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'Like an iceberg floating alone': a case study of teacher stress at a Victorian primary school.

This paper presents the case study of a culturally diverse, inner suburban, primary school located on a government housing estate. We report on high levels of stress amongst the teachers at the school and find evidence of professional bureaucratic conflict. Two main findings are reported. First, that teacher stress is attributed to a combination of factors: the unique school characteristics which are not fully acknowledged by the governing bureaucracy; the ensuing professional-bureaucratic conflict resulting from a lack of acknowledgment and inadequate resourcing; and importantly, tensions relating to professional values and standards. Second, that stress can be somewhat ameliorated by the use of proactive teacher and whole-school responses, and that further reduction of stress requires a systemic response.



social support




primary schools


The subject of teacher stress has attracted considerable attention in both Australian (O'Connor & Clarke, 1990; Otto, 1986; Sarros & Sarros, 1992; Thomas, Clarke, & Lavery, 2003; Townsend, 1998) and international literature (Bartlett, 2004; Clark, 2002; Guglielmi & Tatrow, 1998; Kyriacou, 2001; Troman, 2000). This literature, however, clearly states the need for further research to explore the sources of teacher stress and the coping actions used by teachers and schools, and especially to disentangle 'the stress caused by difficult or excessive demands being made on a teacher, and stress being triggered by concerns linked to ones self-image' (Kyriacou, 2001). Based on current understanding of stress, including the contributions of Lazarus and Folkman (1984), this paper provides a greater insight into the complex relationship between sources of teacher stress and coping mechanisms. This paper also responds to Lazarus (2000), who calls for greater research that is 'focussed on observations that are day-to-day, microanalytical, and in-depth, and that are compatible with a holistic outlook'.

Research for this paper began as a collaborative project between the researchers and staff of an inner suburban primary school.

Two questions guide this research: first, what are the major issues associated with teacher stress and low morale at the school? And second, how does the school respond to these stressors?

Perspectives on stress and coping

In general, work stress can be defined as an adaptive response to a work situation that places special physical and/or psychological demands on a worker (Matteson & Ivancevich, 1987). The physical or psychological demands from the environment that cause stress are called stressors. The main generic stressors isolated in the broader management literature are role conflict, role ambiguity, work overload, task control or autonomy, career security and interpersonal relations (Jex, 1998; Kahn & Antonucci, 1980; Kahn & Byosiere, 1992; Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn & Snoek, 1964). Stress depends on the external environment and individual psychological and physiological factors (Lazarus, 1976). Stress can result in maladjusted behaviour, but sometimes also mobilises highly effective forms of adjustment. There are marked variations in perceptions of what is stressful and in personal or group responses to stress (Lazarus, 1966, 1976).

Lazarus and Folkman (1984, p. 141) define coping as 'constantly changing cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of a person'. Coping specifically refers to what the person does to handle stressful or emotionally charged situations (Lazarus, 1966).

All coping can be divided into two main categories: direct actions or problem-focused coping are behaviours that prepare the person against harm, aggression, avoidance, inaction or apathy (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984); whereas palliative forms or emotion-focused coping reduce, eliminate or tolerate the stress (for example, using defence mechanisms such as identification, repression or denial).

Coping is partly determined by individual resources, such as health, social support and material resources. Coping is also determined by constraints that mitigate the use of resources, such as personal constraints, such as internalised cultural values and beliefs that proscribe certain ways of behaving, and environmental constraints, such as demands that compete for the same resources or intuitions that thwart effort.

Individual coping processes depend on the values, beliefs, and goals with which the individual constructs meaning (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Thus individual coping includes a reinterpretation of events in terms of benefits to one's values, beliefs and goals. This explanation of individual coping resonates with the concept of 'emotional intelligence' (Goleman, 1995), and consists of a person's ability to 'bounce back' from difficult and challenging situations (Clark, 2002). Resilience includes certain cognitive and emotional skills which enable positive or encouraging interpretations of challenging events.

