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Are Teachers Just as Stressed as Their Students?

Naughty devil schoolboy with lines written on a blackboard reading I will try harder in class and devils horns, tail and pitchfork. Detention and school discipline / punishment concept

Meg Hanshaw Ph.D.

I was on my way down the hall of an elementary school to meet a teacher that I was coaching. I found myself behind a 1st grade class going back to their homeroom. As always, the young students were trying very hard to stay in a single file line, quiet, keeping their hands to themselves. Every now and then, a little hand would sneak out to touch the walls and items hanging down around them. As they touched, I could see the thrill of the experience on their bright and shiny faces.  Then, I heard the teacher say, “don’t touch him/her/the wall!” “Quiet!” Then they would temporarily stop, then a few seconds later, do it again. Even though many students were breaking the school guidelines, there was one student that was getting all the attention, -Benji. I knew Benji well from the empowerment coaching I was doing with his teacher the previous year in kindergarten. As I began reminiscing about how wonderful this little boy was, I painstakingly noticed how his teacher kept picking on him. If he stepped out of line, she jerked him back into line with a negative scowl. If he touched the wall she would threaten him in some way by saying he was not going to get something later. After every negative correction, I watched Benji’s head go down momentarily and then it would pop back up and he would do something “wrong” again.

I spaced out for a moment and thought about why this treatment of children could STILL be going on especially with the loads of research depicting what children need to truly thrive in the world.

We are in a major shift in education, from old to new, and are having to learn to be in both as we shift further into the new.

Students and teachers are shifting from a manipulative, controlling, judgmental and hierarchical educational system, which is the “Survival of the Fittest” paradigm, to an educational paradigm of Empowered Partnership™; one of connection and compassion, where students, no matter their age, race, age, or socio-economic status, know that others are already creative, capable and complete (have their own answers that reflect how they think and feel), and deserve on all levels, no matter what, to be treated with value, respect, equality, total acceptance, and the freedom to choose.

Students and teachers are a part of both paradigms so they have to learn HOW to be in the new paradigm while breaking free of the old antiquated systems, behavioral patterns, and habits that have been passed down from generation to generation without awareness of the negative effects they are having on the educational system, and the teachers and students. We are still putting the old pattern of “having the most”, “being the best”, “being different”, and “doing it right” above human beings. These old patterns have created an epidemic of disconnection and shame (which is opposite of what the brain and body really need to thrive) because it is impossible to be the best, have the most, be different, and do it right all the time. The educational system was developed with the wrong goals in mind. The result is a constant pressure of ridiculous standards all around students and their teachers, which results in continual shots of toxic stress pulsating through their bodies 24/7.  And we are well researched in what toxic stress does to our health, resiliency, relationships, and our ability to learn. It wrecks them.

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Survival of the Fittest Educational Paradigm Disconnection and Shame Flood of Continual Toxic Stress (Continual Survival Mode or Fight, Flight or Freeze) 

=Exhaustion, Depression, Quitting/Drop-Out, Sickness, and Violence


The tipping point has already happened. Many well-intentioned visionaries are in the process of helping our educational system move into empowerment; a place where students and teachers get to be WELL, EMPOWERED, SELF-LEADERS who have the freedom, confidence and skills to do what they love in the world sharing their gifts (who they are) with each other, helping make the world a sustainable, respectful, and beautiful place for everyone, LIVING THEIR LEGACIES.

I thought to myself, as I was running all this through my mind, “This teacher is one of the beautiful souls who has not quite yet experienced the new paradigm and just doesn’t understand (yet) how her current philosophy of education is affecting herself and the students.” I looked at the teacher’s face as she was talking to Benji. She was focused on making sure Benji was doing it right. Her face and body language looked rigid, frustrated and exhausted. This teacher was not having fun. I thought, “She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know yet. She can’t give to a child what she hasn’t experienced.”  I felt compassion for her. I knew that teachers have been rigorously trained in the Survival of the Fittest philosophy and framework, one that is manipulative (Pavlov’s dog, -bribe with extrinsic praise and rewards so you can please the adult), and judgmental (there is a right, wrong or better way to do it and if you don’t, then you are in trouble), and controlling (I am the leader, I know what is best for you, and you must do what I say).

I was one of these teachers (and a parent) that fell right into the exhaustion and ineffective trap of the old paradigm trying to manipulate and control my students (and children) to make them “be successful” in the world. I had to GET them to be quiet, sit still, listen, and not argue, fight, or fail, so I began to catch them doing everything wrong and give them demerits, and then praise the hell out of them the moment they were quiet, well behaved, and perfect little angels.  This is what effective and caring teachers were taught to do to get students to learn. I figured out how to put kids in my own sterile bubble. There is one horrific challenge with this that we were not taught; kids are not wired to live and learn this way. None of us are. How do you, as an adult, feel if someone is trying to control and manipulate you? …angry, frustrated, depressed, bored? So are kids. This is one of the most stressful and non-fun ways to be with kids and it just doesn’t work. It has created generations of dumbed down, stressed-out kids (and teachers).

