What is a teacher and why is stress both good and bad?

stress meter

According to Jim Scrivener T≠L, i.e. there’s no evidence of any direct correlation between what a teacher teaches and what a learner learns.

So if teachers don’t teach, what do they do?

Well, how long have you got?  Teachers facilitate and assesses learning, they select and adapt materials to suit their learners, they plan lessons, meet with parents, counsel students, they stay up late to mark papers, help out with social events, coach sports on the weekends. The list goes on.  Teachers know that their job does not begin and end with teaching.

I’m currently reading “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character”, by Paul Tough, which, amongst other things, looks at  correlations between socio-economic background and educational achievement.  They found something interesting, but also fairly obvious; that the amount of stress a person is exposed to in childhood has a direct and lasting impact not only on their  educational achievement, but also on their health and even their future success in all walks of life.  

KIPP schools were set up in the United States with a mission to  level the playing field and raise the educational achievement of lower income kids.  Their schools don’t focus on increasing students’ IQ, but on helping them with something a little less tangible, their character.  By developing children’s characters and developing their “grit”, the schools are giving their students a lifelong ability to deal with stressful situations more effectively, to be more persistent and to pick themselves up after they fail.

Chronic stress,  the daily drip-drip of a busy and fraught modern life, wears us down, it makes us hypersensitive to all problems and causes long term health problems.   Acute stress, e.g. the occasional language test, or giving a speech is actually good for  us.  Logically then, a teacher’s main responsibilities are to build trust, to build character and to provide a safe and constructive learning environment in order to help students’ reduce or deal with chronic stress levels, but also to set up classroom events that heighten acute stress.

The happiest teaching experience of my career was in one of my first teaching jobs at a small school in Bratislava.  We taught the same set of students for 12 weeks and during this time I established trust and saw real and tangible progress with them.  At 6 weeks, they did a mid-term test and we had mid-term counselling sessions.  I was really able to identify their strengths and weaknesses and to have meaningful conversations with them about how they could improve their language learning.  At the end of term, they did their test and we would often go out for a meal and drinks.  I really felt like I knew them and I would feel a little sad, like I was saying goodbye to friends.

My classes in Bratislava were free of chronic stress, there was no pressure on students to achieve ludicrous test scores in a short space of time.  Teachers and students had access to each other for 3 months, plenty of time to get to know each other, and to feel relaxed and enjoy their lessons.   Occasionally we added some acutely stressful situations, like progress tests, to drive them on.

The point is this: if we want people to learn more effectively, establishing and building rapport is probably the most important thing a teacher can do to facilitate learning.  This takes time.  Changing teachers and classrooms as if they are interchangeable cogs in a machine is good for nobody – it provides the wrong kind of stress for productive learning.

Occasional change (acute stress) is good for us , constant change and uncertainty (chronic stress) is bad.


3 thoughts on “What is a teacher and why is stress both good and bad?

  1. Another interesting read and so relevant to parents of school children. I’m going to try and get my hands on a copy of Paul Tough’s book.

    1. great name, great book. Those kids in the projects have “really” stressful lives, all kinds of abuse, fear of death, joining gangs, etc, yet some of them still manage to get to college through the KIPP program. Inspirational!

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