The Impact of Stress in the Classroom

One of the surprising discoveries people make when they do an embodiment course is just how little pressure it takes for their bodies to begin to tighten and their minds to narrow. A tiny amount of pressure — even the simple anticipation of such pressure — initiates a whole cascade of constricting physical and mental reactions. These undeniable experiences lead to an acknowledgement that stress and its effects are not confined to the people that we typically label as ‘stressed’, or the days we call ‘tough’.

In truth, we are all dealing with stress, and our survival response is very often labouring away in the background, quietly preparing us for fight, flight or freeze. Often hidden from awareness, it narrows our view of the world, seeks security, and controls our connections to others. It’s so woven into our experience of ourselves that, like fish in water, we can hardly see it, or we rationalize it as simply how we and the world are.

Chronic or long-term stress and our obvious or hidden ways of coping with it play a big role in shaping the particular presence of a classroom teacher. Even a ‘relaxed’ teacher is dealing with an enormous range of ‘incoming’: – demands for their time, energy and attention.


Many school leaders and trainers are mis-diagnosing the problem when they come across a teacher who is struggling in the classroom, and it leads to advice and programmes that are less effective than they might be, and which are sometimes entirely counter-productive.

Most of the teachers I have seen in this situation are not there because they lack understanding of school policies, or methods and techniques of pedagogy. It’s not because their commitment to improving the lives of their students is missing. Instead they are generally teachers who are overwhelmed mentally, emotionally, or physically by the intensity of stimulation in the classroom environment, and whose bodies have gone into a long-running and entrenched stress response.

Let’s take a step back from the classroom first.

Evolution’s Legacy

We know a lot about the way the mind and body deals with overwhelm and stress. These are of course variations of fight, flight, freeze or flock, inherited from our ancestors and they are hard-wired into all of us. As we grow up and develop out of childhood these general possibilities are shaped into our own individual patterns of reaction.

Let’s step away from the classroom to go a little deeper.

  1. When we are in danger, or threatened in any way, the body firstly restricts the amount of information coming into our awareness. If there is a sabre toothed tiger in the forest, that’s what we need to focus on! Not the cloud cover. Nor on the colours we need for the cave painting later in the day. Sometimes this can lead literally to ‘tunnel vision or hearing’. Our sensory range narrows right down to the size of the perceived threat.
  2. Not only do we lose our access to a bigger picture, but crucially the type of information that does get through emphasises only those elements of the environment that we believe are a threat. We see the negative much more powerfully than any positives. After all, this focus on the danger kept our ancestors alive.
  3. We also lose access to creativity in favour of habit. The body wants to preserve energy in any threatening situation, so there is more available for survival needs. So it runs programmes that are already well established in us, using neural networks already deeply ‘grooved’. Doing or learning something new requires energy and under threat the body says very firmly… ‘Not now! Do that another time’!
  4. A complex hormonal cocktail washes through the body limiting or closing down feelings of empathy and compassion in favour of our immediate survival.
  5. Our nervous system triggers the fight, flight or freeze response. We are primed for aggression, withdrawal or paralysis.
  6. For the duration of the perceived threat all sorts of physical processes are also shut down , including our digestive, growth, immune and sexual systems.

This is the mind and body of someone who is threatened, who is feeling a lack of personal power in the face of an overwhelming environment.

Back to the Classroom

A classroom (or a family for that matter) can be just such an environment. With its busy-ness, its varying levels of resistance and complex dynamics, it can easily and repeatedly provoke either full flare-ups of a fight or flight response, or more often a low grade, long-lasting, slow burning response, hovering just below or at the edge of our awareness.

Imagine putting this reactive mind and body under stress in the classroom. We can anticipate some of the results. Overwhelmed teachers may behave ineffectively, but not unreasonably, from the point of view of our body’s inherited fight, flight or freezes response. Instead, they often behave entirely consistently with this deep inbuilt survival mechanism.

