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Stress in schools

25 May 2018 | by Guest

The following post, written by William Bulman from the DECP Committee, considers the impact of stress upon teachers and the ways in which any/all of us might be able to help alleviate this.

School is a situation where progress is expected from all learners, at all times - or at least within each lesson.

Broadly I support the idea that each child learns within every lesson, but from my comfortable vantage point as frequent classroom observer I can see how difficult this is to actually achieve, as teachers also need to maintain ‘behavioural control’ of the class as well as a working relationship with their pupils.

Outside the classroom the pressure mounts in terms of admin work, lesson planning and resourcing, and, beyond this, teachers are frequently seen as accountable not only to their managers but also to the parents of perhaps thirty children.

Many parents high expectations regarding their children’s progress, but many teachers that I have worked with worry most about those parents with little or no expectation for their children.

One effect of persistently high stress levels has been described as burnout, which is inevitably associated with teachers leaving the job. My cousin once talked with me for hours about the stresses of his secondary teaching role, which he felt were mostly a result of increased admin work following repeated changes in educational policy.

The next time I saw him, he was a dog walker.

He’s done this for a few years now and sees the career change as one of the best decisions that he ever made, however my happiness for him is tinged with some (possibly misplaced) regret that I was not able to help him towards a less drastic solution.

Research on stress for teachers is long-established, as is periodic media interest in teacher burnout and shortages within the profession, and stress is broadly understood as an interaction between the individual teacher and their environment.

Teachers may be more or less personally equipped to manage stress at different points in their life, and schools may also bring higher or lower levels of stress upon their staff.

For example, teachers who feel that the leader of their school is supportive of them are generally less stressed (van Dick & Wagner, 2001) as are those who feel that their colleagues are supportive (Haly, 2009). Unsurprisingly, teachers perceiving a high level of classroom demand and low levels of resources report less job satisfaction and more plans to leave their posts (McCarthy, Lambert & Resier, 2014). 

I once worked in a secondary school with two teachers who had contrasting opinions about who was accountable for pupil behaviour in their classroom. One teacher told me that the leadership team had been clear that “behaviour is on the kids” and not his responsibility. He was calm and jovial during observations.

His colleague on the other hand seemed much more rattled by testing behaviours from the children in his class, and after the lesson told me that he was often worried that “a member of leadership might walk by and look in” whilst he was struggling to "control them".

Prilleltensky and colleagues say that “psychological dynamics of anxiety, fear, isolation and inadequacy exacerbate stress” (Prilleltensky, Neff & Bessell, 2016: 109).  In their review of risk and protective factors for teacher stress, they identified that each risk factor can be addressed by one or more protective factors, operating at different levels:

  • Personal level e.g. social support network (for isolation), nutrition, sleep and exercise (for anxiety)

  • School level e.g. detailed induction for new teachers, encouragement of resource sharing, and the inclusion of pupil, parent and teacher voice in school decision making (all reducing sources of interpersonal stress)

What this means is that it’s not possible to draw a straight line between teacher stress and educational policy or funding. Schools and teachers can have varying levels of resilience to pressures of that nature. Changes to policy and resourcing may reduce the likelihood of heightened stress, but a reassuring message from the research is that more immediate actions can also make a meaningful difference on a smaller scale.

As a supporting professional, I need to draw on teachers’ knowledge rather than rushing to recommendations. This is likely to enhance their sense of competence and reduce their sense of additional classroom demand – they’re more likely to know what’s possible and positive in their classroom that I am.

But those of us who are professionals, parents, governors, etc are perhaps better placed to ask for change or to support promising developments in terms of initiatives within schools, and all of us can be respectful and empathetic towards teachers, and realistic in our expectations of them.


  • Haly, M. K. (2009). A review of contemporary research on the relationship between occupational stress and social support: Where are we now? The Australasian Journal of Organisational Psychology, 2, 44–63
  • McCarthy, C. J., Lambert, R. G., & Reiser, J. (2014). Vocational concerns of elementary teachers: Stress, job satisfaction, and occupational commitment. Journal of Employment Counseling, 51, 59–74.
  • Prilleltensky, Isaac; Neff, Marilyn; Bessell, A (2016) Theory Into Practice, 55:2 104-11
  • van Dick, R., & Wagner, U. (2001). Stress and strain in teaching: A structural equation approach. British Journal of EducationalPsychology, 71, 243–259.


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