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«SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHERS AND WORK STRESS: EXPLORING THE COMPETING INTERESTS MODEL By LARRY DEAN BUSH JR A dissertation submitted in partial ...»

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The Job-Person Fit Model is transposed over the immediate work environments of the special education teacher and represents the underlying dimensions of the community and regional culture. Not quite as broad as the political and societal context, the Job-Person Fit Model is the intermediary between the special education teacher’s immediate work environment and the larger societal context. Within their model of burnout, Maslach and Leiter (1997) postulate there are six areas of mismatch between the person and the job. Specifically, those areas include workload, control, reward, values, fairness, and community. This aspect of the Competing Interests Model focuses upon the interaction between the special education teacher and the community dimensions. Questions from this frame include “Does the community support the rights and the value of individuals with disabilities?” and “Does the community provide a sufficient tax base to ensure equitable workloads and necessary classroom resources?” A mismatch between the special education teacher and these six areas of the Job-Person Fit Model leads to an erosion of energy, involvement, and efficiency.

The broadest, outermost layer of the Competing Interest Model reflects the political and societal context of public education. This layer reflects the impact of the political and societal forces that shape public education. Similar to critical race theory and a disability centric perspective, this layer explores the junction of power, race, class, and gender with social activism, an ethic of caring, and barriers to inclusion for individuals with disabilities. In addition, it reflects the contentious social space created by federal legislation, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the American’s with Disability Act, Section 504, and No Child Left Behind, with local school culture and funding mechanisms. Does a disability centric perspective recognize the historical institutionalization of the disabled and conform to a social justice framework? Furthermore, if there is a disability centric perspective, what are the implications of this theory upon the lived experiences, job satisfaction, engagement, and potential job stress and burnout of special education teachers? Of course, this is a speculative departure from the standard analysis of job stress and burnout in special education; however, it may provide a fruitful venture into a new and comprehensive conceptualization of job stress and burnout in special education.

Another component to the Competing Interests Model is the stages of practitioner development proposed by Skovholt (2001). He reports that the novice practitioner is not prepared for the complexities and ambiguities of the working world. Novice practitioners rarely have adequate cognitive maps to help them navigate the many problems and dilemmas they will face.

Additionally, the novice practitioner may not have access to positive mentoring, may hold glamorized expectations, have porous boundaries, and have difficulty with legal and ethical considerations. Finally, many novice special education teachers experience acute performance anxiety and may be subjected to intense scrutiny by professional gatekeepers.

For the veteran teacher, Skovholt (2001) asserts that the key to maintaining professional optimism and enthusiasm is the degree to which the teacher engages in the caring cycle.

Skovholt asserts, “Making positive attachments, being involved, and making positive separations with others in need of counseling, therapy, learning, and healing is, it seems, the core professional skill for practitioners in the caring professions” (p. 13). Often this is more difficult than one might imagine. In order to effectively engage in the caring cycle, teachers must be proficient in three types of skills: attachment, involvement, and separation. Each stage involves different skills and demands different activities of the teachers. For example, in order to engage in effective attachment the teacher must find a delicate and optimal balance between enmeshment and total disengagement with the student. In essence, the teacher must develop an empathetic understanding of the student’s world without becoming overwhelmed in the experience. Some teachers find this a very intuitive process, while others do not.

The final component of the Competing Interests Model is the four factors advocated by Wisniewski and Garguilo (1997). Wisniewski and Garguilo argue that burnout is most likely to occur in the presence of poor interpersonal interactions, irrelevant professional development, organizational complexity, and difficult instructional arrangements. In the Competing Interests Model, stress interacts and influences the coping mechanisms of novice and veteran teachers.

Either the teacher reacts to stress with coping strategies that allow him or her to remain engaged and satisfied, or the teacher reacts to stress with coping strategies that lead to dissatisfaction and burnout.

The inherit conflict of the layers of dual workplace culture, the Job-Person Fit Model, and the political context of public education create a heightened sense of anxiety for the novice and veteran special education teacher. Maslach (2003) asserts, What is most destructive to a sense of community is chronic and unresolved conflict.

Conflict infuses the workplace with frustration, anger, fear, anxiety, disrespect, and suspicion. It tears apart the fabric of social support, making it less likely that people will help each other out when times get tough. (p. 14) In summary, the professional world of special education is a community of conflict.





Reflecting a dual workplace culture, this community of conflict is created in a shared social space between special education teachers, general education teachers, principals, special education directors, superintendents, parents, and students. This chronic, unresolved conflict places special education teachers at a higher risk for job stress and burnout. Current burnout research in special education does not reflect a unified predictive theory and does not take into account the unique contextual factors inherit to special education.

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The conceptualization of stress as a topic of scientific inquiry and occupational interest developed during World War II to improve soldier’s performance in combat (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Burnout, on the other hand, has been a topic of scientific inquiry and occupational interest since the mid 1970’s and developed as a response to the increased caregiving professions (Freudenberger, 1974; Maslach, 1976). This section will include five sections.

