The Stress of Teaching and its Management

“Health” is a subject to which in the past little attention has been paid. There has been an attitude that Health is something with which certain fortunate people are endowed at birth just like blue eyes or brown hair and the others have bad health that is a part of their constitution.

We have “Ministers of Health”, “Health Departments” and “Health Centres”, but their work is almost exclusively concerned with illness and the word “Health” has in this sense become a euphemism for “Disease.”

Recently this was vividly brought home to me. I had been invited to a meeting at a “Health Centre” where a letter had been received from a Group of Retired People asking if they could use the Health Centre’s facilities to talk over the problems raised by retirement. After a discussion, the decision was reached that they would not be suitable clients unless they were ill.

But this attitude is changing. The great medical advance of the next 25 years may well be the recognition that our health is largely within our own control and we can learn behaviours that will promote health.

Positive Health

Positive Health is more than the absence of disease. Physically it can be achieved by regular exercise of sufficient intensity to produce what Hans Selye calls Eustress which promotes a good circulation as shown by a rapid return of a pulse to normal. Psychologically it can be learned by finding life a meaningful, happy and worthwhile experience; by being able to relax rather than become anxious in difficult circumstances and to learn skills to manage problems.

Much is already known about the attainment of Positive Health. I vividly recall that when the “Mind Made Disease” Congress was being planned, Dr Bertram McCloskey, who is the Chief Health Officer at the Health Commission of Victoria, remarked that “Mind-Made Health” would be a fascinating subject for another Congress. I congratulate the Foundation for accepting his challenge.

This Congress is aptly run by the Foundation, for it is already engaged in effective programs in Health promotion. I have attended your sessions on the management of stress and I have heard with interest about your training in Yoga with relaxation and control of breathing.

The School of Total Education leads the field of Educating children not only in knowledge but in developing their self confidence through encouragement and recognition of their strengths and it inculcates the philosophy of helping others rather than competing against them.

I personally have worked with children and teachers from the opposite end of the scale — children who see themselves as failures who cannot cope with study. Many dread school and dream of a happy time when they leave “education” behind them. They see themselves as stupid, unable to concentrate, clumsy and their life appears to be a meaningless tangle of insoluble problems.

On the other hand I see teachers — fine, ambitious, idealistic people with a vision of how they would like to influence their pupils to grow, who have been worn down by the lack of response to their enthusiasm and the emotional demands of the mechanics of the education system. On the one hand they may become over anxious, depressed and unable to cope with teaching — a condition aptly named the “burned-out syndrome”. On the other hand they may suppress these feelings and express their reaction with physical symptoms — migraine, arthritis, raised blood pressure, heart circulation problems or peptic ulcer.

Yet there are some teachers whose joy of teaching survives and grows. Despite disappointments, lack of appreciation and opposition, they are able to continue to share their ideals with the children and often, unknown to them, when the children grow up the memory of the teacher provides a continuing inspiration in their lives.

Finding Fulfilment in Teaching

Teaching is one of the most exacting of the professions and I would like today to speak about some ways in which teachers can continue to enjoy and find fulfilment in their work instead of disillusionment.

What is a teacher’s aim? I remember talking to a mathematics teacher who, after thirty years in a classroom, told me that he would use all his powers to dissuade anyone from becoming a teacher — he described to me the boredom, the lack of appreciation of pupils and the rivalry between colleagues. He made a point that his aim in teaching was to instruct his pupils in mathematics — he was not employed to develop their values, or their character: That was the duty of parents.

Such a dichotomy is impossible. No one can not communicate. Clearly he had shown himself to his pupils as a man who was not interested in them as people and their anger at this treatment had been responsible for his disillusionment.

When I look back on teachers who have had a deep influence on myself I remember that they had two characteristics.

Firstly, they were fascinated by the subject that they taught. It meant more to them than a school subject. They continued to study it in depth because of the joy that it gave them. Their enthusiasm infected us. Their joy caught our imagination as pupils. It no longer was a boring chore but became a source of pleasure.

