Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

'Like an Iceberg Floating Alone': A Case Study of Teacher Stress at a Victorian Primary School

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

'Like an Iceberg Floating Alone': A Case Study of Teacher Stress at a Victorian Primary School

Article excerpt

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). …

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