A new, first-of-its-kind study examines the connection between teacher burnout and students’ stress levels.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia collected saliva samples from over 400 elementary school children, grades four to seven, at 17 public schools.
Cortisol levels were then assessed from the samples as the hormone is commonly used as a biological indicator of stress. Correspondingly, teacher burnout was determined through survey results.
Investigators found that in classrooms in which teachers experienced more burnout, or feelings of emotional exhaustion, students’ cortisol levels were elevated.
Indeed, the relationship between student stress and teacher burnout is a chicken and egg question.
The study appears in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
Higher cortisol levels in elementary school children have been linked to learning difficulties as well as mental health problems.
“This suggests that stress contagion might be taking place in the classroom among students and their teachers,” said Eva Oberle, Ph.D., the study’s lead author.
“It is unknown what came first, elevated cortisol or teacher burnout. We consider the connection between student and teacher stress a cyclical problem in the classroom.”
Oberle said a stressful classroom climate could be a result of inadequate support for teachers, which may impact teachers’ ability to effectively manage their students.
A poorly managed classroom can contribute to students’ needs not being met and increasing stress. This could be reflected in elevated cortisol levels in students.
Alternatively, stress could originate from students, who may be more challenging to teach because of increases in anxiety, behavioral problems, or special needs. In this scenario, teachers could feel overwhelmed and report higher levels of burnout.
“Our study is a reminder of the systemic issues facing teachers and educators as classroom sizes increase and supports for teachers are cut,” said Oberle.
“It is clear from a number of recent research studies that teaching is one of the most stressful professions, and that teachers need adequate resources and support in their jobs in order to battle burnout and alleviate stress in the classroom,” said University of British Columbia education professor Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, Ph.D., the study’s co-author.
“If we do not support teachers, we risk the collateral damage of students.”