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Understanding Teacher Stress in an Age of Accountability

reviewed by Patricia Bonner - May 09, 2007

coverTitle: Understanding Teacher Stress in an Age of Accountability
Author(s): Richard Lambert and Christopher McCarthy (Eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1593114737 , Pages: 244, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

The front page of the April 27, 2007 Los Angeles Times (Blume) reminded us once again that “Teachers Are Dropping Out Too.” The article reported on Futernik’s (2007) study of 2,000 California teachers who left the profession after having taught four years or less. The study tied this professional disillusionment and significant early exodus to the poor academic showing of California’s students. Particularly discouraging is the fact that 81 percent of the participating teachers entered the profession for reasons of vocation or calling, that is, they “wanted to make a difference for children and society” (p. ix) indicating that their motives and intentions were to be effective teachers. The study found that the teaching and learning environment, broadly defined to include “instructional, collegial, and systemic conditions” (p. viii), was more important than even compensation in terms of teachers’ perseverance in the profession. Reasons for leaving, broadly described as “inadequate system supports” and “bureaucratic impediments,” are included in the stressors discussed in Lambert and McCarthy’s book Understanding Teacher Stress in an Age of Accountability.

The premise of the book Understanding Teacher Stress in an Age of Accountability is revealed in its title. The chapters in this edited book suggest that the long-standing, well-researched fact of teacher stress brought about by factors, discussed throughout the book, is exacerbated by the recent iteration of external accountability: the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). However, the discussion of pressures on teachers is not limited to the United States and educators affected by the perceived-as-punitive accountability of NCLB. There are also chapters on teacher stress in Malaysia, Turkey, and the Netherlands and on preschool and special needs teachers as well.

The concept of stress is Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) characterization of “stress as an individual’s interpretation of interactions with environmental events. Stress is appraised in terms of previous harm, future threats, and optimistic challenges” (p. 20). Nevertheless, there is a recognition that stress has positive results in terms of productivity when there are sufficient resources to enable adequate functioning. Stress is hence discussed as an imbalance between demands and the means or resources for meeting the demands.

The first three chapters examine the particular stress brought about by accountability and high stakes testing as foreshadowed in the title. In Chapter 1, author P. Taylor Webb discusses the conflicts between teachers’ commitment to meeting students’ needs and the demands of the curriculum as mandated by external and internal sources from the federal government to state systems, local districts, and schools. It provides a year-long case study of teachers at one elementary school, attempting to balance the reality of their students’ risk-filled lives, which result in complicated educational needs, with the requirement to show significant improvement in test scores or be subject to a progression of state sanctions. The study describes how teachers “brokered” policies instead of accepting and implementing them, the purposes of which they believed to be counter to the learning needs of their students. This compromise approach resulted in its own set of stresses but provided the equilibrium needed for teachers to have congruence with their primary commitment to the overall good of their students. There is an underlying assumption in this case study that accountability and prioritizing student needs are at cross-purposes rather than possibly complementary as suggested in Chapter 2.

In Chapter 2, authors Grant and Hill attempt to productively bring together student-centered pedagogy and high-stakes testing. An assumption, based on a growing body of literature, is that student-centered learning strategies can and do produce improved student achievement. Thus, the focus of the chapter is on the teacher stress produced by moving from a more didactic pedagogy to the less tightly prescribed constructivist approach. The authors identify factors that influence teachers’ decisions to move in the direction of student-centered pedagogy. These include new roles and responsibilities, comfort level, and tolerance for ambiguity. In addition to the stress of changing one’s role from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” (p. 26), there is also the anxiety of the possibility that test scores might not change or might even go down because of the narrow focus of the assessments—even if the students are actually learning more. The important point of the chapter is captured in a statement by Dede (2004) as cited on p. 37 of the book: “The most important challenge the U.S. education system faces is not preparing students to do well on high-stakes tests, but rather fostering 21st century skills and knowledge in learners so that they are prepared to participate in our global, knowledge-based civilization…” Thus, we must keep in mind as we attempt to measure and hold educators accountable for “no child left behind” that the purpose of our accountability system is to prepare students not for testing but for the attainment of essential competencies.

The Mathison and Freeman chapter focuses on stress-producing changes in the workplace and in teachers’ roles brought about by “high stakes testing” accountability. These resulting stressors are uncovered through ethnographic case studies of elementary and middle school teachers in three demographically different school districts. The authors discuss the stress-producing changes of lack of voice and choice; excessive demands on teachers and students; unclear or hidden standards and goals; high level of surveillance, accountability and exposure; meaningless, fragmented work; and intensification and the resulting intense and unhealthy stress. A strong case is made for the “domino effect” of these stressors that leads to reduced motivation and productivity.

