Field Trip: Teacher Job Stress (and Why It Matters to Principals)


Teaching today is more demanding than ever — and whether or not that leads to stress and exhaustion is often up to the principal and how he or she leads the building.

Today we speak with Dr. Brad Owen, Assistant Superintendent of Burkburnett Independent School District in Texas, about his research into teacher stress, faculty trust in the principal, and what principals can do to increase that trust and reduce that stress.


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Full Transcript  

Today on Field Trip, we’re exploring the impact that teacher stress has on schools.

BRAD OWEN: I wanted to know why are teachers leaving the field of education so quickly. And when I looked back at it and looked at research, and this was a critical component from my research, was teacher stress.

And, a look at research into how what principals do – or don’t do – can make teachers’ stress levels go up, or down.

BRAD OWEN: How could principals, in other words, increase the trustworthiness in the eyes of their teachers? And three critical components of increasing trustworthiness are ability, benevolence and integrity.

It’s not just about workload. This is an issue that has implications for every principal, every teacher, every student in our schools.

BRAD OWEN: If you don’t establish that strong trusting culture based on mutual accountability in relationships, it’s hard to get any initiative off the ground. The old saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast is absolutely true.

From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.

My guest today is Dr. Brad Owen. Over his 23 years in education, he’s served as a teacher, principal, and executive director, and now he is an Assistant Superintendent at Burkburnett ISD in Texas, a mid-sized school district in north central Texas, right near the Oklahoma border. It has about 3300 students at five campuses.

RYAN ESTES: Dr. Owen, welcome.

BRAD OWEN: Thank you.

Our conversation is all about teacher stress: what causes it, how school districts can address it. But first, aside from the obvious fact that stress is unhealthy and reducing it is generally a good thing, why does teacher stress matter? Dr. Owen has done research into the issue, and the first question I asked was, “What made you look around and decide to explore this particular topic?”

BRAD OWEN: Throughout my years here, and then as well as working through my master’s and talking with other administrators across the state, it was always a strange to me that within the same district, even as district as small as ours, that across five campuses, when one of the initiatives would be rolled out, that there would be five different reactions on the five campuses to those initiatives. And so I always wondered why teachers from the same district who had received pretty much the same instructional learning, the same professional development, could have such a wide ranging reaction to the same initiatives. That prompted me to start thinking about leadership and how leadership can play a role with the way teachers dispositions are today in relationship to today’s educational reform. And then all of those initiatives that are also causing that stress on our teachers.

He wondered why, at one campus, an initiative would be successful. At another, it would struggle to get off the ground. But that’s not the only reason to care about teacher stress.

RYAN ESTES: It probably makes sense to step back and look at some of the trends that are happening today with teachers. Studies have shown that a significant percentage of all teachers leave the field within five years, and some studies put that number around 36%, at least in the state of Texas where you’re located. Why would that be?

BRAD OWEN: That was one of my main things. I looked at the attrition rate as you just said, the attrition rate in Texas after the first five years is between 31 and 36%.

And what we’re also seeing, especially in Texas, and I know you’re seeing in other states too, where I’ve seen so many teachers now come into the field through alternative routes, through alternative certification programs, those teachers actually are up in the 50 to 60% attrition rate after the first five years. That’s a staggering number to me, especially as a campus administrator, each spring trying to hire and replacing and refill positions and trying to retain quality teachers. I wanted to know, “Why are teachers leaving the field of education so quickly?” And when I looked back at it and looked at research, a critical component from my research was teacher stress.

RYAN ESTES: Let’s talk about stress for a moment. What do you see and what have you found that is causing stress for teachers?

BRAD OWEN: Two of the biggest reasons cited by teachers that are leaving the field or lack of administrator support, and then just stress itself. And stress, it was not so much that it was cited as poor working conditions, but cited more as far as being exposed to tasks that they didn’t feel they had enough efficacy or it didn’t feel like they were prepared to accommodate. And then also, the teaching nowadays, that the initiatives, external mandates, teachers are busier now than they’ve ever been before. In our field we’re expected to educate all students, not just some of the students, but all students, we’re expected to educate them at a very high level. And some teachers are having a massive amount of work placed on them for external and internal mandates. But you get your state level initiatives, your national initiatives, and then you have your local ones. And so teachers, again, they’re citing lack of administrator support during those initiatives, as well as just the stress of the workload those first few years, and not knowing how to manage their time, and not knowing how to manage those initiatives.

