Exclusive: How stress passes from teachers to pupils 'like a contagion'

Research provides physical evidence that stress can be passed between teachers and pupils in the classroom

Adi Bloom

News article image

Pupils taught by teachers who are close to burnout display high levels of stress themselves, a research study has revealed.

Academics from the University of British Columbia, in Canada, examined the levels of cortisol – known as the stress hormone – in 406 primary-aged pupils.

They found that those children whose teachers reported feeling close to burnout had much higher levels of cortisol than those whose teachers were not stressed.

The academics said: “This is the first study to show that teachers' occupational stress is linked to students' physiological stress regulation.”

Stressed teachers 'take frustration out on students'

Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, believes that this demonstrates that teacher stress is a bigger problem than previously thought.

“Stress passes from person to person,” she said. “It moves around the classroom like a contagion, which is very difficult to manage.”

Studies have also shown that stress does not just lead to teacher burnout: it can turn teachers into autocratic, punitive workaholics.

Lisa Matthewman, an organisational psychologist and principal lecturer at Westminster Business School, lists a range of symptoms she has seen in teachers.

“They’re using work as an escape – as an addiction in itself,” she said. “They become a workaholic, leading to emotional burnout.

“Perhaps they’ll be less engaged with students than they once were. They may be acting out in the classroom: taking out their frustrations on the students to some extent. They might be more prone to being autocratic and punitive in their approach.”

Teacher stress 'leads to bullying'

An ongoing study, conducted by Jonathan Glazzard, professor of education at the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools, at Leeds Beckett University, has also shown that teachers’ poor mental health affects their classroom performance, limiting pupils’ academic achievement and leading to low grades.

Poor teacher mental health also influences pupils’ behaviour towards one another, according to Chris Kyriacou, professor of educational psychology at the University of York.

Professor Kyriacou has studied the kinds of school environments that are conducive to bullying. He found that, when pupils are feeling stressed and frustrated, they are more likely to resort to bullying their classmates.

“If schools feel under pressure, then teachers feel under pressure. And then pupils feel under pressure, and more of them are engaged in bullying," he said.

“Then they’re more likely to end up truanting from school, and more of them will end up being excluded from school. If you start to scrape beneath the surface, there are all those links going on.”

This is an edited article from the 9 March edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow Tes on Twitter and like Tes on Facebook



Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories

coronavirus live

Coronavirus and schools: LIVE 7/8

A one-stop shop for teachers who want to know what impact the outbreak of the virus will have on their working live
Tes Reporter 7 Aug 2020