When Will We Get Serious about Teacher Stress?

I’m privileged to work with some of the very best educators around the world. I’m continually inspired and in awe of their expertise, energy and commitment to their craft. They are true artists.  I marvel at these artists and the different ways they approach teaching and learning.

Of late, I’ve become acutely aware of one sad commonality among these very good people. Teachers are stressed. One could argue teachers have always been stressed but I’m sensing something new and disturbing. Today’s headline confirms some of my hunches. I’m sure some will read this article and suggest teachers are weak or lazy or manipulative. However, it’s the increase that needs to be noted. Perhaps teachers are taking better care of themselves and thus are taking time to recover rather than bringing their sickness back to the classroom. If that’s the case I see a problem in a job that requires employees to take that much time off.

In Ontario, mental health and well-being is now a mandated goal. While I applaud that move, several educators questioned the strategies suggested that are designed to deal with the stress the system itself created. “Try these mindfulness activities to deal with the crappy things we do to you”

Teacher mental health and well-being is a crisis. As much as teachers are embracing innovation and new opportunities, these changes are happening as paperwork and demands are increasing as well.  Personnel challenges have always been part of any organization and education is no different. I would argue this might even be decreasing as many districts are recognizing the value of relationships both in the classroom and for the adults as well.

I’ll suggest two areas that are perhaps the biggest contributor to teacher stress. First is increased bureaucracy. We’ve overcomplicated education in so many ways and have become obsessed with data collection. This falls directly on the backs of teachers and principals who would love to devote more time to teaching and learning and less time on data-driven initiatives. I can’t tell you how many educators tell me “If I could just teach…” Every new initiative inevitably comes with additional work. Embedded into this, is the curse of accountability. Along with monumental task of designing innovative, differentiated learning environments for students, there continues an undercurrent of distrust manifested by a neverending paper trail. While many districts are working to alleviate the perception of this bureaucracy, the workload seems pretty universal.

The second contributor is the number of students with extreme behaviour and learning disabilities and the lack of support for teachers. Inclusion a proud label districts adopt. They take a stance of being advocates for all children and suggest the way to best support every student is to have them spend as much time in classrooms as possible. While this appears to be the compassionate response, in many cases it’s the opposite.

Assuming every child should have the same experience doesn’t speak to differentiation at all. What currently passes for “inclusion” in many cases is a politically driven agenda that is less expensive and is positioned as the more humane and moral approach. Suggesting a student may not belong in a classroom makes you seem selfish and uncaring.

Teachers should expect to work with and support a variety of children and their diverse needs. However, there are children whose extreme challenges and requirements means that putting them into a regular classroom with 25+ other students is cruel and unfair to the child, the other students and the teacher. There’s no question we have more and more of these students.

This video shows schools making a poor decision on how to deal with students with extreme behaviours.

 

While this is something most progressive educators would view with horror, I’m going to assume that the educators involved here are not evil but have become desperate. The reality is these students are in need of intervention. The intervention plans most schools have in place may be useful for many students but they don’t help all students and they students they aren’t able to help can cause the most damage to themselves and others.

I realize this is a pretty delicate and political topic. I’m not sure I have a solution but certainly, we need better options than assuming the best place for every child is a typical classroom with an educational assistant or aid.

I believe all children can learn. And all means all. I don’t believe all children can learn in all conditions. I don’t believe all teachers can teach all kids. To assume so is both ignorant and arrogant. Creating those conditions, whatever they are, is the job of public education. To do it properly is not cheap. Right now, lack of funding has created increased challenges for schools and in some cases, districts are placing undue and unrealistic stress on teachers.They leave feeling drained and guilty of not doing their job. It’s been great to see schools acknowledge that relationships are the key to great learning environments. Yet investing in relationships is much more challenging and taxing than investing in content. Teachers are embracing this shift but it’s come at a cost. The long term impact of ignoring this issue is going to come at a great cost to districts, schools, teachers and ultimately students.

I’d love some comments on this. First, please share any ways in which your school, district is making intentional efforts to combat teacher stress and if indeed it’s working. Secondly, maybe my two examples aren’t your experience. Perhaps you think they are misplaced or maybe you see something else as being a contributor to teacher stress. Finally, if you feel your job has become less stressful over the years, I would be thrilled to hear your story and learn from you. My guess is you’re a rare bird.

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