I remember as a schoolboy finding trigonometry and geometry incomprehensible. My father arranged for me to have coaching in the holidays.

I rebelled: trigonometry and geometry in the school holidays was bad enough but when he told me that the tutor was a woman, that was a punishment.

I remember the first session. I had never before been in a room like Mrs Wilson’s — all the walls were lined with books not only on the shelves but on the top of books, others were fitted. On the floor were piles of books, and what is more, she knew what was in the books. I told her of my aversion to mathematics so we went for a walk and passed the town hall tower — we paced out the length of its shadow and from this, calculated its height. We went to the beach and in the sand she drew out a triangle with the clock tower one side and then she told me about Pythagoras and the square of each side. I was fascinated. This subject was as involving as chess or horse riding. Geometry became interesting. At night I used to go to sleep with mental pictures of circles and tangents revolving around my mind. Despite my determination to hate the extra coaching, I began to enjoy it and as I enjoyed it I began to understand it and this lead me on to learn more with increasing pleasure.

The second quality that a teacher needs to transmit, is interest in the pupil himself. I can still vividly recall my first week at school. All the new boys went to meet the headmaster — eighty of us. He read out our names, we stood up in turn and he repeated the name. Then he gave us an idea of the ideals of the school. A few days later I was walking down the main corridor. I saw him coming toward me on his way to assembly. “Griffith, I hope you are finding your way around the school?” I was stunned that he recognised me and had the time to talk to a new boy. Yes, he knew not only our names but also our progress in the school, the games field and who were our friends. If our birthday happened during the term, he would send for us and wish us well. He knew us all personally and we in turn would do anything for him.

Another teacher taught Latin and made the subject live for us. We enjoyed trying to distract him and sometimes he would tell us about his travels to Rome and the Roman way of life and sometimes we would tell him about ourselves and share with him our feeling that we might spend time more profitably with a living and useful subject. Looking back I wonder if we really did distract him or whether he chose to share his love of classics with us and to allow us to share our frustrations with him. I liken the management of young people to a three legged stool. Each leg is essential and without any one of the three legs, the stool will collapse.

The three legs of this educational stool are:


A love for the youngster just because he is, and not necessarily for any quality that he may possess, and a recognition that within him there is a tremendous potential only a small proportion of which he will develop. The aim of the teacher is to change this potential into tangible ability and the most powerful tool that he possesses is encouragement — the ability to see progress and to cherish it. Some children will progress rapidly, the satisfaction derived from it gives them pleasure which in turn encourages them to study further. Other children’s progress is slower. If the teacher can define the progress, even though slow, the youngster will be given the reinforcement to study and gain satisfaction from it. To my mind the most destructive technique of teaching is the form-order. The bright child who is already progressing well and although receiving this encouragement also has the prize; the child in difficulties is at the bottom and is rewarded by further discouragement.

One boy I knew had had a disastrous year at school. In the end of term exams, he turned in a maths paper with his name and a few smudges. The teacher spoke to him saying: “David, you have had difficulties this year, but you have never once missed a class and you stayed throughout the exam. I admire you for that. Next term I will be free for half an hour after school and we could work together”. David took up the offer, by the end of he year he was near the middle of the class but more importantly, instead of withdrawing from his mates, he had made friends, he was a cox of the rowing crew and his misery and feeling of failure had changed. He enjoyed life and looked forward to the future.


The second leg of the stool is discipline. A few years ago this teaching quality was rejected by some so-called experts, notably Dr Spock. The result was disastrous and many children grew up to be men who lacked control of themselves and they drifted into a life without purpose or satisfaction.

Children are happiest when they have limits and they respect those who set them. To live in a world in which there are no guidelines, rules or limits to behaviour is a frightening experience. Discipline gives security both from outside events and from internal feelings. Often I have asked youngsters who have caused disruption at school which teacher they liked. Almost invariably they chose a strict teacher because they felt secure with him.

