Curriculum Innovation, Testing and Evaluation: Proceedings of the 1st Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May 11-12, 2002. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto Institute of Technology.

Caring for teachers in uncaring schools

by Charles Kowalski (Tokai University)

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 themselves).

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.

[ p. 53 ]

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:
  1. 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.
  2. [ p. 54 ]

  3. 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)

  4. 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)

[ p. 55 ]

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."

[ p. 56 ]

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.


Arudou (Aldwinckle), D. (2002, February). Education and employment status: why JALT should take interest in the issues. The Language Teacher 26 (2), 27-28. Retreived on Sep. 10, 2002 from

Brown, J. D. (2002, May). Problems and suggestions for language teaching in Asia. Plenary address, JALT Pan-SIG conference, Kyoto Institute of Technology.

Brown, M. & Ralph, S. (1998). The identification of stress in teachers. In J. Dunham & V. Varma (Eds.), Stress in teachers: Past, present, and future. (37-56). London: Whurr.

Claxton, G. (1989). Being a teacher: A positive approach to change and stress. London: Cassell.

[ p. 57 ]

Daniels, H., Creese, A., & Norwich, B. (1998). Teacher support teams. In J. Dunham & V. Varma (Eds). Stress in teachers: Past, present, and future. (120-138). London: Whurr

Dunham, J. (1992). Stress in teaching. London: Routledge.

Eliot, T.S. (1950). The aims of education: the conflict between aims. In Eliot, T.S. (1965). To criticize the critic and other writings. London: Faber & Faber.

Fox, M.H., Shiozawa, T. & Aldwinckle. D. (1999, August). A new system of university tenure: remedy or disease? The Language Teacher 23 (8), 13-18. Retrieved Sep. 10,2002 from

Gmelch, W.H. (1993). Coping with faculty stress. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Griffith, J., Steptoe, A. & Cropley, M. (1999). An investigation of coping strategies associated with job stress in teachers. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 69, 517-531.

Hinton, J. W. & Rotheiler, E. (1998). The psychophysiology of stress in teachers. In J. Dunham & V. Varma (Eds), Stress in teachers: Past, present, and future. (95-119). London: Whurr.

Kirk, D. (2001). Limited-term aointments and their effect on curriculum development. The Language Teacher 25 (2), 31-33. Retrieved Sep. 10, 2002 from

Kyriacou, C. (1998). Teacher stress: past and present. In In J. Dunham & V. Varma (Eds). Stress in teachers: Past, present, and future (1-13). London: Whurr.

Naoumi, E. & Fujimaki, K. (2002, May). Course evaluation questionnaires: Student and teacher perceptions. Paper presented at the JALT Pan-SIG Conference, Kyoto Institute of Technology.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Simmons, T. (1996, Oct.) Student evaluation of teachers: Professional practice or punitive policy? SHIKEN 1. (1), 12-16. Retrieved Sep. 10, 2002 from

Swindoll, C. (1982). Strengthening your grip. Dallas: Word, Inc.

Travers, C. & Cooper, L. (1998). Increasing costs of occupational stress for teachers. In J. Dunham, & V. Varma (Eds). Stress in teachers: Past, present, and future (57-75). London: Whurr.

Troman, G. (2000). Teacher stress in the low-trust society. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 21, 331-353.

van der Linde, C. H. (2000). The teacher's stress and its implications for the school as an organization: How can TQM help? Education, 121 (2), 375-382.

Woodward, T. (2001, November). Planning lessons and courses. Plenary address at PAC3 at JALT 2001, Kitakyushu.

2002 Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index
Complete Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index

[ p. 58 ]
Last Next