Effective coping processes require congruence between coping and the demands of the situation and are subject to numerous variables. How to determine coping effectiveness remains one of the most perplexing research challenges (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2004).

Coping and the management of stress in an organisation are important because work stress has been related to worker physical and mental wellbeing, as well as organisational problems, such as decreased performance, increased accidents, absenteeism and turnover (Cropanzano, Rupp, & Byrne, 2003; Manning, Jackson & Fusilier, 1996). New developments in coping research include large-group or communal coping, which refers to coping responses that are influenced by and in reaction to the social context (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2004).

Teacher stress

Sources of teacher stress relate to work overload, insufficient time for work, student problems that are impossible to solve given available resources, and feelings of powerlessness in relation to the wider education system (Otto, 1986). Sarros and Sarros (1992) suggest there are many problems that 'are too large and complex for individual efforts'. Interpersonal relations are a source of stress for teachers, especially relations with other adults, such as colleagues, parents, management and departmental officials (Troman, 2000). Teaching is considered to be 'emotional work' (Troman, 2000), and virtually all in-depth studies of teaching indicate that it is 'difficult, complex and emotionally draining work entailing long out-of-classroom hours' (Bartlett, 2004).

There is increasing evidence of work intensification for teachers involving industry change and teachers' changing roles (Bartlett, 2004; Troman, 2000). The 1990s in Victoria saw the closure of a number of schools, the devolution of funding decisions to schools, changes to teaching and learning standards, such as the Curriculum Standards Framework (CSF), and increased bureaucratic pressures for higher professional standards (Caldwell & Hayward, 1998). Within this environment, the Victorian Department of Education developed an accountability framework with three key elements: a school charter, an annual report and a triennial school review. By 1999, however, a report released by the Victorian Auditor-General's Office suggested that the increased reporting requirements placed an additional burden on teachers and schools which warranted systemic support mechanism (Caldwell & Hayward, 1998; Caldwell & Spinks, 1998). These changes have added layers of complexity to the role of teachers, and increased their responsibilities and workloads (Townsend, 1998). Thus teachers' roles have changed from essentially a teaching/educational role to encompass a much wider range of responsibilities, including counselling, welfare, social work, procurement of funding, reporting and government lobbying (Townsend, 1998). To date, there is no evidence reported of any systemic measures designed to support the changed roles of teachers.

Organisational-professional conflict examines the conflict between practicing professionals and the governing bureaucracies for which they work (Lait & Wallace, 2002; Sorensen & Sorensen, 1974; Wallace, 1995). Conflict may occur 'when the values, goals and expectations of the professional are incompatible with those of their employing organisation, especially when professionals are employed in highly bureaucratic organisations' (Lair & Wallace, 2002, p. 463). Bureaucratic conditions that are inconsistent with professional workers' job expectations contribute to stress.

Teachers coping with stress

Forms of coping with teacher stress include individual, school and bureaucratic responses (Kyriacou, 2001). In addition, social support is identified as a form of coping (Sarros & Sarros, 1992). Social support has been defined as the flow of communication between people involving emotional, caring, informational and instrumental support (House, 1981). Social support may be derived from informal sources such as family, friends and work colleagues, or from formal sources such as supervisors. A large Australian study found that support of the principal is crucial in reducing burnout; however, the study highlighted that the effects of other forms of social support, such as that provided by colleagues, have not been sufficiently investigated (Sarros & Sarros, 1992).

The literature outlines a number of organisational responses to alleviate teacher stress, especially through exploring the characteristics of 'healthy organisational functioning' and those practices which reflect it. Characteristics of a healthy school include a collaborative and communicative environment, where work expectations are clearly defined and positive feedback is available, where resources to support teachers are provided, and where bureaucratic processes are minimised (Kyriacou, 2001, p. 31). Hence, extant research identifies some responses to teacher stress which can address its negative effects.


