Posted in teacher morale, Teaching Career

2013 Medley #25: Teacher Stress, Depression and Demoralization

Teacher Stress, Depression
and Demoralization

STRESS

Teaching is not the only stressful job in the world. In fact, most jobs at which I’ve worked (retail sales, wholesale management, music performance, home remodeling and construction) have had levels of stress to which I’ve had to adjust. The stresses, which are different for each career, can be great or small depending on the job and location.

When teachers complain about the stress of their jobs, non-educators often respond that “everyone has stress at their jobs” and teachers aren’t any different than anyone else. To a certain extent that’s true. No one would argue that first responders — police, fire fighters, EMTs — and soldiers in combat have jobs which come with very high levels of stress.

In fact, the American Institute of Stress claims that it’s not the job so much as a combination of job, worker personality and an individual’s sense of control over his or her situation, which predicts stress.

Workplace Stress

Stress is a highly personalized phenomenon and can vary widely even in identical situations for different reasons. One survey showed that having to complete paper work was more stressful for many police officers than the dangers associated with pursuing criminals. The severity of job stress depends on the magnitude of the demands that are being made and the individual’s sense of control or decision-making latitude he or she has in dealing with them. Scientific studies based on this model confirm that workers who perceive they are subjected to high demands but have little control are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

Given this information it’s easy to see that the stress affecting educators has changed over the last several decades. Teachers have never had complete control of the achievement levels of their students. Out of school factors have always played a major role in student achievement and still do today. Now, however, with the test and punish design of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, demands on teachers are increasing while their levels of control have in fact decreased. Teachers see increased childhood poverty in their classes along with its associated out of school factors which affect academic progress. Meanwhile they are being held more and more accountable for things they can’t control.

DEPRESSION

The relationship between chronic stress and depression is well documented. Lack of control increases stress and the continued stress can and does lead to depression. Health.com has listed teaching as one of the top 10 careers with high rates of depression.

10 Careers with High Rate of Depression

The demands on teachers seem to be constantly growing. Many work after school and then take work home.

In many areas, they learn to do a lot with a little.

“There are pressures from many different audiences—the kids, their parents, and the schools trying to meet standards, all (of which) have different demands,” Willard says. “This can make it difficult for teachers to do their thing and remember the reason they got started in the field.”

Mr. Fitz Gets Depressed: a graphic novella with commentary – July 2013

Mr. Fitz is a comic strip written by Florida Middle School teacher David Lee Finkle. While experiencing his own bout with depression caused by the changes to his (our) profession, he decided to do a series of comic strips on teachers’ depression.

There is an epidemic of teacher depression, demoralization, and stress in this country, and for a while I was part of it…

Before I ran this series, I asked a question on my Mr. Fitz Facebook page. This sounds like a downer, and you don’t have to give away who, but how many of you know a teacher who has suffered or is suffering from, a bout of depression because of what is happening to our profession? I’m curious. I have, and I’m addressing it in the strip soon. That question resulted in 98 responses, unprecedented for my little Facebook page. Every single one of them was affirmative– yes they knew depressed, stressed teachers. Many of them admitted it was them. And most of them knew people who had thought about leaving the profession.

He came out of the experience with a new Teacher Mantra — “Teach Happy, Teach Right, Speak Up” — an excellent answer to the “reformers” who are trying to destroy the education profession. To give you a taste

Teach right. Great teachers are not data-driven, Quantifiable Learning Gains Facilitators. Low test scores are a symptom, and focusing on raising scores treats the symptom but ignores the real problem. [emphasis added]

You can read the entire series HERE.

Secret Teacher: stress and fear of criticism pushed me into depression – September 2012

How is being a teacher and being depressed different from depression in other other careers? Here’s an article by a teacher from the UK who describes it clearly…

…working as a teacher makes it harder then most. Imagine performing on stage to a packed house, only the audience isn’t the paying public but is fully made up of the most fearsome critics. Throughout the show, these critics give you their review; if it’s going well they might let you know but if it’s going poorly they definitely will. The rewards can be great but so can the consequences. Suffering the way I do, the need for things to go well is almost overwhelming, when they do the highs are mountainous, when they don’t the lows are deep canyons; the highs are fleeting but the lows are long lasting.

