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Teaching under pressure

How to teach under pressure

4 min read
  • Stress management & well-being

Teaching is stressful. Very stressful.

Research by the Teachers Assurance found that 76% of teachers believe the pressure of their work was having a negative impact on their health. Similar percentages were reported in The Association of Teachers and Lecturers 2012 survey, with 73% reporting that this pressure was negatively affecting their well-being, and many believing that their confidence in their ability and their relationship with their partners were suffering as a result. So why are teachers feeling the pressure? Take your pick: demands to be high up the league tablereduced staffing; financial worries. This is only set to increase with the introduction of performance related pay.

Pressure and your brain

The key to performing under this pressure may well be how well you can manage a part of your brain called the pre-frontal lobe. It is associated with planning, memory, decision making and concentration. Under pressure, this part of your brain tends to overload, resulting in people making mistakes (incidentally, this part of your brain only finishes developing in your mid-20s, which is a possible reason why teenage students struggle with these skills. This TED video looks at this in further detail).

Through our experience of working with elite athletes, we developed our LEAP model for helping people perform under pressure. LEAP stands for Language, Emotional Control, Attention and Physiology. For the past six years, we have been running workshops, helping staff and students perform to their potential, especially when under pressure. This blog looks at two of these sections, Language and Attention.

Equip your school staff with the skills to best support their students’ well-being and stress management in the lead up to exams.


In school (and in life), everything you think about can be divided into 3 categories: things you can’t change; things you can influence; and things you can control.  When people dwell on the things they can’t change (like what other people have said and done) they tend to get frustrated. When they overly focus on the things they can only influence (for example, how well their students will do come the end of year), it may make them anxious. By focusing on what you can control, it will increase your confidence and reduce the potential of overly emotional responses.

The key to good focus, therefore, is not how hard you concentrate, but where you place your concentration. It’s not about concentrating more; it’s about concentrating smarter. As we like to say, ‘control the controllables.’


This is all about how you talk to yourself. We all have Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). These negative thoughts just pop into our heads. Some people have an ANT when their alarm goes off in the morning (“I don’t want to get out of bed today), whereas others may have them at the thought of having to teach a difficult class (“I can’t face that year 9 class on a Friday afternoon”). The reasons we have ANTs may have an evolutionary background, because being negative and cautious helped us to survive, as perfectly demonstrated in the Dreamworks film The Croods; however, despite now not being surrounded by predators, we are still naturally negative. It is in our DNA. It’s our default way of functioning.

The first step to squashing your ANTs is to recognise when you have them. Become more attuned to how you talk to yourself. Then, follow it up with a more helpful and constructive sentence. The battle isn’t in never having an ANT; it’s in managing it once you do. You may not be able to control the first thing you say to yourself, but you can control the second and the third.

Teaching under pressure

Here are our four tips for teaching under pressure:

  • Practice recognising your ANTs – The better you are at recognising them, the easier it is to squash them.
  • Ask yourself questions – By asking yourself, ‘how am I going to do this?’, your brain will automatically generate a potential answer, meaning that you are having fewer ANTs and talking to yourself in a more helpful way.
  • Focus on ‘The Me’ – You can’t control what other people think, say or do. Focus on your response and your reaction, which you can control. The old adage is true, ‘life is 10% what happens and 90% how you react.’
  • Focus on ‘The Now’ – You can’t change the past and you can only influence the future. Focus on what you need to do today and do it to the best of your ability.

To make the teaching experience a little easier, developing great teaching strategies based on research can help. Thankfully, we offer free teacher CPD in the form of an email course!

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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