Teacher stress is killing my profession

Robert Smol on the emotionally stressful job that is teaching.

The reality of every teacher trying to make even a modest go at this profession is a life of almost constant stress, overwork and, at times, emotional exhaustion.

Anyone who enters the teaching profession thinking otherwise is in for a rude awakening.

So why am I griping? I chose this profession and I enjoy what I do.

Well, it is because a storm of new and increasingly unrealistic demands, coupled with a noticeable decline in support from many principals and parents, is contributing to a growing incidence of illness among teachers, including mental illness due to work-related stress.

I should note that teaching has not broken me. But it has broken the sanity and soul of some very motivated teachers I know.

Burn-out profession? A Saskatchewan study says almost 60 per cent of teachers face job stress. (Associated Press file photo)

"I think that the whole idea of teaching has changed in the last 15 to 20 years," says Emily Noble, past-president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation.

"People are dealing with more high-need students, with more multicultural issues and with no-fail policies.

"Teachers want to make a difference, but the supports are just not there."

Deferred authority

People outside of the profession are invariably shocked when I describe exactly what today's teachers have to put up with.

There is a general understanding that things "are not the same as they once were."

But many non-teachers still do not understand just how much the moral tone and foundational standards of public education have been compromised in recent years in the name of individual freedom, diversity and accommodation.

The idea of one lesson, one class has long disappeared.

What this has also meant for teachers is the progressive deterioration of authority over students and their issues, while the onus of responsibility and accountability, on us, remains very much the same.

These days, I can't expect the student who disrupts class, bullies other students (or teachers) and vandalizes property to be disciplined effectively by school administrators.

I cannot set enforceable deadlines, deduct marks for poor spelling and grammar, or set the same tests for a growing cohort of "identified students" as this might harm their morale or ruin their willingness to consider college or university.

Health warning

How much of a toll are these new demands and loss of control placing on teachers?

A recent study of urban teachers in Saskatchewan by professors Ron Martin and Rod Dolmage of the University of Regina found that 61 per cent had reported becoming ill due to work-related stress.

As well, almost 40 per cent of those surveyed had to take time off work because of stress.

Even more astonishing, though, was that 51 per cent of the teachers in this sample stated that, if they found a viable career alternative, they would leave teaching!

It was no surprise then when the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation stated in a recent health bulletin that "stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological conditions are the leading causes of workplace absences."

In fact, the largest cost to the Saskatchewan teachers' drug benefit plan were medications for depression and blood pressure (11 per cent of the total each).

The best are falling

Add to this the largely undocumented group of what I call the walking wounded, those teachers whose energy levels have been sapped so much by all the new administrative demands that they have little left over to give directly to their students.

I have occasionally heard it said that these increasing demands and stresses are a positive development because they will weed out those whose commitment to the profession may be problematic.

But in my experience, it has been the most highly motivated and committed teachers who undergo the most stress and who break down simply because they truly care for their students and, against the odds, try to deliver.

Mediocre teachers, it seems, have less of a problem in detaching their personal well-being from that of their students. And that is not just my view.

"Burnout is more common in the young, highly motivated, energetic, hard-working teacher," says Prof. Martin. "The people who burn out are the people who pour everything into it without balance."

The real world

Teachers, it should be said, are partly to blame for this problem.

The profession inherently breeds a culture of self-sacrifice and endurance, which often dissuades many from seeking help. The notion that teachers will "always pull through" seems to be assumed in the demands and directives of school administrators.

When I raise this issue with non-teachers, I often hear the mantra that things are tough all over and teachers should "just suck it up like the rest of us."

Fine. I'm not unaware of what is going on in the so-called real world.

But the difference between what I do and the majority of other professions is that I deal directly with the growth, health, and transformation of human lives.

As a result there is a much more intimate link between my health and mental attitude and the health of my so-called clients than there is in many other professions.

Other grumpy, overworked Canadians may feel a modicum of satisfaction knowing that teachers, too, are increasingly succumbing to stress.

But will they still feel that way when their children start bringing these school problems home with them, because there is no teacher around for extra help with assignments or to coach the school team?

Yes, we have the summers "off." And some are smart enough to use the time to unwind from all those long evenings marking papers, dealing with school issues and planning classes.

But many of us either work, teach summer school or take additional courses during the summer, all in the name of contributing more to our jobs and to those we are committed to. Some days you have to wonder why.


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