I remembered that when I couldn’t get my students to comply, I would become agitated. I would get emotionally triggered (take it personally and get angry or nervous) over my students not cooperating, not listening, turning away from me when I was talking, talking back, being defensive, lying, not taking responsibility for their own actions, not eating, eating junk, not doing homework, playing video games, treating others in a negative way, giving me a non-verbal look. I was like a walking time bomb in the classroom. The more I tried to GET them to comply, the more stressful it became. On some level, because of the system, I had learned to control and manipulate my students so I could feel better about myself as a teacher.

Bottom line, students like Benji who don’t comply in the old system become a problem because they stand in the way of the teacher and school “looking good” and doing a “good job”. Benji is a kid that is refusing to step into the sterile bubble. So in the old system, he is in constant need of control and manipulation to try and get him there. However, the more we control and manipulate with punishment as the consequence, and stickers as the reward, the more Benji will feel like a pawn, and his self-confidence, creativity and personal empowerment will tank. Maybe the Benji’s of the world are really the courageous kids telling us to not imprison them into someone else’s world. Maybe the Benji’s of the world are telling us that there is another way to do it.

Of course, there is another way to do it and with all the research and experiential information out there, it is becoming a real science. Kids naturally want to learn, grow, connect, and contribute in the world. If they are misbehaving, there is a reason. When an adult can truly connect with them and find out what is going on, miracles happen. When we can see the Benji’s of the world as brilliant, capable, amazing children who just don’t know it yet, we are on a brand new playing field. Life and learning become fun, and kids and teachers can’t wait to participate.

Today, I go into classrooms and in an in-the-moment, hands-on way, support teachers in making the shift into the new paradigm, Empowered Partnership™. I have seen the shift in students and their teacher and parents. It is so rewarding. Benji and his teacher were two of them. Benji had struggled in the first few weeks of kindergarten, not able to sit still and pay attention. He was medicated for ADHD which I am not sure he really had because trauma can be misdiagnosed as ADD/ADHD. By the 2nd month of kindergarten after helping his teacher shift into Empowered Partnership, Benji, and all of her students, began to shift into their brilliance, respect and resiliency. Benji was already a brilliant student, able to read on a 4th grade level. He would read stories to the class and lead the class in many activities; he was good at it. He took feedback from the teacher well. When he was bored or couldn’t sit at the desk and work, he had options he could choose from of how he could learn the concept, and then teach the class how he did it. Benji was actually teaching us what kids really need and want, -how they naturally will learn, grow and contribute at their own level if you allow them to. I watched and took notes. When the teacher and I focused on what Benji really needed and set up a structure that he understood, he thrived and couldn’t wait to come to school.

Now in first grade, Benji’s new teacher is unaware of the shift and is still trying to put him in the sterile bubble. Benji may not be thriving anymore. If this treatment of Benji continues, he more than likely will be filtered out and labeled as bad and will go down the negative rabbit hole of life, most likely not reaching his potential (or have a really hard time doing it) spending most of his secondary school time in “in-school-suspension”, getting into a gang, becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, or maybe even dropping out of school. Students who have experienced challenges at home (such as abuse, neglect, divorce, drug use, or maltreatment) are the ones who will, in most cases, misbehave at school and have the lowest grades. If treated in the old paradigm way, we will lose them. The old ways don’t work anymore, in fact, it causes what is called cumulative toxic stress in the students and their teachers.

In reality, Benji is a brilliant, amazing boy and deserves to be treated with positive expectations for learning, respect, compassion and love so his brain and nervous system can rewire itself into self love, self-responsibility, self-motivation, self-discipline, self-regulation and resiliency. Teachers of the new paradigm are being taught mindfulness and connection skills so they are resilient themselves and model empowerment and respect to their students. They know that learning takes place more powerfully when the student is ready to learn and learn from their own passions. They realize because they have experienced it, that human beings comes first (what they feel, think, believe, want and need), then teaching skills, then systematic rules and regulations. This creates an empowered environment where kids and teachers are less stressed and thrive. There is a reason Benji is acting this way and in the new paradigm the teachers and administrators know this and know how to handle it in an empowered way.

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Empowered Partnership™ Skills Connection and Confidence  Flood of Peace and Calm 

=Energy, Confidence, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Discipline, Creativity, Wellness, Win-Win Agreements, Empathy, and Compassion for Others