Primary School Teachers Perception of their Profession and of Stress Inducing Factors
This paper argues that it is not possible to have a meaningful discussion about the effectiveness of teaching without addressing (inter alia) two fundamental issues, namely, the qualities needed to be a good teacher in the 21st century and the stress inducing difficulties teachers face. These issues were examined in a questionnaire sent to teachers who were part of the Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) programme at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. 86 replies were received. Respondents stated the main qualities of a good teacher were: love of children, kindness, knowledge of the subject, a sense of fairness, an ability to resolve conflict situations and empathetic tolerance. The predominant stress factors were: excessive workload, the high number of students in the class, inadequate salary and status and conflict with students.
Keywords: primary school, teacher perception, modern teacher, stress factors, trinidad and tobago.
Author: Department of School of Education, Faculty of Humanities and Education The University of West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago.
Society has always viewed teaching as both challenging and honourable. Teaching is a profession and also a mission. A great deal is asked of teachers-selflessness, and the desire to give their warmth, energy and the imparting of knowledge. Teachers are expected to have the correct manner, to be attentive to their students and to show genuine interest in their work and of course to know their subject and be able to teach it. Teachers must be able to answer any question a student raises in such a way that not only enables specific subject understanding but also enhances each child’s overall world view.
To do this teachers must constantly develop, expand their own horizons and improve their working methods. This is particularly important given the increasing pace of social and technological change. Today's children have new interests, hobbies and perspectives and yet are still human beings. It is vital to sensitively engage with them to gain their trust and enthusiasm-always remembering that the teacher’s words and action can greatly affect the emotional development of the children in their charge .
Teachers must also constantly engage with parents and guardians as well as the schoolchildren. They, too, will have their own perspectives, experiences, and personalities. Teachers need to find a common language so that they can get support for their recommendations. This can be very challenging. Teachers often have to deal with children from difficult families. If the child does not receive support and understanding at home, this must come from the teacher. Sometimes families have a disparaging or negative attitude toward learning-perhaps openly expressing the view that education does not bring success in life. Children can absorb this attitude and bring it with them to school. That is when the teacher faces one of the most difficult problems: how to help the child become positive and enthusiastic about learning without offending the parents or appearing to demean their authority. Such a situation requires great delicacy.
Other factors are important. Curriculum content and teaching methodologies are also constantly evolving. Teachers have to keep on top of this. Teaching also means knowing how to relate to other teachers and to the overall teaching institution teaching involves lots of paper work. There can also be negative feelings about the disparity between responsibility and salary. But there are many positives. The teacher plays a vital role in imparting both specific knowledge and a love of life long learning. The teacher helps a child form the right life priorities and lay the foundation for the future. This is for the good of the child but also the future of the country as a whole.
THE BIRTH OF THE PROFESSION OF A TEACHER
The concept and practice of teaching has always been an integral part of human communities. Society could not have survived if each younger generation, as it replaced the older one, had to start all over again, without being able to use the legacy of existing experience. This is teaching in its purest definition- and is why the profession of teaching is one of the oldest. The need to transfer accumulated life experience to successive new generations to prepare them for life and work gradually formed itself into the systematic practice of education as a discrete social function. The first schools emerged in the Ancient East during the formation of slave society. In Ancient Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, Phenicia, teachers were mostly priests who constituted a privileged caste. They passed knowledge from parents to children, but there were also schools for priests at temples and in large cities. The social status of the teacher was extremely high.
The value and role of education and teaching became even more evident during the two great civilizations of Greece and Rome. Schools became more widespread, and the concept of systematic debate became common. Indeed the word "pedagogy" derives from the ancient Greek "child-rearing,"delete i.e. the education of children, their preparation for adulthood. As Rome expanded in the 4th and 5th centuries BC it absorbed the knowledge and customs of other countries and cultures, including the practice of teaching in universities. The first higher educational institution in Europe was the University of Constantinople, founded in 425 AD., and modelled on the Roman Athenaeum. The world's oldest continuously operating university, founded in 859 in the city of Fez, Morocco, is Al-Karaouine University. The famous Al-Azhar appeared a little later in 970 .