The research process for this case study evolved in consultation with participants, and includes audio, written and photographic material from annotated discussions, observations of events, semi- or un-structured interviews, participation in staff meetings, focus groups and documentary analysis. The data were collected at the school by the authors between 2001 and 2003, beginning with an initial annotated discussion with the Principal and Assistant Principal in December, 2001. The major school documents informing our research include the School Charter and the Triennial School Review.

Five different staff meetings were attended and recorded by the authors. Two of these were regular teaching-staff meetings (October, 2002 and November, 2003). The other three meetings observed were: Curriculum Committee (October, 2002), the School Support Group (August, 2002), and the Coordinators' meeting (October, 2002). A focus group for all teaching staff on the school's strategic issues was conducted by the authors in November, 2002. Individual interviews were conducted with the principal and assistant principal (July, 2002) and with four teachers who could represent teaching experiences across all the grades from Prep to Grade Six (August to November, 2002).

Nvivo, a computer program designed to support qualitative data storage, handling and analysis, was used to assist in data analysis. Our method of analysis employs the classic analytic strategies such as coding, recording reflections and seeking patterns or commonalities (Miles & Huberman, 1994). We used the concept of 'participant categories' from conversation analysis (Sacks, 1984; ten Have, 1999), where researchers work with concepts or specific understandings of events by participants in a given setting. The concept of the primary school as a 'unique' school is an example of a participant category which we explored in our analysis. We also used techniques from grounded theory, where data are collected and analysed simultaneously (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) so as to generate categories which are then linked to one another. As data were analysed, and the distinct categories emerged, further data were sought to validate the categories. Our analysis led to the elaboration of a set of generalisations which were finally 'confronted' (Miles & Huberman, 1994) with the theoretical constructs outlined in our review of the literature.

Case study

The subject of this research is an inner suburban primary school located on the grounds of a Ministry of Housing estate (Primary School Document, 2002a). Staff at the school report high levels of stress and low morale. The school has a diverse population of 190 students (Primary School Document, 2002b). On the surface, it looks like many other government schools, yet staff and management suggest that it is unique and different from other schools on numerous dimensions that make it a highly challenging work environment. Teacher stress is officially reported in their Triennial School Review (TSR) (Primary School Document, 2002a), which states that 'there are higher scores in Excessive Work Demands (relative to the state average) and that workload is still a key factor influencing organisational health and staff welfare'. School management, comprising the principal and assistant principal, and staff report that the school 'faces significant challenges' which are uncommon to other schools. Both staff and management see the school as unique in its demographic structure, which is supported by Department of Education and Training (DET) classification of the school in the 'Like Schools Group 9'. This group includes schools with significant English as a Second Language and Educational Maintenance Allowance recipients. Staff, however, express concern with the level of government funding given on the basis of this classification:
 While the school is in 'Like School Group 9', there are in fact
 very few schools with similar demographics and the comparison with
 'Like School Group 9' is therefore somewhat tenuous. [The school]
 is struggling to meet most comparative measures' (Primary School
 Document, 2002a).

The school's demographic structure

The school predominantly consists of students from a language background other than English (LBOTE) and is culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD). The school Principal states that 'ninety-seven per cent of children are from a non-English speaking background (NESB)'. Three demographic characteristics are noted in school documents and by the staff, principal and consultants to the school. First, the Triennial School Review reports that forty-three per cent of students receive Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a Commonwealth-government benefit provided to low income families (Primary School Document, 2002a), and that many of the students live in the Ministry of Housing estate adjacent to the school grounds. Secondly, twelve per cent of students receive the Disability and Impairment (D&I) funding, a Commonwealth-government benefit for students with significant physical or intellectual challenges affecting their learning abilities. This is reported to be four times the state average. Thirdly, forty-nine per cent of the school's population is listed on a welfare register because of health, psychological or social difficulties (Burchielli & Bartram, 2002). These factors are believed to contribute to the uniqueness of the school.

