How Can We Teach if We Don’t Take Care of Ourselves First?

Posted By Jeffrey Sprague, Ph.D. | Jan 18, 2017

teachers-training1The modern challenges of public school teaching are diverse and deep. While it is clear that academic achievement is “job one” for schools, we now are faced with a dizzying array of risks and challenges from our students, parents, and society. Some might say it’s “depressing” and it’s not a joke.

Recent years have seen an explosion of, and discussion about, schools traditional use of “exclusionary discipline.” Typically, teachers have sent students to the office to see an administrator (or another person) to respond to most forms of disruption in the classroom. But a contemporary view of exclusion is that it’s harmful to students and doesn’t work in the long run. We hear about the “school to prison pipeline,” and “trauma informed care” at a time when budgets are declining, and perhaps the students we receive at school are more challenging than we remember. Most teachers and administrators I work with agree with this, and yet we are all left wondering, “What are alternatives that work?” Others (maybe you), wonder if we are in an era where there are no “consequences” and challenging students will ruin schooling for everyone. We know what we are doing is not the right thing, and yet it’s stressful to feel ineffective without understanding what else to do.

Teacher Training and Support is Often Inadequate

The National Center for Education Statistics provides a staggering statistic: Out of the 467 accredited universities and colleges in a study of teacher preservice training, only 51 percent stated that they offered specific courses in discipline, and only 43 percent of the students at these schools were required to take these courses. This means you and most of your colleagues might have received little to no formal training in classroom management before taking on the job. The National Council on Teacher Quality also argues that preservice training in classroom management is a top priority for our nation’s teachers.
In my work with schools, I also see that resources might consistently be applied toward academic coaching for teachers, but remarkably scant resources are provided for behavioral or classroom management coaching. Thus, in-service teachers might be expected to teach to high academic standards while having few formal tools for managing disruptive classroom behaviors. Both of these observations are a tragedy as there are multiple excellent resources available to learn about evidence-based classroom management. The “classroom” section of my “Best Behavior: Building Positive Behavior Support in Schools” book is fully dedicated to this small but powerful list of methods. 

Teacher Satisfaction Continues to Decline

The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher is conducted every two years and gives a comprehensive look at the conditions of teaching in the United States. Teacher satisfaction has declined 23 percentage points since 2008, from 62 percent to 39 percent very satisfied, including 5 percentage points since last year, to the lowest level in 25 years. Half (51 percent) of teachers report feeling under great stress several days a week, an increase of 15 percentage points over 36 percent of teachers reporting that level in 1985. Less satisfied teachers are more likely than very satisfied teachers to be in schools where budgets declined in the last 12 months (61 percent vs. 47 percent). Less satisfied teachers are more likely to be located in schools that had declines in professional development (21 percent vs. 14 percent) and in time for collaboration with other teachers (29 percent vs. 16 percent) in the last 12 months.

Are You a Stressed-out Teacher? 

My colleagues and I began a focus on teacher wellbeing about 10 years ago in an effort to understand better why so many are stressed out and/or refuse to adopt practices that might make them more effective (and happier) Some teacher factors to consider include job demands (duh) such as pupil misbehavior and workload. These two factors increase work stress and reduce job satisfaction. The emotional demands and emotional labor of teaching can affect teachers’ sense of personal accomplishment and efficacy. Worrying about particular students and their parents/caregivers can take a real toll on your daily functioning, and not just at work.
Having a strong send of job control leads to improved job satisfaction and reduced emotional exhaustion. Collegial support in the form of supportive leadership, supportive colleagues, and rewards and respect at work can buffer against this.
Burnout = Depression = Burnout. In my workshops, I often address the effects of teacher burnout. Many people in the audience will chuckle, but I see it as nervous laughter. We are all reluctant as caregivers to talk about, or think about our own wellbeing but it is actually critical to our survival in the field. Every human feels sad from time to time and yet many teachers are so affected it might impair their teaching performance and life in general. The likelihood of major depression in the general population nears 20 percent our lifetime and 7 percent to 10 percent for a one-year period. Women are more likely to experience depression and in one study 27 percent of teachers reported depression. Depression and burnout can be an escalating cycle. Depressed teachers are more likely to focus on negative behavior and less likely to praise positive behavior
The Trap of the Dedicated Teacher. How can this be happening? Teachers in schools with high levels of misbehavior and other stressful conditions become less interested in teaching, have higher levels of stress and burnout, and are more likely to leave the field altogether. Most of us (yes, I am a former special education teacher of 10 years) started our career with a self-image as caring and competent. We then encounter difficulties with students, colleagues and demands on time. These difficulties can result in negative thoughts and feelings about others and the “system.” Many of us engage in efforts to control negative thoughts and feelings with reasonable things, like exercise, listening to music, or reaching out to colleagues. But some of us also respond by drinking (after work), taking medication, complaining about others and the system, and/or WORKING HARDER. These latter behaviors might help us avoid our feelings in the short run, but they are clearly shown to produce much greater difficulties in time. There has to be another way.

