Can facing a roomful of rambunctious, hormone-fueled 7th and 8th graders day after day traumatize a teacher? What might be a joke in the staff break room is now getting serious research attention, thanks to a $1.6 million study to be launched this fall by the Institute of Education Sciences.
Researchers led by Teresa McIntyre, a psychology research professor at the University of Houston, will track 200 7th or 8th grade social studies, science and math teachers at 20 middle schools in the Houston Independent School District. The teachers and their students will be studied for three years, using a combination of teacher stress diaries, observational assessments, blood pressure and heart-rate monitors, school records, and class observations.
Ms. McIntyre, who has previously studied the effects of high stress and post-traumatic stress disorder in other occupations, such as military personnel and medical workers, said she's not sure teachers will exhibit the "extreme reaction" of PTSD that she has seen in military cases. "Teachers don't have one or two traumatic events; it's a chronic daily stress that accumulates over days and months and years. It's pretty equivalent in other high-risk occupations."
In a pilot study conducted last year on 50 teachers in four Houston-area middle schools, Ms. McIntyre found as many as one in three teachers in the Houston district were "significantly stressed," with symptoms ranging from concentration problems, fatigue and sleep problems.
"They reported their tiredness going up considerably over the course of the day," she said. "It's a very significant sign."
The study launching this fall, considered the first comprehensive longitudinal study of teacher stress, aims to determine whether teachers' stress levels affect their own performance and self-assessments, as well as their students' performance and behavior. The research team will look at changes in teachers' rates of job satisfaction, health complaints, absenteeism and turnover; observations of teacher instruction, class climate and management, student engagement and behavior, and student achievement results.
"Middle school is probably the most difficult level to teach because student-teacher interactions are more difficult during this time, and this kind of difficulty in teacher-student interactions is a major source of stress for teachers at this level," Ms. McIntyre said of the study. "Our premise is that if the teacher is stressed, their behavior will be different with students, and they will perform differently with students."
From her experience with the pilot study, Ms. McIntyre said teachers reported benefiting from participation, simply by becoming more aware of their own stress levels and triggers, and from "feeling that people were paying attention."