Sunday, September 29, 2013

Teachers' Stress: Reasons for it and Ways to Help

I’ve just come across this understated but extremely timely and important post on the LinkedIn group for the National Association of Secondary School Principals by Dr. Marc Tinsley (@DrTinz) .  It’s a limited survey from one inservice day at a high school, but with a few brief statistics, he’s got me thinking about the connection between teaching and stress level.  As is all too noticeable, issues of teacher burnout, the amount of stress involved in educators’ work and how stress affects people’s general health and outlook are deeply relevant in today’s schools.  It’s timely because the school year’s just starting out - so there’s a chance to help - and important because teacher burnout is unnecessary and a true threat to the quality of teaching in our future.

For starters, please know that I haven’t been a full-time teacher in 4 years, but being a full-time high-school English teacher for 10 years and then an ELA department coordinator and assistant principal lends me a global perspective that I do like to have on issues like this.  Secondly, I know that other professionals within schools and school systems are stressed, but I’m not going to write about them here.  If you want, for example, to read about the clearly overwhelming world of school principals, you ought to read and follow a Blog by John Falino (@johnfalino1), Prinicipal at Dobbs Ferry High School in Westchester, NY, who in this post writes about trying to prioritze his work and links to other people who have attempted to list all that principals do.  It’s a mind-bending task list, but I’m going to focus on teachers.  

If you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, you’ll best understand my introduction’s final point.  In it, he creates a number of words that help to define a life-outlook / religion known as Bokononism.  In this case, we’re talking about “teachers” as what Vonnegut would call a “granfalloon,” a group of people who are referenced together and have some similarities, but aren’t actually similar enough to be measured as a group.  (Think: teenagers, Southerners, Musicians, etc)  Of course, we can stereotype and generalize, but I won’t. For now, I want to only consider those at the top of our profession, those teachers who are fully actualizing their job description and then some.  It’s those who fulfill all philosophical and tactical expectations for the work. Think of the Hollywood movie teacher of yesteryear - before the profession became vilified - and see the stress that led up to divorce, heart failure, jail time, bankruptcy, etc in films like Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Dead Poets’ Society, and  Freedom Writers.  Some of these are fictional  or fictionalized, but there are legions of teachers - some of whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working closely with - that are very real and equally in danger of stress, poor health and burnout.  Am I saying that there are teachers who don’t fit these qualifiers?  Yes, I’ve seen them, and I’ve worked with them too.  Some from this group have stepped up and improved their attitude and work while the others...well...not so much, but this is an issue for other times. I’m going to explore a bit about the people who strive to do it all.  

I want to open the dialogue because, as an administrator, I think that we have to work to help alleviate as many pressures as possible.  We must be reflective enough to understand the few tweaks we can do to our outlook, attitude, and systems that’ll help teachers lower their stress levels, which is better for them, their students and the overall school culture in both the short and long terms.

Sources of teachers’ stress, as I see it:

1) The length of the “work day.” While it’s true that school hours aren’t very long, the teachers I know put in almost as many hours outside of scheduled hours as during the day with students.  When we consider paper grading, lesson planning, meetings, communication with parents and room set up, we start to get the picture.

2) Let’s add to the time factor by saying that education - as a profession - is changing at a blistering speed. In order to keep up with the students’ changing needs, the absolute expectation of hitting the needs of all students and the omnipresent expectations of the political and economic machines that now more than ever write our rule book, teachers need to be constantly learning.  What we are doing about that is increasing our connectedness and research.  We’re reading, discussing, trying, and learning about everything from international literary titles to brain research and iPad apps.

None of this is helping teachers relax and get needed sleep.

3) The moral and social justice aspects of the job mean that every moment holds a tremendous amount of emotional weight.  We know what happens to our students if we don’t bring our A game.  Since most excellent teachers are either  type-A people who succeeded in school because of their passions, tenacity and refusal to fail and want the same for their students or they are type-A people who struggled in schools and are going to work themselves to the bone in order to help their students avoid the same experience(s).

4) Weltschmerz is the depression experienced when people’s expectations are crushed by the physical reality of a situation.  There is an alarming rate of new teachers who are leaving the profession within the first five years.   Is it student apathy, deep literacy issues, big testing, unsupportive administration, a lack of strong technology or something else altogether?  Probably some of all of the above.  What I know is that the classrooms, schools and profession they dreamed of is full of things they neither expected nor are prepared for/interested in working on.

