Marcy Rosner started her career as a college counselor, but decided to switch to teaching when she realized her favorite part of the job was working with students. She lives in Oakland and teaches U.S. and world history to 10th-graders at a nearby charter school. Now in her fourth year as a teacher, she appreciates how much she didn’t understand about the work.
“Teaching is infinitely more difficult than I pictured,” she said.
The challenges most teachers encounter are well known. In exchange for modest pay and marginal status, teachers are expected to inspire a love of learning among their students, introduce exciting new technologies and be attentive to distinctive learning and emotional styles -- while somehow carrying out state and federal educational standards, managing behavior problems and keeping standardized test scores respectable.
For Rosner, these and other pressures interfered with her ability to teach effectively. Tension between veteran and new teachers insinuated itself into the classrooms. Though the charter management organization that ran her school encouraged flexibility, it lacked the resources to transform her classroom environment, which Rosner called “oppressive” for students and for teachers. And delivering daily lectures to squirrelly 15-year-olds triggered performance anxiety.
“So much is expected of me, I have to perform in front of 30 10th-graders,” Rosner said. “Sometimes I don’t feel prepared to do that.”
A 2013 survey of teachers conducted by MetLife suggests that many educators share Rosner’s strain. Fifty-one percent of teachers surveyed admitted to feeling “great stress” during the school week, up from 36 percent in 1985. But emotional support systems in schools are lacking, according to the Society for Research in Child Development, and scant professional training addresses teachers’ chronic stress.
While teachers’ emotional discomfort is damaging enough for them, it also, some research shows, has an impact on student learning. A small study conducted by Lieny Jeon and others at Ohio State University in 2014 found that unhappy teachers were more apt to have students -- in this case 3-year-olds — with behavior problems. Researchers at Arizona State University studying the effects of teacher depression on 523 third-grade students found that children who were weakest academically suffered most from a distant or dejected teacher, especially in math.
In the absence of institutional support, teachers have come up with their own ways of reducing the unease that often comes with their jobs.
Getting back to first principles
When Rosner feels especially wound up about her work, she reminds herself why she wanted to teach. Rather than dwell on office politics or what’s missing in the school, she consciously thinks about her students. “Lots of teachers focus on the injustice of something, or the failure of the administration, instead of how we’re going to prepare our students for college,” she said. “It’s really easy to forget why we went into teaching." Clearing her mind of petty distractions and concentrating on the students helps Rosner remain centered.
Building relationships with the students
Last year 600 teachers in Houston took part in an innovative menu of programs designed to help them understand and improve their relationships with students. FuelEd, founded by Megan Marcus three years ago, partners with schools to help teachers build these connections.
“Learning happens through relationships,” Marcus said, yet teachers aren’t taught how to foster those personal bonds that allow for connection and genuine learning. Job stresses, the Type A personality many teachers bring to class, and the lack of professional training in identifying and responding to personal triggers also interfere, Marcus said. To correct that imbalance, FuelEd offers workshops on active listening, emotional intelligence and communication skills, and provides one-on-one counseling sessions to teachers.
Rosner said that paying close attention to student -- and parent -- relationships made a difference in her class. “I call parents all the time,” she said. “My students know that I have a relationship with their parents, so there’s a sense of accountability." Rosner strives to build a community with the students and their parents, so that the kids understand that they matter, and that grownups are paying attention. One problem with this approach? “It’s a lot of work,” she said.
Take part in teacher wellness programs
Deborah Kipps-Vaughan, associate professor of psychology at James Madison University, began offering wellness training for teachers when a school superintendent asked her why teachers in the district seemed so miserable and upset. She had seen for herself an uptick in teachers’ anxiety, beginning when standardized testing and evaluations began to take over the classroom. “Teachers experience a lack of sense of ownership of their classrooms, and being part of a standardized system,” she said.
In response, she created a program at an elementary school that focuses on teachers’ common challenges: working with difficult parents, handling conflicts, and developing communication and problem-solving strategies. Teachers are divided into small groups and are encouraged to reframe how they interpret their mistakes and to develop healthy coping mechanisms, like exercise or yoga. The group discussions alone reduce stress, Kipps-Vaughan said, because most participants take comfort in the universality of their difficulties.
Since then, Kipps-Vaughan has developed wellness programs for 10 other schools and has presented the program nationally; she shares it freely with interested schools. Kipps-Vaughan believes schools should make stress reduction a priority for teachers. “The purpose of teaching is instruction,” she said. “That gets put aside if people are suffering."
Using technology to connect with other teachers
What lifted the cloud for Alexa Schlechter, then an English teacher at Norwalk High School in Connecticut, was engaging with other teachers online. She started by reading teachers’ blogs, first soaking up their ideas and then reaching out to ask questions. Schlechter was reluctant at first to dive into social media, but gave in when a colleague promised that using Twitter would be the best move for her career and her sanity.
“It was a moment in my professional life that really changed everything for me,” she said.
Schlechter found a huge community of educators on Twitter with whom she could ask questions and share problems. One popular Twitter feed, #BFC530 -- for Breakfast Club, 5:30 -- invites teachers to “chat” for a few minutes before the day begins about one education-related question. “Once I connected with like-minded and supportive teachers who had amazing ideas -- I stopped feeling so isolated,” Schlechter said.
Focusing on preparation
What happens before, between and after classes can be as challenging for teachers as anything that happens within the school room. “You’re your own secretary, your own supply manager and sometimes your own supervisor,” said Heather Lukeman, who has been teaching chemistry to high school kids for 12 years. “What happens in class is the least stressful part of the day,” she added. Being prepared and organized shrinks stress, she said, and allows her to concentrate more fully on the students while in class. For Rosner, disciplined preparation serves a similar purpose. When she’s confident that her lesson is rich and thorough, her performance anxiety wanes.
If administrators are rigid and unsympathetic, standardized testing mandates too onerous and the workload unbearable, some teachers look for relief in other schools. “How did I manage the stress?” asks Eleanor Lear, who taught English to hundreds of public high school kids in Summit, New Jersey, and Hood River, Oregon, before switching to private schools. “Poorly. I drank a lot of wine. I lowered my professional standards. And then I left the public school arena,” she said.
Now, she teaches fewer students at a private school and works part time.