A few days ago, I had a conversation with a parent of a fifth grader who told me about how her son’s teacher had a meltdown in class, yelled at the students so loudly, that afterwards her son came home upset and even shed a few tears. This type of episode is not new; in fact, the label “teacher burnout” is a very well recognized term in education research and among practitioners themselves. Kryiacou (2010), in his handbook on stress in occupations has dedicated a chapter to the teaching profession, and describes teaching as one of the most “stressful” professions. This might come as a surprise to some, who negatively stigmatize teachers as self-entitled and overpaid (at least in Canada), and who really don’t work that hard. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have worked in the private sector in sales, which is generally regarded as a stressful job. Teaching is just as stressful as sales, if not more. Why? Because teachers deal with children and youth, who demand attention, care, and are extremely vulnerable. Teachers are also highly accountable, which means that they have to answer to a lot of people for their work. Those teachers who have had to record every interaction they make with parents and students know what I’m talking about.
I get the sense from a lot of teachers, and I have been in this position myself, that they are afraid of their students. What do I mean? I mean that parents and administrators have become so sensitive about the children’s “feelings” that teachers are reticent when meting out “discipline”; a culture of fear has been created by encouraging teacher’s to handle classroom management all by themselves. Sending a child to the principal is a last resort. Teachers are encouraged to handle situations on their own. If you can’t handle your class you are asked to attend a PD seminar on classroom management.
Obviously, there are some teachers who are better than others at dealing with children. But I know myself that even the best teacher can get stressed out at work. I plan on writing about the collegial environment in schools in another post (and how that adds to stress), but let it be said that some coworkers add to stress instead of relieving it. So many teachers are on their own, having to deal with angry parents who want to know why their child was yelled at. I don’t condone yelling at children, but what I would like is for parents to be a bit more sensitive about the difficulty of a teacher’s job when they are discussing their children.
As teachers we need to be gentler with ourselves. Know that we cannot solve all of our students’ problems; feel confident that sending a child to the principal’s office won’t result in negative stigmatization about our classroom management. Most importantly we need to learn how to breathe and take time for ourselves.
Kyriacou, C. (2011). Teacher stress: from prevalence to resilience. Handbook of Stress in the Occupations. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 161-73.