5) The most distressing source of stress listed in the survey was student behavior.  I’ve worked in a few relatively calm schools and a few schools with what I call “a lot of personality.”  Our truth, which I guess educators can whine and moan over if they’d like, is that there are a lot of students who need help understanding what affective standards look like in a variety of situations.  They need to practice how they carry themselves in classrooms, hallways, sporting events, restaurants, job interviews, live theaters and a host of other scenarios in the same way that we teach them how to hold debates, clean up art supplies or participate in socratic seminars.  This is such a stressor because 1) Many educators don’t feel as if it’s their job to teach these things, and a lot of students and families would agree.  2) Affective lessons take a long time and a lot of patience before they’re internalized, usually meaning that some students may not “get better” at some things by the end of one year. 3) the tough one is that those of us who accept this as a vital part of what we do, know that the first step in fixing it is to reflect on our own expectations and look at our students with empathy / understanding instead of pity and frustration.  

This may sound troubling, but as a solutions-based administrator, I want us to remember that a lot of these issues can be averted or solved through some top practices around systems:

1) Create supporting systems for all teachers, but especially new hires.  Teachers’ success is important to them, their students and you, so be there for them.  Even if you  don’t see evidence of things going well in their classes, give constructive and specific feedback and examples so that the teacher(s) can grow.  On top of your administration team’s 1:1 time with them, find a way to set up a new hires’ committee, horizontal grade-level teams, vertical content-area teams and time for teachers to see other’s best practices in action.  Don’t forget that you’re a manager in the building.  In my opinion, having employees means that you’re willing to give timely, proactive, sincere and professional feedback, especially if something is going well.  Give them the knowledge and the chance to improve.  

2) Ditch any unproductive and unnecessary asks.  There is so much on teachers’ plate right now with technologies to learn, the Common Core to adapt to, new testing structures to become familiar with and, of course, their students to understand.  If you are asking anything of them that’s not vital and directly attached to student needs, it just needs to go.  Don’t change things for the sake of changing things.  Focusing on whatever is truly needed by students can help you rally the whole school around an effort.

3) Help teachers recognize wins.  Most master teachers I know are hyper-critical of themselves, only seeing what else they could have done and what didn’t go perfectly.  Their students get all the credit for great learning moments, and they give themselves all of the blame for struggles of any sort.  Send notes, send emails, find them to point things out in person and share their wins publically if they’ll let you.  Try to set up faculty-run pd workshop days where those who do things well share with the faculty as a means of recognizing their excellence.

4) Make sure that everyone knows that school is a place where people learn. Nobody is a permanent expert.  We have to allow ourselves, students and teachers to make mistakes and be imperfect.  Do away with any vestige of “gotcha politics” and turn your observation and evaluation system into a chance to dialogue with teachers about how their lessons are or are not helping students meet standards that are set by content masters and grade-level teams.  Especially now that most states have new teacher evaluation rubrics coming on board, we need to ensure that teachers have a chance to understand it and practice adhering to its rubrics.  

5) Get your teachers connected.  This one may be a tough sell in some cases because you’ll essentially be talking with teachers who may already feel themselves stressed, overworked, tired, and annoyed with technology, and you’re going to suggest that they spend chunks of their precious “down time” online connecting with other educators, reading blogs and coming to understand new resources and methodologies.  It may sound counterintuitive, but as Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd) tells us in a recent post , “How my PLN (Professional Learning Network) Saved My Career,” connecting with educator from across the country and even the world can be refreshing and revitalizing.  In the same sense as the adage that tells us we have to spend money to make money, it is true for many, myself included, that we’ve had to invest a decent amount of time in order to lend a renewed sense of potential and purpose to our professional work.  The group with whom I’m connected - thanks to John Falino’s influence (see above reference) - is unshakably positive, hopeful, supportive, creative, innovative and insistent that the work we discuss is always done for the benefit of student’s learning.  There are a lot of places for them to go to connect, but I’d have to recommend using Twitter.  I’m going to suggest that administration signs up first as a “walk the walk” gesture.  

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