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The Breaking Point

TIMES HEALTH WRITER

This is not just job stress. This is something much more.

The feeling that you have to watch your back every minute.

The sense that you had better measure your words carefully.

That walking-on-eggshells apprehension when you know that if you make a wrong move, it could be your undoing.

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Too often, this is how the schoolteachers of America’s youngsters feel. During an era of increasing physical threats and violence in the classroom, many teachers are being driven into therapy--and sometimes out of the profession--because of stress, depression, anxiety, trauma or addiction.

“I am wanting very much to retire early,” says Amy, a veteran Los Angeles instructor, a teacher of the year with a master’s degree in counseling who is in therapy to deal with her stress. “I’m burned out. I am frustrated and angry.”

Never an easy profession, experts say that the psychological strain on teachers has increased dramatically in the ‘90s as children become more prone to violence and misbehavior.

It happened again last month when two Lucerne Valley Middle School sixth-grade girls, 11 and 12 years old, allegedly spiked their teacher’s drink with rat poison--presumably to harm her in revenge for dishing out bad grades. The teacher, who was unharmed, has taken a leave of absence and is refusing interview requests.

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And last week in Riverside, a 15-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly poisoning his teacher’s tea with a highly toxic spray chemical used to clean dry-erase boards. The teacher at Somerset School, a private institution for children with behavioral and emotional problems, was not harmed.

According to a National Education Assn. survey of secondary teachers, about 5,000 physical attacks and 100,000 threats of physical violence are made monthly in U.S. schools.

Moreover, at a time when Gov. Pete Wilson hopes to hire thousands of additional teachers to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through second grade, teachers are leaving the profession at a fast clip. A recent report from the Council of the Great City School--a coalition of the nation’s 47 largest urban public school systems--showed an alarming need for new teachers because of high attrition rates.

“One reason there is a teacher shortage is because teachers are so stressed out, and they are taking early retirement,” says Janet Bass of the American Federation of Teachers. “Teachers in urban areas are very stressed because they are being forced to do so much more than teach. They are counselors, social workers and nurses.”

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Events like teacher shootings, stabbings or even poisonings are rare, notes Jane Conoley, associate dean for research at Teachers College, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

“But they do [illustrate] an overall increase in the amount of violence that young children and teachers are facing every day in the schools,” says Conoley, who is researching programs to stem school violence.

She bemoans the lack of statistics on school violence or research on the psychological impact to both faculty and students.

“There is such reluctance on the part of school administrators to admit these problems because of the negative view it gives their district,” she says.

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The impact of school violence and misbehavior can be chronicled another way, however, in the demand for mental health services from teachers and from surveys that attest to their psychological status.

According to a 1991 survey of California teachers, student misbehavior is a leading cause of stress. The survey showed teachers are more stressed than workers in many other occupations and that half reported stress-related psychiatric problems resulting from their jobs. Thirteen percent admitted to problems with chemical dependency.

Another survey, completed two years earlier, showed that 30% of 844 elementary-school teachers nationwide said their jobs were extremely stressful.

Stress reactions typically include sleep and eating problems, nervousness, tearfulness and heavy reliance on drugs and alcohol. The problems can snowball into clinical depression or an anxiety condition.

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And a breakdown is not unimaginable, says psychologist John C. Brady II, who developed a teacher counseling program for Laguna Hills-based PacifiCare Behavioral Health. He recalls one incident in which a rescue team had to remove a psychotic teacher who was cowering behind drapes in her classroom.

Studies show that teachers weighed down by stress have a high rate of absenteeism, a lack of commitment, an abnormal desire for vacations and low self-esteem.

“This goes way beyond stab wounds and gunshots,” says Conoley. “This is mental health problem.”

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It’s a Tuesday morning in mid-May, and Amy is taking a “mental health day” away from her job as a teacher at a Westside middle school.

She takes days off periodically, she says, because it helps her cope with the days when she drags herself from bed to teach.

She also sees a therapist and is planning a career change, which she hopes to pull off within the next three years.

“I went to the doctor the other day. I was having heart palpitations and my blood pressure was high. He said, ‘Are you under stress?’ ” She laughs bitterly.

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Amy, who asked that her real name not be used, is among the legions of schoolteachers nationwide who are finding that occupational stress has become a serious threat to their physical and psychological health. A 30-year veteran of schools in both the Bronx and Los Angeles, Amy has always specialized in teaching problem children. She never expected the job to be easy. But she also never expected it to be so rough as to cause her ceaseless anxiety.

“In the 1970s, the kids were difficult and unmotivated and weren’t interested in school,” she says of her Bronx class of emotionally disturbed students. “But I was never threatened back then. I never felt I was in danger. The kids had self-anger and frustration more than outward anger.

“Now, though, I’ve been called a f------ b----. Their anger is taken out and directed at me. I question whether one of these students with no impulse control--and who see me as the enemy--will turn on me.”