Naturally they will grumble about curbs put onto them about homework, pocket money, going out from home in the evenings. They will accept the principle of discipline but will test out its limits. Gradually they will change this discipline from discipline imposed by others from outside to self-discipline from inside. As the child matures in adolescence, teachers and parents can loosen their reins of control and give the youngsters the trust to control their own lives.

Allied with discipline is respect — respect for parents, for family, school and teachers. An idea has developed that parents should be a friend or a brother to the child. This can be frightening, the child needs a parent or teacher who is more than a companion; someone who is stable and trustworthy and in control so that they have a strong arm to grasp when they feel insecure.

For this reason no teacher or parent should allow a child to belittle him when angry. Maybe he can criticise some behaviour of the parent but it must be within the framework of respect.

As the child matures and grows, he will become confident that he can stand on his own and it is at this time that the parent-child relationship can be changed to friendship and equality.


The third leg of the stool is example — the newborn child lacks experience so he looks to his parents to find out how to behave. He imitates their behaviour and unconsciously incorporates within himself their culture. Young children have incredible powers of learning by absorbing the behaviour of those around them. Recently I was in Bathurst Island, north of Darwin, where a gifted linguist is learning to talk the native Tiwi language. He has been studying it for 6 years and told me that he will not be able to speak it fluently for a further 6 years. Yet 5 year old children speak it naturally.

It is from example that children learn their patterns of thought, their gestures and facial expressions and the ways to relate together. A teacher who copes with a classroom crisis with understanding and firmness does much more than deal with the crisis, he imprints on the child’s mind an effective and mature behaviour.

A child who has had exposure to these three qualities:

  • Love, encouragement, belonging and a feeling of worth;
  • Discipline, limit setting, expectation of respect, and
  • Example of noble behaviours

will predictably mature into a noble, confident, happy and friendly personality. It may be that he will not be distinguished in the specific field for which the teacher aimed to train him, but he will have a rounded and trustworthy character and will continue to develop the store of potential that lies within him.

How can a teacher faced with the stresses inherent in the education system cope with the tension and continue to enjoy the work?

The teacher, just as the pupil, needs support and encouragement. The resource is there: other teachers. If a teacher has a difficult pupil, he needs someone who will listen and understand and with whom he can explore new ways to manage the situation.

The teachers whom I see, because they have had breakdowns, have felt isolated — they have not taken the risk of sharing their difficulties. They may have felt that their colleagues would belittle them for incompetence.

When I was a family doctor we had a remarkably understanding nursing sister who helped mothers with baby feeding problems. If a mother had a difficulty she would not say: “This is the way to do it” and show her skill which would highlight the mother’s ineffectiveness. Instead, she would allow the mother to explain the difficulties and show that she understood. Perhaps they would enjoy a cry or a laugh about the problem. Then mother would try feeding, they would talk and experiment and find a way together. The mother would be excited by her progress, feeling that it was achieved by her own efforts. In the same way an experienced teacher may be able to help another teacher in difficulties — not by highlighting her weakness but by giving her confidence in her strengths.

Another matter is hard labour. I do not mean work because work is essentially creative and enjoyable — a stress that is stimulating.

By hard labour I mean a burden, a stress that is overwhelming. It is not a challenge but a task that cannot be achieved. For example, a teacher, who is coping well, may be asked to take an extra class. He continues to cope, then he is asked to supervise sports duties. Again he copes. Finally he is told to design a new time-table. He finds he cannot manage, but works on with increasing inefficiency and frustration. Work becomes a burden rather than a joy.

Each of us has limits to his ability to manage and it is essential to recognise this and to have the courage to say “no”. Not an apologetic “no”, but a definite “no” from which he is unbudgeable.

“No I will not be able to do this”. “No, I said No, and I mean No”. “No I have told you before and I do not want to be asked again”.

Today we live in the age of tablets. Tablets for infections, vitamins and mineral tablets, hormonal tablets, rheumatic tablets, headache tablets, indigestion tablets. Above all, “Nerve Tablets”.

