Teacher Stress Is Very Real

A few weeks ago I spoke to an elementary principal about the issues she faces.  She told me that one is teacher absenteeism.  When I asked her why,she quickly told me, “Stress.”  At 4 p.m. today, (Friday May 25) I’m talking to the principal of one of the best elementary schools in the state.

Their students’ last day of school was yesterday.  She told me it was the hardest year she’s ever had as a principal.  That the teachers were totally wiped out and when they got together to celebrate another year completed, it was a much more somber atmosphere than it should have been.

These conversations popped into my mind when I came across the following article from a group known as Child Trends, an organization that has been around for years providing data resources for policymakers, foundations and the general public.

“As education stakeholders consider improvements to school climate, school safety, and student well-being, many have turned their attention to the role of schools in promoting mental health. While most of this attention focuses on students’ mental health needs, it is also essential to explore ways of supporting teachers and school staff who often experience high levels of stress.

Relative to professionals in other sectors, educators experience significantly more stress and suffer more often from mental health problems. In fact, 61 percent of educators reported that their work is “always” or “often” stressful. Failing to address the mental health needs of teachers (concurrent with our focus on student stress and trauma) may affect their ability to address critical needs among students. Teacher wellness has been linked not only to teachers’ physical health, but also to stability in schools and to teaching effectiveness and student achievement. Moreover, teachers’ emotions and stress levels have been found to influence those of students and other teachers. In Child Trends’ preliminary research on creating healthy school environments, students, educators, and policymakers all mentioned teacher wellness as an important factor in the overall health of a school.

Research points to several key sources of stress that can undermine teacher wellness: high-stakes job demands, limited resources and professional autonomy, and negative school climate. Heightened attention to student test scores in recent years has placed teachers under increased scrutiny, as their professional success is measured in large part by student performance on standardized exams. They must also navigate challenging student behavior and complex parent and family needs. Teachers are often expected to drive student success for a diverse set of learners and intervene across a range of challenging situations with limited materials, assistance, and control over school and classroom decisions. In fact, teachers are less likely than any other professional group to report feeling that their opinions matter at work.

Existing research suggests that the availability of supports and resources to address students’ needs may affect teacher wellness; preliminary findings from Child Trends research indicate that unmet student needs may be a potentially critical source of teacher stress. When a student experiences trauma at home or lacks sufficient resources to thrive in the classroom, her teacher is often the first to notice that something is wrong and to respond. In the absence of sufficient student support services at the school, or systems that link students with needed services in the community, the teacher may feel helpless to meet the needs of that student. Alternatively, the teacher may become the student’s primary support system. Both scenarios are emotionally taxing for the teacher.

While elements of the school environment and structure seem to cause considerable stress for teachers, the mechanisms commonly suggested to reduce teacher stress tend to focus on the teacher’s responsibility for self-care. Self-care practices such as meditation, exercise, or participation in a support group are inexpensive and straightforward to implement, and certainly have the potential to alleviate symptoms of stress. However, these practices do not address the root causes of teacher stress and may divert attention from the systemic stressors that exist in schools today. Instead, we should address these sources of stress and embrace a holistic approach to teacher wellness. Promoting teacher wellness requires attention to physical and mental health, professional development and support, and resources needed to be effective in the classroom, among other things.

Any profession is bound to have its stresses, and teaching is no different. But when we accept that an unhealthy level of stress is inherent to teaching, and place the burden of stress reduction on the individual teacher, we limit our ability to improve overall school wellness. We can better shape healthy schools for teachers and students by addressing the underlying causes of chronic stress and cultivating environments that promote teacher wellness. Ultimately, such attention could lead to healthier, more supportive school communities and more positive outcomes for students. When teacher wellness becomes a norm, so too will student success.”

Teacher stress is real–and seldom mentioned in all the talk about helping schools improve.

Good News From Washington County

As the Tombigbee river meanders through west Alabama it eventually becomes the eastern border of Washington County.  In fact, this is where its waters join those of the Alabama river before heading to Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  The county is both big and old.  With more than 1,000 square miles, it is larger than Rhode Island.  And it was created in 1800, well before Alabama became a state in 1819.

The first territorial capital of Alabama was in Washington County at St. Stephens. And like so many of our rural counties, it is shrinking and has less than 18,000 citizens.  The cotton fields that once flourished here have long given way to pine trees.

Only 2,682 students are spread among seven schools, five of them high schools.  In 1995-96 there were 3,783 students.

However, this rural slice of southwest Alabama keeps on chugging.  And as David Wofford, Career & Technical Education Director for the  school system explains, there are success stories.

“It is that time of year again for Washington County schools. The K-12 world is busy preparing for graduation ceremonies and going away parties. All the hard work of students and teachers is about to pay off, as graduates move to another phase of their lives..

Two years ago, the school system made changes to the local career and technical education programs. This year, students, teachers and businesses have reaped the benefits of those changes.