The foundation of modern school education was laid by the Czech humanist teacher Jan Amos Komensky in the early 17th century. He was the first to develop pedagogy as an independent branch of theoretical knowledge. He introduced many now common words such as "lesson" and "class". His ideas were significantly developed by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi in Switzerland in the late 17th century. He characterized and differentiated the key components of education as: mental, moral, physical development and preparation for work. These ideas were further gradually developed in West European pedagogy [17, 18].
2.1 What makes a modern teacher?
Jan Amos Comenius compared the teacher to a gardener who lovingly grows plants in the garden, with an architect who carefully builds knowledge in all corners of a human being, with a sculptor carefully polishing and polishing the minds and souls of people, with a commander who energetically attacks barbarism and ignorance . The great Russian writer and teacher Leo Tolstoy saw in the pedagogical profession, above all, a humanistic principle, which finds expression in the love of children. Tolstoy believed that if the teacher loves only his subject then he or she will be a good teacher. If the teacher has only a love for the student, he or she will be better than the teacher who loves only the subject. But the teacher who combines love of the subject and love of the student is the perfect teacher .
The basis of the pedagogical vocation is love for children. This fundamental quality is a prerequisite for purposeful self-development of the many components of professional competence and effectiveness. The student perceives the teacher first and foremost as a person. The knowledge, approach to learning and ethical values a teacher wishes to impart are perceived by the pupils as something personal, a human ‘transmission, from the teacher to the students. This gives teaching a particular significance.
Many educators emphasize the equal importance of the many, and perhaps daunting , qualities a teacher must have. They include assiduousness, purposefulness, erudition, a balanced personality, the desire to work with schoolchildren, the ability to respond to crises, charm, honesty, fairness, modernity, sensitivity, humanism, tact, tolerance, discipline, exactitude, responsibility and the ability to communicate [13, 16]. These themes run through the work of major figures –such as Rousseau, Y. A. Comensky, I.G. Pestalozzi, D. Dewey, J. Korczak, K.D. Ushinsky, A.S. Makarenko and V.A. Sukhomlinsky –all of whom assert the value of humanism, of the recognition and celebration of the equal and intrinsic value of each person, their right to freedom and happiness, and the realization of their inherently unique abilities[10, 21]. This in turn requires an ethical structure for schools and other places of learning. This structure must positively support all children, respect their styles of communication, strive to understand difficult behavior and not create negative, arbitrary and self fulfilling divisions between those who are capable and those who are not.
Optimism and an appropriate sense of humour are as important as knowledge of the subject matter. Pedagogical optimism epitomizes the teacher's faith in each student. The judicious use of humour can enhance engagement and effectiveness, especially where children have more complex needs. All teachers will from time to time encounter difficult behavior. One way to respond is to remember the advice of the eminent child psychologist Dr. V. L. Levy-namely to reimagine the situation by remembering themselves at that age and in a similar situation. Levy believed that such an empathetic approach could produce positive and often unexpected solutions .
Another key factor in determining teaching effectiveness is the ability to understand and make good use of the major and exponentially rapid changes in information in communication technology. The effective modern teacher must be constantly up to date and alert to change. It is not solely a question of keeping up to date. Innovative technologies can increase also the effectiveness of the educational process [8, 15].
THE CAUSES OF STRESS FOR TEACHERS
Teachers can encounter many difficulties. Most of them find the strength, patience and wisdom to learn from and overcome them. But not all do so. There is a particularly high turnover among teachers with less than five years experience. Schools then become too dependent on a churn of inexperienced teachers, which undermines school performance .
In 2013, the OECD undertook a Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). 37 countries and more than 100 000 teachers and school administrators participated. Analysis of the data showed that many teachers still work in isolation and do not work participatively with colleagues. The survey also challenges some stereotypical views on the profession. For example, the level of job satisfaction is much more dependent on the behavior in the classroom than on the size of the class. Further, most teachers found evaluations and feedbacks constructive. 62% of teachers, on average across countries, said that the feedback they receive at their school has led to moderate or significant improvements in their teaching practice. Whereas 46% of teachers from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Spain and Sweden said that they never received feedback in their current school.
Most schools are well-endowed with resources, and teachers reported positive relationships with their colleagues and school leaders. But more than a third of teachers work in schools where the head reported a significant shortage of qualified teachers. Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director said that the survey provides convincing evidence that teachers are open to change and are eager to learn and develop throughout their careers. At the same time, they need to show more initiative to work with their colleagues and school leaders, and also to use all opportunities for professional development [19, 24].
