Living and learning with stress
By Deborah Inkpen
The recent suspension of two teachers for speaking out about workload and stress has brought to the surface a concern that has been a percolating for decades.
The Eastern School District has since lifted the suspensions but discussion and debate on the issue has continued with a recent public forum hosted by the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development. Dr. Lynda Younghusband, assistant professor at the Student Counselling Centre, was a keynote speaker at the forum and presented the findings of her doctoral thesis on teacher stress in Newfoundland, and its impact on the teaching and learning environments.
The forum, titled Teacher Stress and Working Conditions: Implications for Teaching and Learning, also included panellists Dr. David Dibbon, associate dean for undergraduate programs with the Faculty of Education; Denise Pike, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils; and Glenda Cluett, a teacher recently retired from the Eastern School District.
Dr. Younghusband said that researchers have reported that the primary health problem of teachers is stress and that the causes are multiple and complex. Workplace stress has also been found to diminish teachers’ enthusiasm and distance them emotionally from their students, thereby lessening the teacher-student interaction.
“School reorganization and consolidation in Newfoundland and Labrador has caused the incremental downloading of additional duties for teachers and, in their perception, unreasonable demands,” explained Dr. Younghusband. “The high stress levels of teachers in this province are worrisome and the causes and results of their stress must be identified and reduced.”
Dr. Younghusband’s study explored the experiences of high school teachers’ work environment, particularly their experiences of stress. She conducted interviews with 16 high school teachers, from 24-55 years of age, in rural and urban Newfoundland in 2002. She looked at teachers’ struggles to balance multiple demands (feeling burdened by work pressures and demands, barriers to teacher effectiveness), the importance of supportive work environments (feeling unsupported by administration, value of a collegial community, importance of having adequate resources), and the realities of stress (participants’ understanding of stress, self-concept, the taboo of stress, feeling consumed by the job: interference with personal life).
Dr. Younghusband’s results presented a picture of a profession which demanded constant attention often to the detriment of participants’ health and well-being. “In particular, the emotional repercussions of stress seemed difficult for these participants.”
Her study also emphasized the importance of administrative and collegial support, the importance of effective communication, the necessity of adequate resources and professional development, and the need to recognize the excessive workload and the associated stress that teachers are feeling. Dr. Younghusband hopes the results of her study will provide new insights into the serious problem of teacher stress in this province and the repercussions on their personal and professional lives.