Make your own free website on Tripod.com
COPING WITH JOB-RELATED STRESS: THE CASE OF TEACHERS

Irvin Sam Schonfeld, Dept. of Social and Psychological Foundations, The City College of New York

In a study involving 67 veteran New York City teachers five occupational coping scales were constructed:
advice seeking, positive comparisons, selective ignoring, discipline and direct action. Multiple regression
analyses with controls for social-demographic factors and adversity in the job environment indicated that
advice seeking and direct action were most consistently related to lower (depressive and psychophysiologic)
symptom levels and that positive comparisons and direct action were most consistently related to higher
morale (job satisfaction and motivation to continue in the profession). Selective ignoring appeared to buffer the
impact of adverse work environments on symptoms. The results suggest that teaching may constitute an
occupational role which is an exception to Pearlin & Schooler's (1978) more general findings on the lack of
efficacy of work-related coping behaviors.



Kyriacou (1980) wrote that research on teachers' job-related coping behaviors has been neglected.
Kyriacou's (1980) own study of coping in teachers is descriptive but provides no clues about the efficacy of
coping behaviors in mitigating distress. The research of Pearlin & Schooler (1978), by contrast, provides a
framework within which to investigate the efficacy of coping at the workplace in general, if not in the teaching
profession specifically.

In a cross-sectional study of a representative sample of more than 2,000 Chicago residents employed in a
wide variety of occupations, Pearlin & Schooler (1978) found that each of four job-related coping strategies
was unrelated to emotional distress. The coping strategies they studied included the substitution of rewards,
positive comparisons, optimistic actions and selective ignoring. Reward substitution refers to obtaining
satisfaction from sources other than work. Positive comparison refers to comparing one's job situation to that
of others and to one's own at an earlier time. Optimistic action refers to the worker's attempts to change
noxious aspects of his or her work environment. Selective ignoring refers to 'casting about for some positive
attribute or circumstance within a troublesome situation' (Pearlin & Schooler, 1978, p. 6). Pearlin & Schooler
(1978) argued that occupational roles, in comparison to the marital and parental roles, are more impersonally
organized, thus making the work environment inhospitable to individual coping efforts.

Brenner, Sorbom & Wallius (1985), in a study of Swedish teachers, found that a coping strategy labeled
'direct action' appeared to mitigate job-related distress. This finding should be taken cautiously because a large
number of coping strategies exerted no effect on job-related distress, and may, thus, reflect a Type I error.
The result, however, is interesting because it conflicts with Pearlin & Schooler's (1978) findings on the lack of
efficacy of workplace coping. It would be useful to discover if teaching constitutes an occupation that is an
exception to the Pearlin-Schooler findings pertaining to coping at the workplace.

Three considerations bear on an investigation of the impact of occupational coping behaviors on distress:
(1) the relation between the way in which coping behaviors are categorized in the study and the prevailing
conceptualizations of coping should be made clear; (2) coping behaviors should be assessed independently of
the stressors in the work environment as well as the distress and morale problems the coping behaviors are
hypothesized to reduce; (3) coping behaviors should be clearly linked to the job context. Regarding the first
consideration, Pearlin and his colleagues (Pearlin & Schooler, 1978; Pearlin, Lieberman, Menaghan & Mullan,
1981) identified three general types of coping: (a) the modification of the circumstances from which stressors
issue; (b) the modification of the threat-arousing meaning of stressors; (c) the management of emotional
distress resulting from an encounter with stressors. The coping behaviors identified in the present study are
consistent with Pearlin's typology.

In regard to the second consideration, not all coping strategies are likely to reduce distress. As reported by
Pearlin & Schooler (1978) many coping strategies may fail to affect distress. It is also possible that certain
coping strategies exacerbate distress. In a study of a representative sample of San Francisco households
Cronkite & Moos (1984) found that in women avoidance types of coping behaviors were associated with
increased levels of alcohol consumption. Menaghan & Merves (1984), using two waves of the Chicago area
data described by Pearlin and his colleagues (Pearlin & Schooler, 1978; Pearlin et al., 1981), found that a
workplace coping strategy which involved restricting one's expectations was associated with higher levels of
emotional distress.