Patients cascade into a doctor’s room with requests:

“My teenager is getting me down, can I have tablets?”. “I can’t stand my boss, please give me tablets to help my nerves”. “The mortgage has gone up again. It is dreadful. Give me tablets so that I can cope”. Yes, nerve tablets will help to reduce the anxiety but their cost is enormous. I do not mean financial expense but cost to effectiveness.

They dull intelligence and motivation so that the person stays still in his misery, he may have his anxiety numbed, but the situation deteriorates and he further loses the ability to master it.

The chemicals in the tablets themselves cause the person to become even more depressed and unmotivated.

At night he may become unconscious with sedation but it is an unnatural sleep from which the person does not wake refreshed.

There are alternatives to artificial chemicals:

  • Exercise. Exercise active enough to cause breathlessness.
  • A long walk, a jog, squash, swimming. All have a remarkable effect at relieving anxiety. The tense muscles having contracted and relaxed many times will feel relaxed at the end of the exercise.
  • Relaxation. Learn how to relax by methodically relaxing each muscle in the body. As each muscle relaxes it sends “quieting messages” to the brain causing a pleasant, relaxed, peaceful, tranquil mental state whilst the brain is alert to make effective decisions.
  • With practice, you can train yourself to relax spontaneously during the day and become relaxed when under stress.

    When relaxed you can have “secret places” to which you can retreat for a moment in your mind — maybe a beach, beside a stream, a garden, a mountain or whatever appeals, and in these surroundings, relax and feel joyful to emerge a few moments later feeling refreshed.

    Learn to withdraw too, to refresh yourself in your own way. Discover what gives you personal joy: Listening to music. Reading a light novel. Bush walking. Lazing beside a river.

    Holidays are not luxuries. We all need them to recharge our batteries. I remember once sitting with an old family doctor whilst he saw his clients. One of his patients was an engineer who had what he described as an “indispensable place” on his project from which he could not take leave. The old doctor listened and said “All of us need time away from work. We have a choice. Either it can be spent on holiday enjoying ourselves or it can be in hospital ill. You can make the decision”.

    Before sitting down, I would like to recapitulate. There are two safeguards that will protect you from stress:

    • Enjoy your subject — Read it, think about it, have fun tossing around the ideas in it. Be a master of it.
    • Enjoy your students — Listen to them, be interested in them, look upon them as individuals.

    Remember that apart from the subject that you are teaching, children need from you:

    1. Love, caring, encouragement and a feeling that they are growing.
    2. Discipline, control, limit setting which at first is imparted by you but later they take it over as self discipline.
    3. Example — your behaviour, the way you handle classroom problems, your patience, your understanding, your listening will inevitably become a part of their personality.

    Finally — Self protection for teachers:

    • Give one another support, listening, understanding and encouragement.
    • Have the courage to say “No” when non-productive stress is enforced upon you.
    • Take regular physical exercise.
    • Learn the art of relaxation by letting go of the muscles so that you can feel serene when in the midst of stressful situations.
    • Develop skill at being able to withdraw momentarily into yourself so that you can emerge refreshed.
    • Give yourself regular times when you can replenish your energies with joys for pleasure not for perfection — hobbies, a different form of art, physical exercise, holidays.

    Your work and teaching will become something that you enjoy and which will fulfil your lives as well as being an experience that will lead out the potential that lies within your pupils.

    About the Author

    Dr Richard Griffith, was an English medical graduate who served in the Royal Airforce and after coming to Australia worked as a family doctor in a country town. Following his training in psychiatry, Dr Griffith became particularly interested in adolescents and worked as a community psychiatrist in Melbourne. He took a particular interest in the philosophy and approach of The School of Total Education during its early years. This article is based on an address by Dr Griffith at the “Mind-Made Health” conference in 1982.

    This article was originally published in the Journal of the Helen Vale Foundation, Volume 3, Number 3–4, 1982. (Published on web site: November 2011)