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Understanding Teacher Stress and Wellbeing at Teach For America’s Summer Institute

  • Author(s): Stoneburner, John
  • Advisor(s): Mistry, Rashmita
  • Rose, Linda
  • et al.
Abstract

Teach For America is the largest supplier of novice educators in the United States as well as the largest postgraduate employment provider in the country. It is renowned for its unorthodox approach to teacher education, with the Summer Institute at the heart of its training model. The five-week, accelerated program is designed to prepare new recruits for their full-time teaching positions in the fall. Prevailing research on new teacher experiences, adult transitions, and teacher occupational stressors shows that teaching, especially in its early stages, is stressful. This empirical study explored self-perceptions of participant stress at Summer Institute, the coping responses employed by participants at Summer Institute, and the variation of experience by sociodemographic group.

The mixed-method design included pre-and post assessments to understand stress and coping responses at Summer Institute. To establish a baseline of perceived stress and occupational stress factors, I administered the 10-item Perceived Stress Inventory (PSS10) and a modified teacher occupational stress inventory to 98 participants from Teach For America Los Angeles prior to their engagement with Summer Institute. Upon completion of Summer Institute, participants completed the PSS10, the occupational stress inventory, and the Coping Responses Inventory (CRI). I used socioeconomic background, race, and graduation year as variables for analysis. Based on participants’ responses, I categorized them into subgroups by stress level and coping ability. Qualitative reflections from 16 participants with high/low stress and coping combinations provided further insight into trends from the quantitative data.

Data from the pre-and post assessments revealed that perceived stress significantly increased during Summer Institute. Before the institute, participants anticipated that the workload and their relationships with students and other teachers would be the most stressful aspects of Summer Institute. Following the institute, they reported that workload and financial security were actually the most stressful factors. Participants from low-income backgrounds reported significantly higher levels of both anticipated and experienced occupational stressors. People of color and individuals from low-income backgrounds reported significantly higher levels of stress related to working with Summer Institute staff than their White peers and peers who did not identify as coming from low-income backgrounds, respectively. Additionally, participants from low-income backgrounds reported significantly higher levels of stress about working with students and about their financial security when compared to their White peers. Qualitative data confirmed the influence of task overload on stress and revealed that interpersonal conflicts seemed to be the most challenging and lasting form of stress for participants. Clashes in ideology and worldview were reported to be at the root of the most stressful moments at Summer Institute, typically materializing along racial lines.

The findings from this dissertation can inform all teacher preparation programs but especially Teach For America about ways to improve new teacher training and development and bolster teacher wellbeing. Specifically, steps can be taken to better support new teachers in understanding how to anticipate and respond to stressors that may impede their ability to engage meaningfully in professional development. Investing time and energy in wellbeing for new teachers at the start of their careers could help ameliorate current challenges with teacher retention and job satisfaction.

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