How Does Teacher Stress Contribute to Decision Fatigue and Scarcity?

Stressed Female Teacher

Teaching, a profession as challenging as it is rewarding, often places educators in the hot seat, where they must make split-second decisions that can shape their students’ learning outcomes. It’s not just about imparting knowledge; it’s about doing so in a way that fosters a conducive environment for learning. At the heart of this is the quintessential battle with stress—how does it affect decision-making in a classroom, and what role does planning play?

Understanding Teacher Stress: Defining the Beast

Stress, a familiar foe to many in the education sector, often stems from many sources: overcrowded classrooms, tight schedules, diverse student needs, administrative paperwork, and the relentless pursuit of academic excellence. 

But what does it do to an educator’s ability to make decisions?

Effects on Decision-Making

To understand the effects of stress on decision-making, Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, states that, in general, our brains are not adapted to modern decision-making.  We take our default brain mechanisms and try to use them to the best of our ability, but we are fighting our brains. 

Human brains are designed to save energy. The default brain tries to suppress activity and save energy while we are trying to be productive, creative, and energetic during the day. So, how do we make good decisions under stress? Dan Ariely’s simple answer is, “We don’t make good decisions under stress.” 

What’s happening in my brain when we are making a decision?

Stress narrows our scope of what we see; thus, we risk missing other things. When we are calm, we can see more possibilities. This stress reaction is an evolutionary response we often call fight or flight.  

Under duress, our brain’s ability to weigh options and forecast outcomes is compromised. When stress levels spike, cognitive functioning, memory, and attention can suffer. In addition, stress is also emotional, and as our emotions increase, our ability to think effectively decreases.  

For example, when farmers are tested on problem-solving abilities, they behave differently depending on their stress level.  If they are tested after a harvest, when they have low stress levels, they can solve complex problems. In contrast, if tested before the harvest with high-stress levels, they behave as if they have a decreased IQ. This reduction of decision-making ability is referred to as a scarcity mindset.  A scarcity mindset is a way of thinking that centers around the belief that there aren’t enough resources. People with this mindset tend to focus on what they lack, whether money, time, love, opportunities, or talent. The nagging stress decreases our mental ability because the stress occupies some of our cognitive functioning. 

The Scarcity Mindset and Its Consequences for Educators

The scarcity mindset, well-documented in the work of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, occurs when individuals focus so heavily on what they lack that their cognitive resources are stretched thin, leading to impaired decision-making. This phenomenon is not just seen in farmers before the harvest, as previously mentioned. Still, it is starkly evident in the life of a teacher grappling with resource constraints in a school setting.

Factors Contributing to Scarcity Mindset in Teachers:

  • Time Scarcity: Unexpected events, large class sizes, and disruptive students need more time for long-term planning, professional development, or individualized instruction. Teachers feel constantly stretched thin.
  • Resource Scarcity: Lack of materials, equipment, and even basic supplies forces teachers to find workarounds and improvise, taking away valuable teaching time. They feel like they never have enough.
  • Staff Scarcity: A shortage of teachers and assistants means more time spent managing large classes, handling student behavioral issues, and addressing students’ individual needs (mental and physical). Teachers feel overwhelmed and need help to provide adequate support.
  • Environmental Scarcity: Inadequate buildings or malfunctioning equipment require teachers to find alternative spaces or troubleshoot problems, consuming their limited time. They feel like they’re constantly battling the environment.
  • Social Support Scarcity: Lack of support from colleagues or administration leads to feelings of isolation and a sense that “no one gets it.” Teachers may even start looking for new jobs, creating a revolving door effect.
  • Student Connection Scarcity: Overcrowded classrooms and frequent student turnover make building relationships difficult. Managing behavior issues takes precedence, leaving a feeling of disconnection and hindering genuine teaching.
  • Parental Pressure Scarcity: Pressure from parents focused solely on grades can lead to stress and a feeling of not being valued for fostering broader student growth. This can create a distance between teachers and their work.

How Scarcity Affects Teachers

The ‘ tunneling ‘ effect is a term used to describe how scarcity, whether a lack of time, physical resources, or support, can narrow our focus. It’s like driving through a tunnel, and all you can see is what’s directly in front of you. Similarly, when teachers experience scarcity, their attention is focused so intently on the pressing needs of the moment that the capacity for broader, strategic planning diminishes. This ‘tunnel vision’ can lead to a cycle where immediate challenges are addressed at the expense of long-term planning and development, effectively borrowing time and effort from the future and leading to further scarcity.

For instance, a teacher may use personal time to complete administrative tasks or plan lessons because unexpected events and disruptions consume the school day. This reduces the time available for therapeutic activities, thereby increasing stress and may lead to a reduction in lesson planning quality. Over time, this can have a cumulative effect, lowering the overall educational quality and increasing the teacher’s stress levels.

The Importance of Planning Amidst Scarcity

Effective lesson planning is crucial in any environment, especially when there are factors that contribute to the scarcity mindset. Within school evaluations, one key factor defines whether a school will remain a typi­cal school or will reach the top level of schools and become exemplary. It all comes down to how and when teachers plan lessons.

Effective lesson planning isn’t just a roadmap; it’s a dynamic decision-making process that should focus on incorporating high-yield instructional strategies from the outset. Teachers lay the groundwork for maximizing student learning for the time allowed by focusing their process on including the most effective strategies. Clear objectives aligned with these proven strategies ensure the plan targets the most impactful ways for students to acquire knowledge. Carefully chosen materials support these strategies while preparing for flexibility to allow for adjustments based on student needs. This interwoven approach empowers teachers to make informed decisions on the fly, adapting their delivery to leverage high-yield strategies and optimize learning in the ever-changing classroom environment.

