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.


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.



A Plea From An Anguished Alabama Mother About Opioids

There are many wonderful educators in Alabama.  And in my book, Hope Zeanah, assistant superintendent of education in Baldwin County, is at the top of the list.  She was principal of Elberta elementary for 16 years.  Was Alabama Principal of the Year in 2013.

And even after more than 30 years in education, she is wide open every day and just as passionate about students as she ever was.

She is also one of the bravest, most courageous people I’ve ever known.  Here’s why.

Three years ago her only son, Rex, died in his sleep because of his addiction to opioids. He was 33.  I went to the funeral in a jam-packed church in Atmore.  Hope, as any mother would be, was devastated beyond both words and emotions.

Recently Hope had the resolve to sit down with a reporter from WKRG in Mobile to tell the story of she and her son and the tragic journey he traveled for 15 years..  You can watch it here.  And you should–and get others to also.

Rex loved basketball and got a scholarship to a small college.  Unfortunately he hurt his back and soon was sucked up into the world of pain medicine.  He became addicted to Oxycontin.  Though he would be clean for months on end, the addiction would not turn him loose.  Three years ago he had a job interview and was filled with anxiety about it.

After the interview, his mother says he searched for Oxycontin once again.  Not able to find any, he got heroin instead.  His autopsy showed it was laced with toxins.

Ironically, three days after his death, Hope learned he had gotten the job.

Hope never thought an addiction could happen in her family.  But it did and in telling her story, Hope Zeanah wants others to know it may happen in their family too.  Which is why she sat down with a reporter to relive the horror of three years ago and to encourage others to ask the right questions of doctors when drugs are involved.

Please watch the video.  And give thanks for this mother and educator and her courage.

I Was A Doctor. Now I Am A Teacher. Why Don’t I Get The Same Level Of Respect?

As we hear more and more about teachers showing their dissatisfaction with wages and working conditions I came across an article that gives insight as to what is going on today in schools across the country.

In a sobering article in Education Week Teacher with the title above, former physician Kim Talikoff of North Carolina, talks about her switch from practicing medicine to becoming a 4th grade teacher.

Here are some excerpts:

It is relatively easy to gauge the degree to which we underpay teachers. A quick comparison highlights North Carolina’s compensation problem: Only three states pay teachers less than we do. Teachers from across North Carolina are planning to protest on May 16 at the state capitol for higher pay and education funding.

Disrespect and poor treatment, on the other hand, are far more difficult to describe and to measure. But these equally pressing problems take a tremendous toll on the entire education system. Until we remedy our pervasive denigration of teachers, reforms promising to deliver effective public education will continue to miss the mark.

I understood that leaving the medical profession to join the teaching ranks would be perceived by some as a downgrade. The feedback I received during my career transition, however, revealed the true extent to which we disparage our teachers and the work of teaching. One horrified friend protested my plan, exclaiming, “But what you do now has such social value!”

In K-12 education, cynical views of teacher integrity and work ethic are woven into internal policies. Teachers are salaried employees, yet we are often required to sign in or do after-hours work from campus, so that administrators can monitor our whereabouts and use of time.

Even more consequential, however, are the system failures that arise because of this distrust. Though we work directly with students and best understand their needs as well as obstacles to implementation, teacher perspectives often are treated as extraneous to school planning processes. Our instruction shifts at the behest of consultants while teacher insights remain untapped. Short-sighted decision-making that bypasses teachers not only impugns our judgment, it also results in wasteful spending, ineffective programs, and time inefficiencies.

Perhaps our mismeasurement of teachers comes from a historical derogation of tasks often considered “women’s work” or from a societal undervaluing of children. Maybe it is simply the result of adults’ negative memories of school. But I believe this widespread derision also arises because so many outside of the field misunderstand the complexity of the job.

Teachers’ work is hard and messy. Meeting the educational and developmental needs of children in schools is every bit as difficult as meeting their medical needs in hospitals and clinics. Yet, instead of honoring the intensity and multidimensionality of the job, we trivialize the intricacies and minimize the challenges. For those who move out of the classroom, it can be easy to forget the struggle.

There are no quick fixes to the problems that we have created by undervaluing the work and contribution of teachers. Certainly, in addition to implementing effective staffing ratios, developing fair evaluation systems, and providing teachers with adequate classroom resources, we must finally pay teachers commensurate to the value of their work.

But these steps alone are not enough. If we are to strengthen our society and economy through education, we must name and realign our negative cultural disposition toward teachers and the education field. By remedying teacher pay and respect, we will boost education—and also improve the health of our nation.

I visit a LOT of schools, talk to a lot of teachers and principals and get an “up close and personal” look at the real world of education today.  I hear the same things Kim talks about.  And it is why I’ve long said that we pay far to little attention to those who labor in schools.

Once Governor Bentley told a group that he was “looking for innovative ideas about education.”  I quickly told him that I had one.  So he asked what it was.  “Why don’t we listen to the teachers and principals since they are the real experts?” I told him.  I am unaware that he paid attention to my suggestion.

And one has to ask that if we don’t value our teachers, do we really value our children?

The Inspiring Story Of A Teacher Running For Her Students

OK.  OK.  For those of you who have only known me for a few years, you will likely be shocked to know that long ago (and many pounds) I was a distance runner and lettered on Auburn University’s cross-country team.  Even got a navy blue sweater with a bright orange A on it for all the miles I covered.

So when I came across the story about English teacher Kate Fletcher running to raise money for scholarships for her students, I was  intrigued.

Kate has been teaching at Louisa County High in Louisa, VA since  2005.  This is a small, rural community about 30 miles east of Charlottesville, 60 miles northwest of Richmond and 95 miles southwest of  Washington, D.C.  The county was founded in 1742 and was where Patrick Henry grew up..

Kate, who didn’t begin running until she was 35, got the idea in 2015 that she could run to raise money for scholarships for some of her  students.  She ran 36 miles on the school track that year..  The next year she tackled 50 miles and raised more than $5,000.

And her goal for the 2018 Lion Pride Run was 100 miles in 24 hours.  That’s 400 times around the one-quarter mile track.

How did it  all turn  out?  Click the link above to find out.  And for certain, watch the video.  You will be inspired by the story of Kate Fletcher and her impact on some students in this little community.  I contributed to this scholarship program because Kate embodies the dedication and spirit I see each and every time I visit a school.