The ABCs of Managing Stress for Teachers
For nearly thirty years, interest has slowly increased among researchers to examine the phenomenon of stress in the teaching profession. Studies suggest that teachers experience disproportionately high levels of stress (Coates and Thoresen 1976; Kyriacou and Sutcliffe 1979; Borg 1990). Perhaps as a consequence of this stress, one third of all teachers report they would not enter the field of teaching if they had an opportunity to choose again (Greenberg 1984). In addition, the retention of novice teachers shows an alarming trend where 30 percent exit the profession prior to their fifth year (Darling-Hammond 2001). It is difficult to determine the percentage of teachers who leave the profession as a direct result of stress, however, a literature review conducted by Borg and Riding (1991) indicates several studies in which one-fifth to one-third of surveyed teachers report teaching as either very stressful or extremely stressful.
Market studies indicate that teachers will be of extremely high demand in the near future (Matthews, Cox and Associates 2001). This demand will only increase if the relevant educational systems are unable to address those factors that threaten teacher retention. One of the greatest threats to retention may be an inordinate amount of stress. Wisniewski (1997) describes stress as the consequence of how well teachers are able to meet the demands placed upon them in their professional roles. He clarifies that the stressor can be either real or perceived to have a potentially negative impact. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to integrate stress management strategies into teacher preparation curricula to help future teachers mitigate these real or perceived stressors (Brown and Nagel, unpublished manuscript). This article will describe the ABCs of stress management for teachers and will include strategies that can be easily employed to lessen the impact of stress.
A is for Acknowledge
The first approach teachers may use to manage their stress is to Acknowledge the role they play in exacerbating their stress. Common stressors emerge daily in the lives of teachers. Some of the most common teacher-reported sources of stress include lack of time (Coates and Thoresen 1976; Kyriacou 1987; Leach 1984), poor relationships with colleagues and principal (Troman 2000), large class size (Trendall 1989), inadequate resources (Chaplain 1995; Greenburg 1984), workload (Borg 1990), student behavior (Friedman 1995; Punch and Tuettemann 1990; Trendall 1989), coping with change (Kyriacou 2000) and role conflict (Blase 1986; Pearlin 1989).
There are, in the course of educators’ days, week or school year, a potentially overwhelming number of stressors. Teachers may mitigate some stress by first Acknowledging and then targeting sources of stress that they perceive to most stressful to them. A subsequent plan to deal with and help to manage those sources of stress, whether they are real or perceived, can then be implemented through some of the strategies outlined in this paper. It is important to acknowledge that each individual teacher has his or her own “hot button” for stress. For example, some teachers’ most intense and recurring stress responses might be from student behavior. For others, lesson planning, grading, prepping several courses, classroom management, handling special education students, or establishing positive relationships with colleagues may be a significant stressor. The strategy for managing a number of stressors throughout ones’ day, week or year (acknowledging that some stressors may be long term) is to acknowledge the particular source that creates the most immediate stress and find a creative way to problem solve the situation. Once the situation is ameliorated, other stressors may seem more manageable and, therefore, balance will be more easily restored in the life of a teacher.
B is for Behavior Modification
The second approach that can lessen teacher stress is to use Behavior modification strategies that help them reach a state of homeostasis. Exercise provides multiple benefits that build a teacher’s resiliency to stress. A short term effect includes the burning of stress hormones during times of stress. There appears to exist a long term effect of exercise in terms of preventing future stress episodes. Research suggests that the secretion of stress hormones (i.e., epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol, and aldosterone) decreases for the physically fit individual (Winder and Heinger 1973).
Through the use of diaphragmatic breathing, teachers may use meditation to help to bring emotional balance. Scheduling twenty minutes once a day for quiet reflection has been shown to have positive effects in lessening stress (Benson 1974). In addition, another behavior modification strategy involves assessing the psychological health of the teachers’ lounge. Although there appears to be no studies that directly indicate the teacher’s lounge as being a source of teacher stress, research does indicate that teacher collegiality is show to be effective in reducing stress providing that teacher-peer support allows for healthy communication and prevents “maladaptive teacher responses” (Bryne 1998). This suggests that, if the lounge is deemed to be negative in nature, a positive behavior modification approach would include finding positive environments in which to draw the social support necessary to lessen stress.
Aquila (1992) reports that teachers could greatly benefit from time management strategies. “Boxing” is a time management strategy whereby a person schedules large “boxes” of time (3-5 hours) for labor-intensive duties (Seaward 2002). The ABC method assists the teacher-as-time manager in prioritizing and avoiding procrastination (Bliss 1976). All duties that are important and immediate fall into the A category. Those that are either less important or less immediate are assigned to the B category. All remaining items fall into the C category. Until the A category is completely empty, the time manager is not to move onto the B or C category. When all duties in the A and B category are completed, the time manager can move onto tackling the C category.
Utilizing creative problem-solving can also decrease the propensity to place oneself in a high-stress situation (Brightman 1980). Five simple steps are involved with creative problem-solving. The initial step is to describe the problem and thoroughly analyze it. This is followed by the active generating of solutions via books, colleagues, and personal experience. Settling on the one solution that seems most advantageous to teachers comprises the third step. The fourth step, sometimes the most challenging, involves implementing the selected solution. The final step involves an analysis of the solution and its implementation. This provides teachers a basis for future selection of solutions.
Let’s consider an example of how creative problem-solving can assist teachers in resolving a challenge of a stressful event: an active child disrupting the class.