In Chapter 4, Firth, Frydenberg, and Greaves focus on the aspect of coping with stress specifically for teachers of students with learning disabilities and the accompanying behavior problems. Teaching students coping strategies resulted not only in more productive student coping and perceived sense of control, but also in reduced teacher stress.

Nassar-McMillan, Karvonen, and Young suggest in Chapter 5 that diversity and the requirement to demonstrate multicultural competencies are potential stressors for teachers, with evidence that the feeling of proficiency in dealing with diverse student populations reduces the stress. Thus, the emphasis is placed on enhancing multicultural competence through a variety of approaches, beginning with teacher preparation. Lambert, O’Donnell, Kusherman, and McCarthy reveal in Chapter 6 that preschool teachers experience the greatest stress from student behavior problems and from administrative demands, much like other studies of teacher stress have indicated.

The chapters on teacher stress in Dutch and Turkish education contexts indicate that student misbehavior, administration, and inadequate school resources, such as overcrowding and insufficient materials, are the primary sources of teacher stress. In a Malaysian study, certain teacher subgroups such as those between 31 and 40 years old, teachers who had been teaching 15 years or less, and those earning less money, were more susceptible to stress.

Chapters 10 and 11 examine the concept of burnout with McCarthy et al. reminding us that “teachers are the largest homogenous occupational group investigated in burnout research” (p. 179). Their examination of resources for coping and burnout in elementary and preschool teachers indicates that elementary teachers appear to be more subject to burnout than preschool teachers, and the authors suggest that the reason might be that preschool teachers are not faced with accountability testing in the same way as elementary teachers. Edmonson looked at the relationship between burnout and stress among special educators and found that stress is a major contributor to burnout. Because of the extreme shortage of special education teachers, she suggests that attention be given to equipping special educators with strategies for coping with stress.

Teacher educators are constantly reminded by inductees that teaching is a service profession in which individuals who enter often do so in order to make a difference in the lives of others. Editors Lambert and McCarthy contrast occupations as jobs, occupations, or callings. They describe a calling as when “the value of one’s work is what is important, even if it does not result in material reward or recognition.” They pose the question of whether accountability standards undermine a teacher’s sense of calling, that is, doing one’s work for the good of students rather than for the reward of high test scores. If, in fact, conflict exists, it would contribute to fairly endemic conditions of teacher stress. Since throughout the book stress is conceived as a balancing act between demands and resources, the authors conclude with a discussion of the resources needed to help teachers find that healthy balance. These resources are grouped into three areas: mentoring and professional development; general resources, including materials and administrative support; and parental support—with the first two perceived as most helpful.

All in all, the book is a helpful review of the undeniable fact of teacher stress, its contributors and its ameliorators in various contexts—different countries; different levels from preschool to high school; different manifestations, including burnout; and different causes or contributors. Fortunately, the book also examines what must done in order to facilitate the reduction of stress and to support teachers and teaching. Policy makers and educational leaders would do well to attend to these recommendations for supporting teachers in order to reduce the bleeding in the teaching ranks and its concomitant effects on student learning and achievement


Blume, H. (2007, April 27). Teachers are dropping out too. The Los Angeles Times, pp. A1, A28.

Dede, C. (2004, September). Enabling distributed-learning communities via emerging technologies― Part one. T. H. E. Journal, 32, 12-22.

Futernick, K. (2007). A possible dream: Retaining California teachers so that all students can learn. Sacramento: California State University. Retrieved April 28, 2007, from the California State University Center for Teacher Quality Web site: http://www.calstate.edu/teacherquality/

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 09, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14478, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:08:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Patricia Bonner
    Azusa Pacific University
    E-mail Author
    PATRICIA BONNER is Professor and Chair of the Department of Doctoral Studies in Education at Azusa Pacific University. She has also served as Dean of the School of Education and Behavioral Studies and as Director of Teacher Education at Azusa Pacific. Her interests and research include the professional development of teachers, resilience and coping in school superintendents, relationships between religiousness and school achievement, and autonomy and achievement motivation. Her most recent publication is (2006) Teacher transformation in attitude and approach to math instruction through collaborative action research, Teacher Education Quarterly, 33(3), 27-44.
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