Everyone knows that teaching is one of the most stressful jobs there is. In fact, according to a lot of research and studies it’s actually the single most stressful job there is. Moreso than bomb disposal or lion taming? Apparently so.
80% of teachers report being severely stressed at work and we’re constantly hearing about teachers who get so stressed that they end up having to quit their jobs – or that they end up having mental breakdowns.
But what is it about teaching that makes it such a stressful occupation? After all, in many ways you might be forgiven for thinking that teacher stress would be uncommon. Teachers get to go home at 3 or 4pm, they have famously long holidays and they don’t have a boss breathing down their neck. What’s possibly so stressful about that?
Causes of Teacher Stress
There are some obvious causes of teacher stress. Perhaps the most glaring is that a lot of children are misbehaved. These days it’s common for a single teacher to be in charge of a class of 25 to 30 pupils, many of whom might be climbing on the chairs, throwing things, crying and generally being ‘challenging’.
This right away creates a lot of stress as you have to constantly move from one crisis to another while at the same time being aware of what’s going on in the corner of the room – this can get very tiring.
Moreover, some children are purposefully malicious. A mean child (or ‘misunderstood’ let’s say) may well have a knack for sensing when a teacher is getting towards the end of their tether and for knowing precisely what they have to say or do to push them over the edge. Children can often show off in-front of their friends and they’re regularly keen to see how far they can push before the teacher will ‘snap’. This is partly the ‘crowd’ mentality and it’s partly just human nature, especially when you’re developing socially.
One of the biggest sources of teacher stress then is the sheer fact that many children are actively trying to make their teachers stressed. This is perhaps one of the only jobs there is where you have to face a large group purposefully pushing your buttons to see if you’ll break. That’s pretty stressful.
Teacher stress is also caused partly by simple social stress. Social stress is any stress that emerges from having to spend time with lots of people. When we’re with other people it’s hard to relax and be yourself because you’re under scrutiny and because people will want your attention. You’ll also find that if people are in a bad mood, you pick up on this and feel more stressed yourself. In a classroom with 25-30 students that’s a lot of energy required simply to be social (let alone to lead). Outside of the classroom you then have the social dynamics of the teaching staff to contend with and all in all it can be draining and exhausting. This isn’t unique to teacher stress but it is another factor.
Another aspect of teaching that makes it stressful is the fact that you have to stand up and ‘perform’. It’s easy for an outsider to overlook this aspect of teaching as it’s ‘only children’ but bearing in mind what a tough crowd children are (as we’ve just seen) this is a misguided view of the situation.
Speaking in public is something that is pretty much always going to trigger and acute stress response. We are naturally inclined to find this a scary process and as such our body will always respond by producing stress hormones. Even someone who likes public speaking will experience this to a degree and this is contributing greatly to teacher stress.
Perhaps rightly so, teaching is one of the professions that is most closely scrutinized. There’s no boss breathing over a teacher’s shoulder but that doesn’t mean that they won’t feel stress from parents, from regular inspections and from headmasters and deputies. All of this is a lot of pressure and this is added to the simple fact that teaching is a big responsibility. As a teacher it is your responsibility to help craft children into functioning adults with a repertoire of social and educational skills under their belt. This is a lot of pressure for anyone who genuinely cares about how well they’re doing their job.
Another aspect of teaching is the sheer amount of work involved in marking papers and homework. This is something that people in other professions will often sneer at – thinking they’d rather be at home marking homework than in the office taking calls.
Be that as it may, it means that teachers have work ‘on top’ of their work and that they then have to spend time marking when they’re being tugged in other ways. Managing your own workload takes a lot of time and patience and especially when people don’t ‘respect’ the amount you have to do. In this way, being a teacher involves many of the difficulties associated with being self-employed. But without the luxury to lie in…
What to Do?
So how do you go about tackling teacher stress?
There’s no easy answer and it’s really going to depend on the individual. But below are some steps you can take for starters:
- Tell your headmaster that you are struggling with workload/controlling your class and you need help in the form of a teachers’ assistant or a smaller class.
- Don’t take on too many extra commitments. Running an after-school club is a great thing to do for the children and to get ahead in your career but it also means an extra hour of stressful work on top of what you’re already doing.
- Take time off – if you’re feeling ill then make sure to take time off. Teachers often find it harder than other workers to get time off and this is one of the big contributors to teacher stress. It’s better to take a day or two off for a cold though than it is to keep going, infect your class and end up getting seriously ill.
- Talk to others who understand. Having someone you can talk to can often help a great deal and especially if that person actually sympathizes instead of thinking you have it ‘easy’.
- Change your age group. If you’re really struggling, then try moving to another age group. Some people find older classes easier to control as they can be reasoned with, while others prefer the innocence of younger years. See what works best for you.
- Come up with a system for managing your marking. This might mean keeping your marking and home life separate for instance by marking in your classroom, or it might just mean sticking to a strict schedule. Either way, this can avoid situations where your marking bleeds into your other activities.