Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Tag: burnout

Stress and Burnout

Teacher stress and burnout are deeply damaging to all — and there are antidotes!

I just came across a most interesting and — weirdly, you might say — reassuring document called Teacher Stress and Health. The report is weirdly reassuring to me because it boldly states the truth about teaching these days: that teaching is MEGA-STRESSFUL.

“Of course it is!” you might be thinking. “Who doesn’t know that?!?” I’m guessing a lot of people don’t, but that’s less important than some of the specifics the report contains as well as its recommendations.

Here’s a specific that I bet few people know: teachers tend to experience more stress on a daily basis than people in other professions. As the authors of Teacher Stress and Health put it (on page 5), “According to a national survey, 46 percent of teachers report high daily stress during the school year [here they cite a Gallup poll]. This is the highest rate of daily stress among all occupational groups, tied with nurses, also at 46 percent, and higher than physicians, at 45 percent.”

Wow. And yeah. But consider: Even if nurses and doctors have difficult patients or have to witness unbearable suffering, the exposure is generally time-limited. Teachers return to their students every day for 180 days and, unlike most doctors and nurses, do not always enjoy the trust of their “patients.” Being helped — or forced — to learn is not always as welcome as being helped or forced to heal and feel better.

Here’s another specific: Teacher stress can lead to a number of very undesirable outcomes. The authors again (p. 2): “High levels of stress are affecting teacher health and well-being, causing teacher burnout, lack of engagement, job dissatisfaction, poor performance, and some of the highest turnover rates ever.” This list is disturbingly gloomy, but what astonishes me is the researchers’ use of the word “cause.” The claim that stress causes such terrible outcomes is HUGE. Researchers rarely lay claim to cause and effect. The fact that these authors do pretty much obligates us to do everything we can to reduce teachers’ stress.

A few more facts, just to confirm what you might already know:

  • High-stakes testing contributes to teacher stress because it “limit[s] teachers’ control over the content and pace of their own work” (p. 3)
  • Teacher stress is highest and most damaging in the neediest schools: “Because turnover is most likely to occur in poorly performing schools, it leads to long-term destabilization of low-income neighborhood schools which lose continuity in relationships between teachers, students, parents and community” (p. 6).
  • It’s not just students who make teachers’ lives miserable; parents do, too: “Managing students with behavior problems and working with difficult parents are two other demanding interpersonal challenges that produce chronic stress and leave teachers more vulnerable to depression” (p. 4)

And, finally, this: stressed-out teachers don’t teach very well, which means their students don’t learn very much. On the other hand, “engaged” teachers teach better and their students learn better. Another quote from the report (p. 5): “When teachers are highly stressed, children show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance. Most strikingly, a survey of over 78,000 students in grades 5-12 in 160 schools showed that higher teacher engagement in their jobs predicted higher student engagement, which in turn predicted higher student achievement outcomes.”

Perhaps to point out the obvious: When the students of stressed-out teachers “show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance” — that is, act out and resist learning — those students behave in ways that add to their teachers’ stress. Which leads to teacher and student disengagement, which leads to more acting out, which leads to more stress and disengagement. Which leads to burnout and attrition for both students and teachers. And, by the way, the cost of teachers’ attrition could be over $7 billion per year (this from p. 6 of Teacher Stress and Health).

And just to hammer the point home:

When high job demands and stress are combined with low social-emotional competence (SEC) and classroom management skills, poor teacher performance and attrition increase [citation]. A teacher’s own SEC and well-being are key factors influencing student and classroom outcomes [citation]. Yet, few teachers have had training opportunities to attend to and develop their own SEC. If a teacher is unable to manage their stress adequately, their instruction will suffer, which then impacts student well-being and achievement. In contrast, teachers with better emotion regulation are likely to reinforce positive student behavior, and support students in managing their own negative emotions [citation, citation]. Teachers with high SEC also report more positive affect, greater principal support, higher job satisfaction, and a sense of personal accomplishment [citation]. (pp. 4-5)

Let us pause for just a moment and dwell on this profound paragraph. Teachers, it says, need to be socially and emotionally competent. I don’t know what percentage of people develop social-emotional competence on their own, but my experience of life says: not many. And even if a vast majority of people demonstrate social-emotional competence at work or in their families, where they’re dealing with one or two people at a time, how many of them are equipped to exercise SEC with a roomful of toddlers or tweens or raging adolescents? None of whom is related to them? Some of whom do not share their goals and values?

The report’s authors seem to have similar questions. They stress that, even as teachers are expected to deliver SEL curricula to their students, the teachers are not expected or trained to exhibit Social Emotional Competence (SEC) themselves. “[F]ew teachers,” the report’s authors state, “are offered professional development to nurture their own social and emotional competence” (p. 10). But, the authors claim, “[t]eachers receiving coaching focused on improving the quality of their interactions with students have led to a significant increase in student achievement [citation], suggesting that systematic and sustained coaching supports may be a critical component of SEL interventions for teachers” (p. 8).

