I have never worked in a coal mine, or a uranium mine, or on a herring trawler,
but I know from experience that working in a bank from 9:15 to 5:30, and once
in four weeks the whole of Saturday, with two weeks' holiday a year, was a
rest cure compared to teaching in a school.
- T.S. Eliot (1950, quoted in Kyriacou, 1998, p.2)
Teaching is often exciting and challenging, and consequently stressful. While every
job has its stressors, stress in teachers often goes undiagnosed and untreated due to
several factors, including assumptions that teachers are self-sufficient; an academic
culture that discourages open, honest dialogue or interprets complaints of stress as
a sign of inadequacy; and the misconception, held by many outside the profession, of
teaching (particularly at the university level) as a "cushy" job.
"Teacher stress becomes problematic, and potentially harmful, when the challenges teachers face outpace their perceived ability to cope, or when they perceive that important needs are not being met."
A certain amount of stress in teaching is inevitable, even beneficial. Hinton and Rotheiler
(1998) point out that the excitement and challenge of teaching naturally causes the raised
adrenaline levels associated with stress, while Dunham (1992) illustrates that teachers
work at peak efficiency when the demands placed on them are in balance with their
own perceived coping ability, and that too little challenge and too much can be equally
detrimental. Teacher stress becomes problematic, and potentially harmful, when the
challenges teachers face outpace their perceived ability to cope, or when they perceive
that important needs are not being met.
This paper begins by exploring the nature of stress in teachers, and suggests its
common causes and effects. It then proposes ways to reduce teacher stress, and prevent
it from reaching unhealthy levels, by creating a caring working environment: first, by
administrators (schools caring for teachers); then, by faculty members as a community
(teachers caring for each other); and finally, by individual teachers (teachers caring for
Causes of teacher stress
Stress in teachers can be more insidious than in other professions by its "fuzzy" nature:
it arises from a vague system of rules and returns; it is often self-inflicted; and unlike in
the business or medical professions, the debilitating effects are not often counterbalanced
by moments of exhilaration and satisfaction (Claxton, 1989, p. 49). While all the possible
permutations of the causes and effects of stress have yet to be thoroughly investigated, it
is probable that other things being equal, stress tends to affect younger, less experienced
teachers over older, more experienced ones; those of lower academic rank over higher;
single teachers over married; and women over men, although men are at greater risk of
self-destructive reactions to stress (Griffith et al., 1999).
Teacher stress can be caused by a number of factors, both external and internal.
External causes may include institutional conditions such as large, mixed-ability classes,
lack of student discipline and motivation, lack of resources, overwork or uneven distribution
of workloads, poor communication, unclear expectations, and inadequate rewards and
recognition (Brown & Ralph, 1998; Gmelch, 1993; Travers & Cooper, 1998). Problematic
relationships with colleagues can generate other stressors, such as personality conflicts,
lack of community spirit, feelings of isolation, lack of support, and limited academic and
social interaction with other teachers (ibid.). Internal causes may include an aggressive,
impatient, competitive "Type A" personality; workaholism; negative attitude toward
students; and in particular, unrealistic self-expectations (ibid.). Some of the causes of
teacher stress mentioned above are beyond the control of individual teachers, arising
from external circumstances that require cooperation from administrators and colleagues
to change, while others are within the teacher's control and can be managed with the
help of appropriate coping strategies.
Effects of teacher stress
Behaviors symptomatic of teacher stress include poor time management; inability
to concentrate; job dissatisfaction; irritation and aggression; introversion and withdrawal
from supportive relationships; inappropriate, cynical humor; abuse of alcohol, caffeine
or tobacco; and if left untreated, absenteeism, resignation, and withdrawal from the
profession. Emotional consequences include feelings of anxiety, dissatisfaction and
resentment; depression; inability to relax and unwind; feelings of inadequacy and low
self-esteem; and ultimately burnout. Long-term physical effects include fatigue and low
energy; frequent colds; irregular sleeping patterns, insomnia and bad dreams; appetite
disorders; and potentially, psychosomatic illness and heart disease (Brown and Ralph,
1998; Hinton and Rotheiler, 1998; Travers and Cooper, 1998).
The next sections will explore ways in which teacher stress can be treated at each
of these three levels: administrative, collegial, and individual.
Schools caring for teachers
Any institution functions best when a culture of trust exists among its members. Van
der Linde (2000), applying the principles of Total Quality Management to education,
describes the ideal school as a secure environment where innovation is encouraged and
all functions are integrated to achieve continuous improvement of the quality of education,
and adds that good management techniques are the best prevention for stress in learners
and teachers. Conversely, if a school is a low-trust working environment, characterized
by conflict, divisive working arrangements, and lack of security, certain controlling
elites may be able to manipulate it for their own short-term benefit, but it is ultimately
counterproductive in terms of the overall quality of education (Troman, 2000).
