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Monday, February 21, 2011

Is Teaching Making Teachers Sick


By Mindy Sloan

The personal cost of teaching may be becoming too high. In my 10 years as a teacher of teachers, more and more of my students are reporting headaches, sleepless nights, irritated stomachs, chronic illness and even cancer. As someone who cares about children, and sees the necessity of having healthy teachers to support them, I can’t help but feel compelled to understand why teachers are getting sick.

Here are the reasons I have identified thus far.

Unrealistic expectations. One reason may be that we place unrealistic expectations on teachers. Classrooms are a place in which every societal challenge presents itself. If a community is impoverished, violent or drug infested, it is expressed through the children in the classroom. It is society’s expectation that the teacher in the classroom must be prepared to remediate any societal problem we present, and teach each child to read at the same time.

Changing requirements. The requirements to keep a teaching credential keep changing. As the needs of California’s children change, the training required to teach changes as well. For example, you may be a special-education teacher who has been effectively teaching children with autism for 20 years, but unless you go back to school and earn the new Added Authorization, Autism Spectrum Disorders, you will not be able to continue.

Debt. To earn a preliminary teaching credential in California, you will need a bachelor’s degree and at least one to two more years of college. The expectation for most teachers is that one should eventually earn a master’s or higher degree as well. By the time you have “finished” your education, you will have student loans that will take a large chunk of your paycheck over many years.

Teacher bashing. Teacher bashing has become politically correct. In an instant, knowing that teachers may be our greatest hope to improve student learning and ultimately prepare our nation to become more competitive on the global market changed to blaming teachers for the current economic condition. Teacher failures can’t explain the Wall Street bailout, mortgage foreclosures, violence in our streets, child abuse, homelessness or drug wars. We as a society must take responsibility for those conditions.

Teacher evaluation. Teacher evaluation has become personal. Many of you may be aware of the Los Angeles Times articles last summer, “Grading the Teachers: Valued-Added Analysis.” New York City Schools has followed suit, releasing ratings of 12,000 teachers. In both cases, each individual teacher was ranked based on the performance of the students in his/her classroom. While some ineffective teachers may be identified using this approach, there is no distinction between ineffectiveness and those competent teachers who are willing to take on the most challenging learners. Indeed, the message of the approach is clear. If you care about all learners, even those who have the most challenges, you will be identified as a bad teacher. For those who choose the profession because they love children and teaching, such a label is devastating.

Lack of support systems. There is no argument that the focus of our educational system should be on children, first and foremost. Caring for our children, however, means we must do what we can to give them the kind of adults they need to succeed. Some of these adults must be teachers, teachers who are not only academically prepared, but teachers who are emotionally and physically healthy as well. Thus far, teacher preparation programs focus on academic knowledge and skills. There is little to no mention of self-care or preparing for the emotional realities of working in today’s schools. Likewise, district funding does not include teacher support groups or systems to facilitate emotional health in current teachers. It should stand to reason that teachers who struggle with their own emotional and physical health cannot provide the kinds of environments students need to succeed. Indeed, one may consider that it is the emotionally unhealthy teacher who can be the most damaging to children.

In my experience, teachers are internalizers. They do not tend to complain and are not particularly good at advocating for themselves. They tend to put their own needs on the back burner, considering others first. The importance of healthy and effective teachers cannot be overly stated. As a group, they see every child. They impact every child. If we want to support our children, we must support their teachers.

Sloan is director of accreditation and associate professor of special education at Brandman Univeristy, part of the Chapman University System. She is the author of “Say It Now: Thank You to a Teacher.” Her e-mail address is

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