Achieving learning outcomes

Student learning outcomes at the school are affected by the presence of large numbers of NESB students, who are all grappling with a second language (Primary School Document, 2002a). Moreover, cultural differences account for different educational traditions and learning styles which may conflict with local ones and create a disadvantage for some students. 'Some cultures are oral based in transmitting knowledge whereas ours focuses on reading/writing, so this produces a challenge for teachers,' said the assistant principal. 'Other families are much more formally educated and entrepreneurial and they function better in our system.'

Literacy and learning problems at the school are compounded by the fact that a significant number of children are refugees from war-torn countries, and consequently suffering from trauma which affects their learning and behaviour. According to the principal, 'Students from war-torn areas have had little formal education in their country of origin; they're traumatised, they've had no culture of scholarly pursuit and no culture of reading. Thus many children have poor visual memory skills.'

Behavioural challenges

Behaviour management is reported as a significant challenge for the school.

The critical issue, according to the assistant principal, is the combination of the high levels of EMA and D&I recipients and NESB students:
 'The big challenges of the school at the moment are the kids'
 behaviour ... It goes back to this being a special school... We
 have a very high number of kids with learning problems and again
 that's hard data that we have. We have currently twenty-two kids
 that are funded under what we call the D&I program, for disability
 and impairment, which is about twelve per cent of our population.
 The state average is three per cent. As another factor, laid on top
 of other factors, that is huge. Every teacher here has probably got
 three or four integrated kids with an acknowledged disability in
 their room, with support, but not enough support, of course; it's
 under-resourced, grossly. Again, it's not unique to us, but the
 number of kids is unusual... Other local primary schools don't have
 any disabled kids in their whole population.'

Teachers report that, on top of having twelve per cent of students receiving D&I funding, there are a further eleven per cent of students who, according to the Principal, are 'borderline' recipients: 'although they don't get the funding, they do create challenges in the classroom.' Staff point out that these students have special needs, and place an additional burden on the class; one teacher said that:
 We definitely are not a normal school with the amount of
 integration students we have, and with all the NESB students; we
 stand out like a sore thumb ... Our kids are almost like two years
 behind the other schools that they're being compared with.

The school also reports a large number of 'accidents', such as incidence of violence between students. Schools are required to formally report the number of accidents that occur during school hours. This includes students' individual injuries as well as those occurring through interaction such as fighting. The reported incidence for this school is more than five times the state average of accidents between students (Primary School Document, 2002a). According to the assistant principal:
 I know that there is much more challenging of authority, and much,
 much more violence between kids. Just a very small example: last
 week we sent home five kids from one grade. It was not a riot, but
 certainly very out of control behaviour in the class ... The number
 of accidents we have is something like four times the state
 average. That is accidents between kids, and that's partly because
 of aggression or fighting. One is actually fighting and one is
 'just kids' not having exposure to some sporting equipment or
 something. At the beginning of the year, we also had a spate of
 Preps who got hit in the head with a cricket bat, all that sort of
 stuff. They run. They run into things. We have a greater number of
 kids doing that than at other school. We have data, hard data.
 [The issue is] something that were trying to address. It
 predominantly happens in the playground, but a bit in the
 classroom, and the challenging of authority happens in both

Whilst each of these factors poses specific challenges, staff and the principal suggest that the combination of these factors creates a compounding effect, giving the school a unique level of challenge.

Teacher stress

The existence of teacher stress is suggested in the Triennial School Review (TSR), which measures organisational health through a number of constructs, such as staff morale and supportive leadership: 'Over the triennium, staff morale has been lower than the state mean [and] there has been a slight decrease each year in the teachers' response to supportive leadership' (Primary School Document, 2002a).

Our data indicate that while these teachers recognise that some stress is an inherent part of their profession, they report a perceived above-normal level of stress. Teachers attribute this to a number of factors, such as difficult student behaviours, inadequate bureaucratic support structures within the school, day-to-day conflicts and challenges, and high administrative demands, such as meetings, completing reporting requirements and writing funding applications. Teachers describe their stress by making references to feelings of anxiety, fear or pressure, produced by regular teaching experiences, which place extraordinary demands on their skills and personal resources. Teachers at the primary school consistently report on the continuous and overwhelming nature of the challenge of their day-to-day duties, frequently using terminology that suggests a battle for survival. Teacher 1 commented that, 'We work so hard, but it's never enough.' 'And they're tough kids" added Teacher 4. According to Teacher 2:
 The actual, physical, face-to-face teaching with the children is
 very challenging, is very full on all of the time. Our children are
 not independent workers ... a lot of schools can get their kids to
 work on an individual level, whereas our kids need so much teacher
 intervention. There's a lot of need for individual assistance. So
 it's full on all day.

