What is this teacher stress study about?

I was a bit puzzled when I read the GothamSchools “remainder”: “Researchers in Houston are asking whether students can give teachers post-traumatic stress.” Post-traumatic stress? Is the study investigating whether teachers have bouts of depression, nightmares, etc. after they have stopped teaching?

I followed the link to the Edweek blog by Sarah Sparks, which bears the headline, “Can a Class of 7th Graders Give Teachers Post-traumatic Stress?” But the article itself made it seem as though this were a study of teacher stress, not post-traumatic stress. (Sometimes the headlines are written by someone other than the blog’s author.)

In diligent Internet-research style, I followed the Edweek link to the description of the study itself. There was no mention of post-traumatic stress at all, only stress.

So, what is this study about?

The study, to be conducted by researchers at the University of Houston, consists, at least in part, of a “prospective multi-method, multi-time scale investigation of the proposed mediational chain (i.e., stressors lead to teacher stress response which lead to teacher work and health stress outcomes which lead to teacher effectiveness which lead to student behavioral and academic outcomes).” It will follow 160 seventh- and eighth-grade math, science, or social studies teachers over three years.

The information gathered and analyzed during this project may be used “to guide future development of interventions to mitigate teacher stress and consequently improve teacher effectiveness and student behavior and learning.”

It’s pretty well known that teaching middle school is highly challenging, if not stressful from a medical perspective. (Granted, this depends a great deal on the school.) Moreover, it’s well known that certain kinds or levels of stress can affect the health. (A degree of stress can be a good thing.) So, what will the study uncover that is not well known or obvious? It seems that the researchers are most interested in the possible link between teacher stress and student outcomes (behavior and performance).

Because, you see, if teacher stress were bringing student performance down, then of course something would have to be done about that, and funds might appear. If teacher stress were not showing adverse effects on student performance, then it would be harder to convince funders and policymakers that any sort of intervention was needed.

My suspicion is that the findings will be mixed. Sometimes the teachers with the brightest outer face are the ones with the most stress. They may be delivering wonderful lessons and bringing their students to great heights–but they put intense pressure on themselves not to show their fatigue and bad moods in the classroom. Until they up and quit, they may seem to be doing fine.

Other teachers may let off a lot of steam in the classroom. They may seem to be under more stress than the others, but a medical test might show otherwise.

What if the study could not demonstrate a link between teacher stress and student outcomes? Or what if it correlated positively with student achievement? Or what if it were impossible to separate correlation from causation?

Stress (beyond a certain point) is a serious enough problem that it should be tackled for its own sake. A link between teacher stress and student outcomes may exist, but my guess is that it will be weak. We shall see.

I do hope that the study will consider curriculum, because it is much more stressful to teach without a curriculum (or with a bad one) than to teach with a good one. Some middle schools are curricular wastelands. I hope that it will also look at the schools’ discipline practices (not just policies). In other words, I hope it will look into the reasons for teacher stress in middle schools. Not all of this is inevitable, and not all of it is due to the kids’ ages.