An attempted murder with rat poison resonates with Amy.

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Fearing verbal abuse and even a physical attack, Amy says that she is no longer confident about how to deal with her students--despite 30 years of experience. “Sometimes I don’t know who I am or what is the best way of behaving. Part of me knows these kids need discipline and part of me knows these kids need love.”

A large number of children with behavior problems has fueled a surge in teacher stress, says Brady, whose PacifiCare Behavioral teacher-counseling program contracts with about half of the state’s school districts.

“There is a whole new category of kid out there who emanates from dysfunctional families,” he says. “I call it the ‘urban orphan.’ They might be involved in a family, but the family is so dysfunctional that they go to school and unload in the classroom. These problems are nonacademic and totally outside the curriculum. But the poor teacher is sitting there faced with this dilemma.”

Teachers who are not trained in how to deal with these problems inevitably suffer, Brady says.

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“In September, teachers see these kids coming and want to reach for the Prozac, Valium or the bottle to deal with it,” he says.

Teachers under stress start to waver from their professional standards, experts say. For example, it’s not uncommon for teachers to discipline students but then worry incessantly about the repercussions.

“They are afraid their tires will be slashed, they will be followed home or even physically harmed,” says Brady. “In some cases, there are steps they don’t want to take [in the classroom] for fear of what the student might do.”

The threat of a violent response from a student--usually in the form of a verbal tirade against the teacher--is often in the back of a teacher’s mind.

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Even teachers who work in relatively calm schools and who love their profession are sometimes overwhelmed, says James Hardin, a sixth-grade teacher in Laguna Hills.

“One of the big stresses is that a teacher has to make a decision and also be thinking about what the response might be,” says Hardin, who has taught for six years.

“If two students are fighting, you have to think about what you’ll do after you pull them apart, how you are going to address it.”

A mistake, he says, “can come back to haunt you.”

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Parents need to understand that a stressed-out teacher will not be an effective one, says Conoley.

“Study after study shows that as teachers become more stressed, absenteeism goes up and their hopefulness about being able to make a difference for the kids goes down,” says Conoley. “A lot of teachers say there are some kids they just have to ignore.”

The ripple effects of a withering teacher can be devastating for a student. A stressed-out teacher usually means stressed-out students.

“This sends a message to the kids that they can’t depend on an adult. Most kids want to see that an adult will handle a situation and keep them safe,” Conoley says.

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“Children have reported not wanting to go to school, having bad dreams and bringing weapons to school to protect themselves. The psychological effects are devastating. There is no time to learn. School is no respite for them.”

*

Most teachers realize they must find an outlet for their stress. Younger teachers place a high value on exercise and recreation that helps them blow off steam.

“The adrenaline can really get cooking. I can see how if teachers don’t find a way to release the stress, it can get to you,” Hardin says.

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Moreover, younger teachers may be better equipped to handle stress because they have been trained in counseling and behavior modification.

“You have to have those skills to be successful,” Hardin says. “Teachers who don’t have those skills are usually the ones who get so stressed and depressed. I love that aspect of my job because I think I do well relating to the students.”

Brady also is promoting additional training for teachers in counseling skills and working with troubled children.

“One way to deal with this stress problem is to empower the teacher with new skills. We need to provide seminars to help teachers to better understand these children who see themselves as victims in society and engage in nefarious behavior,” Brady says. “Teachers need to better understand what they are dealing with instead of having this anxiety when these kids enter the environment.”

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But conditions for the urban teacher, ultimately, must improve, experts contend.

“It’s my firm belief that you can treat everyone and give them the best coping skills, but it may not make an improvement,” says William Buck, a PacifiCare Behavioral counselor. “When you’re faced with 35 or 40 kids and are not supported by the administration and you have parents who are vociferous in their complaints, you have a toxic environment. And you’re going to get toxic results.”

He says good school administrators try to “detoxify” the environment for their teachers by doing such things as taking the staff off-campus occasionally for daylong retreats.

Parents, too, need to realize that teachers are bearing the brunt of society’s social ills and that a high stress ranking could result in fewer talented people entering the profession. The question is: What kind of people do you want teaching your kids?

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“Parents have to come to grips that they have to be more active. They have to reclaim public schools,” says Conoley.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Who’s Under Pressure

Workers reporting a stress-related condition

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Teachers: 58%

Hospital employees: 43%

Clerical workers: 35%

Federal government employees: 27%

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Stress among teachers

Stress-related psychiatric conditions

Elementary: 53%

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Junior: 61

High: 68%

Chemical dependency problems

Elementary: 13%

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Junior: 11%

High: 11%

* Source: From a 1991 study of 1,250 teachers and 1,250 workers from nonacademic occupations in California by John C. Brady II of PacifiCare Behavioral.


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