Depressed, stressed: teachers in crisis – August 2008

Why do most teachers quit within their first 5 years? Lack of respect, poor working conditions, overcrowding and underfunded classrooms, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, fewer job protections and low salaries all contribute. Many teachers can’t deal with the political nature of teaching…they didn’t understand that public schools can be affected by politicians from state houses and executives offices hundreds of miles away.

For many, however, it’s the lack of support for their students. Schools in high poverty areas — and even those in areas with lower levels of poverty — need wraparound services. Having counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists available for all students is important. In addition, the services have to be available at the time they are needed. Students who have to wait while living without food, in abusive homes, or while suffering from PTSD are not going to be successful. Not having timely wraparound services available means that teachers take on the burden of watching their students suffer. Again…from the UK…

‘I had two eight-year-olds in my class, one of whom was probably being sexually abused by her parents and the other was seriously self-harming,’ she said. ‘Both were being looked at by social services but neither investigations were sufficiently progressed to remove the children concerned.

‘During the school day, I was monitoring these children on behalf of social services. I had to engage them in all sorts of conversations, spending hours keeping a detailed log of everything we’d said, and making myself available for them at any time of the school day if they wanted to talk – despite not being given any professional training or guidance.

‘Then at the end of the school day, I’d have to hand these children over to their parents, despite knowing what they were almost certainly going home to. I’d torture myself every night. It was torment. I couldn’t get them out of my mind.’

Both children were eventually removed from their families by social services. But this was just one example of the stress the 37-year-old Duckworth has experienced during her 10 years as a teacher. Four years ago, she had a nervous breakdown caused, she said, by a range of issues but essentially due to the uniquely stressful nature of the teaching profession.

DEMORALIZATION

How Bad Education Policies Demoralize Teachers

Depressed teachers aren’t necessarily “burned out” teachers. The federal and state policies which are damaging public education are demoralizing teachers. That’s what leads to depression…

Demoralization, according to Santoro, occurs when much of the value of teaching has been stripped away by rigid, ill-conceived education reforms, creating a high level of frustration and helplessness among teachers. “Burnout” is not the issue. As she explains to NEA Today, the work of teaching has changed and it is therefore up to school communities and policymakers to help restore the “moral rewards” of teaching.

How does teacher demoralization differ from teacher burnout in terms of cause and effect?

I make a distinction between demoralization and burnout primarily in terms of cause. The effects – apathy, bitterness, depression, exhaustion, isolation – may, in fact, look remarkably similar. Burnout is studied most frequently by psychologists who examine how an individual’s personality, physical and mental health, and coping strategies help to manage stress. Burnout tends to be characterized as a natural by-product of teaching in demanding schools and leaves the problem of burnout as an issue of teacher personality and/or naiveté. Burnout is characterized as a failure of individual teachers to conserve their personal store of resources.

In demoralization, the resources – what I term the “moral rewards” of teaching – are embedded in the work itself. Demoralization occurs when the job changes to such a degree that what teachers previously found “good” about their work is no longer available. [emphasis added]

MetLife Survey of the American Teacher

I’ll repeat the question — Why do most teachers quit within their first 5 years? Part of the answer is low morale. Haim Ginott wrote, “Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.”

He said “…at times…” In other words…most of the time miracles don’t happen. The impossible is usually not achieved and teachers get blamed for not overcoming out of school factors beyond their control. That’s one reason teacher morale is now at its lowest point in decades.

In the context of additional challenges for leading schools toward greater improvement, the continuing decline in teacher morale identifies itself as an urgent priority. During a time when expectations and standards are increasing for effective teaching and learning, teacher morale is yet another declining resource, one that is associated with schools with diminished budgets and other resources, fewer students meeting standards and fewer colleagues highly rated for how well they are doing their job.

