Teacher slaps student: A case of classroom stress?

A teacher has been charged with assault after a video showed her slapping a student, which students say was uncharacteristic. What can be done to mitigate teacher stress?

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
A map and desks sit in an empty classroom on campus at the University of North Carolina on March 30, 2016, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

A Texas geometry teacher was arrested and charged with assault Friday after a video surfaced in which she appears to be striking a student several times. 

The video shows Mary Hastings, a 63-year-old geometry teacher at Ozen High School in Beaumont, Texas, sweeping papers off a student's desk and slapping him with an open palm five times. The alleged assault was captured in cellphone video during Ms. Hastings' fourth-period math class. According to witness accounts, the student had asked about a grade. 

The school district has placed Hastings on leave and issued a statement saying that the district "does not condone employees abusing any child and will not tolerate such conduct." 

Students say this attack was uncharacteristic for Hastings. 

"She was a really cool teacher," Atyra Deroune, a 10th-grader who witnessed the attack, told 12 News. "It was just that particular day."

Other students spoke to KHOU, a local television station, but the station did not name them. One said "She is a caring teacher.… She cares for her students. But … students do give her a hard time sometimes."

So what happened?

Most of 31,342 teachers surveyed across the country reported high levels of stress and low levels of autonomy in a May 2015 survey. 

"We ask teachers to be a combination of Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and, I’m dating myself here, Tony Soprano," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which conducted the online survey, told The Washington Post. "We ask them to be Mom and Dad and impart tough love but also be a shoulder to lean on. And when they don't do these things, we blame them for not being saviors of the world. What is the effect? The effect has been teachers are in­cred­ibly stressed out."

The survey was not scientifically valid, but the AFT hopes it will prompt a more scientifically rigorous survey by the US Department of Education and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Stress directly related to the students was not the dominant factor found in the study. Teachers expressed particular anxiety around new initiatives, such as testing and curricula related to the Common Core State Standards. 

It seems to come down to training and support.

"They're telling us they want the tools, time and trust they need to do their jobs," Mr. Weingarten told the Post. And "even with all of this, teachers were saying 'I don't want to give up on my kids, I want to stay in this profession.'"

Although this elevated stress might not start with student interactions, Rollin McCraty of the Institute of HearthMath cautions that it could affect those other parts of a teacher's job and life. 

"Stressed teachers affect their environment, both personal and professional," Dr. McCraty told Education World. "Often, they are exhausted from lack of sleep and overwork, which has an impact on their preparation, their class demeanor, and their relationships with others in school." 

"What we see from research is that students sense teacher stress and react to it," Liza Nagel, then an associate professor of health education at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, explained to Education World. "Sometimes, the reaction is exactly what the teacher does not need: acting out."

Dr. Nagel suggests teachers employ stress reduction methods such as self-reflection, meditation, exercise and others. But she also says administrators help build and support this self-reduction. "One simple way to show support," said Nagel, "is to use teacher in-service days to teach or reinforce skills that will have a positive impact on school climate: stress management, conflict management, communication skills."

McCraty added, "Our recommendation would be that every school district have specific, proven programs for reducing stress and for helping administrative, teaching, and support staff manage stress and improve communication and problem solving skills."

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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