Article authored by Chanel Worsteling, AISA Child Protection & Wellbeing Programme Manager
“It is draining. Exhausting. Time consuming. The work never stops.”
“It has challenged everything I enjoy about teaching.”
Stress and burnout are pervasive among teachers where job demands are known to make teaching one of the most stressful professions – in the US an estimated 46% of teachers report high daily stress, in Australia the figure is no better with over half of Australian teachers reporting they suffer from anxiety and nearly one-fifth are depressed (Stapelton, 2019), and in the UK that figures is nearly 75% (Ferguson, 2019). The situation for international school teachers mirrors these figures with a recent study by Cardiff University reporting that 56% of international school staff said they feel emotionally drained by their work half or most of the time (Wigford, 2018). And that was before COVID-19.
The quotes above are taken from a recent survey done with teachers in Australia, NZ, Singapore and the US (Cain, 2020). But I expect they are not dissimilar from what you may be hearing in your conversations with colleagues. Maybe you’ve even uttered them yourself?
Usually, the start of the new school year is one of excitement as we return to school after an extended break, fresh and with a new burst of energy. Not so this year. For many, the break was spent planning and preparing for a new school year – whether virtual, face to face or blended – consuming much needed rest time.
Which means that our leaders and educators are starting the year already feeling exhausted. Not only does this have negative implications for the wellbeing of our teachers, but clear evidence suggests that teacher wellbeing directly impacts classroom climate which has implications for students as well. Recent studies have confirmed that when teachers feel stressed, students notice and their stress levels increase accordingly (Oberle, 2020).
So, with teacher stress and burnout on the rise, what, if anything, can be done? The following areas have been found to impact teacher stress and burnout and thus offer areas to consider focusing interventions either personally or as a school:
- Coping: Our personal characteristics and coping skills will contribute directly to our response to stress. Our ability problem-solve, to find a sense of calm, and maintain optimism, all directly impact on our experience of stress. Consider ways to cultivate a sense of calm – eg. Exercise, connecting to nature, breath work or other contemplative practices. Journaling, practicing gratitude and self-compassion exercises or visualization are other strategies to help foster positive emotions which bolster your ability to cope.
- Stress mindset: Let’s think about our thinking for a moment. Dweck’s (2006, 2008) mindset work suggests that our orientation to stress can impact our experience of stress, regardless of what stressors we might be facing. Therefore, increasing our awareness of our thoughts in relation to stress, and actively reframing out thinking, can help us develop a more positive mindset which is more adaptive and better able to cope with stress. Consider ways in which you can increase your self-awareness and meta-cognitive skills. Journaling, mindfulness, debriefing with friends or trusted colleagues are ways to increase your self-awareness and thought processes.
- Social & emotional Learning: The prosocial classroom model developed by Jennings and Greenberg (2009) highlighted the central role of teacher social-emotional competence (SEC) in creating effective learning environments which ultimately leads to improved student outcomes. Their research suggests that teachers with higher SEC are better able to cope with stress and that SEC are skills that can be developed over time. Mindfulness, for instance, improves teacher SEC by enhancing meta-cognitive skills, emotional regulation and has clear health benefits. Consider supporting teacher training specifically in the area of social, emotional competence. It will not only benefit your teachers but have significant positive impacts on student outcomes.
o Consider ways your school can support teachers explore or develop a regular mindfulness practice.
- Classroom management and student relationships: Respectful, caring teacher-student relationships are not only strongly linked to student outcomes but are also protective factors for reducing teacher burnout. Which is why COVID-19 has had such a negative impact on teachers’ experience. For many, teaching is a profession that provides a sense of meaning and purpose, but with the limitations imposed by physical distancing, the sense of joy and purpose once found in teaching may be diminished. Consider how your school is encouraging teachers that that their impact is meaningful. Specific coaching or training on classroom management may also help grow teacher competence in this area which will boost job satisfaction.
- School Culture and Leadership: School systems and practices can contribute to teacher stress. One study found that as much to 18% of the variance in teacher job stress could be explained by the school context (Kim, 2020). Consider reviewing your school climate via the use of a simple survey. What areas are staff identifying as particular pain points? Regular check-ins from leadership or a staff wellbeing buddy system can help foster meaningful connections between leadership and staff and amongst staff which can have big impacts on reducing teacher stress.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but there are things we can do personally, and collectively, to develop better coping strategies and skills that can help alleviate its negative impacts.
To help schools support their teacher’s wellbeing, AISA has established a partnership with NESLI, an Australian-based organization, to offer their Online Staff Wellbeing Toolkit to member schools. This self-paced program is designed to help your school community connect and build their resilience and wellbeing. For more information on how your school can take part in this unique program see our website for details or contact Chanel Worsteling.
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