The practice of teaching contains many features which are closely related to stress. In 2011, the European Federation of Education Employers published the results of the project "Work of teachers under stress: Assessment, Comparison and Influence". It noted that "the main factors of stress for teachers are those that affect teachers in their daily work. Most of them are related to school organization and management: workload/ intensity of work, role overload, increase in class size per teacher, unacceptable behavior of students, poor school management and/ lack of support from administration. These factors can lead to depression and emotional breakdown, absenteeism, pain, sleep problems , cardiovascular diseases or other health problems " [24, p. 6].
The demands on the contemporary teacher are very high. They require the constant and maximum mobilization of inner psychological resources. Psychological stability is paradoxically even more essential when it is harder to maintain. This is not helped by society’s expectations. A vicious circle can emerge. There are ever higher expectations of quality, without concomitant resources, support and salaries. This leads to perceived failure and falling morale. This in turn affects performance, a sense of internally and externally perceived failure and a further decline in prestige. And so the cycle continues. This is perhaps more true than for other professions [2, 4, 11].
One major and daily stress factor is the lesson itself. In a short period of time, it is necessary to fulfill several pedagogical tasks. A Teacher should to pay attention to each student’s needs and to develop an individual approach, to maintain discipline in the classroom, to organize students activity, to explain the new material, to assess the level of its assimilation and to assess the outcome of task completion.
Other stress factors include: excessive workloads, an inadequate salary and conditions of service and the management and negotiation of tensions and conflicting expectations with not only the students themselves but also families, colleagues and the school administration. The absence of the support and the skills needed to properly anticipate or respond to difficult situations can lead to inappropriate responses which exacerbate the difficulties and adversely affect competence-another vicious circle [12, 14].
All school teachers are subject to stress. Teachers who try to teach a lesson with unrealistic expectations of calm and who suppress conflict and dissension are even more prone to such disruptions, because the constant accumulation and suppression of their own and others edginess and irritation can lead to emotional explosion or implosion and indeed perhaps to chronic fatigue syndrome .
Three types of stress can be discerned: informational, emotional and communicative . Informational stress is associated with information. There is a little time to understand and organize too much information. There is no time for rest and alternative activities. The greater the adverse consequences of not fully assimilating the information, the greater the stress. Emotional stress manifests itself as the experience of negative emotions such as fear, anger and intense anxiety. Such stress comes from factors such as personal and external dissatisfaction with work, a feeling of insufficient independence and freedom in decision-making and inappropriate and ineffective attempts to assert control. Communicative stress relates to problems in achieving mutually agreed ways forward when engaging with children, parents, colleagues and school management. Each of these stresses are intertwined.
Several studies have found that stress is one of the causes of ‘emotional burnout‘. This term was introduced by the American psychiatrist J. Freudenberger in 1974 . The syndrome of emotional burnout is considered as a long-term reaction arising from prolonged professional stresses of moderate intensity. Emotional burnout is a psychological defense of the individual in the form of a complete or partial exclusion of emotions in interpersonal communication. Burnout is associated with high anxiety, over sensitivity to complex and conflict situations, irritability, lack of openness, insecurity, rigidity, avoidance of responsibility and poor organization. These are both causes and symptoms [22, 23, 24]. "Workaholics," too, are more susceptible to burnout-where those who have a strong sense of vocation, responsibility and personal performance standards become trapped in work activities to the exclusion of all else .
The manifestations of these symptoms and causes of stress will be unique to each person and circumstance, but the essential pattern is common. So all teachers need to be continuously aware of potential risks and develop techniques to respond to them. This may require the support of others, including if necessary from an appropriate therapist.
- THE RESEARCH UNDERTAKEN
An anonymous survey questionnaire was sent to teachers who were part of the Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) program at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. All respondents were asked to respond to two open- ended questions:
- What qualities should a modern day teacher possess?
- What factors in a teacher's work can lead to stress?
The respondents listed 37 personal qualities of a modern teacher. These could be categorized as moral, intellectual, volitional, and communicative. The ranking of responses is presented in Table 1.