 As Teacher 3 put it, 'You're dog paddling and trying to keep above

A factor causing particular stress, both in classrooms and throughout the school in general is the occurrence of regular critical incidents that relate to student welfare. One teacher observed:
 We do have a lot of serious incidents to deal with. No, they're not
 often trivial at all. And that's what's really difficult to follow
 through with. Some schools, the biggest catastrophe is that someone
 isn't given their lunch order. Whereas here, it's all sorts of
 things that you can't often deal with in two minutes. They're far
 reaching, and they're usually centred around welfare issues. We
 spend a lot of our day here looking at those issues of welfare and
 how the kids are getting on.

These reports are substantiated by the leadership of the school. The assistant principal commented that, 'The sort of behaviour that confronts teachers on a daily basis is really wearing for people, and again, it goes back to this being a special school.'
 Another source of stress relates to non-teaching activities.
 Teacher 1 said:

 The other challenge is keeping up to date with all the changes that
 have been in the curriculum, and being able to keep up with all the
 reading with my Early Years role. There's just been so much reading
 that I've had to do, and I've really found it quite difficult to
 keep up with that as well as doing my other jobs that need to be

Staff and management express concerns over the public image of the school. They are concerned that the school may be perceived as one that is constantly struggling. Moreover, members of staff are concerned about the school being perceived as an underachieving school through the Department of Education and Training (DET) reporting requirements which gather data on educational outcomes. Staff concerns about school image are associated with feelings of fear and stress at the school. 'We're fearful of the reputation that the school is getting in the local community,' said the assistant principal. 'This image places stress on staff.' Teacher 1 believed that 'we're compared to other schools and it makes us look really bad when our reading scores get sent out every March, and it just looks like we're not doing our jobs ... And I find that really demoralising?

This situation highlights the anxiety surrounding self-image that teachers perceive that they may not be able to control.

Professional-bureaucratic conflict arising from measurement of student outcomes

Staff suggest that the use of Curriculum Standards Framework (CSF) is not always appropriate to assess the learning outcomes of students due to the demographic structure of the school (Primary School Document, 2002a). Due to the limitations of the CSF at this school, its use makes many of the achievements of the school students invisible to the governing bureaucracy and in comparison to other schools. Teacher 1 said:
 Kids don't come here knowing their colours and their numbers, or
 even know how to write their name. What is really demoralising [is
 that] you put in the effort every year, and the kids have shown a
 bit of an improvement, hut compared to another school, they're not
 at the level that they're supposed to be at.

In addition to feeling 'demoralised' by the requirements of the CSF, teachers are concerned that as this framework is designed for a mainstream student setting, its use is inappropriate in their unique environment and it creates a negative image of the students' abilities. This underlies teachers' feeling that their efforts are defeated at the outset.

'The kids come with so little, and we're supposed to test them and its like comparing apples and oranges" said the assistant principal. 'I have to try not to be worn down by measuring our kids' progress by this, because they are progressing, probably as much as other kids. Even though they're still not meeting benchmark, they're actually coming in at a point and making very good progress.'

