With the end of school just days away, teachers should be humming something like no more homework, no more books, no more students' dirty looks. . . .
They're not. For many, the end of the year is the time for asking The Big Question: Do I really want to go through this again next year? (if, with all of the education budget cuts, they even have that option.)
There are exams to prepare and grade; end-of-year reports; final inventories and fee collections; graduation ceremonies (even for kindergartners); decisions about who goes on to the next grade, and who does not. Many teachers are job-hunting for summer.
Adding to the general tumult is the late-spring phenomenon of less-than-attentive and controllable students. It's time for pranks, daydreaming and revenge.
Teacher pressures, in short, reach their boiling point at the end of the year, illustrating why groups like the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are growing increasingly concerned over teacher stress. Many Washington area teachers' groups provide regular stress-management workshops, and the AFT included three different workshops on the subject at its national convention in Washington.
"The most common causes of teacher stress often overlap, causing constant day-to-day anxiety," says Jerry E. Kaiser, director of the AFT's "Stress Project," which attempts to identify and alleviate stress peculiar to the teaching profession. "When conditions exist that prevent teaching from taking place, stress results."
Listed most often as sources of teacher stress:
Time Demands -- In addition to preparing for classes, grading papers and recording grades, teachers find their time consumed by forms for special programs, inventories, insurance programs, emergency care, revised curricula.
"Most teachers try to stay on top of the paperwork, but the demands are so great there's always more to do," says Barbie Halstead of the Fairfax Education Association. "Their energy is finite, and when it runs out it, they become fatigued. That's when stress results."
Disruptive Students -- Local and national educationa organizations say incidents of students physically assaulting and verbally abusing teachers have increased in recent years. Students who refuse to work or who distract others are not removed easily from the classroom.
"There's a revolving-door aspect to the discipline problem in schools," says Halstead. "The disruptive student is sent to the principal, who too often takes no action. The student returns to class, and someone asks him what happened. He says, 'Nothing.' Then it's open season in the classroom. w
Lack of Administrative Support -- Teachers in New York ranked "incompetent administrators" as the second leading cause of stress (disruptive students ranked first) in an AFT survey. Conversely, administrators ranked conflict with teachers as their leading cause of stress.
Lack of Parental Support -- Halstead tells of a teacher broke up a fight between two boys. One attempted to hit the teacher, who blocked the punch with his arm. Becuse the student's hand was injured by hitting the teacher's arm, the boy's parents began legal action against the teacher. (They eventually stopped proceedings after apparently being convincd they would not win.)
More commonplace are cases of parents seeking grade changes on behalf of their children. "Basically, parents want the schools to be strict," says Halstead, "until it comes to their own child."
Looming Budget Cuts -- Decreased staffing and increased class sizes are two major areas affected by reduced funding at federal, state and local levels. Cuts in federal funds alone may affect "a quarter-million jobs across the country," says Walt Rogowski of the Montgomery County Education Association. "When your job is no longer secure, that's a stress factor."
Although the effects of stress surface in various ways, Rogowski sees it manifested most in absenteeism, fatigue, anger, frustration and lack of patience. These factors tend to be self-perpetuated: As tired teachers fall further behind on their work, they become more frustrated, which causes them to lose patience in class and run a greater risk of student confrontation. t
Halstead tells of the Fairfax County teacher who became so frustrated with the pile of paperwork required for advanced students, she quit and became a computer operator. "She said she was concentrating far more on the paperwork than on the kids. It's a shame. So often the good, energetic ones are most affected."
Adds Jerry Hammell of the Prince George's County Federation of Teachers: "It's not the half-hearted teachers who burn out."
To help teachers cope with stress, the AFT, NEA, and local affiliates have trained personnel to conduct stress workshops free of charge andc year-round, including the summer months. Says Halstead: "We'll work with individuals or with groups of teachers or entire facilities."
Some of the areas covered:
Discipline -- Keeping conflicts with students from erupting into verbal or physical confrontations.
Physical Fitness -- Working proper rest, exercise, nutrition into the teacher's schedule.
Psychological Well-Being -- Maintaining perspective and attitude. "In every faculty room," says the AFT's Kaiser, "there's a person who bitches about everything day-in-and-day-out. We try to eliminate that, or at least to show others how important it is to avoid it."
Time Management -- Expediting paperwork and planning. Advice on classroom arrangements, setting priorities, calendar-keeping and types of tests that are "effective," says Halstead, "but easy to grade."
Personal Counseling -- Handling private matters which may be aggravating already stressful teaching situations.
Communication Skills -- Identifying and addressing more specifically the needs of different groups: parents, administrators, students.
Career Alternatives -- For teachers who have reached the point where change is essential. Where else can they market their skills?
"None of these coping mechanisms will make class sizes smaller or get teachers better pay," says Kaiser. "But assuming there are things we can't change, there are things teachers can do to bolster themselves against the onslaught they face each school year."