The Signs of Overwhelm

Here are some of the signs of a struggling teacher and how they correspond to this mechanism.

Overwhelmed teachers miss vital information about the developing interactions in their classroom, preventing them from intervening early in a situation, avoiding its escalation, as their brains limit the information it processes. They might then over-react to a challenge when it is developed and unavoidable. (Fight). Or challenge it weakly and ineffectively, keeping an essential core part of themselves safely out of the challenge. (Flight.) Attuned only to the dangers, they often see only the problems, rather than the potential, of a class. Their relationships with students might be characterized by anger or despair, rather than compassion and confidence, as their bodies get flooded with stress hormones.

There are more subtle signs too.

Sometimes a subtle distance opens up between their subject and their selves, because they suspect their enthusiasm and heart-felt engagement will not be honoured in the classroom. It often appears in the way they limit the range and emotional expressiveness of their voice and presence. It feels unsafe to be emotionally open. Where a struggling teacher does remain emotionally expressive, it is likely to be at the ‘negative’ end of the spectrum of emotions:- anger, disappointment, resentment, even fear.

Defensive rather than creative teaching methods might be favoured, aimed at dampening down and over-containing the class rather than inspiring and energising it. Relationships and interactions in the class may be handled with a sense of ‘efficiency’ and speed, failing to effectively connect to their students. They might miss the class’s potential, or fail to respond to its complex demands, as the teacher’s energy withdraws behind a protective barrier. They will tire quickly, and get ill more often.

What can be done?

From this perspective a lot of what can be labeled as ‘unsatisfactory’ teaching can be understood as the entirely natural and consistent product of the overwhelm of a teacher’s physical and mental system. Advice to such teachers along the lines of “Follow the school behavior policy!”, “Be more confident!”, “Don’t be afraid to challenge them more quickly!” can miss out the simple understanding that such valuable actions will only be possible after they find ways of dealing with the overwhelm.

Of course, fundamental things must be done through school policies to make classrooms less stressful and sometimes overwhelming. This is not at all an argument against such actions. Yet great policies and valid suggestions can be scuppered on this deeper substratum of our physiological, emotional and mental response to overwhelm. Despite this frequent experience, this layer is rarely addressed. And being rarely addressed, it leaves teachers subject to developmental programmes and advice that do not speak to the underlying and causal issue, further overwhelming the teacher with demands they can’t meet and guilt-producing well intentioned advice. (And incidentally, it also places the responsibility for dealing with overwhelm entirely on the school leadership, removing the teacher themselves from being any part of  a solution.)

The Good News

This is particularly sad when the good news is that we can train ourselves to increase our tolerance for situations that previously felt overwhelming. We can expand our capacity for spaciousness under pressure. We can empower ourselves as teachers to deal with whatever is coming at us with greater dignity, grace and skill.

At present this development of ‘tolerance’ happens almost solely as a side effect of simply throwing new teachers in at the deep end, immersing them in the classroom.  Most teachers, of course, do get through. Some merely become numbed. Many stay a while and then go.

Attending to the Whole

The impact of stress in the classroom

I believe this inattention to the embodied experience of teachers weakens our long-term development of teachers significantly. From the very beginning we could prepare our teachers more skilfully, avoiding much of the collateral damage and erosion of those first rough engagements, if we gave them an understanding of what their whole mind and body will be doing.  If, further along the way, as careers develop, we paid more attention to the inner dimensions of the teacher’s life. And if we gave teachers strategies for working with their physical response, their presence and shape in the classroom, so they can access tools and resources to handle the amount and quality of energy that is coming at them.

That, of course, is where the Centre for Embodied Wisdom, comes in, offering programmes that respect the wholeness of teachers and working at the many levels of being involved in classroom presence: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. If you would like to learn how to develop your teaching presence, please join one of our Fundamentals events or contact John about his course and laboratory for teachers.

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