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Factors behind Teacher Stress

Posted on 29 May 2017
Factors behind Teacher Stress
People in these professions (including teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers) have extensive contact with people, often in unpredictable circumstances.

There are many factors that can contribute to, and impact upon, teachers' levels of stress.  These factors can be split into three general categories:

  • Intrinsic factors associated with the content of the work e.g. workload, time pressure, classroom management, class size, pace of educational change and reform, decision-making power, physical working conditions, professional autonomy, career path;
  • Workplace relationships i.e. relationships with colleagues, parents, administrative staff;
  • Organisational culture i.e. general feeling of the workplace; supportive, positive and inclusive management style with a team culture or demanding and critical management style with an autocratic feel.

Workplace relationships and organisational culture can either be sources of workplace stress or safeguards against it.

Positive and supportive relationships with colleagues and an organisational culture valuing open communication, inclusive decision-making and consultation can provide stress buffers in the workplace; adding extra strength and support structures to the metaphorical stress bridge.

Stress can impact not only on teachers' professional lives but also their personal health and wellbeing.

Stress often results in teachers losing enthusiasm for their job, becoming disillusioned and emotionally exhausted.

Professionally, this can leave teachers adopting a more authoritarian approach to teaching and engaging in more predictable classroom activities instead of exploring more interesting and innovative approaches.

This in turn can make the job seem mundane and meaningless.

Left unchecked these feelings can lead to professional dissatisfaction, depression, burnout and in some instances, cause teachers to contemplate abandoning their profession.

Intrinsic factors causing teacher stress

Classroom Management

Classroom and behaviour management issues can give rise to many potentially stressful situations.

With a class of 25-30 young people all requiring their individual needs met, physical and emotional as well as their academic requirements, it is no wonder that teachers cite classroom and behaviour management issues as a source of stress.

When working with children it is very difficult to foresee all possible situations and eventualities and to have strategies in place to deal with these.

One of the strategies often cited to negate the effect of workplace stress is being well organised.

In a classroom situation it is just not possible to plan for all situations.

This is one the reasons that makes teaching, along with other contact professions, so stressful.

Class Size

The issue of class size often produces heated discussion.

Evidence suggests class size has an impact on learning outcomes for students, particularly in the early years of schooling (up to about 8 years of age).

Lower pupil-to-teacher ratios in the early years is shown to have a positive impact on academic achievement, with this positive effect flowing through to subsequent year levels.

Many teachers report that they feel unable to properly support all their pupils effectively when faced with larger class sizes.

In larger classes, teachers not only have more students to engage and support during lessons, but also an increased marking, reporting and administrative load. 

Class size also appears to have a particular impact on lower achieving students, with these students having a tendency to be more often off-task in a larger class, sometimes resulting in unproductive classroom behaviour.

Difficulties associated with classroom management is one of the most stressful factors cited by teachers when commenting on concerns around larger class sizes.

Educational Change and Reform

We are experiencing an unprecedented period of educational change; a swing of curriculum focus from teaching to learning, more public scrutiny, increased educational centralisation and greater emphasis on educational standardisation.

In Queensland over the past decade we have seen many politically and bureaucratically mandated educational changes and reforms.

These changes include the addition of a compulsory preparatory year, the transition of Year 7 from primary school to secondary, the instigation of a national high-stakes testing regime, various curriculum over-hauls including the implementation of a national curriculum, several changes to reporting and assessment requirements, alterations to the tertiary entrance system and technological and electronic modifications to the way administrative tasks are conducted and data collected.

The increased pace of this change is not confined to Australia, but is evident in most developed countries around the world.

The pace of this change has caused stress throughout the education sector and has given rise to reported feelings of alienation by classroom teachers and stress due to the challenge of keeping abreast of these changes.

Schools are required to implement new policies and curriculum offerings with little autonomy over the timing, extent and content of these changes along with increased demands around transparency and accountability.

These changes have had varying degrees of impact on the work and stress levels of individual teachers.

