Study: Lack of Teacher Support Stresses Out Students Too

Negative talk about teachers and the profession affects students just as badly

Does work ever stress you out? Odds are it does. After all, if you work full-time you spend a third of your life in that cubicle.

Now consider this: your kids spend an equal amount of time at a classroom desk. And if you’ve ever had a boss whose own mood determines whether you’re going to have good or bad day, well -- your kids have the same experience every day too, only with their teachers.

So if teachers are stressed out -- and they have reason to be, considering the shellacking they’re taking in the Wisconsin union battles and from state legislatures across the country trying to cut spending -- then is it possible that stress is impacting kids in the classroom?

It’s more than just possible, says sociologist Melissa Milkie, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland -- it’s happening. In a study published today in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, research shows that when teachers feel unsupported, it affects their students’ academic performance and classroom behavior.

“If a teacher is feeling frustrated, it’s going to affect her interactions with the kids and the kinds of days she can prepare,” says Milkie.

In the study of first graders, Milkie examined how the learning environment affected children’s academic performance. Inadequate classroom resources -- not having enough art supplies, computers or even pencils and paper -- had the largest impact on the students. “This might be because teachers become more harsh or frustrated when they can’t teach properly,” Milkie writes in the report.

The next biggest factor was teacher morale. In the study, students whose teachers felt unsupported had more learning problems, worse attention skills, more fighting and showed more depressive symptoms.

Her study also analyzed whether lack of support from coworkers impacted a teacher’s performance (it does) but Milkie believes the findings can be extrapolated out to how teachers are now being made to feel they don’t deserve the pay and benefits they receive.

“It’s a morale issue, and that’s quite important,” she says. “It’s probably not a great feeling for them to be attacked by politicians or the public.”

If teachers would perform better with more support, as the study suggests, then that support shouldn’t just come from coworkers but from the community at large, says Jacqueline Edelberg, author of How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood Renaissance. “Our teachers are able to rise above this if they feel supported by the community,” says Edelberg. “But (parents and the community) have been sold this bill of goods that the situation was so beyond our control, that there wasn’t anything we could do to solve it. So if the only story you ever hear is how bad it is, and there’s nothing you can do, you throw your hands up and say that’s that.”

Teachers agree that schools need more community involvement. “A teacher who has the support of parents and peers will not lose it over something said on a TV talk show,” says Pat Martin, a math teacher in Memphis.

But when that banter turns into disparagement, it can’t help but sting says Tiffany Andrews, second-grade teacher in Forsyth, Ga., and author of Sincerely the Teacher: Top 10 Things Teachers Want Parents to Know.

“Yes, teachers' morale is low,” says Andrews. “Maybe it’s because of the thousands of dollars we spend to make our lessons interesting and fun. Maybe it is the overtime we put in each day that when you add up equals what we would work in our summer months off. Or maybe it is the creativity that we used to love about our job that is now gone because of the decisions that have been made from those in power. A lot of teachers have tough skin, but in the end, no matter how tough a person is, one can only take so much.”

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