Dr. Owen set out to explore the relationship between the level of faculty trust in the principal at a school, that principal’s collaborative leadership behaviors, and teacher job stress. Specifically, he asked the question, “Can you predict teacher job stress by looking at those other two factors, faculty trust in the principal, and how much the principal exhibits collaborative leadership behaviors?”

He says the issue of faculty trust boils down to character and competence.

BRAD OWEN: As a teacher, do I trust the character of my leader? Do I trust that that person is making decisions that are in the best interests of not only my students, but myself? And over time with my leader, have they been shown to walk the walk, talk the talk and back up their stuff? Can they actually do the job? If I’m going to choose to give my trust to someone, then I’m going to choose to only give it to somebody who I know can actually do the job and is not going to let me down or falter in that job.

Dr. Owen chose one of the largest, fastest-growing districts in Texas for his study. He surveyed teachers from 54 different campuses there, in order to see a wide range of leadership behaviors, and he asked them to provide input on how they felt about their campus leadership.

RYAN ESTES: And talk to me a little bit more about the different leadership behaviors that you were looking at. What were the kinds of things that might make you say that one principal exhibits collaborative leadership and another one does not?

BRAD OWEN: The core behaviors I was looking at were, does the principal utilize inclusive governance? In other words, are they utilizing teachers and the establishment of key educational foci for the campus? Is the principle utilizing teacher leaders to help establish a strategic mission and unifying vision for the campus? And then I wanted to know, also, is the principle utilizing shared decision making? In other words, do they have committees in place? Do they have groups of teacher leaders in place that look at not only the operational parts of the campus and the daily operations, but also the instructional focus  and instructional planning, or is the principal making the decisions on their own? And in the past, a few people shared accountability. I wanted to know if the school employees understand that they all play a role and do they feel like that they are of a mutual accountability with the principal in ensuring that the vision and mission is accomplished? And that they also understand that they don’t teach in isolation, that they are seen as valued partners. And then lastly, teacher participation – is the principal engaging teachers at all levels of the system and providing them with leadership opportunities? In other words, is the principal the lead of every committee or is he allowing them to step out and lead? Are the teachers leading their own professional development? And so those are the four critical areas or critical leadership behaviors that I looked at.

You may not be surprised to learn that Dr. Owen found that when a principal exhibited strong collaborative leadership behaviors, that had a high correlation to faculty trust in that principal – an r value of 0.66 positive points, if statistics are your thing. Collaborative leadership does increase faculty trust.

He also found that when faculty trust went up, teacher job stress went down. And more than that, he found that he could predict teacher job stress by looking at the levels of faculty trust and collaborative leadership behaviors on the part of the principal.

BRAD OWEN: That was found to be significant that when those two components come, and faculty trust in the principal and collaborative leadership behaviors together do predict teacher job stress.

RYAN ESTES: So that actually gives you levers that you can pull as a principal in order to lower teacher job stress.

BRAD OWEN: Yes. And that’s the thing is really you want to look at how could principals, in other words, increase the trustworthiness in the eyes of their teachers? And three critical components of increasing trustworthiness are ability, benevolence and integrity.

Ability, benevolence, and integrity. Competence and character.

BRAD OWEN: With those three things, if principals work on those three things, that can greatly increase the trustworthiness the faculty has in their principal.

RYAN ESTES: After you completed this study, how did you see your conclusions play out in your own districts?

BRAD OWEN: Those are some of the things I’m working with principals now, and I’ve been in this assistant superintendent role just since January. Since that time, I began having meetings with my principals individually, one on one. We’re looking at things like collaboration. We’re looking at things like engagement, we’re looking at how often do you engage your teachers in leadership conversations? How often are you engaging your teachers and allowing them to step out and lead? What are you doing to increase your own abilities, your own competence so that when teachers look at you, they know that this is an individual that can lead me? So they know that this is an individual that I can trust their level of depth and complexity and they totally understand what’s going on in my classroom as well as the whole campus?

We’re having those conversations. We’re looking at ways to increase that within each one, because even in a district our size, five different principals are all at five different levels and you can’t provide shotgun approach training to all five because each one of them has varying needs. And so having those conversations with them has been critical for me to be able to work with them this summer and moving forward.

