Teachers learn minuses of their jobs can add up


June 10, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

A fter 20 years of teaching, Donna Copenhaver knows what causes stress.

"It comes from me, inside," says Ms. Copenhaver, a math teacher at Baltimore County's Golden Ring Middle School, where classes meet Friday for the last time this spring.

"As a teacher, you're helping to mold the future. That's a big responsibility. . . . It causes stress when you're always looking for new and better things for the students."

But for David Peters, her colleague at Golden Ring, the stress comes from outside: from kids who won't work, parents who won't cooperate, administrators who develop "pie in the sky" programs that teachers can't implement.

"I really do enjoy teaching," says Mr. Peters. "I feel I have a lot to offer the kid who wants to try."

But many don't try, he continues. "That's the biggest frustration: When you have one student who is a problem, you can deal with it. But when you have three or four or five, you deal with problems every minute, and have difficulty dealing with those who want to try."

Summer vacation certainly offers a breather: "That's the thing about teaching," Mr. Peters says. "I know there's going to be an end to this school year, and I'll start off fresh, with new faces next school year."

But how many teachers will decide not to come back in September? The state Department of Education could not provide this number -- or the previous year's retention rate -- last week. The Maryland State Teachers Association expects a high number of retirements this summer by teachers who have spent at least 30 years in the classroom.

"There are more resignations at this point in time than we have ever seen before," declares Tom Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. "Eighty people had already announced their retirement by the end of May, and we expect more in June and July."

The reason, he says, is stress -- caused by greater demands and less control, more work and less time, more problems and less appreciation.

In a society where educational needs outstrip budgetary limits, where teachers have traditionally been underpaid and where plenty of kids live with drugs and violence, poverty and disruption at home, experts agree that teachers are undermined by both internal and external demands.

"These are caring people who came into this profession because they care, and now they're overwhelmed by the needs of the students, by the paperwork, by not feeling support from the public," says Frances Germeroth, wellness program specialist for Baltimore County schools.

And as for the internal pressure, Freda Brown, who administers the Employee Assistance Program for the Baltimore county school system, points out that "many people who go into the caretaking professions -- and I see teaching as one of them -- do so because they are high-achieving, perfectionist kinds of folks who demand a lot of themselves.

a result, I think their personality profile sets them up for a good deal of stress."

Whether that stress adds up to disaster levels can be debated, based on statistics that can be interpreted either way.

"Twenty percent of teachers in urban areas are not functioninwell because they're stressed or burned out; in suburban schools, the figure is closer to 10 percent," says Barry Farber, director of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the recently published "Crisis in Education: Stress and Burnout in the American Teacher."

But similar figures from a 1990 study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching can be read the other way around: 86 percent of teachers nationally -- and 85 percent in Maryland -- reported they were "satisfied" with their job and their school.

Job satisfaction is also hinted at by a longevity report from the State Department of Education, which found that over 51 percent of Maryland public school teachers have put in 16 years or more.

While Dr. Farber agrees that the disaffected teachers represent a minority, he believes it is a "substantial minority who have given up, and they have the potential to dysfunctionally affect those who still care."

The large numbers of long-term teachers who will be retiring in the next few years can also cause problems, according to Dr. Farber. "They leave behind a generation without leadership."

In fact, some of the cracks in the system are already showing:

"The fact that more and more teachers are being treated for alcohol and drug abuse, and are being charged with child abuse, is indicative of the fact that teachers are working under stress," says Irene Dandridge, president of the Balti

more Teachers' Union.

At the same time, however, there are teachers who seem able to go with the flow, to identify, overcome or ignore their stressors. Mrs. Copenhaver is one; math teacher Jean Ragin, of Patterson High School in Baltimore, is another.

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