After surveying students’ interests and local needs, system officials converted the business program to health science. This change contributed to students securing certified nursing assistant internships with home health care services, and 16 seniors were pinned as CNAs. Five internships were also awarded.

Changes were also made in the system’s industrial maintenance classes. A partnership with Coastal Alabama Community College resulted in the first dual enrollment pipefitting program in the state of Alabama. Six seniors were awarded scholarships with local community colleges.

All 17 graduating students from the pipefitting program were offered positions at Ingalls Shipbuilding. Additionally, eight students have been hired on full time or as summer interns at AM/NS Calvert. Safety courses were also provided for all CTE students, courtesy of AM/NS Calvert.

Although there is much left to do, Washington County schools are on the way to improving the lives of students and providing them with viable study and career options.”

We save the world one life at a time.  Dedicated professionals such as those in Washington County make it happen.  Truth is, when you are tucked away in places like Leroy, Fruitdale, Millry, McIntosh and Chatom chances are you are both out-of-sight and out-of-mind.. However, this does not diminish your work.

And recent graduates of these tech programs are testimony to such.


Why Is My Opponent Running A Negative Campaign Against Me?

There are only two candidates in the Republican primary on June 5 for District Two on the Montgomery County school board.  I am one, the other is Ted Lowry.

To my dismay, Lowry has resorted to phone calls to voters to smear my campaign.  Here is the transcript of the call he did on Monday night, May 21:

“But just months before he qualified to run as a Republican Larry Lee voted in the Democrat primary in the Senate Special Election.   When real Republicans like us voted for our nominee, Larry Lee voted in the Democrat primary to choose his nominee.  Larry Lee has run and lost four time as a Democrat, campaign manager for a Democrat congressional candidate (inaudible) was a paid contractor for the same special interest group who are fighting reforms in the Montgomery schools.  Don’t be fooled by Larry Lee.

His record tells us who he really is—a Democrat who will fight against the reforms Montgomery schools desperately need. We can do better.  Vote against Larry Lee in the June 5th primary.

Paid for by Lowry for school board, 1532 Old Park Row, Montgomery, AL 36117”


Just more deceit and deception.  Among the things Lowry fails to mention is that my candidacy has been challenged at both the local and state level.  The local committee voted UNAMIOUSLY in my favor and the state steering committee voted overwhelmingly for me just last week.

Lowry talks about “real” Republicans.  But wouldn’t real Republicans abide by what their local and state party has said Instead of trying to undermine them?

He also fails to mention that in 1968 (50 years ago) I was a member of the Jefferson County, AL Republican Executive Committee helping Judge Perry Hooper run for the U.S. Senate.  I was a Republican way before it was “cool” or “convenient.”

And while Lowry trashes Democrats, he obviously does not know that four of the seven school board seats are now held by Democrats and a Republican cannot get anything done without working with them.  It might help him to look at all the candidates running for the board on June 5.  Some 17 of them are Democrats, only five are Republicans.  Obviously he does not understand the reality of this community.

Just why is Lowry so desperate for a seat on the board?

Something he said at a candidate forum sponsored by the Montgomery Advertiser on May 10 may give a clue.  He told this crowd that he had done research and three of the top four high schools in the United States are charter schools operated by the BASIS. Company in Arizona.

Not surprisingly, Lowry’s research left much to be desired.  For example, as this article from the Washington Post explains, charter schools run by BASIS are woefully inadequate in representing public school populations in Arizona.  While the statewide public school populations were three percent Asia, 45 percent Latino and 39 percent white, student bodies in 18 BASIS schools were 32 percent Asian, ten percent Latino and 51 percent  white.

In fact, there were NO English Language Learners in the BASIS schools.  IN ARIZONA!!

Neither did he mention that parents of students at these schools are “requested” to contribute $1,500 a year per child and that less than 50 percent of all students who enroll in a BASIIS school graduate from one.  Finally, BASIS schools spend an average of $2,291 per pupil on administration while public schools spend $638.

My position on charter schools has always been that they should be carefully considered on a case by case basis.  We should be diligent with our homework before we approve them.

But homework does not seem to be Lowry’s game plan.  Rather, he had rather deal in half-truths and trash.

I have been in hundreds of classrooms and I’ve never seen one labeled as either Republican or Democrat.  It is shameful that Ted Lowry puts politics ahead of school kids..





Where Is The “Our”?

In the last 24 hours I have read two articles that paint something of a stark picture of Montgomery these days.

One is about Montgomery public schools in the Montgomery Business Journal, a publication of the Chamber of Commerce.  Here we learn that “seven out of ten Montgomery voters blame the Board of Education for Montgomery’s failing school system.”  The article goes into detail about comments of interim state superintendent Ed Richardson discussing the plight of the schools here.

We are told that at the chamber’s annual meeting last December, Richardson asked 700 business and community leaders,  “Do you really want good public schools for Montgomery?”  The article goes on to say: “Montgomery’s public schools are failing; they’re failing the students they exist to serve; they’re failing the city and its residents whose tax dollars fund them.  And they’re negatively affecting the business community by stifling economic development efforts.”

