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Sources of Stress and Professional Burnout of Teachers of Special Educational Needs in Greece

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Sources of stress and professional burnout of teachers of special educational needs in Greece

Antoniou, A.S. University of Manchester

Polychroni, F.University of WalesAthens Campus

Walters, B.University of Manchester


According to recent international research, Special Educational Needs (SEN) teachers serve one of the most stressful occupations. Special working conditions such as the high ratio of teachers and pupils, the limited progress due to the various problems of the pupils with special needs and the high workload exert an additional psychological pressure on the personality and the work performance of SEN teachers. The aim of this study was to investigate the specific sources of stress which make the work of Greek SEN teachers especially demanding and the specific mechanisms that they use to cope with this stress. Since there was no relevant previous research in Greece, the specific sources of stress were constructed after in-depth interviews and a review of the pertinent international literature. Questionnaires were administered to a representative sample of SEN teachers of special classes and special schools across Greece. The findings will be discussed in reference to current educational practice and suggestions for intervention will be given. It is envisaged that the identification of the specific sources of stress will shed some light into the problems of SEN teachers that make their job particularly difficult.


According to the international literature, it has been established that teachers serve one of the most stressful professions. Cooper (1988), in his classification of several occupations in terms of the degree of stress that they cause on the employees, he indicated that, as far as the occupations of social welfare are concerned, teachers experience the highest levels of stress (in second place came the job of the social worker). The international concern with teacher stress and burnout stems from the mounting evidence that prolonged occupational stress can lead to both mental and physical ill-health and also a concern that this problem will impair the quality of teaching. Although much teacher stress research has been carried out since the late 70s, studies of stress in teachers of children with special educational needs occupy no prominent status in the general teacher stress literature.

According to the definition by Kyriacou (1978), stress is conceptualised as a response syndrome of negative affect that is developed when there are prolonged and increased pressures that cannot be controlled by the coping strategies that the individuals have. A classic model of stress and burnout of teachers that has been proposed by Kyriacou & Suttcliffe in 1978, describes that stress results from the teachers' perception that a) demands were being forced upon them b) they are unable to or have difficulty in meeting these demands and c) failure to do so threatens their mental and or physical well being. The key element is the teachers' perception of threat (either this is self-imposed or imposed by others). Teacher burnout may be defined as a syndrome resulting from prolonged teacher stress, characterised by physical, emotional and attitudinal exhaustion (Kyriacou, 1987).

High levels of occupational stress often lead to job dissatisfaction, absenteeism and work turnover. Response correlates of teacher stress may be psychological (anxiety, depression), physiological (headaches, tachycardia, hypertension, increased blood pressure) and/or behavioural (alcohol consumption, smoking, lifestyle, sleeping problems). The sources of stress most likely to be linked with those responses are poor career structure and low wages. In other words, the conditions of work rather than the experience of teaching seem to provide the stress factors which most strongly contribute to job dissatisfaction and intention to leave teaching (Kyriacou & Sutcliffe, 1979).

A vast number of studies exist in the relevant literature identifying the main job stressors facing teachers. The bulk of evidence points to specific factors that are responsible for high levels of psychological pressure for teachers, such as: high ratio between teacher-pupils, limited progress of pupils, heavy workload, role overload and role conflict, relationships with colleagues/poor working environment, insufficient salary, status, time/resource difficulties, professional recognition needs (Borg et al. 1991; Kyriacou & Sutcliffe, 1979; Kyriacou, 1987; Manthei & Solman, 1988; Laughlin, 1984; Travers & Cooper, 1996; Guglielmi & Tatrow, 1998) .

There is also a number of studies (though fewer in number) focusing on specialist samples of teachers such as teachers in special schools, teachers of primary or secondary schools (Chaplain, 1995; Manthei & Solman, 1996), newly qualified teachers, heads of department or headteachers (Cooper & Kelly, 1993; Friedman, 1995). Children with special educational needs have been recognised as creating additional pressures for teachers (Galloway, 1985, Upton, & Varma, 1996). The stressful effects of teaching pupils with various different special needs have been examined including the hearing impaired (Luckner, 1989; Fraser, 1996) children with severe difficulties (Sutton & Huberty, 1984; Ware, 1996) and reading difficulties (Carlile, 1985). Concerning the Special Educational Needs (SEN) teachers, the additional sources of stress refer to the individual learning, emotional and other needs of the children that may be accompanied from mental, physical and/or sensory impairments. In particular, research showed that work related variables were better predictors of commitment and job satisfaction (variables associated with retention). Examples include excessive paperwork requirements, increasing caseloads, low salaries, lack of administrative support, challenging student behaviours and lack of visible student progress (Cooley & Yovanoff, 1996).

Teachers' stress and especially the SEN teachers' stress is likely to include medium or low levels of job satisfaction and high levels of turnover. Three measures have been widely employed as response correlates or indices of occupational stress generally: job satisfaction, absenteism and intention to leave (Kyriacou and Sutcliffe, 1979). In a study carried out in 1996, it has been found that 80% of the headteachers of special schools of the sample, believed that the teaching profession was a very stressful occupation and more than 50% of the sample did not plan to continue this occupation in the future (Male & May, 1997). American studies have demonstrated the critical staff shortages in special education,



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