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The Breaking Point

Anger. Violence. Threats. Today's teachers are stressed out. No wonder so many are turning to therapy or booze--or running from the classroom altogether.


This is not just job stress. This is something much more.

The feeling that you have to watch your back every minute.

The sense that you had better measure your words carefully.

That walking-on-eggshells apprehension when you know that if you make a wrong move, it could be your undoing.

Too often, this is how the schoolteachers of America's youngsters feel. During an era of increasing physical threats and violence in the classroom, many teachers are being driven into therapy--and sometimes out of the profession--because of stress, depression, anxiety, trauma or addiction.

"I am wanting very much to retire early," says Amy, a veteran Los Angeles instructor, a teacher of the year with a master's degree in counseling who is in therapy to deal with her stress. "I'm burned out. I am frustrated and angry."

Never an easy profession, experts say that the psychological strain on teachers has increased dramatically in the '90s as children become more prone to violence and misbehavior.

It happened again last month when two Lucerne Valley Middle School sixth-grade girls, 11 and 12 years old, allegedly spiked their teacher's drink with rat poison--presumably to harm her in revenge for dishing out bad grades. The teacher, who was unharmed, has taken a leave of absence and is refusing interview requests.

And last week in Riverside, a 15-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly poisoning his teacher's tea with a highly toxic spray chemical used to clean dry-erase boards. The teacher at Somerset School, a private institution for children with behavioral and emotional problems, was not harmed.

According to a National Education Assn. survey of secondary teachers, about 5,000 physical attacks and 100,000 threats of physical violence are made monthly in U.S. schools.

Moreover, at a time when Gov. Pete Wilson hopes to hire thousands of additional teachers to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through second grade, teachers are leaving the profession at a fast clip. A recent report from the Council of the Great City School--a coalition of the nation's 47 largest urban public school systems--showed an alarming need for new teachers because of high attrition rates.

"One reason there is a teacher shortage is because teachers are so stressed out, and they are taking early retirement," says Janet Bass of the American Federation of Teachers. "Teachers in urban areas are very stressed because they are being forced to do so much more than teach. They are counselors, social workers and nurses."

Events like teacher shootings, stabbings or even poisonings are rare, notes Jane Conoley, associate dean for research at Teachers College, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

"But they do [illustrate] an overall increase in the amount of violence that young children and teachers are facing every day in the schools," says Conoley, who is researching programs to stem school violence.

She bemoans the lack of statistics on school violence or research on the psychological impact to both faculty and students.

"There is such reluctance on the part of school administrators to admit these problems because of the negative view it gives their district," she says.

The impact of school violence and misbehavior can be chronicled another way, however, in the demand for mental health services from teachers and from surveys that attest to their psychological status.

According to a 1991 survey of California teachers, student misbehavior is a leading cause of stress. The survey showed teachers are more stressed than workers in many other occupations and that half reported stress-related psychiatric problems resulting from their jobs. Thirteen percent admitted to problems with chemical dependency.

Another survey, completed two years earlier, showed that 30% of 844 elementary-school teachers nationwide said their jobs were extremely stressful.

Stress reactions typically include sleep and eating problems, nervousness, tearfulness and heavy reliance on drugs and alcohol. The problems can snowball into clinical depression or an anxiety condition.

And a breakdown is not unimaginable, says psychologist John C. Brady II, who developed a teacher counseling program for Laguna Hills-based PacifiCare Behavioral Health. He recalls one incident in which a rescue team had to remove a psychotic teacher who was cowering behind drapes in her classroom.

Studies show that teachers weighed down by stress have a high rate of absenteeism, a lack of commitment, an abnormal desire for vacations and low self-esteem.

"This goes way beyond stab wounds and gunshots," says Conoley. "This is mental health problem."


It's a Tuesday morning in mid-May, and Amy is taking a "mental health day" away from her job as a teacher at a Westside middle school.

She takes days off periodically, she says, because it helps her cope with the days when she drags herself from bed to teach.

She also sees a therapist and is planning a career change, which she hopes to pull off within the next three years.

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