Professional-bureaucratic conflict arising from school needs

Data collected by DET is used to compare schools across the state of Victoria. This information is collated and represented on a framework called the 'like-schools' grid, a scattergram that compares schools by their NESB, EMA and D&I funding statistics. Teachers express anxiety about not being appropriately represented because their achievements are hidden in this reporting device. In addition, the scattergram does not adequately represent their unique level of need. Staff members report that the school's needs are invisible to the governing bureaucracy:
 Even the schools that are called like-schools to us--schools with a
 high NESB population, high EMA recipients--they're still nothing
 like us. We're a real satellite school, right on the edge here.
 Because to fit into this group of what they call like-schools from
 a departmental point of view, you have to have twenty-six per cent
 or more non-English speaking population. You know, twenty-six per
 cent and ninety-eight per cent are very different (assistant

Professional-bureaucratic conflict arising from funding criteria

DET reporting devices are used to apportion funding to individual schools based on the schools needs for English as a Second Language support and other support suggested by the level of poverty. Staff members feel, however, that the school is misrepresented and, they also feel that they are not adequately resourced given the extent of their needs.

'Government schools are staffed and funded on formulas, and the formula doesn't fit here, because we are so unique,' the assistant principal said.

'One of the solutions for the school is to address its biggest issue: that the school needs to be officially recognised by DET as unique,' the principal agreed. 'It's a special school in a mainstream setting.'

A consequence of the tension between reporting mechanisms and the misrepresentation of the school is that staff members feel isolated and unsupported by the governing bureaucracy:

'We're like a little iceberg, sort of floating along without much help from the education department as such; said Teacher 2. 'I think we really lack proper support.'

Clearly the tensions between the school and the governing bureaucracy relates to the under-resourcing of the school.

Strategic responses

In response to its specific challenges, the school has introduced programs to address the characteristics of the school and its needs. The social skills and behaviour modification program implemented at the school is called 'Stop, Think, Do' (Primary School Document, 2002b). It is aimed at reducing the high accident rate and any inappropriate or violent behaviour. Staff members report satisfaction with the positive outcomes of this initiative. According to Teacher 2:
 The way we are is quite transparent, as in, anyone who comes into
 the school gets an immediate sense of what goes on here. And it's
 certainly not a picture of disarray or anything. I think we have
 worked very hard at maintaining a calm sort of environment here.
 That's one thing we've done extremely well as a school. Considering
 the nature and diversity of our kids, we have done amazing things
 with the internal environment.

The School Support Group as a strategic response

The School Support Group is a multi-disciplinary team created in 1986 through a government state government initiative called 'community child-health fellowship'. Its membership consists of specialists, including a school psychologist, a speech therapist, a school nurse, a paediatrician from the children's hospital, a protective worker from Human Services, and the coordinator of the local family support agency, as well as representatives of the school. This group is action-based and its charter is to support students and families at the school experiencing particular problems such as behavioural, social and learning difficulties. The assistant principal explained how the group works:
 A family, for instance, will come up that we'll talk about; the mum
 might have a psychiatric issue and be in hospital at the moment; the
 protective worker might know the family; Human Services are
 involved; the paediatrician might have information to give ... It's
 a great way to link 'all those services together.

This group meets twice a term to address the issues listed in the welfare register. Intervention and support is provided through the specialist skills and networks held by the members of the committee. Collating and maintaining this register includes a great deal of reporting and co-ordination activities (Primary School Document, 2002b). The register ensures that all welfare issues and problems are noted and thoroughly addressed so that no case will be forgotten or overlooked. Forty-nine per cent of the school's population is listed on the register. According to the principal, there is only one other school in Victoria that has such a support mechanism.

Raising the profile of the school

There is a strong view at the school that its positive characteristics are not visible. Interviews with the principal and assistant principal indicate that the school has the goal of 'positioning' itself as a creative and positive force in its community.

The school has been successful in securing grants for engaging a graphic artist and circus performers in order to conduct activity-based programs. These have provided support to staff and students by engaging them in shared, uplifting activities with both curricular and extra-curricular outcomes. The graphic art project, for example, resulted in activities which provided language based learning as well as the development of other skills. The artwork produced by students within this project was later used in the production of a school water bottle, launched at a community event in conjunction with a local council program, 'H2O for Moonee Valley Kids'. The project had numerous positive outcomes for students and staff, including team-building and self-esteem effects. Remarks made by the school psychologist at this event highlighted the consistent use of a 'whole child approach' at this school.

