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Teaching Profession

Teacher Burnout May Be Linked to Students’ Stress, Study Finds

By Elisha McNeil — July 01, 2016 2 min read
Image of an exhausted teacher sitting at the bottom of a battery showing low charge.
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Stress might be contagious in the classroom among students and teachers, according to a new Canada-based study.

The study, conducted by the University of British Columbia and published in June in the journal Social Science & Medicine, found a possible connection between teachers’ burnout levels and students’ cortisol levels, a hormone that indicates stress.

For the study, researchers surveyed 17 teachers in grades 4 to 7 on their potential burnout, and then tested over 400 students in those teachers’ classrooms for stress levels by collecting saliva samples three times in one day. Researchers found that in classrooms where teachers were feeling more burned out or exhausted, students’ cortisol levels were higher, especially in the morning.

“It is unknown what came first—elevated cortisol or teacher burnout,” said Eva Oberle, the study’s lead author and assistant professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, in a press release. “This suggests that stress contagion might be taking place in the classroom among students and their teachers.”

Oberle said as classroom sizes increase and support for teachers is cut, the stressful climate may affect teachers’ ability to effectively organize their classroom and manage their students—which could cause stress for students whose needs are not being met. Then again, students with anxiety, behavioral problems, or special needs who may be more challenging to teach can cause stress or feelings of burnout for teachers.

Although the study was conducted in Canada, there are lessons here for American schools, which are facing similar issues that contribute to a stressful national climate for teachers—a recent survey found that 47 percent of U.S. teachers want smaller class sizes, with many feeling unappreciated or discounted.

“Teachers play a central role in establishing a positive and responsive classroom environment that is conducive to social-emotional and academic growth,” the study’s authors wrote. In fact, research has shown that less stress among teachers can lead to improvements not only in their own social and emotional well-being, but also in the instructional climate and student engagement.

According to a recent study out of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, teachers who participated in (CARE) for Teachers, a mindfulness-based professional-development program, were more emotionally supportive, demonstrated greater sensitivity to students, and made better use of instructional time—which in turn made students more productive and involved in learning activities.

“It is clear from a number of recent research studies that teaching is one of the most stressful professions, and that teachers need adequate resources and support in their jobs in order to battle burnout and alleviate stress in the classroom,” said Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, the study’s co-author and UBC education professor. “If we do not support teachers, we risk the collateral damage of students.”

More on Alleviating Teacher Burnout:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.