Proactive planning empowers teachers to anticipate student needs and prepare accordingly. This proactive approach minimizes disruptions and allows teachers to focus on delivering engaging instruction.

Shifting to an Abundance Mindset: The Power of Collaboration

Combatting the scarcity mindset requires a decisive shift towards collaboration among teachers. This collaborative spirit, fueled by a focus on High Yield Instructional Strategies, fosters a sense of community and shared abundance. Here are some ways collaboration empowers teachers:

  • Collective Problem-Solving: Working together allows teachers to tackle complex challenges from multiple angles. By brainstorming solutions as a team, they can identify creative approaches and overcome obstacles that might seem impossible when faced alone.
  • Shared Resources and Expertise: Collaboration allows teachers to share their unique strengths and knowledge. This can involve exchanging successful lesson plans, recommending effective instructional materials, or pooling resources to acquire new tools or technology.
  • Professional Learning Network: Regular collaboration fosters a professional learning network within the school. Teachers can stay up-to-date on best practices, learn from each other’s experiences, and continuously refine their teaching skills through ongoing dialogue.
  • Improved Student Outcomes: By leveraging collective expertise and fostering a culture of continuous improvement, collaborative teachers can create a more effective learning environment for their students. This leads to deeper understanding, stronger engagement, and improved student outcomes.
  • Reduced Teacher Isolation: The collaborative spirit fosters a sense of camaraderie and belonging among teachers. This can help combat feelings of isolation and burnout, leading to a more positive and supportive work environment.
  • Consider Diverse Perspectives: Teachers can consider different approaches and contingencies by bouncing ideas off each other. This leads to more informed decisions that address a wider range of student needs.
  • Develop Contingency Plans: Unexpected situations are inevitable. When teachers plan together, they can brainstorm solutions and have “Plan B” options ready, allowing them to adapt and make sound decisions on the fly.

A Buffer Against Stress

The scarcity mindset can be a significant obstacle for teachers.  Collaborative lesson planning offers a powerful solution.  By working together, teachers can leverage shared resources, support each other, and make informed decisions that benefit themselves and their students.  Remember, collaboration is critical to creating an environment of abundance that fosters a love of learning for all. While stress is inevitable on the job, its impacts can be mitigated through thorough planning. Investing time in planning before stepping into the classroom can serve as a stress buster.

Teacher Stress and Decision-Making: You’re Not Alone

In conclusion, the battle against stress in the classroom isn’t fought alone. In a profession where stress is as constant as change, the resilience of educators is frequently tested by the scarcity that can overshadow their daily decisions. Teachers can navigate the challenges by understanding the impact of stress on decision-making and embracing the power of planning with High Yield Instructional Strategies. Collaborative planning fosters a sense of community and shared abundance, empowering educators to craft lessons that are not just responses to the moment’s demands but proactive steps toward a richer educational experience. 

Remember,  teachers, you are not alone. Through effective planning and collaboration, you can transform the classroom from a pressure cooker into a place of exploration and joy,  both for yourself and your students.

Teacher Stress: Questions to Ponder

  • How do I recognize the signs of stress impacting my decision-making in the classroom? (Increased frustration, difficulty adapting to unforeseen circumstances, shortened attention span)
  • What areas in my classroom contribute most to my scarcity mindset? (Large class size, lack of resources, limited planning time)
  • How effectively are my lesson plans designed to address student needs and learning objectives? (Consider incorporating High Yield Instructional Strategies)
  • Who could I collaborate with in my school community to share resources and expertise? (Fellow teachers, support staff, curriculum specialists)
  • What concrete steps can I take today to reduce stress and promote a more positive and productive learning environment? (Implement collaborative planning sessions practice mindfulness techniques)
  • What role does emotional intelligence play in lesson planning and classroom management, especially under stress?

Educator Actions to Take

  • Conduct a time audit to identify areas where your workday can be streamlined. 
  • Develop a system for prioritizing tasks and setting realistic goals. 
  • Seek opportunities for professional development focused on stress management and effective planning using High Yield Instructional Strategies. 
  • Initiate conversations with colleagues about collaborative lesson planning. 
  • Advocate for increased resources within your school community. 
  • Practice mindfulness techniques to manage stress in the moment. 

Ideas for School Leaders

  • Provide dedicated planning time for teachers within the school schedule.
  • Allocate resources for professional development focused on stress management and effective planning with High Yield Instructional Strategies.
  • Foster a culture of collaboration by facilitating team meetings and providing space for teachers to share best practices.
  • Advocate for increased funding to address teacher concerns about resource scarcity. 
  • Host regular ‘collaborative planning days’ where teachers work together to develop flexible, comprehensive lesson plans that address various student needs.

Don Marlett

Don has been an educator for 20+ years. Before joining Learning-Focused, he taught High School and Middle School Science and was a school administrator. Don has participated in school evaluations focused on implementing High Yield Strategies. In addition, he partnered with various state DOE to support leaders as well as present at numerous conferences hosted by multiple leadership organizations in Florida, NC, Ohio, WV, TN, and KY Don leads product development, provides leadership training and coaching, and coaches educators in the implementation of the High-Yield strategies.

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