These findings strongly suggest that investigators independently assess coping behaviors, outcome variables
like distress and environmental adversity in order to minimize any operational confounding in the measures
(Dohrenwend, Dohrenwend, Dodson & Shrout, 1984; Kasl, 1987; Kessler, Price & Wortman, 1985;
Menaghan, 1983). A widespread problem with the teacher stress literature is the lack of independence in
measuring distress and the factors which have been hypothesized to affect it (see Schonfeld, in press).

In regard to the third consideration, the use of the same measures to assess coping behaviors across a large
variety of work roles, a method employed by Pearlin and his colleagues (Pearlin & Schooler, 1978; Pearlin et
al., 1981; Menaghan & Merves, 1984), is a Procrustean procedure. Information relevant to coping strategies
employed in specific work roles is lost. An alternative strategy would be to develop job-specific coping
measures that are related to overarching categories of coping (e.g. the modification of aversive job conditions)
but which capture what workers actually do in a specific job. This alternative strategy was adopted in the
present paper.

Dunham (1984) enumerated a number of coping strategies that are consistent with the teaching role but did not
provide systematic measurement instruments to assess them. To study teachers, Needle, Griffen & Svendsen
(1981) employed Pearlin & Schooler's (1978) coping instrument. Needle et al. (1981) found that only positive
comparisons were related to reduced distress in teachers and that reward substitution, optimistic actions and
selective ignoring were unrelated to distress. They did not, however, control for possible confounders and they
did not present zero-order correlations bearing on coping-distress relations. Although some of the
Pearlin-Schooler occupational coping items are consistent with cognitions and behaviors in which teachers
engage, the development of a schedule of coping behaviors that is more congruent with the teacher's role is
needed to elucidate better the relation between coping and distress in teachers.

One aim of the present study was to develop measures of coping behaviors in veteran teachers. The
measures reflect Pearlin & Schooler's (1978) conceptual distinctions and include: the use of discipline in
response to serious student misbehavior and direct positive action to improve student performance (coping
behaviors aimed at modifying the stressors); selective ignoring of the unpleasant aspects of the job and
positive comparisons with others and with oneself at an earlier point in one's career (the modification of the
meaning of stressors); and advice seeking (managing distress). The behavioral coping items pertaining to
advice seeking and discipline assess the teacher's propensity to employ those behaviors if confronted with a
problem. The items do not assess frequency of use because frequency is confounded with the adversity of the
teacher's work environment and, consequently, the need to employ these behaviors. Cohen & Wills (1985)
and Wethington & Kessler (1986) argued similarly that the frequency of contacts with individuals who provide
social support is confounded with environmental adversity and, therefore, the need for support. The cognitive
coping items (selective ignoring and positive comparisons) were not thought to be so confounded, and simply
assessed frequency of use. Like a job locus of control scale (Spector, 1988), the direct action items assess the
teacher's beliefs about the potency of his or her actions in affecting student attainment.

Another aim of the study is to investigate the relation between coping measures and psychological distress and
job-related morale. The items developed for use in the coping measures were based on a review of the stress
literature (e.g. Dewe, 1985; Phillips & Lee, 1980) and on the suggestions of teacher informants. Items were
worded to minimize operational confounding with psychological distress and environmental adversity.

Method

Subjects
Sixty-seven new York City schoolteachers, 29 men and 38 women, completed questionnaires (see Schonfeld,
in press). Thirty-eight taught in secondary school, 20 in elementary school, and five in early childhood centers.
Four did not report on their school. The average age of the teachers was 41.2 years (SD = 8.7) and their
average experience was 13.2 years (SD = 8.2). Twenty-two per cent of the sample was non-white.

Questionnaire
The questionnaire consisted of the following sections: demographic; health/morale; stressor; colleague support;
coping sections. Items in the demographic section assessed age, sex, marital status, parents' work and
educational history, and race. The colleague support section and findings pertaining to the colleague support
measures are described elsewhere (Schonfeld, in press) and not reported here.

Health/morale section. The health/morale section included items, derived from Cronkite & Moos (1984) and
Dohrenwend, Shrout, Egri & Mendelsohn (1980), that assessed psychophysiologic symptoms (e.g.
headaches, stomachaches, constipation, etc.). The section also included the Center for Epidemiologic Studies
Depression Scale (CES-D, Radloff, 1988). The response choices for all symptom items referred to the
frequency of symptom occurrence during the previous week. One Likert-type item, derived from Quinn &
Staines' (1979) research on large cross-sections of employed Americans, assessed job satisfaction ('Overall,
how satisfied are you with your job?'). The author's as yet unpublished research on another sample of veteran
teachers indicates that the item scales satisfactorily with other job satisfaction items. Response alternatives
ranged from very dissatisfied (= 1) to very satisfied (= 5). Three Likert-type items (Kyriacou & Sutcliffe,
1979) measured motivation to remain in teaching ('How likely is it that you will still be a teacher in two [five,
ten] years' time?'). Response alternatives ranged from very unlikely (= 1) to very likely (= 5).

