From stress to strength

From stress to strength

Building resilience in our teachers

by Professor Ron Rapee

If we asked you to make a list of the most stressful professions you’d probably start with emergency services, or perhaps social services. It probably comes as no surprise to most school staff that teachers should be on that list too. In fact a 2005 survey of job stress had teachers as the second highest stressful occupation1.

Why is this important?

Teachers play a critical role in the development of a functioning society. We entrust them with the future of our communities – the youth. But what about their wellbeing? Teaching has become one of the most stressful professions in modern society. The very people we trust with shaping the minds of our youth feel a great deal of pressure. We should be providing them the tools to deal with the pressures and creating supportive environments so they can do their jobs to their greatest ability.

Why are teachers so stressed?

First thoughts on this question naturally lead us to the obvious understating that controlling large numbers of young people – from toddlers to teenagers – can be a stressful task. Young people don’t naturally bend into orderly systems, and many of them don’t even want to be there.

However, the issue is more complex. Research has shown that there are three sources of stressful feelings: the nature of the stressor itself; the individual’s own ability to cope (otherwise known as resilience); and the structures available in the external environment.

So we need to focus on the large variety of individual differences in resilience and the important role that schools themselves can play in reducing stress.

Let’s talk about resilience

Resilience in teachers is not simply dependent on their personal characteristics.

A study of Australian teachers in 20122  revealed that teachers who were more resilient had the following attributes:

  • More competent and higher in self-belief
  • Highly organised and prepared
  • Calm, flexible, adaptable and had a good sense of humour
  • Realistic with regard to goals and expectations
  • More interpersonally skilled
  • Happy to ask for and accept advice from others
  • Good problem-solving skills
  • Regularly worked on self-improvement

The study also revealed that more resilient teachers also came from more supportive environments. What does that mean? It means they had motivated students and well organised classrooms. They had a clear and well-structured school as well as support from colleagues, friends and family.

To further highlight the importance of one’s environment, a large American study of over 25,000 teachersrevealed that teachers’ job satisfaction was heavily influenced by the school culture, their own professional expertise, support from colleagues, principal and community, and the facilities available to them.

So how do we support our teachers?

Two clear avenues emerge when it comes to helping teachers build resilience. First, by assisting teachers with their personal skills and abilities including: 

  • Increasing a personal sense of competence
  • Practicing methods to improve time management, structure, and organisation
  • Teaching problem-solving strategies 
  • Encouraging realistic thinking styles, solid coping techniques, and focusing on realistic goals.

And the second avenue – improving the school context, including:

  • Strengthening support networks, inside and outside of the school
  • Ensuring overt support from the principal and other leaders
  • Clear communication and maximising classroom organisation
  • Giving teachers control over their facilities.

Where to from here?

So yes, teaching is an inherently stressful occupation. Stressed and burned out teachers leave the profession at a far higher rate than others. Now, we may never be able to eliminate all the pressure that teachers are under, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn't reduce teachers’ stress and support their wellbeing.

Our schools, education departments, and community will benefit both economically and practically by having the most resilient teachers possible. The past decade has seen massive strides in bringing mental health programs into schools for students. We now need to do the same for our teachers.

About Professor Ron Rapee

Distinguished Professor Rapee is the Founding Director of the Centre for Emotional Health. His work over the past 25 years has focused on mental health, especially anxiety, and related disorders across the lifespan. Ron's work impacts the lives of countless Australian families through the development of new ways of understanding and treating anxiety disorders. These findings have led to major improvements in the field of psychology and his practices have been adopted internationally. Ron is well known for his theoretical models of the development of anxiety disorders as well as for his creation of empirically validated intervention programs including the Cool Kids anxiety program. His recent work has focused on prevention of anxiety and depression as well as on public dissemination and easier access to treatment programs.

  1. Johnson, S., Cooper, C., Cartwright, S., Donald, I., Taylor, P., & Millet, C. (2005), The experience
    of work-related stress across occupations, Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 20 (2), 178 – 187.
  2. Mansfield, C. F., Beltman, S., Price, A., & McConney, A. (2012). “Don’t sweat the small stuff:” Understanding teacher resilience at the chalkface. Teaching and Teacher Education, 28(3), 357-367.
  3. Johnson, S.M., Kraft, M.A., & Papay, J.P. (2012). How context matters in high-need schools: The effects of teachers working conditions on their professional satisfaction and their students’ achievement. Teachers College Record, 114, 100306.
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