And then also, set up some goals for them for next year and have them to be able to learn how to reflect a little bit and progress monitor themselves, working towards these collaborative leadership behaviors, and then also increasing in their own trustworthiness in the eyes of their teachers.

RYAN ESTES: Can you feel the difference between different buildings based upon what you see in one principal versus another?

BRAD OWEN: Completely. The quality of culture, the old saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast is absolutely true. If you don’t establish that strong trusting culture based on mutual accountability in relationships, it’s hard to get any initiative off the ground. And absolutely, when you walk into a campus where that culture is established, where teachers have that high level of trust, teachers feel very competent in their leader and they understand that the character is there, the morals are there and that moral congruence between the leader and those teachers, that environment is palpable. You can feel it. The kids can feel it. They can sense it. When you’re just walking, you’re standing in the hallways, you see it on the kids’ faces. You see it on the teachers’ faces, you can see on the custodians’ faces. It is definitely something you can physically feel and sense.

You can also see a difference in the culture of a building, based on the leadership. Dr. Owen told me about one building in his district a few years ago.

BRAD OWEN: And an administrator that had been there for a few years and at that point had had deteriorating relationships on the campus. Culture was suffering. Teachers were kind of in a survival type mode.

Burkburnett ISD takes organizational health inventories of its schools, looking at scores in 10 different dimensions. Based on those scores, a school could be rated as “dependent” – that’s on the low end of the scale – or “independent” (in the mid-range), or “interdependent” – meaning that those in the school see themselves as part of a bigger team, part of a larger organization, and that they have a role to play within that. This building in particular scored fairly low across the board – was classified as “dependent.” Then they made a change to the building administration, brought in new leadership, and the change in the building was dramatic.

BRAD OWEN: And so then there was a change made with the administrators, and then within a year and a half, you could walk into that campus, totally different feel. Academics were improving. Student achievement was on the rise. Student discipline at decreased dramatically, almost 35, 40% in a year and a half. All 10 dimensions on the organizational health inventory, the exact same inventory with almost the exact same teachers, a year and a half later, all ten ranges, we’re above 90% in the interdependent range.

RYAN ESTES: Wow. Have you ever heard students or teachers comments on the culture of a building based on what the leadership building leadership is like? Have you heard people say things, whether they be students or teachers, with regard to this?

BRAD OWEN: Yes, completely. Again, so that organizational health inventory, that’s all teachers, but then student surveys are saying very much the same thing. And so principals are your highest level instructional leaders that are still immersed in the culture, in their campus on a daily basis. As such, they are the primary change agent, and their influence and impact on teachers’ perceptions is critical. And so teachers, again, they know. Just like you tell teachers, “Hey, students know when you’re faking it and you can’t fake relationships with students.” It’s the same thing with adults. Teachers know when the principal is faking it. And leadership, key leaders, instructional leaders, especially on the campus level because they’re immersed with those teachers on a day to day basis, they can’t fake it. And so the teachers there, their perception is their reality and their perception is pretty accurate, typically. It’s real to them. They can feel it. And so when they feel that trust level is high between them and their principal, and that competence is there and there’s high character person there, there’s no doubt that they can voice it. And they do voice it and students can see it. And students articulated the same way too.

So… what do you do with all this? What are the steps a principal can take – or how can a district work with administrators – to build the kind of faculty trust that makes such a difference in the buildings? And Dr. Owen said that Stephen Covey’s book The Speed of Trust is helpful here. It identifies 13 critical behaviors that high trust leaders exhibit.

BRAD OWEN: So working with principals about talking straight, that you are where you stand. Your teachers all know where you stand, your students know where you stand and you’re not waffling off of that based off of one situation or another. You need to be very clear on your expectations and they needed to stay there with them. So the teachers and students and parents all know exactly where you stand as a principal.

Demonstrating respect. Are you showing genuine care for your teachers? Are you showing genuine care for your students? What that looks like and how to display that.

Transparency, ensuring as principals that when we have our faculty meetings, when we have our site based leadership team meetings, that we report those minutes out or share them out with the entire campus. That make sure there are clear liaison meetings set up, that your professional learning communities are operated at a higher rate.

