Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Stress and the Classroom Teacher

For about a year now I have been searching for research studies on teacher stress in American public schools.  I haven’t found any.  There have been some done in the UK, but I haven’t found any here.  I started looking because I want to give my colleagues some research-based ideas about why they might be stressed and how to cope.  No luck.  Looks like I have to just take a crack at it myself.

I think that the stressors teachers face is obvious to them, but not to the general public.  You have to experience being responsible for educating a group of children in a school to understand.  Substituting or volunteering will give you an idea. But truly understanding the load of stress comes from actually having to take responsibility for the classroom and what happens there.

As a teacher, it is your job to take a group of children from wherever you get them to point “X”.  That has to happen within ten months.   At this point I can go into the 25 reasons why this is at least a difficult task.  But we’ve heard them all before - low pay, the devastation poverty creates for children trying to learn, to the lack of resources, etc., etc.

I want to talk about some possible solutions for combating the unique combination of stressors on teachers.  These are just ideas from my own personal experience and observation – I would love to hear any others that people might have.

1.     Remember that your job is really, really, important……..
  I think teaching is as important and complicated as practicing some types of medicine.  You may not be saving a life, but you are definitely creating future doctors.  If you ask anyone to name four formative experiences from childhood, I'll bet at least two of them involve school.  You are instrumental in developing capable humans. Treat yourself as a professional with a brain.  Read new things.  Try new ideas.  Become active in the larger education community and your professional organizations.  You are a professional and you need to act like it.

2.    ………….but also remember that young humans are not created in a single school year.
  No matter how many standards are set by legislatures and departments of education, children are never all going to progress at the same rate in a given year.  It simply doesn’t happen.  One or two children in your class may not learn all of their multiplication facts this year.  And it’s OK.  Because if you are there in the moment with what they are ready to do instead, you will have provided what they need.  Which is success and confidence.  The rest will come along too.

3.     Leave some slush in the schedule.  A few years ago I worked for a Principal who used to tell faculty not to stress if they didn’t get to end of the textbook by June.  She advised instead to go as far as the children and the teacher were able with consistent effort.  If you have every day tightly planned, you are setting yourself up for a lot of stress.  If this is your first year teaching, you will get sick.  Probably in the spring.  If you have young children, they will get sick too.  Other stuff happens.  Stuff outside of school that you have to deal with.  Allow yourself and the children some days of review or autopilot. Then when the unexpected happens you are not spending the next three weeks frantically trying to catch up.  You will most likely end up in just about the same place at the end of the year anyway, with a lot less stress on you and the children.

4.     Let the children help you. 
I work in a Montessori school.  A central tenet to Montessori pedagogy is that children should be in control of their work within a carefully prepared and structured environment.  Children in the Montessori classroom engage in more activities than just academics.  They also take part in keeping the classroom organized and clean.  They help each other with school work and chores, and they take part in developing rules and routines.  It’s remarkable what children are capable of if the proper conditions are met.  Maybe that child is advanced in math and is somewhat bored.  She might like to spend some time helping another student who is struggling.  (Hopefully you are letting them find a way to do math at their level, too.)  Is that teacher closet a total mess?  Older elementary school students would love to spend time reorganizing it.  They might even stay after school to do it if it means extra time with you.  Look around your classroom at things that you would like to do.  How can the children help?  This is not about free labor.  It’s about freeing you up to do more of what is most pressing, while teaching children how to build a classroom community.

5.    Understand the real reason that parent might be acting like a total jerk.  Oh, I know that email was ugly and upsetting.  The child is having a lot of trouble right now, and the parent is making it clear that it’s all your fault.  Except that might not be the case.  If you have done your best, owned up if you messed up, this may no longer be about you.  Parents have a lot of guilt when their children have problems in school.  (BTW – It might not be their fault either.  Sometimes children just need to work through a difficult time with help from several different adults.)  Guilt can make parents crazy.  So don’t take it personally and/or assume you are a rotten teacher.  It may just be “guilt overflow.”

6.    Stay away from negative colleagues.  I don’t care what school I’ve been in, according to at least one faculty member at each place it was going to hell in a hand basket.  Like I don’t have time for that anymore.  The job is difficult enough as it is.  Every school has problems.  No Principal is perfect.  Look for people in your school who are problem solvers and hang with them.  They will still complain, but if they are trying to improve things, their positive attitude will rub off on you.  Believe me, you will feel less tired and defeated.

7.    Walk out of the classroom when you can.  Alone.  Without the entire class in tow.  (Hopefully they allow you to do this in your school.) I’m not talking about every 30 minutes, but if they leave for a special or you can grab someone to stand in the door for a few.  How many of us spend virtually the entire day in the classroom?  Even at lunch time?  It’s not healthy.  Go to the bathroom and freshen up if you feel like it.  Get coffee.  Stare out the window for a minute.  Take a walk outside, or visit the library.  Look at the latest projects outside of the art room.  You get the idea.  I doubt anything disastrous will happen while you are gone.

8.    Remember your oxygen mask.  When you fly, the stewardess always tells you to put your own mask on before assisting a child.  This is a good metaphor.  If you pass out from your own lack of oxygen, you cannot possibly help the child.  Likewise, if you “pass out” because of stress at work, you can’t be an effective teacher.  So take time for yourself.  Try the things here and other stress relieving things as well.  Take a day when you need it.  Find someone you trust to talk to if you need to.

You are definitely worth it.


  1. Great list of tenets! I could comment on each and every one, but right now I'll just limit myself to this: About three years ago, I held a job for which one of my many duties was creating a classroom newsletter every month. It's a great communication tool, and it's important to keep parents in the loop, too. The problem was, I had absolutely no time to do this thing, much less do it in a really professional-looking newsletter format. But guess what? I had two students who consistently finished their (high-quality) work early who expressed interest in handling this task. So, for about 6 months, with minimal help (and a list of key dates) from me, they composed, formatting, edited, and distributed the classroom newsletter. All I had to do was proofread it. I had more time and stopped stressing over this one thing, and they learned an invaluable skill. Take away: never forget that students LOVE to help by doing purposeful work--and after some time invested in initial training, such tasks can actually cut down on your stress load.

    1. Thanks Leila! I remember that we used to fall over each other to stay in from recess and wash the blackboard with those big yellow sponges. I also remember helping to straighten shelves and wipe down desks. My teachers were not Montessori, but they understood the value of purposeful work.