Teacher Stress Impacts Executive Functioning and Productivity

By Zenisha Shah, CEI Intern & Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

We can all identify one teacher who taught us something we’ve never forgotten, helped us believe in ourselves, and helped shape our view of life. In addition to having the pressure of being one of those life-changing teachers, today’s educators have a long list of To-Do’s: writing lesson plans, grading assignments, managing classroom behaviors, communicating with parents, and collecting and analyzing data. Some of us might feel stressed out just reading that list.

More Than Half of American Teachers are Stressed

A survey from the American Federation for teachers in 2017 confirms that 61% teachers in the United States of America are stressed out and 58% state that their mental health is not good (Mahnken,2017) . Stress that adversely affects a teacher’s present can result in a negative effect on a student’s future, because it diminishes teacher executive functioning. This means that stress reduces a teacher’s productivity.  It’s also a major contributor to emotional burnout. In addition to the adverse physiological, cognitive, emotional, and psychological problems, there are often financial and generational repercussions for a stressed teacher’s family.

Spotting Stress

Unfortunately, many times a teacher doesn’t realize that he or she is stressed and experiencing burnout. Researchers Wood and McCarthy (2002) state the following as symptoms of stress and burnout:

  • Physical symptoms like headache, fatigue, and insomnia
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of inadequacy and irritation when thinking of school
  • Withdrawal from colleagues

            Awareness about these symptoms can help teachers better cope with them. The high prevalence, multi-generational effect, and innumerable costs of stress calls for urgent action. The first step for teachers is self-care and self-help.

Coping strategies

 In today’s fast-paced, high pressure school environment, stress is almost inevitable. Educating teachers about how to better deal with these stressors could result in more relaxed, efficient, focused, and effective teachers. Schools could then potentially see improved academic performance for students. Some of these important stress coping strategies include:

1. Make stress your friend: What we believe about stress influences how it impacts us. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests that the way we think about and act in a stressful situation can change how the body reacts to stress. Believing it’s helpful can decrease the adverse physiological effects of stress. In her TED talk, Dr. McGonigal explains how our positive beliefs about  stressful situations can help us be more compassionate and courageous. Through her talk, she also highlights that during a stressful situation our body also releases Oxytocin, making us more empathetic and more likely to seek out support and physical contact.

2. Practice mindfulness: Being mindful is a highly effective way to manage stress. It can increase stress awareness, helping one change their attitude towards stress and the stressors in the environment. Practicing mindfulness has also shown to increase focus, compassion and emotional awareness. All of which can help improve a teacher’s productivity and wellbeing. Breathing techniques like “4*4 breathing” can help one be more mindful and decrease negative stress responses.

3. Practice emotional first aid: Learning and teaching require as much emotional power as cognitive skills, so it’s essential to practice emotional first aid. Practice self-compassion, limit negative self-talk, be aware and acceptant of how you feel. Dr. Guy Winch, a licensed psychologist and author of the book “Emotional First Aid” also suggests that sometimes just a small distraction can help break the negative thought cycle.

4. Being grateful: Practicing gratitude has proven to help detach from stressful negative experiences by focusing on the positive. This skill of practicing gratitude has also shown to increase well-being and life satisfaction (Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Teachers can also share this habit with the class to create a more positive and compassionate environment.

5. Social support: All teachers would agree that a strong social support system at and outside of work can buffer against stress. Researchers at UC Berkeley and Erasmus University, Rotterdam interviewed teachers on their suggested tips for coping with stress (Tummers et.al.). The teachers suggested finding social support at school and finding something other than teaching that one enjoys. Dr. McGonial also talks about how our natural stress response involves seeking social support, which not only has psychological benefits but also physiological benefits.

Stress and stressors in a teacher’s life are inevitable. However, to better cope with stress, a teacher can view stress as helpful, practice self-compassion, seek social support, and be mindful and grateful.


References

Aldina, S. (2016, October 26). 9 ways mindfulness reduces stress. Retrieved May, 2019.

How to make Stress your friend . (2013, June). TED Talk website.

Mahnken, K. (2017, October 31). 61% of teachers stressed out, 58% say mental health is not good in new national survey. The 74 website.

Mumford, C. (n.d.). 9 stress management strategies every teacher needs to know. Hey Teach! website.Retrieved May 2019.

Park, N.,  Peterson, C., and  Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology; 23, (5), pp 603-619.

The Graide Network.The epidemic of teacher stress. (2018, September 4). The Graide Network website.

Tummers, L., Musheno, M., Bekkers, V., & Vink, E. (n.d.). How can you, as a teacher, cope with stress at work? Lars Tummers website.Retrieved May, 2019.

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