The absence of a plan

The absence of a planDownload a printable copy of this article (PDF 362KB)

  • Know what is stressing you and your team.
  • Know that it’s the fear of it not improving that hurts.
  • Consider the impact of doing nothing new about stress.
  • Develop plans, take action.
  • Fences at the top of cliffs are better than ambulances at the bottom of them.

When any research on teacher stress is synthesised, some common themes emerge. Australian educator and researcher, Louiza Hebhardt has clearly identified the five major causes of stress amongst our teaching workforce and has ranked them in order of impact on effectiveness and wellbeing:

  1. Student Behaviour
  2. Workload
  3. Parent, carer and family Issues (including communication issues and parent/carer behaviour)
  4. Administrative challenges and lack of time
  5. Lack of support for children with special learning or behavioural needs

This certainly fits the narrative of the schools that I work with. But what about school leaders? What stresses them?

Marion Shields studied the causes of stress in a sample of Australian principals and found that the five leading causes of stress for principals are:

  1. Excessive workload
  2. Excessively high self-expectations
  3. Deadlines for reporting and other paperwork
  4. Frequent interruptions
  5. Resolving school and parent and carer conflicts

The work of Hebhardt and Shields is commendable, authentic, field tested and appropriate. Yet, I think we’re missing something by merely examining the list and contemplating the dire, yet probably unsurprising, impacts of this stress on effectiveness and also on increased rates of heart disease, depression, burnout and premature departure from the entire education sector.

When we examine what is really keeping the stressed teacher or principal awake at night and invading their consciousness, their family time and their wellbeing, it won’t be found on either of these lists.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The stressed teacher may well be highly impacted by student behaviour, but it is not the previous behaviour of a student that is causing their stress. It’s the absence of a plan for things to be better. Stress is amplified by a strong sense of pain that the subject feels could well be permanent. Indeed, this sense of permanent anguish is something that also contributes highly to suicide rates.

It’s the establishment of a supportive plan for improvement that really makes a difference. This is certainly far more effective than cups of tea, friendly conversations and assurances that they are good teachers.

Of course, this makes the explicit planning for improvement in teacher stress indicators critical to school success. Let’s reframe the Hebhardt teacher stress indicators in terms of the future and in terms of actual work:

  1. Developing Individual Behaviour Plan processes and accessing classroom management training that is appropriate to context.
  2. Establishing check-in procedures to flatten workload patterns rather than have them spike and wane.
  3. Developing a community communication plan to reduce parental and carer resistance to change (I prefer to call this an Over-Communication Plan).
  4. Developing processes that make compliances clear and minimal.
  5. Establishing explicit support programs for students with additional needs, and regularly reviewing and monitoring them.

In this way, we are explicit about investing in the areas that allow staff members to be at their best, day in and day out.

This thinking can also be applied to leadership teams. Instead of enduring the ineffectiveness that comes with incessant workload, the constant negativity of not being good enough and the distractions that pull our work away from the purpose and passion that fills our tanks with the fuel to be great, decide what to do about it. What is the plan for delegating workload appropriately and supporting each other in hectic periods? In a nutshell, what’s our plan?

Many things stress educators in contemporary schools, including the demand to do more and be more. Don’t let the absence of a plan for things to improve be one of them.

Kafele, B, 2015, The Principal: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, ASCD.


Louiza Hebhardt research and blog.
Bibliography: Louiza Hebhardt. (2019). Top 3 Causes of Teacher Stress – Part 1. [online]
Available at:

Marion Shields research paper.
Bibliography: (2019). [online]
Available at:

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