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The Q&A: Christopher McCarthy

In this week's Q&A, we interview Christopher McCarthy, an educational psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Christopher McCarthy is an educational psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, researching teacher stre...

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Christopher McCarthy is a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He holds a Ph.D. in counseling psychology. His research interest is stress in educational settings and group leadership with a focus on examining workplace factors that lead to stress in K-12 teachers. McCarthy is a member of the American Counseling Association, the Association for Specialists in Group Work and the American Educational Research Association, and presents regularly at these conferences. He is currently the editor of The Journal for Specialists in Group Work.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: How are you tackling teacher stress through your research?

Christopher McCarthy: This is an area I have been working in with a colleague for seven or eight years, where we have been addressing the same phenomenon of teachers having higher levels of stress, feeling less satisfied about work and leaving the profession, particularly in the early years.

Trib+Edu: What is your latest work on that? Have you started a new project or are you between projects?

McCarthy: We recently got a grant from the Spencer Foundation to take our work with local samples of teachers, in a particular school district or area of the country, and look at trends at a national level.

Our latest research is looking at a broad national survey that is done every couple of years, called the Schools and Staffing Survey. It is a nationally representative sample of teachers across the country, asking about their working conditions. It is done every couple of years. In our most recent article published, we showed that a similar phenomenon that we see at the local level can be seen at the national level.

We have done research with teachers in Texas and at North Carolina and seen some more patterns. This most recent one was national. We didn’t collect the data, we just used this data that had been collected to show the phenomenon of teacher stress.

Trib+Edu: So you are looking at their stress level from what is seen in class and on campus, right?

McCarthy: It is from the perspective of how a teacher experiences their particular classroom. Our research is different than some other research because a lot of what is published about teachers tends to look more at workforce trends, like how much teachers are paid, what the administrative climate is like and school policy. Those are all important but what we’ve looked at is how each individual teacher experiences their classroom. Particularly, how high they perceive the demands to be relative to their own classroom resources.

Trib+Edu: It sounds like most of the data out there is looking at teachers externally rather than in their day to day?

McCarthy: Yeah, not to say that there isn’t that kind of research, but most of the research on educational policy just tends to focus on broader workforce kinds of factors.

Trib+Edu: So what were the major stressors that teachers point to?

McCarthy: Well, actually, what we have focused on is actually not the particular stressors, although we account for them. We focus on the aggregate demand level, so the categories of demands tend to be things like student-related demands, classroom management, students with special needs, students with disruptive behavior. That is one category that probably does contribute most to teacher stress. Other things we’ve looked for are things like the availability of instructional resources, textbooks materials, supplies, those kinds of things. Also, how much help and support they get from other professionals in the school.

But what we’ve really focused on is not so much those particular demands, but we actually have an instrument that we’ve developed that surveys both resources and demand. Then we classify the teachers based on how high the demands are in relationship to their resources.

It’s called CARD, an instrument we developed that is very classroom specific asking what are the resources and what are the demands in your classroom. And we basically use the scores from that measure to classify the teachers. Really, it is a simple summing up of how many different demands they have and how stressful they find each of those things. Then we look at different classroom resources like administrators, other professionals, things like that. We see how helpful those are.

We classify those that are most likely to be stressed based on how high the demands are relative to the resources.

Trib+Edu: How much of it comes down to their personal perception?

McCarthy: Yes, and really I think it is the perception of the imbalance of demands and resources. That is really the hallmark of psychological theories of stress. Stress results whenever we think that whatever life is asking of us is too much for what we have to deal with and that puts us into a stress state.

We basically just transfer that to the classroom, and ask about the teachers' everyday realities.

Trib+Edu: The resource that they are evaluating, do those include things like time management, at-home workload, paying for supplies out of pocket?

McCarthy: It is all of those things. It is really the flip side of all the demands. We ask them if they have a challenging student and ask if that is demanding. We are asking if there are people that can help with classroom management, and how they find that help.

We ask if the lack of classroom resources causes higher demand levels for them. We ask about the sufficiency of classroom resources and if they are helpful to them. We kind of ask it in two very different ways. And we ask about it intentionally because we want the demands and the resources to be separate things we are measuring. If we just asked about the demands and the resources in similar ways then it would kind of be the same thing.

We try and get the teachers to think very distinctly about what is challenging and what is really helpful to them. What we do is kind of put those things together and see if there is a large discrepancy.

Trib+Edu: How do you measure the data from the teachers?

McCarthy: Basically we do that through our CARD measure. We’ve given it to hundreds of different teachers. So we know, based on the different times that we’ve given the CARD measures, we kind of know what the scores are that are more likely to indicate that they are stressed out.

It is basically taking the score they get for demands and then subtracting resources. So if they have a 20 on demands and a 10 on resources, their demand level is at a plus 10, and another teacher might be a negative 20, meaning their resources are actually higher than their demands.

We classify them into different groups based on that. There are three that we think we can discriminate reliably. We call the group in the middle, where the resources are pretty much in line with demand, that is the balanced group. The one that have higher resources, we called the resourced group. Not too clever.

The highest groups we call the demands group. We use those terms just to try and be honest with what we are really measuring, so we are not calling the highest group “the stressed group” because we don’t actually know that they are reporting stress, we’re just saying they seem to be the most vulnerable to stress.

It is almost like it is an engine. There are certain people that are running right where it is supposed to be. There are some people who, the engine is in first gear, they are kind of cruising along. There is this group where they are in overdrive, and they may be fine. They may be able to go for hundreds of miles that way, but they are risking overheating, in a psychological sense.

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