Teaching has been rated as one of the five most stressful occupations on numerous research studies. However, knowing it and doing something about it are two vastly different things.
Across the nation teacher burnout is a serious concern as it is in other countries. Unfortunately, most of the research deals with what has caused the stress. Thus the failure to cope has been placed at the feet of the individual teacher. It has not been looked at as an institutional weakness and the results have been essentially reactive and individual. In other words, short sighted.
How does teaching compare to other occupations?
It is interesting to note that jobs in which you have to hide your emotions are the most stressful when dealing with others. For example, dentistry, police work and law are occupations which require one to deal with those under duress, and are also rated as among the most stressful occupations. This face-to-face contact is called emotional labor and is not physical labor related. The latter causes stress with poor working conditions and the fear of job lay-offs while the former’s foundation is clearly caused by having to inhibit one’s emotions so as not to cause stress in others.
Teaching not only carries a high degree of emotional labor, but the fact that, in some schools there is the fear of violence, lack of input, and a feeling that it no matter what the teacher does it really doesn’t matter, can make it even more stressful. Few educators want to worry about damage to their car on a daily basis let alone being sent into restrooms to check on smokers or being asked to supervise night football games where gang violence could break out. There is also the threat of a lawsuit at every turn. Many doctors and dentists spend considerably on insurance against negligence claims. Teachers have to worry about being accused of sexual conduct and mistreating a child, leaving them having to defend themselves from manipulative children and parents with little personal protection outside of the union. Indeed, a good teacher preparation program informs every teacher never to be alone with a student and some go so far as to warn teachers not to touch a student at any time. And, that means a hug or a pat on the back. There is also the threat of a sexual harassment charge, which makes even a statement such as “That outfit looks nice on you!” suspect. No wonder the specter of stress premeditates the profession for many educators who would like nothing better than to teach their students and send them into the future prepared for a better life.
Signs of stress
Researchers report that being tired, frustrated, overwhelmed, irritable, and bringing problems home are signs of teacher stress. Stress is a psychological and physiological response to events that upset one’s emotional equilibrium, and the body's defense is a “fight-or-flight” response. This prepares the teacher for emergency action as the hypothalamus releases chemicals in anticipation of the threat, in the form of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. In addition, the heart beats faster to provide the large muscles with the ability to act faster. In the meantime the blood vessles near the skin restrict in case of an injury and the pupils open to provide better vision.
Stress also impacts the digestive system. The body has automatically done its part to ready itself for survival… physical survival. But most teacher stress is not related to fear of physical harm, but to psychological threat. Worse, once the body is prepared for stress it does not simply shut off; once ready for action there needs to be an outlet. Adding to this concern is the fact that the more times the teacher is exposed to stressful situations the greater the reaction. The provoked body mechanisms that are geared up with no outlet can create the potential for serious physical problems unless redirected. Some signs are obesity, depression, and heart disease. Stress is something that teachers need to treat seriously.
Teachers need to learn when they are under stress. People don’t always react the same way. Some could experience physical problems such as frequent colds, using drugs or alcohol to relax, while others have emotional ones such as being over sensitive and crying without an obvious reason. Stress can even change the way a teacher thinks or create memory problems. And, stress can cause burnout and family problems.
There is the also the problem of isolation with teachers. They frequently spend most of their day without contacting other adults. There is no interaction where problems can be discussed and a feeling of powerlessness can develop.
Dealing with stress
One way is to relieve stress is to limit its impact. Dealing only with issues that are under one’s control and creating an anxiety-buffer to provide relief are two ways to help negate the negative energy. Another is to triage responsibilities. Listing what really needs to be done first - versus having all these things to do - provides relief. And, a teacher should take the time to reward himself or herself daily by looking for the good. The anxiety-buffer is an absolute must for teachers to acquire. It can take many forms, but they all have one thing in common and that is to take control of the moment by redirecting the thought process into an area that calms the nerves, and it must be practiced.
Exercise can reduce stress but it takes time so educators need to be innovative. One way is to buy a pedometer that measures how many steps you took each day. Give yourself a target and keep track of the mileage. Parking the car farther from the classroom and the market may be inconvenient, but it helps with fitness.
Relaxation is also vital and can be accomplished with some habit changes. But you must remember that change takes over 30 days to become part of a routine so consistency is important. Such habits as turning off the classroom lights when the students leave for lunch and spending a few minutes thinking good thoughts can help rejuvenate the spirit and fight stress. Eating well also helps. I highly recommend Eat by Choice, Not by Habit a book that can help you with your eating decisions.
Laughter is always good and it helps to put things in perspective. The most stressful events are the death of a spouse, moving, divorce and personal illness. That meeting with the parent of an unruly child probably pales in comparison with these life-changing events. Here are sites filled with educational humor links and teacher appreciation stories.
Finally, teachers should understand that certain times of the year can increase stress, such as the end of the term when grades are due, the start of the year, and holidays. Keeping a diary of what happened in the past during these times is a great way to reduce stress as it provides remembrances of what has worked and what to avoid. Change is always stressful, but learning from history can smooth the roughness.
School districts seldom consider stress as a problem which is a shame. Having teachers actively involved in the decision-making process and giving them input helps reduce stress by lessoning the anxiety over change. Hiring principals who make it a daily habit to talk with teachers about any problems with students or events also build a teacher’s spirit. Administrators also need to create a system where parents are told to deal directly with the teacher first about matters of concern. Countless teachers have endured being called into the principal’s office about a parent complaint which is not only unfounded, but deprives the teacher of the opportunity to explain the situation directly to the parent and gives the impression to the teacher that the principal, no matter how supportive, has made a “black mark” against them.
Teaching is stressful and stress should be avoided or buffered before it causes serious problems. The best ways to do this are to establish a helpful network of colleagues to share concerns with, avoid areas out of one’s control, exercise daily, eat right, and look on the brighter side. Learning to do these stress reducers isn’t easy, but neither was algebra.
Stress relieving suggestions include more inclusive school culture, a better policy towards those being challenged. Here is some research about a study that involves unions and districts working together. www.ieu.asn.au/ohs/stressburnout.html
Alan Haskvitz teaches at Suzanne Middle School in Walnut, Calif., and makes staff development presentations nationwide. In addition, he serves as an audio-visual evaluator and design consultant for his county department of education; a tutor to multi-cultural students in English and art; and an Internet consultant.
Haskvitz's career spans more than 20 years. He has taught every grade level and core subject, has been recognized repeatedly for innovative teaching and has received the following honors, among many:
USA Today All Star Teacher
100 Most Influential Educators
Reader's Digest Hero in Education
Learning Magazine's Professional Best
National Middle Level Teacher of the Year
National Exemplary Teacher
Christa McAuliffe National Award
Robert Cherry International Award for Great Teachers
In addition, Haskvitz publishes articles on successful educational practices and speaks at conferences. He has served on seven national committees and boards.
Haskvitz maintains credentials and training in special and gifted education, history, administration, bilingual education, journalism, English, social studies, art, business, computers, museumology and Asian studies. He holds these credentials for Canada, New York and California. His experience also includes staff development, gifted curriculum design, administration, community relations and motivation. His background includes 10 years of university education.
As a teacher, Haskvitz's curriculum increased CAP/CLAS test scores from the 22nd percentile to the 94th percentile, the largest gain in California history. In addition, Haskvitz and his students work continuously to improve their school and community. His students' work is often selected for awards in competitions in several subject areas. For more details about Alan and his students' work, visit his page on the Educational Cyber Playground.