Home Author Sue Culverhouse Does Intense Stress on Teachers Affect Student Learning?

Sue Culverhouse

Does Intense Stress on Teachers Affect Student Learning?

I listen to teachers when they speak and when they write to me. The stress I am hearing from everyone is getting worse as TCAP assessments near. Students are quite savvy about emotions exuding from their teacher. Let’s see how this plays out in the classroom.

Stress for teachers has been increased a hundredfold this year because of the new teacher evaluation system. Every tenured teacher is receiving four evaluations—a 15-minute environmental one, a 15-minute practice type visit, a 45-minute announced evaluation with pre-planning and post conference, and a “surprise” unannounced evaluation plus a post-conference.

Many teachers have been in tears for one or more of these visits. Knowing that if your “dog and pony show” doesn’t match that of your neighbor, you could receive low scores that affect your future employment puts you under immense stress.

Teaching is not a nine-to-five job where you do the same thing every day. Children come to school with every imaginable situation going on at home, so a teacher has to cope with the results on a daily basis. You can plan all you want to, but you never know what is going to happen in a classroom.

For instance, if snow is in the forecast—or even thunderstorms, you can plan on children’s excitement level rising. An average five-year-old has about a five-minute attention span. If you have children who have ADHD or another exceptional situation, they may have a much shorter attention span. That means your lessons have to accommodate these factors. Keeping focus is a real problem for many children.

If a holiday is on the horizon, children respond by getting excited about it. They may be thinking about the X-Box they want instead of whether the subject of the sentence should be “We” or “Us.”

A surprise visit from an evaluator may just be the crowning glory of your class’s threshold. If you are being evaluated on this one 45-minute experience, the evaluator may believe that you have no control over your students and grade you accordingly. Stress City!

Teachers have lives outside the classroom also. Our faculty is like a close family. We are very supportive of each other. If a teacher has illness of a relative or a death of a friend or family member, we are all concerned. We care and this too, adds stress. Even happy events like planning a wedding or having a baby can add stress to one’s life.

Being empathetic with your students can lead to worry. A child who tells you her family is now homeless and he’s sleeping on the floor of a relative leads you to stressful concern. Most conversations at the lunch table at school are about problems that students are encountering and what can be done to help.

When the teacher is upset, she may make every effort not to show it, but children are perceptive and are not easily fooled.

One teacher told me recently that she is staying up until 12:30 p.m. to grade papers and plan for the next day in addition to handling the responsibilities of a home and children. She said, “I’m tired the next morning and I know I’m cranky. I’m just worn out from all the paperwork we’re being asked to do. When we received the latest batch of 80 papers to complete so that we’ll be sure to read the new standards that will be in place in another year or so, I almost cried. I am already so burdened with testing, evaluations and just trying to teach what I need to teach that I’m wondering if any of this is worth it any more. I love my students and I love to teach, but I didn’t sign on to be a tool for bureaucrats. This is becoming absurd. We are asked to do more and more but receive no more pay for it. Now they are even suggesting that we won’t get the small annual increase for each year we teach. What is the point!”

One veteran teacher wrote me recently, “I evidently still don’t know how to teach because I have consistently gotten low scores on my evaluations. I am so tired of being criticized, and I am glad that some are speaking out about how wrong this process is…It’s not fair. That’s the bottom line. If I can’t teach after ten years, then there’s something wrong with me! Yet, my [test] results each year don’t say that. I want to be appreciated for working with kids when so many would never do it. I want to be thanked for doing a good job, once in a while, not beaten down about nit-picky things.”

Another teacher said, “If anyone thinks we’ve got an easy job, let them come into the classroom for a while and see for themselves.”

When teachers are browbeaten by unfair expectations (by the way, the new evaluations have 12 areas in which a teacher is supposed to excel in each and every lesson—and the evaluator is writing down every word the teacher says during the class to “prove” whether or not the teacher can teach) and are stressed to the max, learning is affected.

Students are showing test fatigue as early as third grade. Some teachers are noticing that more and more students seem to be nonchalant about even daily assignments.

If you explain to children that they should ignore the evaluator when he comes into the classroom because the teacher is the one being determined to be a competent teacher, their response is, “What are they talking about? You are a great teacher. We love you and we love your class!”

When all is said and done, that’s what teachers care about—the kids. Being told you are good at what you do by an administrator is wonderful, but the children are what a teacher is all about. Tears over stress are not helpful to teachers or children, but as long as unfair practices are in place, both suffer.

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