It’s 7:00 am and Alec, a second-grade teacher, has just started his working day. Firstly, he goes through his emails, perusing messages from administration, parents, and colleagues. He spends a few minutes responding to parents, acknowledging the concerns they bring forth to him. The emails from administration are filled with reminders of upcoming meetings, deadlines, absences, and cover plans. He notes what is necessary in his diary.
Alec spends some time going over his daily plan and gathering the resources the students will need. He finishes off some marking from yesterday’s maths assessment and with a quick glance at the clock he knows he has about five minutes to upload some work to a student’s e-portfolio. The year has been an extraordinary one in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic and he finds that not only has he continued with his regular working responsibilities but there is also a frequent shifting of procedures that has added another layer of responsibility.
It’s now 7:50 and Alec has 20 minutes before the kids arrive. In this time, he has to set up the technology for the day’s teaching. In addition, to stay COVID-19 compliant, he was asked to leave his classroom and teach from the gym. His class has been divided into two groups and placed at either end of the building and he will shuttle between the two. He will live stream for one group while he is teaching with the other group. Once he has set up his iPad and computer, he sees he has 10 minutes left to organise the COVID-19 lateral flow tests that the students have to take twice a week. He measures out 10 drops of the solution into individual plastic tubes and places them on each desk.
The kids arrive, the atmosphere is different as this is the first time Alec’s class have had their lessons in the gym and the pupils take longer than normal to settle. Some kids react by behaving boisterously and see it as an opportunity to run around and yell; other kids seem wary and unsure about the situation. Alec realises the emotional toll these changes are having on the students and makes the decision to cut their scheduled morning maths to allow the students time to feel comfortable in their new environment.
The students sit down and start their COVID-19 tests; fortunately, they are familiar with the test and, apart from Jason knocking his tube over and Marie dropping her swab on the floor, it all goes smoothly. Alec checks the test results and breathes a sigh of relief that they are all negative. He can now start the teaching part of his day.
Alec is just one of the teachers at the school who feels stressed with his workload and the expectations placed upon him. His colleagues talk of sleepless nights, making poor diet choices, and losing interest in what they are passionate about. The effects of accumulated stress escape in little ways. Like patience—it’s hard to have it when you feel stressed. Your tolerance levels are down, you have less motivation to do your job, and your energy levels are low. The kids can feel it, too.
If you are a teacher it won’t be a shock to learn that teaching has been identified as a highly stressful occupation (Taylor et al., 2021). Teacher stress is defined by Kyriacou (2001) as the experience of unpleasant, negative emotions (e.g. anger, anxiety, tension, or frustration) resulting from excessive demands. Alec knows he is not alone, with 25 – 30 percent of teachers rating their jobs as either very or extremely stressful (Song, et al., 2020). Studies in Sweden show that teachers are amongst the most stressed occupational groups in the country, with a high workload, little feedback or support from superiors, less perceived control over their work situation, and higher sick leave rates compared to other non-manual occupational groups (Ramberg et al., 2019).
Alec’s story, above, was just a snapshot of the first part of his day and does not illustrate all of his responsibilities. His stressful workload is compounded with stressful teaching moments, where job specific pressures, like having to fill multiple roles including caregiver, counselor, disciplinarian, and information provider (Song et al., 2020), occur. Day in and day out, Alec, his colleagues, and teachers all around the world continue to be exposed to a variety of social stressors, time pressure and other occupational demands specific to educating and managing children (Taylor et al., 2021).
It is well established in the research that teaching is a stressful occupation (Song et al., 2020). Teachers are reporting high levels of anxiety and depression (Song et al., 2020). Chronic stress has been shown to be associated with increased rates of a variety of mental and physical health problems, including clinical depression, reduced immune system functioning, obesity, cognitive aging, and multiple types of cancer (Taylor et al., 2021).
Unsurprisingly, as a result of this stress students’ learning outcomes are also impacted. Stress can lead to a diminished capacity to engage with and effectively teach students (Song et al., 2020). Studies reveal that teachers who experience stress and exhaustion tend to withdraw from social relationships with students (Ramberg et al., 2019). Students can lose interest and motivation to learn when their teachers do not have enough energy and passion for inspirational teaching (Ramberg et al. 2019). When we consider that the quality of teachers’ interaction with the child is an important determinant of children’s future success or failure (Sonmez & Kolasinli, 2020) we can understand why it is important to take note of teacher stress.
For many, teaching is more than a job: it is a vocation. The stressors of the teaching profession aren’t going away anytime soon. What can Alec and the millions like him around the world do to build resilience and protect their mental health? Educational Consultant Bryan Harris makes the following suggestions as practical ways teachers can manage the stress of teaching.
- We can look after our physical health. That is, keeping in mind the “Big 3”—exercise, sleep, and nutrition. Exercise can help us to have a healthy body but, just as importantly, it can improve our mental health and cognition. Adults who exercise regularly have greater mental flexibility. Sleep can help us be resilient to stress when we are well rested. Diet plays a role in our mood and mental health. The brain and body are interwoven and what effects one badly (such as poor nutrition choices) effects the other.
2. We can practice gratitude. Dr. Robert Emmons, from the University of California, defines gratitude as an affirmation of goodness where we recognise a blessing or a positive outcome and we identify where the goodness came from. Practice it as often as you can, you are not ignoring the challenges in your life but focusing on the positive areas. This will stimulate the hypothalamus in the brain (which helps to regulate stress) and the ventral tegmental (part of the brain’s reward and pleasure system). The short of it is: practicing gratitude will help you to manage stress and make you feel better.
3. We can laugh and have fun with our students. When we are enjoying ourselves, our brain responds by releasing dopamine. It’s the chemical associated with pleasure and reward. It will regulate your mood and make you feel great. You’ll then want to do it again and again. If you are having fun, then this will impact your students positively as well. When learning is infused with fun, wonder, and laughter, students retain more content.
Let’s go back to Alec; he thinks to himself that this is not what he signed up for when he became a teacher. The question remains: will he become another statistic of teacher burnout as a result of stress? Or will he develop enough skills to become resilient to the continual demands of teaching? What will you choose?
Harris, B. (2021). 17 things resilient teachers do (and 4 things they hardly ever do). London, UK: Routledge.
Kyriacou, C. (2001). Teacher stress: Directions for future research. Educational Review (Birmingham), 53(1), 27-35
Ramberg, J., Låftman, S. B., Åkerstedt, T., & Modin, B. (2020). Teacher stress and students’ school well-being: The case of upper secondary schools in Stockholm. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 64(6), 816-830.
Song, X., Zheng, M., Zhao, H., Yang, T., Ge, X., Li, H., & Lou, T. (2020). Effects of a four-day mindfulness intervention on teachers’ stress and affect: A pilot study in Eastern China. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1298.
Sönmez, S., & Betül K., I.. (2021). The effect of preschool teachers’ stress states on classroom climate. Education 3-13, 49(2), 190-202.
Taylor, S. G., Roberts, A. M., & Zarrett, N. (2021). A brief mindfulness-based intervention (bMBI) to reduce teacher stress and burnout. Teaching and Teacher Education, 100, 103284.
Lydia Rickard is completing her Master of Educational Neuroscience at Central Queensland University. She completed her Bachelor of Education in 2005 and since then has spent many years teaching internationally in such places as Japan, Turkey, and the UK. She currently teaches at the International School of Stuttgart in Germany.