The school publicised this event using the media in order to develop a positive image of the school. Another example of this intention is the goal to develop the school as a leader in the delivery of English as a Second Language (ESL) (Primary School Document, 2002b). The school has considerable skills and expertise in ESL and has been conducting in-service seminars for teachers from other schools.

Social support

The data reveal that support from the principal is valued by staff and assists in meeting the challenges of the workplace. Teacher 4 said:
 From the small through to the bigger things, [the principal] is
 really very good at coming up with solutions or addressing
 issues, so I feel [the principal's] support. I like
 [the principal's] consistency, and care towards us. [The principal]
 has recent memories of being in a classroom and beyond that, is
 committed to work, which is inclusive of us.

In addition to principal support, collegial support exists between staff. 'I do enjoy working with my [team-teaching] colleague. We get on really well,' said Teacher 3. 'Having positive work relationships, especially working in an environment such as ours, is really, really important.'

Individual teacher resilience

While teachers at the school speak of the challenges they face as teachers, they also frequently express strong, positive feelings of loyalty and attachment to the school and to the students. 'I think its just such a unique school and it is constantly changing so I've really enjoyed it" said the assistant principal. 'I have a background in special education, and this is very much a special school, which keeps me here.'

Resilience is suggested in practical and realistic attitudes. 'What you need to get done in a day sometimes becomes overpowering, but nay attitude is that we can do only what we can do,' said Teacher 2. 'My priority is the kids in the grade and getting through the day with them, and the other stuff has to fit in.'

The data indicate that resilience includes the ability to enjoy day-to-day situations and to reflect positively on colleagues and the circumstances of the students. Teacher 3 commented:
 I enjoy working here; I enjoy the responsibility which is placed
 upon me, whether it's from the physical education point of view,
 whether it's the social skills ... I also think that the people
 who work here do an exceptional job, to front up here day in, day
 out, and to take on board the children and the experiences they've
 had as well. We've got no idea about where they've come from, the
 experiences they've had, the trauma they've experienced, the
 difficulties and the problems associated with living in high-rise
 estates. I think it's incredible, some of the stories that come up.


This paper examines teacher stress at a Victorian primary school and identifies both sources and coping responses. We have identified four sources of teacher stress: a unique demographic structure; high levels of bureaucratic reporting; resource inadequacy; and a values related conflict between the governing bureaucracy and the school staff. In terms of coping responses, we found evidence of individual and whole school responses.

An important source of stress is the challenging environment at the school which is based on a complex and unique student demographic structure, including high NESB population and high levels of disability and poverty. The needs of this population of students clearly contribute to teacher's work overload. The work of teachers is made more complex and more stressful by having to cater to different levels of language and cultural needs as well as different levels of emotional needs and physical and learning abilities. Whilst all teachers in all schools may be exposed to this to some degree, at this school it happens to a large degree on a daily basis.

Second, teachers experience stress in meeting the reporting requirements. Like all Victorian government schools, this school is required to report on student achievement, student outcomes and student needs; however, given the high level of student need at this school there is much more reporting. Our data indicate that this school, for example, reports five times the number of accidents than the state average and three times the number of students receiving disability and impairment allowance. Moreover, the reporting of student outcomes within the parameters of the Curriculum Standards Framework is rendered more difficult by the fact that the students of this school do not easily fit into the standard categories.

Third, this study finds evidence to support resource inadequacy as an important source of stress. At this school there is evidence of an ongoing struggle to obtain realistic funding to match the high level of need of special students. A critical issue here is the fact that a significant proportion of students with special needs do not fully meet the requirements to receive D&I funding, but still place significant burdens on the teachers and the other students. The school is considered to be 'a special school in a mainstream setting'. Staff and administrators believe that the positioning of the school in a mainstream setting maybe a source of inequity given that this imposes funding constraints. Funding is viewed as inadequate and the school feels misrepresented in terms of how it is benchmarked. This is seen to be due to the generalised nature of funding formulas and other reporting mechanisms, which filter out the unique characteristics and needs of the school. Australian studies on poverty, class and education note the persistence of class inequalities in contemporary Australian educational settings (Hatton, Munns, & Dent, 1996). This study suggests that bureaucratic mechanisms governing schools may be perpetuating these inequalities.

