So misunderstood

17th January 1997 at 00:00

STRESSES IN SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS TEACHERS, Edited by Graham Upton and Ved Varma, Arena Pounds 35 aidan potts

Gary Thomas assesses the levels and causes of stress in special needs teaching.

Stress for teachers in special education would seem at first glance to be greater than stress for teachers elsewhere. After all, teachers who work in special education have to manage uncertainties and pressures which don't exist in other areas.

This book begins with a chapter from Derek May which sets off with this thesis. It proceeds to provide a literature review of stress in teachers in general and in special educational needs teachers in particular. It begins with the suggestion that the profound changes that have happened to special needs education must have induced great stress in teachers. From Warnock, through local management of schools, to league tables and the Code of Practice, teachers have had to cope with unprecedented uncertainty and upheaval.

However, May's conclusion on completing his trawl of the literature is that his initial concerns were overstated and that stress is not at crisis levels.

Following this introductory chapter, the book is divided into three parts: "The Impact of Handicapping Conditions"; "General Considerations", and "Effective Provision". The first section comprises chapters on learning difficulties, hearing impairment, visual impairment, physical disabilities, speech and language impairments, emotional and behaviour difficulties and multiple difficulties. Many of these emphasise the huge changes which have taken place in provision over the last two or three decades and the concomitant burdens which teachers have had to bear.

A chapter from Christopher Robertson, for instance, focuses on teaching children with physical disabilities. It reflects on the stresses which emerge from recent moves to inclusion of disabled children in mainstream schools and the new pressures that these moves exert on special school staff. Special and mainstream cultures are different, he reflects, and the special school teacher who is expected to work in new ways will be under especial stress. Redefinition of disability has also taken its toll, given that new conceptualisations of disability demand a radical rethinking about why people are disabled. More recent thinking has emphasised the role of the school and society themselves in creating disability.

The chapters in this section on "handicapping conditions" address with varying degrees of focus the question of stress in teachers - some are little more than reviews of the special area, rather than dissertations on stress. In the following section on "general considerations", the chapters - interesting in themselves, including ethnic minorities and social disadvantage - make the link with stress even more tenuously. There must have been a tension here for the chapter authors in having the condition of the students themselves presented as a chapter heading as though this were the source of stress for teachers. Most of the chapter authors make the case very well that stress is the result of change, misunderstanding, lack of proper funding and insufficient training for teachers. Each, though, has had to make this point independently within a framework which has encouraged a focus on the students and their putative difficulties.

The final two chapters include some useful suggestions on organising support teams within the mainstream school and managing stress in the special school.

Gary Thomas is professor and reader in education at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

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