Unfortunately, the language departments of many Japanese universities fit Troman's
definition of a low-trust environment. A core of full-time staff surrounded by a periphery of
part-time and temporary staff contributes to a polarized, "us vs. them" view, as do double
standards for Japanese and non-Japanese faculty. In addition, limited-term contracts and
the resulting lack of job security, as described by Fox et al. (1999), Kirk (2001), Arudou
(2002) and others, hinders the growth of a sense of mutual loyalty and responsibility
between different working groups.
Three ways administrations can help create a more positive working environment
for faculty are:
- Treat faculty as an investment: An important first step in improving the overall
quality of education is for administrations to view faculty members as valuable
investments rather than expendable assets. Many universities neglect an
important resource by assuming faculty to be self-sufficient with no further need
for training or support (Gmelch, 1993, p. 35). This situation can be remedied
in part by administrative faculty staying current in the field, and encouraging,
supporting and rewarding teaching faculty who do the same. Providing support
for research, in-service training and other professional development activities,
at all levels, is also important. As Brown (2002) memorably observed, "Treat
[teachers] like professionals and they will be professionals; treat them like part-
time scum and they will be part-time scum!" Furthermore, institutions that invest
their resources in helping faculty do the best possible job are more likely to feel
inclined to protect their investments, resulting in greater job security for faculty.
- Provide clear expectations, feedback, and rewards: A clear statement of
expectations and rewards in all areas of responsibility (teaching, research,
and service) helps faculty perform at their best (Gmelch, 1993, p. 26). Regular
feedback in each of these areas is also essential. In many institutions, feedback on
teaching comes only in the form of a series of yes/no or multiple-choice questions
on surveys administered to students at the end of the semester. Whether such
instruments are capable of including all the subtleties of good teaching is highly
questionable (Palmer, 1998, p. 143; Simmons, 1996, pp. 12-16). In addition,
administrators may not even see the results at all (Naoumi & Fujimaki, 2002);
or if they do, the results can easily be ignored or selectively invoked (Palmer,
op. cit.). While the number of students and volume of questionnaires may
make it logistically difficult at larger institutions, administrators could profitably
pay attention to qualitative as well as quantitative feedback from students. In
addition, while classroom observations tend to inspire a sense of dread in many
teachers, who equate them with judgment rather than support (Claxton, 1989,
p. 34), they can be a source of constructive feedback if used well, and when a
trusting relationship exists between the observer and teacher (Woodward, 2001).
One American university obtained good results by training education majors to
be participant-observers in classes, giving feedback to the teacher from the
perspective of an informed student. Feedback from faculty indicated that they
found the system so valuable that they often actively sought the participant-
observers' advice: "What do you think happened yesterday when we had that
conflict in class?" or "Any suggestions about how I can make the transition to the
next topic without losing the students who still don't understand the last one?"
(Palmer, 1998, p. 160)
- Establish support systems for teachers: A simple and important first step in
supporting teachers is keeping two-way lines of communication open between
teaching and administrative faculty. Teachers need to know that they can safely
consult a respected senior colleague when they have questions or concerns;
one way of providing this has been to establish a "consulting teacher" among
the senior faculty, who teaches a reduced load and is available for consultation
with newer teachers (Palmer, 1998, p. 159).
Also, as an alternative to the exchanges of advice that "typically take place in the
context of busy staff rooms in a very short space of time and rarely with any possibility
of reviewing the effects of the advice" (Daniels et al., 1998, p. 132), support groups in
which teachers who teach similar courses can meet on a regular basis to share concerns
and ideas (possibly including senior colleagues as guiding members) are also helpful
(Claxton, 1989; Daniels et al., op. cit.). According to representative comments from
teachers who made use of this system in their own schools, "I felt that I was 'allowed' to
feel as frustrated as I was feeling, that it was quite understandable. . . It was OK to have
the feelings I did – and still is." (Daniels et al., op. cit., p. 130)
Teachers caring for each other
Let us not so much seek to be consoled as to console, nor to be understood
as to understand.
- Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi
Supportive relationships with co-workers are a teacher's best protection against
the sense of isolation that is a major cause of teacher stress (Griffith et al., 1999).