Bottom line: Teachers need support and training in SEL. They need it for their own sakes — for their own health and wellness. But they need it for their students’ sakes as well. And, given the importance to human society of well-adjusted, mentally balanced, productive citizens, they need it for the world’s sake!

So what would teachers’ SEL look like? What kind of “coaching focused on improving the quality of their interactions with students” would teachers welcome? What kind of training would they seek out? What would their schools provide and for how long? Given its foundational relationship to effective teaching and learning, why isn’t this kind of support and training available on every school campus?

I actually offer this kind of support. And I still don’t know the answers to these questions. I’d love to hear your answers!

 

 

 

Open Letter to an Open Letter

blank_sticky_note_clip_art_12197Teacher burnout is way too understandable. Here’s a way to possibly avoid it.

I just read a very moving Open Letter written by a teacher, Chase Mielke, who is tired of feeling ineffective with his most difficult students. It is a good letter, a fervent reminder to himself that he must not give up. As a teacher, therapist, mother, and caring citizen of this country and this globe, I’m writing my own Open Letter back to him and to other teachers who are giving their all not to give up on their students.

Dear Chase Mielke and other great teachers,

First and foremost: You are right not to give up. Thank you for re-committing to this crazy job with these crazily troubled students.

Second, and very important: You are right to want to give up. There is just so much one person can do. And there are just so many years that caring, creative, energetic people can throw themselves at insoluble problems without cracking.

But there might be another way to think about your frustration and your commitment that could save you from exhaustion and burnout.

Here’s the way to burnout: Thinking that you as the teacher must try harder, must engage more energetically, must overcome your negative emotions and pump out hope, must put out 120% to make up for your students’ -20%. Noble as that commitment is, it is, frankly, unsustainable. If you are an awesome teacher (as you, Chase Mielke, appear to be), we are in danger of losing you if this is the approach you insist on taking.

Here’s another way: Slow down. Breathe. Notice your feelings: Frustration. Hopelessness. Fear. Anger. Incompetence.

Now think about your students. Might they be having these same feelings? If so, then breathe again and smile. Your students are communicating very effectively and even hopefully with you. Through their behaviors, they are teaching you how they feel every day in your classroom (and, probably, outside of your classroom). If you can notice these feelings and sit with them, then you are beginning to see your students very clearly. They are frustrated. They are hopeless. They are afraid and angry. They feel incompetent in school.

Next step: Why might your students be having these feelings?

I’m guessing you won’t have any trouble answering that question. I’m guessing your students have every reason to feel frustrated, hopeless, afraid, angry, and incompetent. I’m guessing their lives have taught them to feel this way.

Next step: Notice your desire to give up on these students. Wonder if that is precisely what your students expect of you. Is it possible that other adults in your students’ lives have given up on them? Or have never had any hope for them in the first place? Is it possible that your students are simply being realistic? Is it possible they are protecting themselves from the probability of intense disappointment and confusion when their efforts to succeed are met with indifference or ridicule or contempt or oblivion?

If you have gotten this far, you might feel as though you’re onto something. Why wouldn’t your students be acting out so egregiously? Why wouldn’t you, as a feeling, functioning human being, respond exactly as they are teaching you to respond? And, given this natural, logical psychodynamic fit, what should you as a teacher do?

My answer is to aim at the truth, which is that your students know they can’t trust you — that is, they do not know how to trust you. If they do not know how to trust adults in their lives; if they do not have the capacity to make use of your care; if they have no faith in their own ability to “recruit” (to use a term from another of my blog posts) consistent positive attention from their mentors, then they are not going to respond to any of your attempts to teach them content. Your job, as I see it, is to teach them how to trust you.

This won’t be easy, Chase Mielke. It takes honest reflecting back at your students, reflecting of the “good” and the “bad” with curiosity and care. It takes consistency. It takes ongoing emotion work on yourself so you can keep the students’ needs separate from your own and your own needs met so you can address the students’ as well as you can, within your totally acceptable limits. It takes detachment. It takes a commitment to not doing the students’ work for them but to narrating, wherever possible and without judgment, what the students’ actions (or inactions) might mean for them. It takes a commitment to being a developmental partner, not just a subject matter teacher, and it takes acceptance of the fact that emotional development — the growing of trust in oneself and others, the awareness of one’s strengths, repeated experiences of honest connection and care that start becoming a new normal — takes time.

This job of teaching students to trust you won’t be easy, but it won’t be impossible, either. If you continue to try to teach them as hard as you can, you’re just throwing yourself on the craggy rocks of their lives. That’s the path of impossibility, and it leads to burnout. If you focus on seeing your students accurately, on caring about them with detachment so they’re not oppressed by your expectations, on living within your own limits and consistently holding them to limits that make sense (something they might not have experienced in their own lives), then you might be able to get somewhere.

And you might not get anywhere. But at least you will still be there, in school, ready for students who can use you, patient with students who for very good reasons cannot use you — yet. Your hope is in your ability and willingness to show up and connect. And my hope is that you get the emotional support you need to keep at it without giving up and burning out. We need you too much, Chase Mielke.

I am sincerely yours.