The first section will provide an overview of the conceptual frames of occupational stress. The second section will provide an overview of the conceptual frames of teacher stress. The third section will provide an overview of the conceptual frames of career pathways of special education teachers. The fourth section will provide an overview of conceptual frames of special education teacher burnout. Finally, the last section will provide a brief overview of the historical context of special education and its relationship to critical race theory, liberatory pedagogy, and disability studies.

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Several modern events, such as World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, have stimulated interest in the concept of stress, the individual responses to stress, and the relationship between the environment and the person (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Many terms from sociology, anthropology, psychology, and physiology have developed over time to describe stress. Within sociology and anthropology, social strain is referred to as the conditions in society, such as immigration, war, racism, unemployment, natural disasters, and anomie, which create psychological and bodily stress. Within psychology, the stimulus-response emphasis of behaviorism resulted in stress stimuli and stress response. Holmes and Rahe’s (1967) Social Readjustment Scale is a primary example of the measurement of stress stimuli. Within physiology, Hans Selye’s conceptualization of homeostasis and the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) created an orchestrated neurochemical set of bodily defenses that has strongly influenced medical and psychological research (1956). Selye referred to environmental stressors, physiological threats, and stress responses. Stressors and threats originate in the environment, while stress referred to the bodily reactions to stressors and threats. Others have further articulated the relationship between stress and strain. Karasek (1979) refers to stress as an internalized arousal that cannot be measured, instead he measures stressors or demands within the job environment, such as timelines and workload. As a result, strain is the inability to meet the job demands within the work environment and is evidenced as psychosocial dysfunction, behavioral dysfunction, or physiological dysfunction (Guglielmi & Tatrow, 1998). Similarly, Caplan, Cobb, French, Harrison, and Pinneau (1980) define stress as any immediate threat within the job environment, whereas, strain represents any maladaptive response to the threat – such as anxiety, high blood pressure, or smoking.

While the sociological and physiological research frames have been instrumental in developing the concept of stress, there are several limitations to their use. First, stimulus stress is based upon a normative rating of environmental stressors and does not account for variability in responses. In short, not everyone responds to environmental stressors in the same way. For example, the death of a loved one is traumatic, yet the death of a loved one after a prolonged illness may provide respite and closure. Second, defining stress as a response to environmental stressors creates a circular and ambiguous process of measurement. To be useful, stress must be defined as the relationship between environmental stressors and stress responses. This relationship is what Lazarus (1999) referred to as the cognitive meditational approach. The cognitive mediation approach conceptualizes stress as an interaction between the person and the environment that may endanger the person’s well being. The experience of stress is mediated through a cognitive appraisal of the individual’s ability or resources to cope with the demands of the work environment (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

Many models rely upon a transactional formulation that articulates the relationship between work stress and strain as mediated, moderated, or modified by individual differences or variables. The Person-Environment Fit Model, The Demand-Control Model, The DemandControl-Support Model, The Effort-Reward Imbalance Model, and the Effort-Digress Model exemplify the transactional formulation of occupational stress. The next section will briefly describe each model and the implications of each model.

The Person-Environment Fit Model The Person-Environment Fit Model was developed at the University of Michigan in the mid-1970’s (Caplan, Cobb, French, Harrison, & Pinneau, 1975; Harrison, 1978; French, Caplan, & Harrison, 1982). The conceptual foundations of The Person-Environment Fit Model is four fold and include the objective environment, subjective environment, objective person, and subjective person. (Refer to Appendix B for an illustration of the Person-Environment Fit Model.) The objective environment includes the physical and social situations as they exist independent of the person’s perception. In contrast, the subjective environment includes the physical and social situations as perceived by the person. Similarly, the objective person refers to the attributes of the person as they actually exist, whereas, the subjective person reflects the person’s perceptions of his or her attributes. Additional components of the Person-Environment Fit Model include contact with reality, accuracy of self – assessment, coping, and defense.

Contact with reality is conceptualized as the attempt to mediate the differences between the objective and subjective environments. Likewise, the accuracy of self – assessment is defined as the attempt to mediate the differences between the objective and subjective person. Finally, coping reflects attempts to improve the objective fit between the person and environment through adaptations of the person or environment, while, defense reflects attempts to improve the subjective fit between the person and environment through cognitive distortions, such as repression, projection, or denial.

The Person-Environment Fit Model defines stress as a subjective mismatch between the demands of the job and the individual’s real or perceived ability to meet those demands. This definition leads to two forms of mismatch (Edwards, Caplan, & Van Harrison, 1998). Either the job environment does not provide adequate resources to meet the individual’s needs, or the person lacks the abilities to meet the demands of the work environment. Within The PersonEnvironment Fit Model, strain is conceptualized as an outcome of the mismatch and is defined as a psychological, behavioral, or physiological deviation from normal functioning. Examples include anxiety, smoking, or elevated blood pressure.

Key modifiers of the model include individual differences in perceptions, skills, tolerance for pressure, and vulnerability to dysfunctional outcomes. Often the Person-Environment Fit Model is used to reduce stress not through modified job demands or work processes, but through personal stress-reduction techniques to improve the fit between the person and the job demands.

Consequently, the theoretical framework of the Person-Environment Fit Model is often used to emphasize selective hiring practices or shaping of employees.



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