Stressor section. The stressor section included items that assessed the frequency of three types of
school-related stressors: episodic events except crimes against the respondent, crimes in which the teacher
was the victim, and ongoing types of stressors called 'strains' by Pearlin & Schooler (1978). The episodic
events included: finding out that a student used illegal drugs, a confrontation with an insolent student, classroom
damaged by vandalism, etc. The crime items included the occurrence of the following events: assault, robbery,
deliberate damage to personal property, etc. The strains that were assessed included: an overcrowded
classroom, jeopardy of involuntary transfer, underprepared students attending class, etc. In order to minimize
confounding with the symptom measures, the stressor items were worded to provide 'neutral self-reports of
exposure' (Kasl, 1987) to job conditions.

Coping section. The coping section included items that assessed seeking advice from others, applying
discipline to a student who seriously misbehaved, making positive comparisons, selectively ignoring the job's
difficulties, and taking direct positive action in helping students. With regard to advice-seeking, the teacher was
asked, 'Since school began, how likely were you to ask any of these people for advice in response to a
difficulty you encountered as a teacher? A relative, friend, paraprofessional, guidance counselor, supervisor
and doctor/psychologist'. Regarding discipline, the teacher was asked 'Considering your teaching since school
began, when a student seriously misbehaved, how likely were you to: Take away a privilege? Reprimand
him/her? Threaten some kind of punishment? Refer the offender to a dean or someone in a similar position?
Contact his/her parents? Invoke some form of punishment (e.g. mark a demerit in your records)?' The
response alternatives for the advice-seeking and discipline items ranged from 'very unlikely' (= 0) to 'very
likely' (= 4).

Examples of the selective-ignoring items include 'Since school began, how often have you "Told yourself that
the difficulties related to teaching are unimportant in your life?" and "Paid attention to your teaching duties in
order to overlook the job's difficulties?"' ('never' [= 0] to 'very often' [= 4]). Examples of the comparison items
include 'Would you say that your current teaching position is better, the same, or worse than ... your
work/school life about a year ago?' and 'the jobs of most of other people you know?' ('much better' [= 0] to
'much worse' [= 4]); 'When you compared yourself to other teachers as experienced as you are, you have
----- problems' ('many more' [ = 0] to 'many fewer' [ = 4]). The items pertaining to direct positive action in
helping students include 'On the basis of your experience since school began, how strongly do you agree or
disagree with each of the following statements?: The way my students turn out depends upon their home lives
and personal resources, and there is little I can do about that; There is only so much I can do as a teacher, and
after that I just accept my students as they are; There is much I can do to turn a failing student into a successful
one' ('strongly agree' [= 0] to 'strongly disagree' [= 4]).

Results

Predictors of distress, job satisfaction and motivation

A number of multiple linear regression equations were developed to study the relation between the coping
scales and the symptom and morale measures. In order to maximize power, means were substituted for
missing values for the 12 subjects for whom a scorable value was absent (any subject with a missing value,
lacked a value for only one predictor). Tests for systematic differences revealed no bias in the occurrence of
missing values (Cohen & Cohen, 1983). The two symptom variables, the CES-D and psychophysiologic
symptom scale, and the two morale variables, motivation and job satisfaction, were regressed on the
predictors in two steps.

To be conservative, a number of factors was controlled before a coping scale was entered in each regression
equation. The control factors included six social demographic control variables: age, sex, marital status, race,
social class of origin and type of school. The strains scale was also controlled in the first step. The episodic
events and crimes measured were not controlled because a separate study of the potency of the three
environmental factors in predicting symptoms and morale found that only the strains scale attained conventional
levels of significance when all three environmental variables were entered in the same regression equations.

