Teaching: Managing End-Of-Term Stress

Here we are, most of us, at the end of the spring term. For those of us who are teaching as well as finishing up our own reponsibilities as students, things probably seem pretty dicey right about now–papers to write; or comprehensive examinations to prep for, take, or defend; or putting the finishing touches on the dissertation; and then of course our responsibilities to our students, chief among these at this point grading final essays, projects, and exams, and dealing with issues of attendance and plagiarism.This point in the academic year can seem like one big, uninterrupted stressfest. Here are some suggestions for dealing with the work without feeling as though everything is completely beyond your control:

Streamline your life. From the beginning of the last week of classes through the last final exam, strike all nonessential activities, duties, and events from your agenda, and fiercely protect that blank space on your calendar so you have the time you need to grade your students’ work and finish any writing tasks of your own. (But, do schedule one or two fun things that won’t take up too much time but will provide you with the chance to relax by doing something you enjoy, like going for a walk or run, taking in a movie, or having lunch with friends).

Seek out a support system. If you have a supportive cohort or advisor, DO spend time with them discussing problems and issues you are having and soliciting advice if you need it (but remember they are also busy, and don’t overstay your welcome or become too needy or clingy). If you don’t have much support in your department or among your cohort, seek it out elsewhere–at home, or among your other friends outside of the department. You need people with whom you can discuss matters of concern to you.

Avoid negativity. Do NOT get sucked into a vortex of negativity. If the TA or grad lounge is a pit of despair and people only go in there to vent and complain, steer clear. It’s one thing to need to vent occasionally to get a particular incident or exchange out of your system–everyone gets to that point once in a while. But if it is all doom-and-gloom all of the time and the venting just becomes a spiraling discussion of how bad everything is every time you’re in the room, you won’t find relief in such a toxic environment. Negativity promotes negativity, and even if things are going fairly well you can find yourself sucked in–which can actually make everything seem ten times worse than it is. Seek out a more positive location.

Take a break. It seems counter-intuitive to say “ohmygosh, I have fifty billion things to do and no time to get it all done and I’m going to tank and it will be a spectacular mess and aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” and then turn around and take an evening or weekend day off. But, in fact, that may be precisely what you need to do in order to get through everything on your plate. As graduate students, we are capable of undertaking extremely punishing workloads, and some of us are capable of carrying those workloads for quite a while before it really gets to us–but everyone reaches a point of saturation at which, regardless of how badly you want to keep going, you simply cannot. If you’re nodding off or incapable of focusing on the task at hand, put the work down, get something to eat, go for a walk or watch something mindless on TV, take a nap or go to bed early. I never cease to be amazed at my ability to handle seemingly impossible workloads (100 essays to grade in 24 hours, for example) after I’ve had a bit of a rest–I am much more focused and efficient when I’m not completely exhausted.

Housework: delegate, or let it go. If you live with a significant other or nonacademic or non-teaching person, negotiate with them that for the next three weeks they handle the essential tasks–dishes, for instance–and nonessenial tasks maybe just don’t get done. If you live alone, even better; you don’t have to answer to anyone and can handle housework (or not) as you see fit. Consider paper plates and plastic cutlery or takeout to avoid cooking and dishes. The laundry doesn’t have to be folded and put away. Nothing terrible is going to happen if your place is untidy for a few weeks. Unless you are a neat freak and cleaning relaxes you, or not-cleaning causes you to develop an anxious tic, give yourself permission to come home and not do anything not work-related. You can have a big old ceremonial cleaning vortex once final grades are in to mark the fresh start to the summer. In our home, it’s understood that no one comes to our apartment from midterm to the end of the term, period. The answer is always simply: “It’s April.” Everyone who knows me knows what that means.

Put yourself first. If you’re struggling to get through the final weeks of the term, limit how much time and attention you spend on other peoples’ problems. A major health crisis or serious issue at work involving a relative or close friend might be an unavoidable concern with which you need to engage, but you don’t need to spend hours on the phone or texting with a friend about his or her latest drama right now. Especially if you’re working, don’t let others encroach on that time. Keep your phone on mute so you’re not distracted by the pings and alerts or unexpected phonecalls. If you can’t mute your phone because you’re expecting an important phone call and someone else does call to chat or seek advice or complain, explain that you are swamped, give them a time they can expect you to call back or get in touch with them, and move on with your work. If social media is relaxing to you, or you feel the need to stay connected, or your primary support system is online via Facebook and similar, fine–but if you spend all of your time private messaging with people who are eating away at your time and energy with their own problems and issues instead of supporting you through your stress, you might consider limiting your time online until the work’s done. For these last weeks of the term, your first priority is getting through your own responsibilities as a student, your second priority is getting through your responsibilities as a teacher, and everything else falls somewhere else on the spectrum—and that’s okay.

Special for parents: It’s not easy to do graduate school with kids in general, but the end of the term is usually the worst of it. I know that it is very easy to feel guilty about not spending time with the kids, but barring serious illness or major issues at school, you still need to prioritize yourself and your students first during these last few weeks at the end of the term. Good parenting isn’t the result of your kids’ constant unrestrained access to you; it’s the result of your mindful presence and making decisions that benefit the family. Sometimes–like these last three or so weeks of the term–“good enough” is the best you can do, and it really is good enough. If you have very young children, arrange to leave them in daycare longer, or get someone you trust to watch them as much as possible. If you have older children, send them to an after-school program, or arrange playdates and sleepovers on weekends. You can then get your work done and pick them up with a smile and hugs and kisses, instead of yelling at them because you’re anxious, stressed, and cannot handle another interruption. I promise you, your children will not be irreparably harmed emotionally or psychologically if you are not available to them 24/7 for three weeks out of the year. As long as you have made arrangements for their care it won’t even register with them. Even (and possibly, especially) newborns, who just need a warm body to cuddle against and regular feeding and diaper-changing. They will all be fine, and in much better shape with a Mommy or Daddy who is not losing it every ten minutes. If you’re really feeling the parenting guilt, you can make up for it when the term’s done with a family movie night where they get to pick the movie, or a trip for ice cream or some other treat, or a nice tuck-in with a good story, or a special breakfast on the weekend. You’ll feel much less guilty this way than you will for yelling at them because you’re stressed and busy.

 

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About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
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