and energy drinks by day and perhaps a couple of “harder” drinks or other chemical sleep assistance at night. Eating? They either overeat, don’t eat, or binge on the wrong things. Exercise? It usually doesn’t remain on the to-do list very long.

How Can we help SPED Directors avoid unthinkable collapse?

5 Tested Stress-Relieving Strategies

1. Become Familiar With Your Stress Responses

Pay careful attention to how your body reacts to stress. Are you experiencing a faster heart rate? Do you feel overly warm? Do you feel your jaw clenching? Are headaches or stomach aches becoming part of your daily life? Recognizing your body’s stress response will enable you to engage it by becoming more resilient.

How are your communication and behavior being impacted? Are you speaking louder, harsher, faster, or with more emotion?

Do your teachers feel threatened, left in the dark, or dumped on? Are you ratcheting up the pressure on your employees? Are you failing to keep your commitments at work, or do you wait until you come home at night and then dump on your wife and kids?

2. Self-Regulation

Among the many definitions of self-regulation, the one that is most helpful for SPED Directors is by Dr. Stuart Shanker. He defines self-regulation as “how people manage stress, how much energy we expend, and how well we recover.”

These are the five steps:

a. Reframe Behavior

Asking “why and why now” questions helps us to understand our feelings and reactions. We need to engage the neocortex, or prefrontal cortex, which allows us to think, reason, and plan. This requires us to recognize when we are reacting from our “reptilian” brain instead, which takes charge when we feel threatened, or the “mammalian brain,” which focuses on strong emotions and urges.

b. Recognize the Stressors

We are often bombarded by stressors from multiple domains simultaneously. Imagine the following scenario. Rushing to an appointment with no time for breakfast (biological stressor) while feeling worried about being late for an appointment (emotional and prosocial stressors). Recognizing these stressors helps us to address them.

c. Reduce Stressors

Reducing stressors doesn’t mean eliminating all stress from our lives. Some stress is necessary for us to be engaged and productive. But by reducing the stressors, we can save the energy we would have expended on them, and redeploy them for coping with other stressors.

d. Reflection Enhances Stress Awareness

Sometimes people view busyness as the barometer of their importance and worth. When you reframe that, and become aware of the detrimental impact of that busyness, you are more able to find time to take a self-regulation break and bring yourself closer to calmness.

e. Respond

Every SPED Director needs to create a toolbox of self-regulation strategies that promote calm and alertness. Make sure you consider some restoration strategies that you can use while you’re at work. For example, observing one of your Special Education teachers working her magic with the children will help restore your energy.

3. Exercise

Regular exercise, aside from being critical to maintaining your physical health, provides psychological benefits to counteract stress. Exercise enhances the sense that you are in control, raises your self-esteem, and helps you to regulate your emotions.

When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. When these endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain they reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine.

4. Stress Breaks

Incorporate stress breaks. More than 90% of leaders report that they manage stress by temporarily removing themselves, either physically or mentally, from the source of their stress. Get up from your desk, walk around, or get out for some fresh air every 90 minutes or so. If you are pressed for time, doing some deep breathing, shoulder shrugs, or even closing your eyes for one minute can help.

5. Getting Enough Sleep

A key enemy of Cognitive Resilience, the ability to overcome negative effects of stress on cognitive functioning, is lack of sleep, especially chronic sleep loss. This has been found to be endemic at senior leadership levels. It’s critical to ensure that you get sufficient sleep each week. Short naps can significantly help to close your sleep deficit.

When Less is More

Professional athletes understand that it is to their disadvantage to incessantly push themselves to perform at 100% of their capacity. Crucial to their success is the necessity to build into their training routines some time to recharge their batteries.

Recharging can be done in a variety of ways. Sometimes this can be done by setting effective boundaries, such as turning off your cell phone and laptop during family time, listening to relaxing music on your ride home, or engaging socially.

It is essential to remember that relaxing, aside from being enjoyable, is crucial for clear and creative thinking, energizing relationships, and good health. Know that the time and energy you spend away from work isn’t being wasted; on the contrary, it enhances your productivity and your capacity to deal with challenges more effectively!