A picture shows on February 7, 2013 a blackboard at the Alapha Secondary School in Bayswater, a village near Limpopo, South Africa. The school, built by parents in 1985, welcomes in its five classrooms students from poor background. Without library, laboratory or running water, teachers and pupils are even determined to improve the last year results, Principal Jonas Ramapuputla said.   AFP PHOTO / MUJAHID SAFODIEN

Cape Town - More than 65 percent of high school teachers report high levels of stress and burnout as a result of lack of discipline in schools. However, educational workshops offering either physical, emotional or cognitive tools significantly improved teachers’ coping skills as well as their interactions with learners.

This is one of the major findings of my recent doctorate in psychology, in which three interventions were used to measure and help reduce the stress and burnout of teachers in four high schools on the Cape Flats in the Western Cape.

These teachers suffered from high levels of stress and burnout due to alarming incidents of social violence and lack of discipline among learners. They are often confronted with, for example, learners dying from fatal gunshots; assaults on headmasters and educators; racial outbreaks between Afrikaans and Xhosa-speaking children; gang members with guns entering schools; bomb scares; fires disrupting classes and substance abuse among learners.

Uncertainty about their roles, work overload and the unnecessary amount of red tape also triggered stress and burnout.

My study showed that the trauma prevalent in high-risk schools had a profound effect on teachers. They felt isolated, emotionally exhausted, physically tired and unable to accomplish goals, with unmet needs – all symptoms of burnout. During the stress and burnout interventions, teachers were able to confront these unpleasant feelings and experiences. Diverse yet effective coping strategies offered practical tools and improved their self-efficacy.

Educators who attended at least one of the three workshops all reported significantly reduced stress levels. Those who practised physical trauma release exercises or dealt with emotional healing reported a reduction in learner burnout.

They also had a better understanding of themselves. Learner burnout was also reduced in the cognitive intervention, where teachers analysed their communication patterns, using self-tests and discussions to better understand their interactions with learners.

These exercises were considered a self-help tool, effective for calmness and relaxation. In the classroom, educators gained confidence to take control, were calmer and felt more relaxed, with increased energy.

There were also significant shifts in the understanding of classroom competency for educators, who took more responsibility for managing discipline rather than seeing it exclusively as a learner problem.

Teachers had a greater understanding in the classroom about how to deal with learners and felt empowered by this new knowledge.The interventions succeeded in helping teachers transfer what was learnt to everyday challenges in the classroom and in life.

Overall, educators recognised themselves as the ones who need to take control of the class and relate positively to learners, rather than blaming the children for a lack of discipline. With learner discipline being the greatest stressor in high-risk schools, teachers need effective responses which do not exacerbate the violence and aggression present in gangland communities.

The positive mediation of educator stress and burnout could help improve competence in the classrooms on the Cape Flats and help reverse the high drop-out rates of learners. While the education department does indeed recognise the daily challenges facing teachers and devise realistic, practical solutions for factors impeding educators from delivering quality teaching, it needs to address stress-inducing working conditions, such as large classes and inadequate resources.

It is not enough to merely be concerned by the plight of exhausted and demoralised teachers, or to introduce interventions which are not based on sound empirical research. Positive action needs to be taken, analysing the effectiveness of different interventions on the coping strategies of teachers and assisting them to reach democratic, caring and social justice aims, particularly within challenging educational contexts such as public schools on the Cape Flats.

Practically, educators should be afforded opportunities to exercise their right to be given an equal chance to voice their democratic concerns. Workshop interventions can provide tools to improve classroom competency and model compassion and care, which can be passed on to learners.

Reducing stress and burnout of educators is a vital key in unlocking the academic potential of our youth. Teachers as well as learners deserve a healthy classroom environment, conducive to learning and care. It is time to turn to the important task of empowering and healing our teachers.

* Dr Sharon Johnson is Head of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the South African College of Applied Psychology in Claremont. This article is based on her recent doctorate in Psychology at Stellenbosch University.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers

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