Table 3 presents the results, for every outcome measure, of five regression equations, one for each coping
scale. The table provides the standardized regression coefficient for each coping scale when the scale was
entered in a regression equation which already included the control factors described above. The advice
seeking and positive comparisons scales were significantly (P < .05) related to lower levels of depressive
symptoms and the discipline and direct positive action scales were marginally (P < .10) related to lower
symptom levels. Advice seeking and direct action were significantly related to lower levels of
psychophysiologic symptoms. Positive comparisons and 'direct action were significantly related to increased
motivation to remain in the profession. Advice seeking, positive comparisons and direct action were related to
higher levels of job satisfaction.

A final set of regression analyses was conducted to explore further the relations among coping behaviors,
adverse work environments and symptoms and morale. In each analysis, an interactive term, operationalized
by the product of the strain scale and each coping scale, was entered into the appropriate regression equation.
Only two interaction terms were significant when added to the equation last: the interaction of selective ignoring
and strains was significantly related to the CES-D (beta = -1.09) and the psychophysiologic symptom scale
(beta = - 1.02). The negative regression weights mean that the relation between environmental adversity and
symptoms was weaker when there was more ignoring behavior than when there was less.

Discussion

Five teacher coping scales, Advice Seeking, Positive Comparisons, Selective Ignoring, Discipline and Direct
Positive Action, were constructed. Positive Comparisons, Direct Action and Advice Seeking tended to have
zero-order relations with the symptom and morale scales/Multiple regression analyses with controls for
social-demographic factors and job environment indicated that Advice Seeking and Direct Action were most
consistently related to lower symptom levels and that Positive Comparisons and Direct Action were most
consistently related to higher morale. Selective Ignoring appeared to buffer the impact of environmental
adversity on symptoms.

The results bear on Pearlin & Schooler's (1978) findings which suggest that workplace coping may be
ineffective. In line with this view, Farber (1984) argued that because individual coping efforts are likely to be
ineffective in mitigating distress in the workplace, schools need to be changed from an organizational
standpoint. The findings of the present study suggest that teachers who employ identifiable occupational
coping behaviors are less likely to experience psychological symptoms and low morale. Such behaviors can
be included in a number of different higher-order coping categories (Pearlin & Schooler, 1978). The
behaviors include attempts at modifying: the aversive work environments (e.g. direct actions in helping
students), the meaning of the stressors (e.g. positive comparisons), and the distress experience (e.g. advice
seeking).

In contrast to the variety of occupations Pearlin and his colleagues studied, it is possible that the school is less
impersonally organized than many other work settings, making for a work environment in which coping
behaviors can alleviate distress and enhance job satisfaction. This is not to say that schools do not have rigid
traditions and routines (Sarason, 1971). I am not arguing against reorganizing schools for the purpose of
developing more effective and humane centers of learning. Many occupational settings are to some degree
impersonally organized--teaching is no exception. Nonetheless, teaching may be comparatively less impersonal
because the steady contact with children and parents required by the role weakens the forces of impersonality.

Whether or not the relations found here are causal in nature requires further investigation. Owing to the
relatively small sample size, the findings are suggestive, and should provide hypotheses to be pursued in future
research. Studies which follow teachers prospectively are needed. Controls for prior levels of symptoms and
morale would be required to rule out the possibility that the occupational coping behaviors in question
merely reflect the effects of pre-existing symptoms and morale problems. It might also be useful to study the
successful and unsuccessful adaptations of new teachers to the school setting. The author currently has in the
field a longitudinal study of newly appointed teachers and hopes it will shed further light on these issues.



Table 3. Standardized regression coefficients in predicting symptoms and morale from each coping category

Legend for Chart:

A - Predictors
B - Symptom and morale variables; CES-D
C - Symptom and morale variables; Psychophys. symptoms
D - Symptom and morale variables; Motiv.
E - Symptom and morale variables; Job satisf.

A                                      B              C           D          E

Advice seeking              -.31[1]     -.37[2]      .19      .43[3]

Positive comparisons    -.26[1]     -.16         .27[1]   .33[2]

Selective ignoring[a]       -.06        -.03        -.13      .15

Discipline                      -.22[t]     -.13        -.00      .13

Direct positive action  -.24[t]     -.29[1]      .29[1]   .34[1]

t P < .10; 1 P < .05; 2 P <.01; 3 P < .001.

Note. In each regression equation, job strains, sex, marital status, race, social class of origin and school
(elementary or early childhood vs. secondary) were controlled.
 