The other article that made a big  impression is this one in The Montgomery Advertiser about LaDonna Brendle, who became so concerned about the homeless and needy that ten years ago she left her career in accounting and started Reality and Truth Ministries.

In the grand scheme of things, Brendle has not moved mountains or started something that swept the country, but she has had a HUGE impact on those she has helped.

An old saying goes, “If you want a helping hand, there is one at the end of  your arm.”

This was the approach LaDonna Brendle embraced.  However, as I go from setting to setting in my school board campaign, I don’t sense that this is the way it is with this school system..

For example, when Ed Richardson asked that roomful of people if they wanted good schools, his follow up question should have been, “So what are YOU going to do to make this happen?”

There  was once a time when communities and schools were practically one and the same.  This was OUR community and these were OUR schools.  But I rarely hear anyone mention “OUR schools” these days.  Instead, we want someone else to fix things.  IF we just had a new  school board?  IF we just had a new superintendent?  IF the state intervention will work?

I have referred to David Mathews little book, Is There A Public For Public Schools? many times.  It is all about the disconnect we now have between communities and schools. He says, “The public and the schools haven’t had a divorce, but they are definitely separated.”

He also says, “The only way for the community to be a better place to live is for the people of the community to understand and accept their personal responsibility for what happens.”

There are many examples of individuals and businesses helping our schools.  A few days ago I was at a meeting  where the PTA gave the principal a check for $25,000–and this was after having spent $58,000 on school improvements in the last year.  That was at a magnet school.  The story is far different for most of our non-magnets.

Too often we sit around waiting for Santa Claus to show up.  But Santa Claus is not in Washington, and he ain’t in the state capital down on goat hill.

If Santa Claus is going to show up in Montgomery and make our schools better, then it is up to each of us to go find a red and white suit.




Thoughts Prompted By Graduation

My friend Wendy Lang is a former educator, an advocate for public education and a single parent who understands the value of those who invest in the lives of children.   She is also a regular columnist for the Decatur Daily, her hometown newspaper.
She just attended her youngest son’s graduation from the University of Alabama and the occasion caused her to reflect a lot.  Here are her thoughts:

It would seem that our legislature and society, as a whole, have taken the stance that educators are to have one goal and one goal only; to work diligently in an effort to raise declining test scores.  It makes me tremble in anger as both a former educator and as a parent that we have come to this point.  My greatest fear is that one day educators might actually adhere to this verdict.

I was visiting with a classroom teacher last week who was thrilled because every student in her room had achieved some measure of growth; however, she was visited by her principal who informed her that although each child did grow academically under her tutelage, they did not rise to the bar that he had set for them.  Not only was she unaware of this “bar of excellence”, but her enthusiasm was gone.  She felt that once again, her best simply wasn’t good enough and that she was not appreciated for her attempts at making a difference in the lives of children while helping them to achieve academic growth.  Her administrator went on to state that because every child was not at least ten points above the spread for “proficiency” that her job might be in jeopardy.  

This administrator hadn’t noticed that she spent untold hours tutoring those that didn’t quite get it or that when they showed up for school in shoes that didn’t fit, she made her way to town and bought them a pair herself.  He hadn’t noticed that those that came to school with no coat because they didn’t have one magically went home in a coat that same afternoon.  He never saw her stuffing backpacks with food because sometimes a school lunch is the last meal of the day for many children.  He didn’t know that she had made her classroom a safe haven for her students and that she listened to her children’s problems and helped them to see right from wrong.  After all, she didn’t advertise all that she did.  This was her calling; her mission field; her heart.  Or to be honest, maybe her administrator did know, but he just didn’t care.

You see, test scores are front page news.  Everyone wants to know how you scored.  But thankfully, not every educator adheres to the law of the land.  Some educators still see the importance of making a difference.  Some educators believe that once you have been in their classroom, you will forever be their baby regardless of your age.  Some teachers go the extra mile day after day because they understand that children need someone that cares about them and not just the scores that are derived from one test given only on one day of the year.

My son graduated Suma Cum Laude this past weekend from the University of Alabama with a degree in Business Analytics and Finance.  His life hasn’t always been as easy as he wanted people to think.  Thankfully he had teachers that cared about the whole child and not just the part that tested well.  They listened and cared and offered sage advice.  I’m not sure, but I think they have even told him a time or two that his mother isn’t all bad and for that, I will always be grateful. 

Saturday as the orchestrabegan to play Pomp and Circumstance, two of his high school teachers climbed the steps in the coliseum to where our family sat and joined us as we watched Jorge cross the stage in his well-deserved gold sash.  (They had driven 150 miles way to get  there.) I couldn’t help but shed a tear and say a prayer of thanks…..Thank you, Heavenly Father that my son had teachers that saw him as more than a test score.  Help those who write the laws and set the goals to understand that educators do more than just teach.  And bless these two who sit beside me real good for such is the kingdom of heaven.