Table 1: Qualities of the modern teacher
Qualities of the modern teacher
Number of answers
Love of children
Knowledge of the subject
A sense of fairness
Ability to resolve conflict situations
Sense of humour
Being up to date
The most significant features in the personality of the teacher are those attitude towards both the students and the subject: love of children, kindness, knowledge, a sense of fairness, an ability to resolve conflict situations and tolerance.
To the respondents "love of children” meant, firstly, to understand and respect them as they are, with their intrinsic strengths and weaknesses. Unstructured freedom was not desirable. Nor was a pattern of permanent prohibitions since the student could become counter productively inured or hostile. The effective process of education requires each pupil feeling sensitively valued. It also meant understanding the troubles of each pupil, offering timely help, being able to sense and respond to the moods of students and to be able to resolve the contradictions inherent in school life. These could be called correct moral values.
Respondents believed that a bad teacher is not a true professional. Behaviour such as anger, discontent or other lack of restraint are never acceptable and always very destructive. Teachers must be vigilant in learning and practicing proper self- control .
Respondents also stated that the teacher must fully understand the subject being taught. This includes understanding how it connects with other subjects and with the outside world. They felt that a good teacher must be comfortable with and used modern technology. The teacher should know the age-related features of a child's perception and thinking. Each lesson should be properly thought through with this in mind. Respondents also felt teachers should be both optimistic and interesting, showing they loved their work. They should be creative and enquiring, whilst also organized and demanding and themselves open to development.
The teachers listed 23 factors that could lead to stressful situations- informational, emotional and communicative. The ranking of responses is presented in Table 2.
Table 2: Stress factors
Number of answers
Number of students in the class
Relations with students
Relations with parents
Relations with administration
Relations with colleagues
The results show that respondents recognize the main factors that can cause teachers stress–viz too large a workload, too many students in a class, inadequate salary and conflict with students and others.
Teachers spend many hours each week in direct teaching. They also spend many hours in lesson preparation and marking and in extra activities involved in the management of school life. All this can cause fatigue and lead to burn out.
Class size is also important since it is inversely associated with the good discipline. Effectiveness may also suffer because of the number of potential distractions in larger classes. The larger the class, the more a teacher will rely on the traditional, non interactive, approach to teaching which limits the potential for optimal learning. Respondents also considered teaching salaries to be insufficient for a decent standard of living. They inferred from this that teaching is not prestigious, and that the social status of the profession is low.
Conflict with students was also felt to be a key stress factor . The conflicts could occur because of unacceptable behavior or when a student refuses to engage and either does not perform a given task or does so badly .
Education and society are inseparable and to an extent intercausal. All global environmental, economic, social, political, demographic, and other issues affect the sphere of education. In turn, the quality and availability of education influence how these issues are responded to.
For instance, countries which are poor or experiencing economic difficulties often reduce expenditure on education. Similarly, unfavourable environmental conditions in the world are destructive to health and adversely affect the ability to learn. Yet good education is vital if we are to properly respond to the existing and future challenges. The teacher is at the heart of this.
The qualities and skills a modern teacher needs are clear. A teacher must love children, must know the subject inside out and must have a repertoire of appropriate teaching and communicative techniques to ensure students are engaged, learn and develop. He must also continue to learn and demonstrate the willingness and ability to do so. A teacher must always be a good role model students wish to emulate.
A teacher’s competence is, of course, dependent on intellect-on the ability to understand the subject and the skills of communication and empathy. It is also dependent on emotional stability and emotional resilience. Some teachers may have more innate emotional strength. But it is reasonable to assume that every teacher can develop coping mechanisms. Also that all teachers are positively or negatively affected by the “ecology” of the context in which they operate. More work is needed on the interrelationship between innate and external factors.
Such an analysis is even more important given that there has been a significant and negative change in the status and attendant benefits associated with teaching- more than is the case with other long established professions. This is partly a reflection of often simplistic assertions by politicians, the media, and others about what good teaching means. Rapid changes in the world of work have also meant that public sector professions are less attractive than , for example , in finance and technology. So there is a need to restore the value and prestige of teaching, proudly reasserting the expertise involved and also why good teaching is vital to us all. This requires concerted effort at all levels, from local to international.
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