Monday, June 23, 2014

Teaching can be stressful -- children's lives are at stake

This was written by Jim Parsons who is a professor at the University of Alberta. This was written as the Forward for the Alberta Teachers' Association's research update Reflections on Teaching: Teacher Efficacy and the Professional Capital of Alberta Teachers.

by Jim Parsons

I have been a teacher my entire life. I am proud to be a teacher and have often written about the fundamental nobility of the profession. That teachers engage children in loco parentis—acting with agency in the classroom to protect and help children build futures—suggests the power that society has granted teachers. Society believes that teachers are crucial. I agree. But, more important, teachers agree. Most teachers take up their work as a calling.

My experience has shown me, over and over, that teaching is not an easy profession. Rewarding? Yes! Easy? Well, not so much. Sometimes teachers feel overwhelmed by the work and the pressures of the job. These pressures force almost daily choices: Work or rest? Students or family? Self or others? Making these choices would be easy if teachers didn’t care, but, fortunately for everyone, they do care. Teachers are acting parents of the children they teach. Most teachers believe that they make a difference and are willing to do whatever it takes to make that difference. Some days teachers feel that they are living through the 1998 Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come in which the main character travels through hell to find and save his wife. It is probably not too over-the-top to suggest that teachers are willing to travel that same road with children. The research that follows makes that case clearly.

Yes, teaching can be that stressful. Children’s lives are at stake.

I am not making this up. Psychotherapist Carl Jung might well have had teachers in mind when he proposed the archetype of the wounded healer. Jung believed that, in relating to patients, an analyst can take on their pain, a phenomenon that can be both positive and negative. I know that this experience is part of the psyche of teachers. Teachers take on students’ wounds to gain the blessing: student learning. In his book The Wounded Healer, Catholic priest Henri Nouwen counselled men and women interested in serving their communities to begin by realizing that being wounded is a common human experience. Nouwen’s analysis—a suffering world, a suffering child and a suffering teacher—opens those who serve to being caring professionals. 

The research that follows offers a clear picture of how difficult teaching is and how radically the choices that teachers make can weigh on their bodies, minds and hearts. The following report is the collective story of almost 140 teachers: more than 90 from a large urban high school and just under 50 from all over Alberta. All volunteered to participate in this study, which asked them to identify high and low points in the year with respect to both their professional practice and their personal lives. Ultimately, data are the stories the research participants tell. 

Participants’ responses are stories about the work lives of teachers. These personal and professional stories highlight the collective difficulties and joys of their work—the highs and lows. They also help us understand the immensely difficult choices that teachers must make as they carry out their work. They are at once teaching their students and trying to survive. The data outline the shortcomings of their work, their own inabilities and their feelings about their successes and failures.

Teachers live in an environment that is constantly shifting: Will they have a job next year? Will the curriculum be redesigned or will their class size change just when they are becoming comfortable with the way things are? Will their colleagues be transferred? Will their school culture change? Knowing that they are not superheroes, will their energy wane? Will they receive support for their work? What might this support look like?

What follows is a report by teachers about what makes their job both difficult and rewarding. The findings from this study about the support that Alberta teachers need mirrors what researchers in
other places are reporting. Specifically, teachers in this study find great support in their colleagues and wish that they had more opportunities for collaboration. My own recent research on this topic (Exploring the Development of Teacher Efficacy Through Professional Learning Experiences, carried out with the assistance of Larry Beauchamp, Rob Klassen, Tracy Durksen and Leah Taylor) pointed to the same conclusion: teachers attain the highest level of professional growth by collaborating with colleagues.

Finally, this study offers a methodology for capturing teachers’ stories and insights. Any research study is more than data and findings; it is also about engaging with participants. In this study, teachers discuss their highs and lows and their ability to achieve a work–life balance. In this regard, the methodology is quite ingenious, for it encourages teachers to talk together about their own and their colleagues’ work lives. The study itself, in other words, is an instance of the kind of collaboration and community reflection that teachers find so powerful.

I have no doubt that the teachers and the school leaders who participated in this study know far more about themselves and their colleagues than they did when they began. I also believe that they have a clearer idea of what they might do to meet their own needs so that they have a better chance of fulfilling the needs of their students. I suggest that people interested in teachers’ work lives and in building the professional capital of teachers use the methodology described here as a year-end reflection activity.

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