Margolis, in her open letter, uses the term 'data driven' when discussing the present direction of education in Queensland and suggests that continuous testing, assessing and pushing to meet set targets is at odds with her personal educational philosophy, causing stress and being a contributing factor in her decision to abandon her career.

Successive change can have a negative effect on staff morale, initiate feelings of employee cynicism and generate a general reduction in enthusiasm and optimism in the workplace.

As a consequence of the pace of educational change, along with many teachers feeling upset by what they perceive as constant political and bureaucratic interference those educationally unqualified, an increasing number of educational professionals are experiencing what is known as 'change fatigue'. 

Workload Pressures

It is becoming increasingly common to hear teachers say that their workload has become unmanageable.

Many teachers report being overwhelmed by the amount of work required, due to new demands and educational reforms that often lead to the expansion of their teaching role.

This expansion of the teacher's role is described as 'intensification' and is sometimes accused of causing a distraction from the pursuit of core educational objectives.

Workload intensification is said to result in teachers spending less time reflecting on and refining skills, a decrease in the consideration and adoption of non-mandated innovations and fewer professional interactions with colleagues.

This can produce in teachers a feeling of workplace overload, often having a negative effect on classroom interactions and student achievement and also leaving some teachers with a feeling of professional incompetence.

The perception of a significantly increased workload has resulted in additional stress for many teachers.

The amount of time that must be devoted to organising for the teaching day: preparing and resourcing lessons; attending to administrative responsibilities; developing, marking and reporting on assessment tasks, when added to direct teaching hours, leaves many teachers with little time to relax and attend to their private lives.

This can put pressure on teachers' wellbeing and work-life balance.

Professional autonomy

Classroom teachers consider themselves professionals, but often find they lack control over many facets governing their professional lives.

They often feel resentful of what is perceived as reforms that interfere with their professional autonomy.

A survey conducted in the UK reported that 64 per cent of teachers responded that they felt their professional ability and confidence had been damaged by factors such as the feeling of eroded societal esteem, and a lack of community trust as indicated by the call for more accountability and transparency in the education sector.

Many teachers report feeling that their professional integrity is called into question by current educational policy.

Margolis, in her letter, comments on this lack of professional autonomy by saying that teachers are "told what to do, how to do it and when it has to be done by".

Workplace relationships and organisational culture

Colleagues and parents

Professionals who provide humans services are by nature subject to the possibility of social stress.

Classroom teachers deal with students, parents, teaching and administrative colleagues and other support personnel regularly.

This constant contact with other people can be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand teaching colleagues can be a source of great support (both professionally and personally), parents can also provide support and be a source of encouragement, however, they are often reported as a factor in teacher stress.

Likewise, students can provide teachers with a source of deep professional satisfaction, however, classroom behaviour is cited as a major source of stress for classroom teachers.

Many classroom teachers also report find teaching to be isolating as there is often very little time for meaningful engagement with colleagues.

Administrative Support

The administrative team in a school has a great bearing on the school atmosphere and climate.

An inclusive and supportive administrative team who are liked and respected by the school community can make for a very positive school climate.

Classroom teachers cite the administrative team as a very influential factor in staff morale.

The administrative team can be a source of support, but can also appear to be the instigator of unwanted reforms and change.

Too often teachers feel unsupported by their administration team due to a lack of clear understanding.

Teachers rely on their administrative team to provide them with the resources and support necessary to fulfil their professional obligations.

With limited financial means and many demands and responsibilities, along with the burden of transparency and accountability, the allocation of funds can cause conflict between classroom teachers, ancillary staff and administration.

Good communication between all staff members is essential to supportive collegial relationships and a positive school culture.

Other issues causing concern

While not ranked as highly, teacher pay scales, career prospects, job security and social recognition are also factors that are articulated as issues causing teacher stress; adding more traffic to what could be a bridge already nearing its structural limits.

These particular issues are often reported as influencing factors by teachers when they are considering their professional future.

From: EducationWeek Australia May 29, 2017

Tags: wellbeing

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