How much teacher stress is self-inflicted?

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Teacher and school leader workload is an issue that does not go away and receives a significant amount of attention in the media and in educational publications. Efforts have been made in many school communities to improve teacher wellbeing yet the issue of workload does not go away. The issue itself is such a strong one that it has the power to create distractions in meetings that deteriorate into cries for help and support, which in some cases may be interpreted by some leaders as teachers whinging and whining, with teachers becoming more frustrated from a lack of action to solve the problem. School leaders themselves, however, are under a large amount of stress too, with the nature of stress differing from school to school and between education systems.

While school leaders certainly can take action to reduce stress in schools, it has to be understood that discussions surrounding workload and stress must occur on a two-way street. Of course, leaders have a responsibility to try to make things easier for teachers to conduct their work, it is part of the servant leadership that goes with the territory leading schools. At the same time, however, this does not imply that school leaders should do teachers’ work for them and solve all their problems. This may be a controversial thing to say in the eyes of some teachers, I know, but one would be surprised at some of the unreasonable requests that given to school leaders by teachers unable to see a bigger picture. That said, not all teachers are whingers and whiners and a large proportion are extremely hardworking, many to a fault.

While school leaders can make work in schools easier by improving systems, providing appropriate resourcing and support structures, this is not enough. Sure, governments and the politicizing of education is not helping matters but teachers do not always make their life at school easy for themselves either.

As teaching professionals we have to take a deep breath and look carefully at the habits we have developed over time and ask ourselves the hard question of whether some of our habits are contributing to this stress? I would imagine we all could find at least something we could change in the way we work that makes life easier for ourselves and those we work with. This is why the workload and stress discuss must occur on a two-way street and not just in the pointed direction of the school leaders. The same goes for school leaders who may blame ‘the system’ for the level of stress being experienced.

We have to ask ourselves the following question: Can we improve some of our habits, so that we better use the time at our disposal in order to better serve ourselves and our students?

For example, can we:

  • improve the way we give feedback to students? For all the effort we may put into marking work, how effective are we being? With feedback more does not mean better. Feedback needs to be targeted, students must be able to understand it and act upon it. How much feedback do we give as educators to justify our marking rather than to help students perform better? There is a difference.
  • improve the way we use technology to perform tasks? From the way we handle email, through to being able to touch-type, there are numerous opportunities for us to use technology better to save us time. If you are sitting by your computer and that email notification pops up and we have the urge to respond, perhaps we should be turning the notifications off and spend more time focusing on the task at hand.
  • improve the way collaborate? How much time do we waste in meeting through not having group norms and expectations. If your meetings start late, finish late and go off topic, then change what you do by setting agreed expectations for how meetings are run and how we behave as members of a team for everyone’s benefit.
  • improve the way we focus on what we wish to improve? Inability to prioritise is a huge contributor to stress. Deciding what not to do is just as important as deciding what to do. As educators we suffer from ‘battered syndrome’. Teachers get knocked from pillar to post by each initiative or way in which we can improve our practice. Yet wet can do something about it but choosing to focus on one or two things at a time and ignore the rest. Improving our practice takes time and sustained effort at developing new habits.

Please note that this post is not meant to say that we are not working hard enough. Many of us are work extremely hard and some to the point of exhaustion. Unfortunately solving the issue of stress and workload is not just about acknowledging that we are all working hard, it is also about asking whether we are focusing on the right work and performing in in a smart fashion, rather than wasting precious energy.

At the end of the day, both teachers and school leaders work very hard indeed and we have the tendency to complain about it with some justification. There is, however, more that we can control, when it comes to workload and stress, than we may think. We need to ask the right questions of ourselves and engage in true reflective practice without deflecting the problem elsewhere, especially when some of it is self-inflicted.

 

 

One thought on “How much teacher stress is self-inflicted?

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  1. I think stress is also linked to achievement. Stress can be induced from not doing or achieving something. In general the amount of workload, is less contributing to stress, rather that the type of work can be stressful if one doesn’t feel a sense of closure or achievement. The difference between being busy, and ‘busy-work’.

    “How much time do we waste in meeting through not having group norms and expectations. If your meetings start late, finish late and go off topic, then change what you do by setting agreed expectations for how meetings are run and how we behave as members of a team for everyone’s benefit.”

    I think there’s so much more that can be written about meetings. As the link,”https://hbr.org/2015/03/do-you-really-need-to-hold-that-meeting” argues, ““Let’s schedule a meeting” has become the universal default response to most business issues. and sometimes this is not always appropriate.

    The opportunity cost for holding meetings can be very high, and finding alternative methods such as video, email, notices when appropriate can go along way in improving efficiency, and potentially sense of achievement and hence reducing stress with wins all-around.

    “Unfortunately solving the issue of stress and workload is not just about acknowledging that we are all working hard, it is also about asking whether we are focusing on the right work and performing in in a smart fashion, rather than wasting precious energy.”
    I think this is critical.

    “As educators we suffer from ‘battered syndrome’. Teachers get knocked from pillar to post by each initiative or way in which we can improve our practice. Yet wet can do something about it but choosing to focus on one or two things at a time and ignore the rest. Improving our practice takes time and sustained effort at developing new habits.”
    Again the same idea of opportunity costs, doesn’t seem to be there in the same way as it is in business literature. Very often new ideas, that may produce an incremental raise in students learning could become a new initiative , though draw may time away from a more beneficial existing practice and hence have an overall negative net effect on student learning. The alternative of assuming each additional initiative, can be implemented, whilst retaining the others is equally not realistic as there are only finite resources (be it time, money..)

    Opportunity cost seems to me the be the key to reducing stress and improving efficiency.
    If I do this, what am I not going to do, and what is the better course of action.

    It seems obvious if one has money in their pocket. Buying “A”, means I won’t have money to purchase “B”. But the same maxim seems fruitful for all situations, even if the currency is time.

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