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Coping With Teacher Stress
Jan 1, 1995

Occupational stress

Working patterns have changed drastically over the last decade with few reaping the benefits of advances in technology. Occupational stress has become a fact of life in most professions. Recently, a British court classified stress as an industrial injury in the ease of a social worker, strengthening the view that the pressure on the ‘caring professions may be greater than on others. Several research studies carried out in a number of countries suggest that stress and ‘burnout’ among teachers is a common problem.

The Meaning of Stress

For many people work proves to be a source of stress. Work stress is usually short-lived and overcome successfully. However, for some, it represents a continual threat and can lead to serious damage to health. The term ‘stress’ originates from physics in which it is used to describe ‘any force, strain, or pressure to a system.’

In the case of teacher stress, it is used to describe ‘a demand made upon the adaptive capacities of the mind and body... which if continued beyond the ability of these capacities to respond, leads to the physical and psychological exhaustion and possibly the ultimate collapse referred to by Seyle’ (Fontana, 1989).

Seyle (1956) laid down the foundation for later research in this area. He described stress as ‘the non-specific response of the body to any demand’. This diversion from the conventional meaning-became popular among physiologists.

Teacher Stress

If you are a teacher, ask yourself the following questions: Do you feel ‘used up’ at the end of the working day? Do you feel emotionally drained? Do you often feel overworked and underpaid? Do you feel alienated from the school in which you teach, from your colleagues, or from the administration? Are you having trouble dealing with paperwork? Do you often feel burnt out, irritable, or depressed at the end of a school day? Do you often miss school because of minor illness? If your answer to one or more of these question is ‘yes’, you are a teacher under stress and a candidate for ‘burnout’. If you are, unfortunately, you are not alone.

Education in most parts of the world has undergone rapid changes in the last two decades. The relationship between teachers and pupils is more informal and pupils are much more reluctant to accept a teacher’s authority. Parents and pupils are increasingly aware of their ‘rights’ within the education system. All these changes were designed to benefit the ‘clients’, and have resulted in an even greater burden on staff to justify what and how they teach. Whilst welcoming the situation where teachers are no longer on pedestals but are more approachable, we must recognize that it is now more difficult to motivate pupils when the ‘because I say so’ line has been removed from the teacher’s vocabulary. The status of the teacher in society has declined considerably. At one time, teachers were held in high esteem by society, on a par with doctors, solicitors, etc.

The effect of teacher stress is not restricted to the classroom. It is obvious that a teacher under stress does not produce good results, but the problem does not end there. Faber’s aptly titled book, Crisis in Education: Stress and Burnout in the American Teacher (1991), concludes that ‘teacher stress and burnout have affected and will continue to affect the lives of teachers and their families’ The work of Friedman (1992) and Borg et al (1991) show that the changes in education and resultant increase in stress is not restricted to western Europe and America.

The causes of teacher stress

Borg, Riding and Falzon (1991), through answers to questionnaires provided by 545 Maltese teachers, identified four main causes of stress. They were:

  • pupil misbehaviour
  • poor working conditions
  • poor staff relations
  • and time pressures.

Each of these categories could be broken down further. For example, the most common cause of stress was ‘pupil misbehavior’ and the most common aspect of ‘pupil mishehaviour’ was ‘pupil’s lack of motivation’ followed by the sheer numbers in the class, etc. Their work suggested that almost all teachers suffered from a degree of stress.

Levels of stress

Educational research identifies four levels of stress.

Low: where the stress presents no major problems

Moderate: where the level is bearable but the individual should examine ways of reducing it

Serious: where there is a risk of a psychological breakdown

Very serious: where the individual is nearing a state of total collapse described by Selye (1976). Fontana and Abouserie at the University of Wales, using the above categories identified the scale of the problem, found that 72.6% of teachers suffered from moderate stress and 23.2% had more serious problems. The stress level for men was slightly higher than women.

Coping with stress

Ability to deal with stress varies from person to person. It has been found that ‘stronger correlations to burnout existed in terms of how teachers perceive themselves rather than how they feel others perceive them’ (Friedman, 1991). The one who copes best is the one who manages to feel that the benefits out- way the problems’ or to say ‘I enjoy working with students’.

Several stress management programmes have been developed. They aim at teaching coping techniques. An alternative approach is religion as there is a positive relationship between religion and decrease in stress.

Teachers have to, under today’s stressful conditions, develop strong personalities in themselves and others. The function of education should not be limited to imparting knowledge alone, but concurrent with the teaching of subject matter, it should be concerned with the emotional aspects of development. This will best be realized by emphasizing the aim of self- knowledge. This is a pivotal issue in personality development and human education. How can teachers be helped to cope with their stress? What needs to he done or what changes should be emphasized in education so that teachers can best actualize their potentialities and function optimally in their respective groups? Religion is very similar to certain forms of psychotherapy in the way it alters cognitive appraisal. It provides a set of personal and social values and methods of self actualization which are consistent with one another. Religion produces a positive self concept. In terms of the transactional model, religion offers relief from stress by altering the perception of demand, of capability and of the importance of coping. For example, toil and drudgery may be seen to be praiseworthy forms of worship, faith brings renewed physical and psychological strength, where admittance to a heaven is more important than success or even survival in the world. For many millions of people the practice of religion appears to be effective in enhancing their ability to cope with life and, on this evidence alone, its effects must be judged to be important both by the individual and his society. In one study of combat soldiers in the Second World War, three-quarters of the infantry-men questioned said that prayer helped a great deal to control intense fear, while 60 per cent of the airmen surveyed in another study reported that prayer helped them cope with stress. An individual’s belief system or world view provides a sense of coherence and a means of coping with stress. For some, this sense of coherence makes frustration, failure and pain more tolerable.

Some are able to cope with stress better than others, and others actively seek it out. It could perhaps be argued that committed teachers are in some cases more likely to suffer adverse effects of stress than uncommitted ones. If a teacher is indifferent to his pupils’ progress or the standard of their behaviour then there is no sense of frustrating, stressful failure if standards are not achieved. On the other hand an idealistic member of staff with high expectations is likely to experience feelings of stress if his expectations are not shared either by his pupils or by his colleagues. Research suggests that religious people are able to cope with stress. Pargament (1990) showed that religious belief, faith and rituals:

  1. make stressful events more bearable by providing a meaningful, coherent explanation and orderliness to events in the universe
  2. provide a source of hope and comfort as well as established guidelines on how to handle stressful events
  3. nurture a sense of belonging as promoting identity and a sense of intimacy and support with both God and with the religious community.


  • BORG, MG. (1990) ‘Occupational Stress in British Education Setting: a review’. Educational Psychology, 10, p.103-126.
  • BORG, M.G. et al ‘Stress in Teaching: a study of occupational stress and its derminants, job satisfaction and career commitment among primary school teachers’, Educational Psychology, 11, p.59-75
  • FONTANA, D. (1989) Managing Stress, London, Routledge.
  • FONTANA, D. & ABOUSERIE, R. (1992) ‘Stress Levels, Gender and Personality Factors in Teachers’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 63, p.26I -70.
  • FRIEDMAN, I. & FARBER, B. (1992) ‘Professional Self Concept as a Predictor of Teacher Burnout’, Journal of Educational Research, 86, p.28-3.
  • SELYE, B. (1976) The Stress of Life (rev. ed), New York, McGraw Hill.