Living and Teaching with Stress

By Scott Knecht This morning I was reminded of a dinner my wife and I went to with another couple some years ago. This was a young couple, newly wed maybe 2-3 years and not yet with any children. During the course of the evening the husband made this statement: “Our goal is to live a stress-free life.” I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly so I asked him to repeat the statement, which he did, word for word. My wife and I kept looking quizzically at each other, as in “Did he really say that? Did he mean it?” I asked him to explain what he meant by that and he said that their goal was to so order their lives as to avoid any and all stress and to just be able to glide along from day to day, happy, smiling, and content.

I thought it was a teaching opportunity so I asked him if he knew that the very building we were in stood because of stress. The various pieces of wood that made up the walls and the roof relied on being joined to one another in such a way that the stress caused by the weight and the angles actually brought them together and caused for a very strong structure. If the stress was removed then there would be just a pile of lumber – no stress but nothing standing. The stress was necessary for the building to stand.

How would you like to have a stress-free teaching experience? The students file in, smiling, on time. They sit in order and are prompt in their questions and responses. The each have a perpetually good attitude and are eager to learn. They never speak out of turn and are uniformly polite to the teacher and to their classmates. Prior to class you have all the time you need to prepare your lesson and after class plenty of time with students and their work. All of your equipment works perfectly. Would you love that? I don’t think I would for more than a day or two. There is no stress, no pushing and pulling against something that is so necessary to wake us up and cause us to learn. It would be like flying a kite with no wind, like trying to sail a ship in the doldrums.

Teachers and students need something to lean into. That’s why Nephi says that we must “press forward” as we move towards perfection. He could have said “walk forward” or “move forward”. But he uses the verb “press” which indicates that there will always be some kind of opposition or stress as we move towards good things. That includes teaching and learning.

I’ve found that most of my stress doesn’t happen in the classroom, during class. Being with the students is the fun part. But if I need copies and the copy machine doesn’t work, that could be stressful. If the projector bulb is burned out and there is no replacement because someone (probably me) forgot to get one, things could get a little shaky. If I run out of time to prepare and have to enter class feeling unprepared and not quite ready that could cause me to be a little stressed. It is all of the factors around the classroom that seem to do it for me.

So here is how I have learned to handle it: if it is a time issue I take full responsibility for it. All of us have all the time there is. Sometimes we just misuse it. It is counter productive to blame our lack of time on anything else. To enter class unprepared is my mistake and I have to muddle through and do better next time. If the machinery is down and out and I can’t get the copies I need or show the video clip that I want to show, well that’s just how it goes. If I’m a teacher, I better be able to teach without copies and projectors. They are nice but not necessary. What’s necessary is me, the students and the textbook. And if things really go sideways, I have learned to say “how fascinating” and forge ahead. Feel free to use that phrase. I learned it from someone else and now pass it to you. You’ll feel a lot better if you do.

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