Monday, October 10, 2016

Why Are Teachers So Stressed?

Last week at the Atlantic, teacher-author Timothy Walker took a broad look at the reports of teacher stress (a good follow-up to his earlier piece on teacher burnout). Walker did a good job of gathering up the current data on teacher stress, but he stopped short of one huge question. On twitter he opened the door to that question, so I'm going to go ahead and step through it.

Walker's compendium of current reports is a good one. Here's the Gallup report from 2014. The research brief out of Penn State this year. The admittedly unscientific survey by AFT and the BATs. He cites a representative sampling of the ubiquitous "Why I'm Quitting Teaching" letters that are now as common as empty political promises to elevate the teaching profession. And he traces the connections between teacher stress and students issues, as well as bringing in the Learning Policy Institute's recent report tying teacher stress to the huge loss of veteran teachers, in turn tied to the teacher "shortage." (He might also have folded in LPI's work showing that veteran teachers are hugely beneficial, and therefor worth holding onto.) And he wraps it up with some anecdotal data from Mike Anderson (The Well-Balanced Teacher), a traveling ed consultant.

Walker's piece makes one point exceedingly well-- there's reason to believe that teaching has become a hugely stressful line of work. His piece and the pieces that he links to suggest some causes for that (as does somebody at the Atlantic, who made the tab title of the piece "Testing, Common Core Place Additional Stress on Teachers"). Walker lumps much of it together as "an abundance of professional demands" without either the training nor the time to meet those demands. Several of the reports he cites point to the lack of autonomy and power that teachers now live with, a feeling of no control over their own work. Anderson cites the "flavor of the month" approach to instructional programs and reforms, and Anderson also believes that the barrage of demands creates feelings of incompetence among teachers.

[T]he system that we have right now in America, which is focusing on test scores and accountability, and has teachers being pulled in so many different directions at once, has got so many different pressures coming from so many different places. It’s almost like a recipe for making people feel incompetent.

Hmm. Yeah, it kind of is, isn't it.

Had Walker's editor asked for another 500 words or so, this is the spot where he might have moved on to ask why, exactly, all this stressy weight is being loaded onto teacher shoulders, as well as the related question-- is this a bug or a feature?

Let's consider some possibilities.


I suppose it's possible that some reformsters simply had no idea that uber-stressed teachers would be a side effect of the reform movement. "When we get these Common Core standards launched," they told themselves, "teachers will be grateful that we have provided useful standards that make their professional lives so much better. They will be delighted that standardized testing provides such a fine measure of their work."

Yeah, it's a stretch, but remember all the folks who were certain that the only thing wrong with the Core was that it wasn't implemented quite right. If we just get teachers a little more Professional Development, a thousand beautiful Common Core blossoms will bloom, just like we'll be greeted as liberators in Iraq (where the war will be over in months).

In other words, we should never overlook the possibility that some folks are so completely divorced from reality that the only future they can see is the one that manages to bleed through their rose-colored contact lenses.

Of course, just as virtually everyone has grasped that the Mission was not Accomplished quite as soon as expected, one would have to be exceptionally thick not to notice that the rise of reformsterdom has, in fact, stressed a whole bunch of past, present and future teachers right out of the profession. So let's move on to the next group--

Tough Love

This would be the reformy crowd that always knew that corporate ed reform would lead to a lot of stress and strain for teachers, but they figured that was also the good. They're the tough camp counselor slapping the cupcake out of the fat kids' hands. The teaching profession is fat and flabby and needs to be shaped up. Education should be

We need to shake the education tree to shake out the dead wood. We need to stop coddling children and start demanding results (time to start flunking those lazy eight year olds who won't pass their reading tests). School system heads need to act like CEO's so that there will be none of this union protection for the slackers who aren't producing the kind of products we need. Yes, right-sizing any organization can be painful, but it's how we slough off the fat and get those lean, mean corporate profits desired outcomes.

We might also include the reformsters who were dedicated to rooting out the Bad Teachers, like the governor of New York who decided that if two thirds of students were bombing the Big Standardized Test, that must mean that two thirds of all teachers stink, and we'd better keep tweaking the teacher eval system until it's finding us as many crappy teachers as we already know are out there.

These folks knew that reform would create stress for teachers, and they figured that was a good thing because teachers have been fat and happy for too long. It will be better for everyone, they figure, if the system is put through some stress in the process of getting straightened out.

So what?

Then there are the reformsters who knew that teachers would find reform stressful for the same reason that animals find forest fires stressful.

For some the intent has been to redefine what a teaching career means in the same way that McDonalds redefined what it means to be a cook. Rather than trained high-skill professionals, these reformsters want teachers who are easily-replaceable content delivery systems, who simply walk through teacher-proofed programs-in-a-box (if it's Tuesday, you must be on Module 12) and move on before they can demand high salaries, pension payments, or a say in how the school is run. Old school teachers have a hard time fitting into this new role in the same way that The Rock has a hard time fitting into a costume made for a Munchkin. Stressful.

