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Virginia Journal of Education

It’s OK to Ask for Help

Teachers often reluctant to seek remedies for job stress.

By Shawna Berka and Deborah Kipps-Vaughan

When one of our teaching colleagues begins describing her stressful life, we’re quick to recommend that she make taking care of herself a top priority. But our research and experience tells us that teachers are slow to take their own advice. Facing high-stakes testing, changing technology, lagging salaries and difficult working conditions, teachers report higher levels of stress than the general population and are often overwhelmed with obligations and time commitments. Yet they seem to have difficulty taking time for their own self-care, and we wanted to know why.

Virginia School District Survey
We surveyed 185 teachers who work in a large Virginia school division in Northern Virginia to identify ways to help increase their participation in stress management programs. They were specifically asked to describe factors that keep them from taking part in such programs when they’re offered at school. Responses showed the biggest obstacle is a general lack of time, so it’s not surprising that the quality of the stress management program also became a common theme. In short, if the program is built on research-based, effective methods of managing stress, they’d be more willing to sacrifice the time to attend. 

The teachers also said they want to be able to offer input on times before any programs were scheduled, and suggested classroom support be provided to help them out if they’re participating in a program held during the school day. 

Another incentive that interests teachers is the possibility of earning licensure points for stress management programs for professional development, as they’d have the opportunity to use the skills to support stressed students, as well. Offering points would also save teachers time because they’d be able to meet recertification requirements while attending to their wellness needs.

Some teachers said they were unlikely to participate in school-based stress management programs because they don’t feel safe communicating their needs to others in their building. This indicates an unhealthy dynamic in some school buildings, and an emotionally “unsafe” work environment would certainly be a contributor to increased stress levels, warranting attention at the system level.

When we asked teachers what they most wanted from a stress management program, their response pointed to three broad themes: relationships, knowledge and wellness. 

They said they wanted to feel part of a community within their school, and spoke of the connections and stronger relationships they hoped would develop through a stress management program. Teachers expressed the desire to improve skills dealing with stress, including their ability to relax and calm themselves down and ways to be more efficient with their time. They also want to be able to teach these skills to their students.

The wellness theme speaks to teachers’ goals of improved physical and mental health in general. Although they didn’t use the word “guilt” when describing barriers for participation in stress management programs, guilt was implied in their comments about themselves. A typical example: “(I want) more relaxation, except it would take time away from my job or my family.” They felt a strong tension between attending to their wellness and all the other demands teachers face personally and professionally. 

Challenge for Care
We think these results are a challenge and a call for school divisions to provide quality, accessible stress management programs in school buildings. School counselors and psychologists are available to provide such programs. 

The real challenge, however, seems to be for teachers to prioritize their own self-care and stress management, and to participate in opportunities to learn stress management skills. Our survey indicates that programs need to focus on real-life, school topics if teachers are going to perceive them as time well spent. Many teachers are more focused on the care of their students than they on their own care, so an emphasis on providing stress management for students may also encourage teacher response.

A renewed emphasis on stress management training for our teachers would also send a very important message to them: You are a priority and worthy of time and care. 

Berka received her Ed.S. from James Madison University. After completing her internship in Virginia, she is currently a school psychologist in Cleveland County Schools in North Carolina.
Kipps-Vaughan received her Psy. D. from James Madison University. Her experience includes working as a school psychologist for Halifax County Public Schools in Virginia and providing psychological services as a licensed clinical psychologist. She is currently a professor in the Department of Graduate Psychology, James Madison University. She can be reached at



You’re Not Alone

Some statistics on job stress, from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health:

• 40% of workers reported their job was very or extremely stressful.

• 25% view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.

• Three fourths of employees believe that workers have more on-the-job stress than workers did a generation ago.

• 29% of workers felt quite a bit or extremely stressed at work.

• 26 percent of workers said they were “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work.”

• Job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than financial or family problems.



Coping with Stress

Here are some practical steps, many of which you can implement immediately, from the National Institutes of Health, to help you maintain your health and outlook and reduce or prevent the effects of stress:

• Seek help from a qualified mental health care provider if you are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, have suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope.

• Get proper health care for existing or new health problems.

• Stay in touch with people who can provide emotional and other support. Ask for help from friends, family and community or religious organizations to reduce stress due to work burdens or family issues.

• Recognize signs of your body's response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed and having low energy.

• Set priorities—decide what must get done and what can wait, and learn to say no to new tasks if they’re putting you into overload.

• Note what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.

• Avoid dwelling on problems. If you can't do this on your own, seek help from a qualified mental health professional who can guide you.

• Exercise regularly—just 30 minutes per day of gentle walking can help boost mood and reduce stress.

• Schedule regular times for healthy and relaxing activities.

• Explore stress coping programs, which may incorporate meditation, yoga, tai chi or other gentle exercises.


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