Tish Jennings headshot

At The Intersection of Teachers, Stress and Guns

In the wake of the mass murder at a Florida high school, some suggest training and arming teachers with firearms will deter attacks. UVA associate professor Patricia Jennings, an expert in teacher stress, shares her views.

Jane Kelly

Gun control, mental health, violence prevention, and the Second Amendment surged to the front lines of passionate national debate this month about what can or should happen in response to the Florida school massacre that left 17 dead.

Thursday brought the news that both President Trump and Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s chief executive, support arming teachers as a potential way to prevent school shootings. “We have to harden our schools, not soften them,” Trump told media.

Tish Jennings, an expert with extensive research on the effects of stress on teachers, is an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. She shared her views with UVA Today on teachers, stress and arming educators.

Q. What does your research reveal about the level of stress in the teaching profession?

A. Teacher stress is at an all-time high. Nearly 50 percent of teachers report high daily stress during the school year. This stress is caused by dwindling school budgets that impact their resources and salaries, growing numbers of students coming to school with challenging educational and behavioral problems, demanding parents and unsupportive administrations. On top of this, measures that apply untested and questionable accountability measures and reduce teacher autonomy and instructional creativity have resulted in dramatic reductions in job satisfaction and an increase in teacher burnout and turnover. Indeed, the nation is facing a serious and growing teacher shortage.

Q. How does stress affect the quality of instruction?

A. Teachers’ stress interferes with their performance and the quality of instruction in several ways. Teachers are asked to manage their emotions in one of the most difficult contexts imaginable. They must maintain their professionalism in a room full of kids that is both emotionally and attentionally demanding, where no one can leave – they are all virtually captive – and they have no privacy. In other professions, when we are faced with an emotionally challenging situation, we can usually take a break and calm down. Stress is contagious. When teachers are feeling stress, their students are feeling stress, too, and we now know that the stress response interferes with brain functions that are critical to academic learning. The stress response also interferes with perception. Stressed out teachers often misinterpret student behaviors and may take them personally, scenarios more likely to result in unfair disciplinary measures and interfere with student-teacher relationships. Teacher turnover also negatively impacts student learning. The cost of teacher turnover is estimated to be over $7 billion per year, costs our schools, faced with dwindling resources for instruction, cannot afford.

Q. What’s your early evaluation of how arming teachers with guns would affect the learning environment and stress situation?

A. Given what I know as a former teacher and a scientist who studies teacher stress, I would expect that more guns in schools wielded by teachers would be extremely dangerous and would negatively impact the learning environment. Teachers spend a great deal of time and energy creating and maintaining an emotionally supportive learning environment because they know that kids learn best when they feel safe and connected to their school community. When a teacher is feeling stress and she over-reacts to student behavior, her reaction erodes the relationships with her students and the healthy school environment.

The trained law enforcement officer who was stationed at the Parkland, Florida, school froze, rather than using his training to protect the students. If a trained officer froze, how likely would teachers freeze under similar conditions, especially when their stress response is already heightened.

More weapons in schools pose an additional danger. How will they be kept safe? Over the past 50 years, our schools have been designed to look more like prisons than warm learning environments. I’m afraid that arming teachers will put the last nail in the coffin. I agree with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School math teacher Jim Gard quoted in the Washington Post: “If it gets to the point where we have to arm our teachers, then we have completely failed, completely failed as a society.”

Q. Your research shows stress already is leading to teacher burnout and contributing to teachers leaving the profession. How would a plan to train and arm some teachers with firearms affect the ability to grow the teaching profession?

A. We become teachers because we care about kids and want to support their growth, development and learning. Young people come to the teaching profession with altruistic motives and the best intentions. But it takes years of higher education, experience and ongoing professional learning to become an excellent teacher, who could burnout within five years, as is the case for 50 percent of U.S. teachers today. If we add law enforcement duties to their already demanding and underpaid jobs, more experienced teachers like Mr. Gard will quit or retire and fewer young people will choose teaching as a profession. Arming teachers would fuel an already developing “perfect storm,” increasing burnout and attrition and decreasing numbers of young people joining the profession – that will have negative impacts on our schools for years to come.

President Trump has suggested giving bonuses to teachers who carry guns in schools. If some teachers get a bonus for carrying a gun, it will create an unfair situation for teachers. Why would gun-carrying be more highly valued than any other extra skill that a teacher brings to her profession? This will create tension among school staff.

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