Fighting the Stress of Teaching to the Test
Educators Cope With Test Stress in Unique Ways
Teachers are feeling more stressed than ever, but, according to psychologist Rodney A. McCloy, they should be. Legislation like NCLB has raised the stakes for testing, potentially tying student performance to teacher salaries and job stability, and dictating what teachers teach.
This lack of control over their professional lives, their classrooms, and the test scores of their students has teachers unnerved. McCloy, a principal staff scientist for the Human Resources Research Organization in Louisville, Kentucky, notes that because feeling a lack of control is a major stress factor, it is predictable that teachers would be experiencing high stress levels.
McCloy, who has testing experience with several large-scale assessment programs, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, says he recognizes why teachers find it unfair “for my salary and livelihood to depend on how my students do [on tests], when I only have so much control” over their performance.
In addition, educational reform efforts have left teachers feeling “stove piped to a particular type of behavior in the classroom” that is “foreign to the way they’ve been trained,” adds McCloy.
Frances Banales, president of the Tucson Education Association, agrees. She reports that much of the stress comes from “the idea that we are not doing what’s best for kids,” adding, “the anxiety can lead you to question the profession you are dedicated to.”
The Tucson area has many schools “that are ‘in improvement’ or near it. Principals are under pressure to improve and there’s a lot of fear,” Banales says. “We must get the testing scores increased…Everything is overshadowed by one high-stakes test.”
The testing process itself is stressful, Banales says. “You’re testing, not instructing. You have to draw on all your strength. There’s a lot of preparation a teacher has to do to administer the test. You have to present a calm supportive atmosphere.”
Signs of Stress
Banales has observed that teachers show the stress they’re under in a variety of ways: “Some shut down a little bit, go into automatic mode.” Often “they are quieter, tense. …You go home exhausted. People don’t eat during that time period. People try to deal with that by talking with one another” for support.
The teachers face students who are showing signs of stress as well, she says. “They give up. They may literally not read through the [test] questions. They get angry or sick. They act out.”
The stress even extends to teachers’ families, Banales says, because “you have to do so much that you end up not having time for your personal family life. You have to get everything in; you’re trying to really prioritize.”
Taking Control of What You Can
Often little can be done to reduce the institutional causes of stress, but there are ways individuals can cope.
McCloy says he sees one good way teachers have responded to stress. “They just plow ahead with what they know because they believe in what they’re doing. It provides them with at least one area they can control. That can be a fairly effective coping method – do what they are trained to do, that they know works.”
The NEA Health Information Network (HIN) website recommends a number of steps to take to fight stress—be physically active, eat healthy food, avoid overusing alcohol or other drugs, and practice relaxation exercise.
The American Psychological Association offers tips on stress reduction for new teachers ( PDF, 1.4 MB, 3 pgs.), while the U.S. Health and Human Services website offers a “Quick Guide to Healthy Living.”
Most educators know the basics of a healthy diet—eat lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. But during times of stress it’s all too easy to turn to fast food or comfort food that is high calorie and high fat, says Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
To avoid unhealthy temptations “have a plan. Be prepared,” Frechman advises. Stock up on healthy, easy-to-transport snacks such as apples, bananas, baby carrots, yogurt or trail mix for a quick pick-me-up.
Physical activity is one of best ways to counteract work-related pressures, says Nora Howley, NEA HIN’s manager of programs, because it relieves the body’s “fight-or-flight” biological respond to stress.
Physical activity also helps people get a good night’s sleep, another great stress buster. A study reported in the December issue of the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity found that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week provided a 65 percent improvement in sleep quality.
For Suzanne Boutot, a teacher at Leavitt Area High School in Turner, Maine, power lifting is a great stress reliever. Four times a week she heads to the gym, where she starts with 30 minutes on the treadmill. During that time, “I’m dumping all of it. I’m thinking about what I could have done differently” at school. But “when I go working on the weights, all I’m thinking about is the muscles. I feel the muscles. I don’t think about work after that point.” Weight lifting is followed by another hour on the treadmill. At that point, “I’m zoning,” she says.
Gwendolyn Raczkowski also has found a physical activity that takes her mind off classroom worries: ballet. “On a treadmill I can run for hours and still think about work,” she says, while ballet “is such a mental challenge. I can’t think about anything else and do ballet or I’ll fall over. So I stop stewing about how to get kids ready for the test, or what am I going to do about the parent who is giving me a hard time” and she concentrates instead on her plies.
Raczkowski is a fourth grade teacher at Brittin Elementary School, a Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) school in Fort Stewart, Ga. NCLB technically does not apply to DoDEA schools, Raczkowski says, “but we try to be on the same page as our public school peers. We have the same standards and curriculum worldwide so when students move to one base to another, it’s like they are in the same system.”
Some teachers at her school have taken positive psychology courses together and “we work hard to recognize each other,” she says. The mutual support “is very encouraging on a day-to-day basis.”
Members of the group “poke their heads into the room and tell kids their projects look great. It makes me able to make it through a rough week. We’ve built a community where otherwise one wouldn’t exist,” Raczkowski says.