Are You Keeping Your Teachers from Going NUTS?

By Rex Ryker, IPLI Mentor & Assistant Superintendent at Crawfordsville Community Schools

A few nights ago I arrived home to an empty house or what I believed to be an empty house.  I had just finished a conference call in my car and was ready to change clothes and contemplating whether or not to work out.  I headed up the stairs to our bedroom, and at the top of the stairs I heard two male voices.  Instantly I dropped to a crouched position, holding my hands out in my best Bruce Lee posture (or more fitting — Kung Fu Panda). My eyes were wide open, my heart pounding, and the hairs on my arms standing straight up.   My adrenaline surged.  Was I going to attack or flee?  My heightened sense of awareness quickly led me to realize that the voices were coming from my pocket.  With a shaky hand, I reached into my pocket to pull out my phone. I had actually failed to “leave” the conference call and was hearing the conversation of the two who remained on the call.  My heart rate settled and I chuckled at myself. I was grateful that I finally had an opening to my blog topic – Principal Impact on Teacher Stress.

A stress response exists for the purpose of survival.  We instinctually respond to threats or stressors that trigger our bodies with chemical messengers to fight, flee, or even freeze.  Stressors don’t have to be immediate life-or-death encounters such as my imagined moment but can consist of persistent factors such as:

New responsibilities,stress

Unexpected requirements,

Threats to job security or self, and a

Sense of no control (adapted from Lupien, 2012).

These four factors individually or in any combination can create a stress response and eventually drive anyone NUTS – a playful acronym that is intended to outline stressors and not to make light of the real health issues associated with chronic stress.  Do any of these four factors sound like what our teachers have recently been faced with?

Whether we are discussing changes in state testing, unavailability of useful data from state testing, changes in standards, growth-model evaluations, student poverty, or teacher personal issues, they are all proven factors that significantly impact teacher stress levels.  Some teachers have figured out how to handle the stress, but for others, they struggle and often experience chronic stress resulting in burnout.

Burnout is expensive for schools due to teacher absenteeism, insurance claims, and teachers leaving the profession.

Why talk about teacher stress on a principal leadership blog?  Because research has shown principals significantly impact the perceived stress reported by teachers.  Lupien (2012) suggested the only true method for controlling stress is to either remove the stressor or mitigate a response to the stressor.  Therefore, principals that can assist in either removing or mitigating school-related teacher stressors can improve the health and performance of their teachers.

What can a principal do to reduce teacher stress?  The key is creating a work environment that is more predictable, controllable, and less overwhelming.  Further, communication is the key to removing or lessening New responsibilities, Unexpected requirements, Threats to job security or self, and a Sense of no control (NUTS).  By improving their communication skills, principals can also reduce stress for teachers.  Here are some ways to do this:

  1. Work on your ability to communicate your vision for the school. New and experienced principals alike can greatly enhance their school environment and community with this simple but profound practice.  Here is a good resource on how to do that:  http://bit.ly/2e7cpje.
  2. Consider how your communication can impact teachers. It is often said that the principal is the “filter” for the school.  How individuals react to NUTS depends on the principal’s perspective and how these challenges are presented to the staff.  Todd Whitaker in What Great Principals Do Differently says, “Effective principals understand that they are the filters for the day-to-day reality of the school.  Whether we are aware of it or not, our behavior sets the tone. If people see us running down the hallway screaming Fire!, it will be the talk of the school for days, even if it was a false alarm. By the same token, if we calmly ask people to escort their students out of the building, the students will evacuate just as quickly, but without spreading panic throughout the school. The most effective principals chose their filters carefully.”
  3. When working with teachers, practice affirmation and engage them in positive thinking and feeling.
  4. Determine resources available for your teachers for when they are experiencing stressors that neither they nor you can remove or mitigate. Oftentimes, knowledge is the best preparation for handling these stressors.  Take time to gather all the information available and share it with your teachers in a positive manner.

Principals might also consider creating stress management programs for staff.  Some schools work with local health organizations to provide services at a much reduced price for teachers such as yoga or massages.  Regular positive social events planned outside of the school day can also help alleviate stress.  And don’t forget to take time to recognize teachers for their hard work both publicly and privately.  If you need ideas, If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students by Neila A. Connors is filled with great teacher recognition ideas.  To ensure you don’t go NUTS as the principal, enlist the help of others such as your PTA.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  I’d like to add a third – changes in education.  It is going to happen, but how our teachers respond depends on us as principals and how we filter these for our staff.  Let’s work to keep our teachers from going NUTS.