Righting wrongs. That if as a principal I make a mistake, I need to publicly acknowledge that mistake in front of my entire faculty so that they not only understand that I’m going to be open and honest, they also know it’s okay for them to make a mistake. So then they feel affirmed in their mistakes and they feel affirmed to be able to take risks, because I know that you celebrate mistakes even when you make them.

Loyalty. Delivering results. In other words, can you do what you say you’re going to do? And then, getting better. As a principal, that I’m not being just complacent with where I’m at. Do my teachers see me continuously learning, doing book studies? When I have a faculty meeting, do they hear me talk about the latest research? Do they hear me talk about books that I’m reading? You know, those kinds of things, because we’re turning around and asking the teachers to do that.

Confront reality. This is another thing that we’re working with our principals on, that if I’ve got eight teachers in a wing and seven teachers are doing their job and one teacher’s not, those seven teachers know whether or not I deal with that one teacher. And if I don’t confront that reality and have those hard to hold conversations and handle that from an instructional leader standpoint of either coaching that person up or coaching that person out, those other seven, it’s going to affect their trust and relationship with me.

And then again, extending trust. If I’m asking teachers to trust me and I’m asking teachers to give in to me than I need to trust them? And so the same thing, I need to work on their character, their competence. Am I providing enough professional development for them to grow and am I providing them with resources, enabling them to do their job? So all of those things, those are the critical components that can really help principals work to build trust that principals can work on.

RYAN ESTES: What would you say, and you’ve touched on some of these a bit already, but what would you say to a principal who might be listening, who wants to try to incorporate what you have learned in his or her building? What would you say would be the first steps to take in order to gain his or her teachers’ trust?

BRAD OWEN: I think it goes back to that collaborative leadership. And so the first thing is, work on building the trusting relationships with their teachers. Trust is a two way street. Leaders who trust are more likely to receive trust. So, the first things they can do are number one, come in, state clear expectations and then walk the walk. I’ve got to make sure that they stay on those expectations and don’t waffle. And then number two, increasing that trust capital with their faculty that helps better prepare that environment for the stress that can be created by change. School district leaders need to work with their principals in order to promote and foster shared vision. So do principals, are they collaborating with and utilizing their teachers to write a unifying vision and mission for that campus?

And then when they do that, what is it based on? Is it based on the way adults feel? Adult comfort? Or is it based on the moral imperative of educating students? As a principal, if I can tie everything back to what we’re doing, to that moral imperative of educating students, and that’s why we all got into education, that can foster that moral congruence between teachers and principals. Also, principals helping principals engage in shared decision making, whether you’re a small district or a large district. Of course I know a lot of people are like, “Well I’m at a small campus. I don’t really need to do that. I’ll just meet with my counselor and assistant principal and we’ll make the decisions.” Even in a small district, your teachers need to trust, your teachers need to have buy in.

Shared decision making practices using campus improvement teams, campus operation teams — whatever the vernacular is each campus utilizes doesn’t matter — but you’ve got to incorporate teachers in that shared decision making process so that they feel invested in what’s going on and they trust the environment more and they’re more likely to take risks in digging in. And then again, encouraging principals to utilize collaborative leadership as an actual change strategy. So in order to initiate an initiative, I want to incorporate teachers and on the why side of it, I want to get them involved on the why because teachers need to know the why before we change. Then I want to get them in on how we’re going to roll out the change. What’s it going to look like, how much time we’re going to do it in, is it going to be incremental or is it going to be all at once? Again, those are decisions that principals can use.

Collaborative leadership as a change strategy to foster that trust, foster that competence and that mutual accountability across the entire district. And then again, something that’s really simple for me to do at the end of the year, beginning of the year, middle of year, are end of the year surveys, and allow your teachers time, allow your teachers the opportunity to respond or provide feedback in an anonymous manner. And then when you get that feedback, don’t just set it on your desk. Take that feedback, find the feedback that you can actually dig and say, “You know what, that’s good feedback. That’s a change we need to make.” And then publicly report that out to your campus. Let all the teachers know that, “Hey, you know, because of your feedback, here’s a change that we’re making campus wide that we think is going to be for the betterment of our campus teachers.”

Then it validates teachers. It validates their input. It makes them want to actually reply and respond to surveys in an honest manner, because they know that the principals actually going to read them and actually make changes based off that feedback, and not just do lip service.