Other reformsters are thinking bigger, longing for more New Orleans-style reform where the public schools are swept away, to be replaced with charters and chains, perfectly refined systems of schools where teachers can come and go and deliver identical content to compliant students.

Of course, where there is no Hurricane Katrina, other crises must be created. Starve the schools for resources. Force them to be judged by terrible B S Tests, stewed in a VAM system that generates ratings so randomly that teachers have to feel that their fate rests on a roll of the data dice.

Stressful? Sure. It's not that these reformsters intend for teachers to feel stress. But these reformsters do intend to bulldoze away the old guard of teachers, and if that's stressful for them, oh well.

The other source of stress ?

Divining intent from results is a tricky business. I teach teenagers, so I have had the conversation a few million times in which we note that just because Chris did something that makes you feel sad, it does not actually follow that Chris intended to make you sad.

But when Chris punches you in the face, and then you point out that it's happening, but Chris goes ahead and punches you in the face some more-- well, at some point you can legitimately infer that the face-punching is intentional, purposeful, and done with full knowledge that you don't like it. Badly written, misused BS Tests are a punch in the face. Making them the center of the school system is another one. Judging schools and teachers based on bad data run through bad magical formulas is a punch in the face. Undermining, demeaning and diminishing the profession is a punch in the face. Stripping the profession of autonomy and freedom to pursue our craft so that we can seek out the best for our students-- that's a punch in the face with a thousand fists.

But for at least a decade, teachers have been inflicting another sort of stress on themselves. I think we've all heard someone say it in a lounge, in a staff meeting, in a classroom-- "It's almost like they actually want us to fail these tests. It's like they actually want the school to look bad." But so many of us don't really want to believe that the people who are supposed to be helping us make schools useful, functional, nurturing places are actually lined up against us-- that's just so scary, so upsetting, so frustrating, so rage-inducing, even so hopeless an idea, that some of us convince ourselves that just couldn't be what's going on. And then we get the extra stress of managing the cognitive dissonance, of holding onto a happier view of the world through the heavy lifting of denial. Like abused children, some teachers deal with the dissonance by telling themselves, "It must be me. It must be my fault. There must be something wrong with me." And we try to keep from creating more of the failure that we never actually manufactured in the first place. Now that is stressful.

Bug or feature?

Yeah, that was my question. And I guess my answer is that for some reformsters it's a bug, for more reformsters it's a feature, and for still other reformsters, it's just a byproduct of trying to privatize and remake a nation's entire education system, the side effect of living in a building that others are trying to demolish while you're still in it with children.

Here's what the current teachers stress is not-- some sort of act of God, some natural event that just happened to land on this generation of teachers. It's the result of deliberate actions, a purposeful assault on the public education system. It's not an accident. It's not a quirk of history on the march. 

The stress for teachers is ultimately the same stress that many professions that have been stripped of their professionalism (nursing, health care, even lawyers), and whether it's the result of ignorance or indifference, the challenge is how much we think we can stand, fight back against, or overcome. I believe we will win in the long run, but that doesn't mean that everyone can stay in the race until we make it home again. All we can do is keep running as hard and long as we can.

Sure, it's stressful. But the most important thing to remember about the stress is that it exists only because we care about the work, because we care about doing the best we can for our so-very-important charges. We feel the stress precisely because we are trying to keep running, no matter what they throw at us or how badly they break the road. We can regret that we were born to teach in these times, and that we face such unnecessary and destructive obstacles. But no matter the stress, we should never regret that we cared enough to try to do some of the most important work in the world.


  1. Yes. Yes. Yes.
    I've worked in Florida's school system for 37 years. I have two black eyes from the punches and am retiring early because I can't stad by and watch this. After retiring I plan to be politically active and advocate for our public schools. I have achieved a high level of competence over the years and have no where to share what I have learned from those master teachers who came before me. Our children are suffering and this "reforming" is punishment. Please stop the madness

  2. I've read & re-read this particular column several times and have tried to relate it to my 33+years of stamping out ignorance.

    1st: This post could have been 3 or 4 shorter posts, each with a powerful point. I will comment on the largest source of stress for me when I was a young teacher: the pay.

    After my first year, I had to leave a great principle and a close family-like faculty whom I immediately felt welcomed because there was more month than pay check (Allendale-Fairfax HS '83-'84) to teach at Cardinal Newman HS in Columbia SC, which meant an instant +$3K in pay PLUS I could play music gigs...I could not support a young family of an infant, wife & me on a teacher's pay, literally we were eligible for food stamps. THAT was the big source of stress. Apparently, in many states, that is again the situation for young teachers.