Job satisfaction mirrors teacher morale. When stress is high, morale is low. When morale is low, job satisfaction is also low. A lot of it has to do with money. State legislatures around the country have allowed money desperately needed for public schools to be channeled into vouchers for private schools or to charter schools.

Politicians, pundits and policy makers blame schools and teachers for not solving the problems children bring in to school with them. Money is transferred from public schools to private and charter schools further limiting how public schools can deal with children’s problems. The situation is only getting worse.

Stress among teachers has increased since 1985. In 1985—the last time this question was asked and when job satisfaction was also low—more than one-third (36%) of teachers said they felt under great stress at least several days a week. Today, that number has increased; half (51%) of teachers feel under great stress at least several days a week. Elementary school teachers experience stress more frequently. They are more likely than middle school or high school teachers to say they feel under great stress at least several days a week (59% vs. 44% vs. 42%). The increase since 1985 in the number of elementary school teachers who experience great stress at least several days a week is also noteworthy—59% today compared to 35% in 1985…

Budget decreases are associated with lower morale and greater stress among teachers. Teachers at schools where the budget has decreased within the past year are less likely than teachers at other schools to be very satisfied with their profession (33% vs. 48%). Furthermore, they are more likely to experience great stress on the job at least several days a week (55% vs. 46%). [emphasis added]

FINDING SOLUTIONS

How Can Teachers Overcome Depression and Strife? – February 2013

Teachers need to support each other. The support isn’t going to come from politicians, the local or national media, or even from local administrators. Teachers have to take on the task of helping each other…

Most teachers have noticed that the best learning happens when students are provided with nurturing relationships where they are supported and encouraged to confront challenges. Many teachers have probably also noticed that the same holds true for them as well. School environments where relationships are strong and supportive enable teachers to be happier, healthier, and more sustainable. And ultimately, better able to stay in a profession where they can do what they love. That is because human beings are social creatures. So, not only do healthy, positive relationships allow us thrive, we actually need them to survive. Therefore, it seems that while the burden of challenging relationships may be the problem- the relief of healthy, supportive relationships are also the solution.

101 Ways to Cope with Teaching Stress

Acceptance of the realities of teaching doesn’t mean you have to like the way things are. It doesn’t even mean you can’t work to change things. But sometimes, chocolate, Sharpies, stress balls or Happy Hour can go a long way to relieving the stress. Lowering your stress levels as a teacher will extend your career and be better for your students.

Teachers have one of the most stressful jobs, despite their long vacations. Besides being responsible for large groups of hormonal or destructive students all day, teachers also have to abide by strict government and school district guidelines, attend after-hours workshops and meetings, call parents, submit lesson plans early on, worry about school security and put up with loads of homework thanks to grading, grant writing and certification renewal classes. To help teachers cope with all of this stress, we’ve compiled a list of over 100 different ways you can relax and get centered, whether you’re in the middle of a lecture or already home and trying to forget about your hectic day.

By the way, to say teachers have “long vacations” is incorrect. The 8 weeks during the summer, two weeks around Christmas and one week in the spring are not vacations. They’re forced layoffs. Most teachers are happy to get the time off to rejuvenate or improve their skills, but calling it a vacation implies that it’s paid time. Most teachers get time off, not paid time off — not even national holidays.

Helping Teachers Cope with Stress – May 1982

Apparently this isn’t a new phenomenon.

There can be no doubt that teacher stress, burnout, and job dissatisfaction are critical issues in education today. If we are to reduce stress, we must provide teachers with greater support and rewards. Improvement is needed in working conditions, professional status, public support, and compensation. In the meantime, school systems should provide teachers with environments and programs of support to help them cope with the high levels of stress they continue to experience…

We need to develop environments where teachers can admit failures, share successes, and support one another.

~~~

All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.

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Stop the Testing Insanity!
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Author:

Retired after 35 years in public education.

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