RYAN ESTES: What would you say the implications of your work and what you’re discovering have on hiring practices of principals when a district is recruiting campus administrators?

BRAD OWEN: One of the recommendations for principals is, during the principal or teacher hiring process, you’re going to talk to your teachers, you’re going to find out if they’re collaborative in nature, you’re going to find out if they’re naturally engaging, they’re going to find out their background and where their passion lies.

And educating students. It’s the same thing with our principals. When we seek to hire a new principal, there need to be critical components that we’re looking at. Are criteria that we’re looking at in those principals? And not necessarily years of experience, not necessarily do they take a hard line on everything and if they have great disciplines, statistics from their prior district, things like that. But more so, can they work with other people? Collaboration is not just communication. So when hiring principals, those two things, competence and character, go through my conversation with principals. That they’re very competent in systems thinking. In other words, they’re very competent and understanding of how to get teachers on board. They’re competent in holding conversations that move initiatives forward.

And that they’re also very collaborative, in that I want to hear them saying, “I’m going to utilize committees when we do this,” or “I’m going to utilize surveys. I’m going to utilize feedback and input from the staff.” So when we’re hiring, role play scenarios, giving principal candidates role plays where there’s going to be an initiative that they’re going to roll out within the first two years of them being on campus. What would that look like? How they will accomplish that? And then having those principals talk you through how that’s going to take place. And if you hear a lot of, “Well, my administrative team or teachers would survey this, but then I’ll make the final decision,” if you hear a lot of that, that may be a little bit less than the collaborative leadership you’re looking for. You want hear that surveys, we’ll be taking input, we’ll be giving feedback, two way dialogue, small group meetings, large group meetings, whole scale meetings. You want to see a natural progression in their role play of how they’re going to get things accomplished. That involves teachers at all levels, all the way through the meetings or all the way through the initiative process.

That also means including teacher voice in setting individual goals and choosing professional development opportunities.


that’s the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System —

BRAD OWEN: When principals sit down at the beginning of the year and the end of the year, when they should have those goal setting conversations with them, good principles are going to have that goal setting meeting at the beginning of the year and they’re going to make note of that. And so that when they’re going through that teacher’s classroom throughout the year, they’re reflecting on the things that they’re seeing and reflecting back on the goals that the teachers set for themselves and having small conversations throughout the year and supporting those teachers. And then at the end of the year, having that reflective dialogue with them about, “Hey, so how did you progress towards your goal?” Or, “Here’s what I saw, does it align with what you’re thinking?” And then, “Okay, so here is where we are for this whole year. Now, let’s start talking about where we’re going to be for next year. What are some things you could do this summer? Here are my recommendations for some things you could do this summer to get you going and on down the road on this path.”

I firmly believe that if we’re having to non-renew or not bring back several teachers at the end of the year, then I’m not doing my job as an instructional leader. And my job as instructional leader or principal on a campus is to ensure that I’m coaching teachers up as best as I can before I make that other decision. Then that would mean that multiple conversations, multiple walk throughs, formal observations, dialogue, small group dialogue, professional learning communities, anything on their collaborative team meetings, a multitude of things would happen from August to May. Myself, the principal and that teacher would have plenty of opportunity to really dialogue on how that teacher’s doing and mentoring them up, so that we’re not having to mentor them out because school districts, anymore, training the teacher, staff development and all the different things that we put in place with them, the digital resources and all of that, it’s pretty expensive each year. And that’s not something to throw away lightly. Principals really need to take that role as instructional leader and mentor very seriously, and not just rely on that probationary contract early out clause at the end of the year.

RYAN ESTES: Well, thank you, Dr. Owen. Dr. Brad Owen is the Assistant Superintendent at Burkburnett ISD in Texas. Thank you once again for taking time to speak with us today.

BRAD OWEN: I appreciate it, Ryan. Thank you.

New episodes of Field Trip are published every other Friday — but we know how busy this time of the year is for all of you working in education. So we’re going to take a quick break in June, and will be back with more new episodes in July. Don’t miss them when they come out – click that subscribe button, and you’ll get them on your phone or computer automatically when they are released.

Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education. Frontline’s industry-leading software is designed exclusively for K-12, and is built to help school systems recruit, hire, engage, develop and retain their employees, because we believe that’s what makes the difference for students. For more information, visit

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.