A harmonious atmosphere among the staff, characterized by interdependence and
togetherness, helps create an optimal working environment (ibid.). Development of
such an environment is hindered, however, by an academic culture that builds barriers
between colleagues and discourages professional interaction and shared knowledge
(Palmer, 1998; Daniels et al., 1998).
Every teacher can benefit from an informal support network of trusted colleagues
who can discuss concerns and share failure stories without fear (Kyriacou, 1998, p.
10). A particularly valuable skill in members of such a network is the ability to listen.
Asking colleagues for help is a risk and an admission of vulnerability (Troman, 2000),
and teachers who overcome their anxieties and lay bare their concerns often find
themselves surrounded by colleagues who ply them with advice, thereby (consciously
or unconsciously) casting themselves in the role of sempai (senior) passing down
knowledge to their kouhai (juniors) and thus increasing the latter's feelings of inadequacy
and reinforcing fears of lowering defenses (Claxton, 1989, p. 81).
As an alternative, Palmer (1998, pp. 151ff) describes a "clearness committee" as
practiced in Quaker communities since the 17th century, in which one "focus person"
describes the problem and the other members respond only in the form of an honest,
open question, offering no advice either during or after the session, but rather helping
the focus person to discover his or her own solution. Even without convening a formal
"committee", individual teachers can resist the temptation to play the sempai-kohai
game when a colleague shares a problem, and instead help that person find clearness.
Palmer (op. cit.) describes how the process of seeking clearness can bring revelations
not only to the focus person, but to other participants as well:
Ten minutes into [a clearness committee meeting], I feel certain that I know what is
wrong with the focus person and how to fix it. But after two hours of attentive listening, I
am appalled at my earlier arrogance. I see now that I did not understand – and even if I
did, my abstract concept of the problem is meaningless until understanding arises within
the person whose problem it is. (p. 154)
Pairs or small groups of teachers can provide valuable support for each other,
including helping each other keep "new semester's resolutions", giving "wake-up calls"
to partners who seem to be succumbing to stress (Claxton, 1989, p. 83), and practicing
what Claxton (op. cit., p. 78) calls "creative ranting and raving", in which one partner
complains as much as possible (preferably in a self-consciously exaggerated and irrational
way) for ten minutes strictly measured by the other, after which the two turn their attention
to seeking constructive solutions.
Finally, small gestures such as words of appreciation, chocolate, and back rubs can
help foster a sense of camaraderie among faculty. And in times of stress, as Claxton
(1989, p. 75) notes: "Cuddles and hugs, preferably accompanied by deep sighs, are
highly recommended – although they can be risky in staffrooms."
Teachers caring for themselves
Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.
- Charles Swindoll (1982)
Many of the internal causes of teacher stress can be reduced by appropriate
coping strategies (the definition of which, of course, depends on what each individual
finds most effective). One important step is to recognize and avoid counterproductive
coping strategies; these include disengagement (giving up, withdrawal, pretended
or real indifference); suppression of conflicting activities (putting hobbies, personal
commitments or rest on hold when there is work to be done); alcohol, tobacco and
drugs; and defensiveness (Griffith et al., 1999; Claxton, 1989). Good organization and
time management, including concentrating on one task at a time, are keys to reducing
stress, as is a sense of humor and perspective, as well as realistic self-expectations, which
may mean aiming for excellence in one area of faculty responsibility and competence in
others, rather than excellence in all (Gmelch, 1993).
Other effective strategies for reducing stress include physical activity (working out,
individual or team sports); entertainment (movies, dining out, TV, concerts, reading for
pleasure); and personal interests (hobbies, musical instruments, or cultural activities).
While drawing a clear line of demarcation between work and personal time is difficult for
teachers, setting aside some personal time off limits to work (which may consist simply of
idleness or unstructured leisure) is recommended (Gmelch, 1993). There are also many
who find meditation, progressive relaxation, and deep breathing helpful. Finally, perhaps
the most effective strategy for reducing stress is knowing one's own stress points and
practicing the coping techniques that work best.
. . . perhaps the most effective strategy for reducing stress is knowing one's own stress points and practicing the coping techniques that work best."
Excessive teacher stress, left undiagnosed and untreated, can have long-term negative
consequences not only for individual teachers, but ultimately for the entire institution.
A caring work environment, however, is highly effective in reducing teacher stress and
making it easier to treat. This paper has presented ways in which administrations can work
to create caring work environments, and also ways for teachers to care for themselves
and each other while waiting for institutions to undergo the slow process of change.
When put into practice, these ideas can not only make teachers' lives more bearable,
but at the same time, help them to work more efficiently, and thereby improve the quality
of education as a whole.
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