Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Stress test

I ran into a piece of research today that left me scratching my head.

It was on the topic of teaching and stress, which (as you might imagine) I'm pretty interested in.  I'm a veteran teacher with 31 years in the classroom, and I can vouch for the fact that it can be a pretty stressful job.  So I thought that "Empirically Derived Profiles of Teacher Stress, Burnout, Self-Efficacy, and Coping and Associated Student Outcomes," by Keith C. Herman, Wendy M. Reinke, and Jal’et Hickmon-Rosa of the University of Missouri, would be intriguing.
Understanding how teacher stress, burnout, coping, and self-efficacy are interrelated can inform preventive and intervention efforts to support teachers.  In this study, we explored these constructs to determine their relation to student outcomes, including disruptive behaviors and academic achievement.  Participants in this study were 121 teachers and 1,817 students in grades kindergarten to fourth from nine elementary schools in an urban Midwestern school district.  Latent profile analysis was used to determine patterns of teacher adjustment in relation to stress, coping, efficacy, and burnout.  These profiles were then linked to student behavioral and academic outcomes.  Four profiles of teacher adjustment were identified.  Three classes were characterized by high levels of stress and were distinguished by variations in coping and burnout ranging from (a) high coping/low burnout (60%) to (b) moderate coping and burnout (30%), to (c) low coping/high burnout (3%).  The fourth class was distinguished by low stress, high coping, and low burnout.  Only 7% of the sample fell into this Well-Adjusted class.  Teachers in the high stress, high burnout, and low coping class were associated with the poorest student outcomes.
So far, so good, as it looks like the researchers were merely establishing a correlation.  But study co-author Herman was interviewed for a press release when the study was published, and from what he's saying it's pretty clear they thought they'd established causation:
It’s no secret that teaching is a stressful profession.  However, when stress interferes with personal and emotional well-being at such a severe level, the relationships teachers have with students are likely to suffer, much like any relationship would in a high stress environment.  It’s troubling that only 7 percent of teachers experience low stress and feel they are getting the support they need to adequately cope with the stressors of their job.  Even more concerning is that these patterns of teacher stress are related to students’ success in school, both academically and behaviorally.  For example, classrooms with highly stressed teachers have more instances of disruptive behaviors and lower levels of prosocial behaviors.
Now, just hang on a moment.

Saying that teacher stress levels are correlated with student behavioral problems and poor academic outcomes is decisively not the same thing as saying that teacher stress levels caused the problems and poor outcomes.  It's a possibility; I'm certainly not at my best in front of the classroom when I'm under stress, whether or not it came from my job.  But isn't it at least equally likely that teacher stress could be caused by having a class full of disengaged students who would rather act out than study?

[Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Or, of course, that both the teacher stress and the student misbehavior could be caused by some third factor.  One of the biggest predictors of poor academic performance (and dropout rates) is poverty, as been shown by multiple studies (most strikingly by Lacour and Tissington in 2011).  And it doesn't stretch credulity much to imagine that classes full of students who live in impoverished conditions would cause a lot of stress to teachers, who (after all) went into the profession because they care about kids.

So the Herman et al. study doesn't come close to establishing a causative relationship between teacher stress and student behavior.  But it's way easier to throw the responsibility of reducing their stress back to the teachers, and ignore the other factors that almost certainly play a role.

I understand that no matter what, teaching has its stresses; and I preach to my students the importance of finding stress-relievers in their lives, so I'd be hypocritical not to acknowledge that it's necessary for me as well.  And Herman does seem to have his heart in the right place.  "We as a society need to consider methods that create nurturing school environments not just for students, but for the adults who work there," he said.  "This could mean finding ways for administrators, peers and parents to have positive interactions with teachers, giving teachers the time and training to perform their jobs, and creating social networks of support so that teachers do not feel isolated."

All of which I can get behind.  But the fact is, none of that is likely to improve student outcomes until the root causes are remedied.  I suspect that when public schools fail, it will prove to be -- as with many social problems -- the result of a variety of factors (almost certainly of which poverty is one).  But simply saying that if we give teachers options for stress relief, we can fix what's wrong with public schools, is facile thinking to say the least.


This week's featured book on Skeptophilia should be in every good skeptic's library: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.  It's a no-holds-barred assault against goofy thinking, taking on such counterfactual beliefs as psychic phenomena, creationism, past-life regression, and Holocaust denial.  Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, is a true crusader, and his book is a must-read.  You can buy it at the link below!

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