Figure 1: Creative Problem-Solving
Step 1: Describe the problem. This child is loud and distracting others from their work.
Step 2: Generate ideas to solve it. Explore relevant books, ask mentors for advice, ask parent(s) for guidance, find out what the child’s needs are - cognitive, emotional, health, behavioral - to help narrow down your ideas.
Step 3: Select the solution and refine it. Examine all your potential solutions, sort them, and identify strengths and weaknesses of each option. One will emerge the most ideal. Visualize applying this solution. Refine it to better meet the student’s needs.
Step 4: Implement the solution. Along with faith, practice is the best predictor of outcome. Provide yourself cues to action such as a note on your phone or computer terminal. As you find yourself slipping into the former behavior that did not work with this child, stop yourself, regroup and begin again. Recognize the new behavior will feel clumsy at first. Comfort will come with confidence to follow through with the identified solution.
Step 5: Evaluate. Ask yourself, “how well did that work?” and “what could I do differently next time to improve the outcome?”
There are times that stress can not be avoided. An individual’s perceptions of the stressors can negatively or positively impact the degree of stress reported. Cognitive restructuring is a simple process of reconfiguring thoughts that may precipitate the feelings of stress. It permits individuals to identify the stressor, reframe the stressor so that it has a neutral or positive connotation, employ the new interpretation and evaluate the success of this new thought in terms of lessening their stress (Allen 1983).
Figure 2: Cognitive Restructuring
Situation: A child is disrupting class by speaking too loudly during a cooperative learning activity.
Original thought: “This child is so loud I can’t hear myself think!”
Restructured thought: “If sound generated is a sign of learning, then this child is learning a lot!”C is for Communication
The third approach, Communication, provides an avenue for teachers to prevent stress and, when that is impossible, minimize the impact of that stress. This communication may not necessarily be verbal on the part of the teacher. This point is critical in managing stress, particularly in the context of desired student behavior. Our body language, as teachers, is a form of communication that impacts student behavior and self-regulation.
Coates and Thoresen (1976) suggest there is a positive relationship between teacher anxiety and student anxiety/behavior. As a teacher, if I’m “stressed out”, I stress out my students, who in turn, behave differently (usually worse), which produces more stress for me. This “circle” of stress, once initiated, can become difficult to break. It becomes critical to manage one’s own stress in the classroom as students are very sensitive to, and can take advantage of, the mood and demeanor of the teacher whether this is communicated through words or body language. Rather than reacting immediately to student behavior and communicating anxiety to students, a useful strategy is to take a deep breath and remain calm. This strategy will initially be for the benefit of the teacher and subsequently for that of the students and the entire tone of the classroom. Once the teacher regains a sense of personal control, they can calmly decide what course of action to take to communicate a lowered level of stress or anxiety. This may mean continuing on with a particular lesson and communicating that the teacher hasn’t lost control of the class or providing students with an alternate assignment that requires reading quietly at their desks for five minutes in order for the teacher to regroup. Teachers’ verbal and non-verbal forms of communication with students contribute significantly to the overall level of stress in the classroom. Other forms of communication to mitigate stress exist outside of immediate classroom function and student behavior, however.
Specific strategies teachers can use with colleagues or principals in modeling assertive communication involve learning to say “no” while avoiding any potential guilt associated with that decision. There is little to be gained by agreeing to something when you already have a full schedule or don’t possess any passion for the assignment. Using “I Statements” can also lessen stress by explaining the emotions attached to the request or behavior (McKay, David and Fanning 1983).
Figure 3: Applying an “I Statement”
Situation: You are asked to advise the student council. In fact, your principal considers you her first and last choice because she finds you to be so dependable and clever. However, you are having a tough time balancing your work and home life.
Response: “I am disappointed to miss this opportunity, but, I must say no. It would be unfair to all of us if I added one more responsibility to my list. Perhaps I will have more time to dedicate to the council once my daughter enters elementary school next year. Feel free to ask me again.”
Due to the nature of the career, teaching will always involve some stress. However, there are positive aspects to stress. It can motivate teachers to explore new instructional strategies, innovative approaches to increasing student motivation, and provide the impetus to reflect on our teaching. Only when it becomes overwhelming do we see the negative outcomes of stress.
Teachers, administrators, and school districts can facilitate conditions that ameliorate teacher stress. Administrators are in a particularly prime position to impact stress within their school. Abbey and Esposito (1985) report that teachers who perceive greater social support from their principals report less stress than those who do not. Social support for teachers is often accomplished through shared decision-making processes set up as governance councils in schools so teachers can participate in school processes rather than feel subordinate to their principals and coerced into participating in school and teacher responsibilities. In addition, school administrators can work with teachers to develop an after/before school program aimed at enhancing the psychological health of the faculty, arrange for a local health or fitness professional to speak at a faculty meeting, and contract with experts on the identified stress management strategies to provide professional development opportunities. Training for mentor teachers on ways in which to model stress management techniques to their novice teachers may also have a positive effect on the transition from student to professional.
Appropriate management of teacher stress has two major benefits. Stress management decreases the physiological impact of stress in terms of compromising the immune system and related outcomes and may increase job performance and reduce absenteeism (Pert 1986; Seldin 1991). Additionally, stress management may also reduce teacher burn-out and attrition (Tye 2002). The key for teachers is to remember that much stress is within their control and to act upon the skills provided in this article.
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