References

Brenner, S.-O., Sorbom, D. & Wallius, E. (1985). The stress chain: A longitudinal confirmatory study of
teacher stress, coping and social support. Journal of Occupational Psychology, 58, 1-13.

Cohen, J. & Cohen, P. (1983). Applied Multiple Regression/Correlation Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences.
Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Cohen, S. & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin,
98, 310-357.

Cronkite, R. C. & Moos, R. H. (1984). The role of predisposing and moderating factors in the stress-illness
relationship. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 25, 372-393.

Dewe, P. J. (1985). Coping with work stress: An investigation of teachers' actions. Research in Education,
33, 27-40.

Dohrenwend, B. P. & Dohrenwend, B. S. (1974). Social and cultural influences on psychopathology. Annual
Review of Psychology, 25, 417-452.

Dohrenwend, B. S., Dohrenwend, B. P., Dodson, M. & Shrout, P. E. (1984). Symptoms, hassles, social
supports and life events: Problem of confounding measures. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 93, 222-230.

Dohrenwend, B. P., Shrout, P. E., Egri, G. & Mendelsohn, M. D. (1980). Nonspecific psychological distress
and other dimensions of psychopathology: Measures for use in the general population. Archives of General
Psychiatry, 37, 1229-1236.

Dunham, J. (1984). Stress in Teaching. Beckenham, Kent: Croom Helm.

Farber, B. A. (1984). Teacher burnout: Assumptions, myths and issues. Teachers College Record, 86,
322-338.

Gove, W. (1972). The relationship between sex roles, marital status and mental health. Social Forces, 51,
34-44.

Kasl, S. V. (1987). Methodologies in stress and health: Past difficulties, present dilemmas, future directions. In
S. V. Kasl & C. L. Cooper (Eds), Stress and Health.' Issues in Research Methodology, pp. 307-318.
Chichester, Sussex: Wiley.

Kessler, R. C., Price, R. H. & Wortman, C. B. (1985). Social factors in psychopathology: Stress, social
support, and coping processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 37, 531-572.

Kyriacou, C. (1980). Coping actions and occupational stress among school teachers. Research in
Education, 24, 57-61.

Kyriacou, C. & Sutcliffe, J. (1979). Teaching stress and satisfaction. Educational Research, 21, 89-96.

Menaghan, E.G. (1983). Individual coping efforts: Moderators of the relationship between life stress and
mental health outcomes. In H. B. Kaplan (Ed.), Psychosocial Stress, pp. 157-191. New York: Academic
Press.

Menaghan, E.G. & Merves, E. S. (1984). Coping with occupational problems: The limits of individual
efforts. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 25, 406-423.

Needle, R. H., Griffen, T. & Svendsen, R. (1981). Occupational stress: Coping with health problems of
teachers. Journal of School Health, 51, 175-181.

Pearlin, L. I. & Schooler, C. (1978). The structure of coping. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 19,
2-21.

Pearlin, L. I., Lieberman, M. A., Menaghan, E. G. & Mullan, J. T. (1981). The stress process. Journal of
Health and Social Behavior, 22, 337-356.

Phillips, B. N. & Lee, M. (1980). The changing role of the American teachers: Current and future sources of
stress. In C. L. Cooper &J. Marshall (Eds), White Collar and Professional Stress, pp. 93-111. New York:
Wiley.

Quinn, R. P. & Staines, G. L. (1979). The 1977 Quality of Employment Survey.. Descriptive Statistics with
Comparison Data from the 1969-70 and the 1972-73 Surveys. Ann Arbor, MI: Survey Research Center,
Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

Radloff, L. S. (1977). The CES-D scale: A self-report depression scale for research in the general population.
Applied Psychological Measurement, 1, 385-401.

Radloff, L. S. & Locke, B. Z. (1986). The Community Mental Health Assessment Survey and the CES-D
scale. In M. M. Weissman, J. K. Myers & C. E. Ross (Eds), Community Surveys of Psychiatric Disorders,
pp. 177-189. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Sarason, S. (1971). The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Schonfeld, I. S. (in press). Psychological distress in a sample of teachers. Journal of Psychology.

Spector, P. E. (1988). Development of the work locus of control scale. Journal of Occupational
Psychology, 61, 335-340.

Wethington, E. & Kessler, R. C. (1986). perceived support, received support, and adjustment to stressful life
events. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 27, 78-89.



Source: Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, Jun90, Vol. 63 Issue 2, p141, 9p.