Got Stress? If You're a Teacher, You're Not Alone

Teaching has become the Rodney Dangerfield of professions in this country. In fact, a recent ranking of the top 200 jobs in the U.S., based on such criteria as income, physical demands, and stress, put public school teaching at a sad 100. Teaching actually ranked nine spots lower than teacher's aide!

This may come as a surprise to a lot of people, who believe that teachers are overpaid and underworked, considering their "short days" and summers off. And job stress? How stressful could it be to stand in front of a bunch of kids -- compared to, say, being a high-powered executive? And if you're an early childhood teacher (often considered "babysitters" and thus the lowliest of the group), no one outside the field is going to take your claims of job stress seriously. (Of course, they're clearly not taking into consideration the fact that your pay is often less than that of a parking lot attendant.)

Interestingly enough, many teachers who become stressed and even burned-out are also puzzled as to why that may be so. They entered the field because they love children and they love the idea of facilitating their learning. At some point these teachers discover that love for both has diminished. And rather than look outward for reasons, many look inward, wondering where they went wrong.

But anyone with doubts about the causes of stress in the education profession has only to Google the term "teacher stress." They'll get 14,500,000 results in .17 seconds. For good reason: there's a lot of it going around.

Last week I chatted on Body, Mind and Child with Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University, whose research has looked at job stress in early care and education; Jeff A. Johnson, author of Finding Your Smile Again; and Deborah Stewart, executive educational director over three childcare campuses. They had plenty to say about the "easy life" of a teacher.

Among other things, they pointed out that teachers -- particularly early childhood teachers -- aren't able to take the kind of breaks that those in other professions take for granted. They're thus unable to recharge. Teachers -- especially these days -- are working with fewer resources than necessary, "trying to do so much with so little." They're required to comply with constant changes in rules. (Just imagine how frustrating it is to have your work dictated by policy makers who know nothing about your field.) Jeff Johnson pointed out that simply by virtue of working with so many different people stress is a given. (Imagine having to meet the often unrealistic expectations of parents, administrators, and society!)

There are many, many stressors in the teaching profession. That's the bad news. The good news is that there are also many, many avenues to relief. Among those suggested by my guests were taking five minutes at the beginning of each day for oneself, planning for breaks, tapping into one's gifts and talents, and aligning with those who inspire and motivate.

One surprising bit of advice was that teachers should pursue continuing education opportunities. How could that help, I wondered, when it would involve yet another investment of time and energy? But the research does indeed show that continuing education reduces job stress -- because people are less likely to feel stress when they know how to do their job well. And, as Deborah Stewart pointed out, professional development opportunities provide new ideas that can rouse that much-needed second wind.

Perhaps the most significant piece of advice came from Dr. Baumgartner, who pointed out that it is human nature to ignore the negative. But it is only by looking at the negative -- acknowledging and accepting what isn't working -- that we can begin to change it.

With that in mind, let's acknowledge and accept that teachers -- especially these days -- get far too little respect, which is a significant stressor in and of itself. It's certainly time that began to change.