Fourth, within our findings of professional-bureaucratic conflict, there is evidence of incongruence of values and expectations between different stakeholders in the educational environment, especially between the bureaucracy and the teachers at the school. This is evidenced by the teachers' disconformity with bureaucratic standards (based on perceptions of injustice and inadequacy), such as the CSF and the funding criteria. Teachers believe that the bureaucracy fails to recognise the unique characteristics of their students and their needs, and fails to acknowledge the achievements of the school and its students. This suggests that the conflict between the values of the teachers and the bureaucracy exacerbates an already stressful working experience for teachers, increasing role demands and veiling any achievements. Moreover, teachers at the school indicated their disappointment and frustration at what they perceive as abandonment by the governing bureaucracy and isolation within the like-schools grid as suggested by the metaphor of the 'iceberg floating alone'. This highlights the important role that the governing bureaucracy has in providing containment and support to teachers within a school community. Without the systemic support, teachers find themselves compensating for any missing elements by bearing the costs individually through work overload and stress. Our data also suggest that individual teacher values may contribute to teacher stress, however as this topic lies beyond the scope of this paper, it has not been discussed. Further research is required to understand subtle sources of stress, in particular the role of individual professional values.

We find that these four sources of stress simultaneously contribute to quantitative overload--for example, staff members have more duties than they can comfortably handle--and qualitative overload--for example, roles requiring knowledge and skills that have not been learned.

In terms of coping mechanisms, this paper reports on some unique individual and group responses to a challenging and stressful teaching environment. Individual responses relate to teachers reinterpreting stressful events in a positive way (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2004) and demonstrate individual resilience (Goleman, 1995). This is a plausible explanation for the positive response of individual teachers. Teacher resilience relates to attitudes that facilitate a positive perspective of a difficult situation (Clark, 2002). There is evidence at the school that teachers are emotionally resilient and that this quality assists in mediating their stress. Resilience is an under-researched area in organisational studies that requires further exploration.

Group responses include the initiative of the School Support Group and projects designed to raise the profile of the school and stimulate student learning. Another form of coping within this challenging work environment is an active social support network. The data suggest collegial relationships between staff, and teachers appear to be satisfied with the principal's support. All of these responses illustrate a cohesive and supportive working environment where social support is provided by both colleagues and the leadership (Lazarus, 2000; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Both the social support network and a fortunate blend of individual qualities produce the positive, pro-active responses, which work synergistically to mitigate a complex and difficult environment. Despite the stressful working experiences of the teachers at the school, the response of the school and its teachers is overwhelmingly positive.


In conclusion, this school case documents the stress and coping experiences of teachers located in a culturally diverse school. The predominant root of teacher stress appears to be the intersection between a complex demographic structure, the external demands of the governing bureaucracy and the resources made available to the school. Contrary to what might be expected, the school as a whole exhibits many positive traits, such as a stable, committed staff and a dynamic and relevant curriculum. Teacher stress, however, does persist at the school. This case study illustrates the important role of government in sustaining public schools and the challenges and stress that result from a limited government stewardship. In spite of under-resourcing of this school, its staff has developed a series of strategic solutions to stress through the teachers' individual qualities and the existence of a social support network.


The authors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and the assistance of Professor Simon Marginson, as well as the principal and staff of the Victorian primary school which is the subject of this research for their generosity in terms of time and their participation.


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Rosaria Burchielli

Timothy Bartram

Latrobe University

Rosaria Burchielli is a Lecturer in the School of Business, La Trobe University, VIC 3086.

Timothy Bartram is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Business, La Trobe University, VIC 3086.
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Author:Bartram, Timothy
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Date:Nov 1, 2006
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