How Can We Make a Difference?

PBIS. We know much about creating a supportive school climate for kids, families, and teachers too. School wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports is implemented in more than 25,000 schools now, and my "Best Behavior" book is a simple, yet comprehensive guide to integrating school-wide, classroom management, common area supervision, and individual and family supports. If we maintain a focus on these practices and provide ongoing professional development and coaching, each teacher can achieve a better sense of job control, teaching efficacy, improve collegial relations with other staff members. 

Restorative Practice. There also has been much excitement about using Restorative justice/practices both to build school culture and also as an alternative to the traditional methods of “exclusion” addressed above. No commonly accepted definition of RP exists, in part because the movement to bring Restorative Justice practices for adults into schools for children and youth is developing in different ways in different schools. Many expect that these practices will: (a) reduce out-of-school suspensions (even if PBIS has already reduced them to some extent); (b) reduce racially or ethnically disproportionate suspensions; and (c) improve school climate for students, staff members and families. If we can improve school climate and relationships by focusing on care and forgiveness, everyone (including you) will benefit from less stress and more personal satisfaction. 

Trauma Informed Care. A third major theme has been using Trauma Informed Care to address the needs of students experiencing the toxic effects of poverty and stress. We are asked to consider how extreme stress can significantly impair the impulse control of some of our students. This will likely be expressed as serious acting out, tantrums, property destruction, etc. These incidents can be extremely stressful to all of us, and impossible to forget. There are multiple guides for teachers such as those available from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. It is important to note that we are asked to recognize traumatic responses and offer support to students, but we are not asked to provide counseling or therapy. We are teachers first and foremost. The "Best Behavior" book includes a detailed chapter on Responding to Escalating Behavior and Power Struggles. This describes evidence-based approaches to responding to, and preventing the types of behavioral escalation that occurs in every school.

mindfulnessTeacher Wellbeing. New research is bringing us to a sincere recognition, and strategies for, addressing teacher burnout and stress. Each day, we face multiple vulnerable situations in schools, and these can be made worse by lack of procedural clarity (e.g., what do I do when the student is hurting another), fatigue from the stressors listed above, and poor relationships with students, colleagues or parents/caregivers. There is significant and growing evidence that acceptance-focused (also known as mindfulness) practices can prevent or ameliorate teacher stress and burnout while increasing teachers’ commitment to their work and their openness to the use of new evidence-based practices. We see multiple stories now in the literature and electronic media advocating for mindfulness training for students, and we must see that teachers are given support and practice. Mindfulness work doesn’t just involve “meditation” but also requires clarification and recommitment to our original values about why we became educators. In my most recent work, I incorporate features of mindful practice within the evidence-based content of "Best Behavior". 
If we can renew our commitment to our core values daily, and share with our colleagues and families, we won’t eliminate stress but we can learn to accept this is one of the hardest yet most satisfying careers.


Learn to assess and build a positive, inclusive school culture by watching the webinar "From Restorative Justice to Restorative Discipline in Schools: Challenges and Opportunities",  presented by Jeffrey Sprague. 


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