Crayons and Cortisol: The Epidemic of Teacher Stress

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A teacher isn’t expected to revive an elderly patient who is having a heart attack. Teachers don’t have to figure out how to tell a young woman that she is infertile or inform a father that he has lung cancer. From an outside perspective, teaching might seem like a much less stressful job than being a nurse or physician. However, according to a recent poll, 46% of teachers report high daily stress, which ties them with nurses for the most stressful occupation in America today. Why are teachers so stressed? What are the repercussions of teacher stress? How can we ensure that our educators don’t quit or lose their love of teaching?

The State of the Classroom

Before exploring the various studies and polls that reveal the high levels of stress plaguing teachers today, it is important to understand what “stress” really means for teachers. According to researchers Teri Wood and Chris McCarthy, early symptoms of stress and burnout include:

  • feelings of irritation and inadequacy when thinking about school

  • physical symptoms such as headaches and insomnia

  • withdrawal from colleagues or conflicts with colleagues

  • difficult concentrating

  • absences or the desire to miss school

Although “burnout” is a term frequently applied to those in the teaching profession, “focusing on how educators succeed or fail at ‘coping’ with job pressures can be misconstrued as placing the blame squarely on those individuals.” As a result, education professor Doris Santoro suggests using the term “demoralized” instead. Whatever we call it, it is clear that many educators are experiencing this unhelpful pressure and anxiety on a daily basis.

When describing stress in their own words, 61% of educators say that their work is always or often stressful and over 50% say that they don’t have the same enthusiasm as when they started teaching. A study that measured stress and coping levels found that educators with both low levels of stress and high coping abilities were extremely rare: 7% of all teachers. Another poll revealed that half of teachers agree with the following statement: “The stress and disappointments involved with teaching at this school aren’t really worth it.” Unfortunately, this trend is only increasing in both severity and frequency. A 2017 survey revealed that 58% of educators characterized their mental health as “not good” for at least a week out of the last month, which is up 24% from just 2015.

Sources of Teacher Stress

Student Behavior and Testing

Mark Greenberg, a researcher on teacher stress, suggests that teachers feel pressure from three main sources: student behavioral problems, standardized testing, and unstable school leadership. When it comes to student behavior, some statistically significant factors from most stressful to least stressful include:

  1. hostility towards the teacher

  2. inattention during class

  3. noisiness

  4. lack of effort in class

  5. unpreparedness for class

  6. hyperactivity

  7. disregard for school rules

  8. damage to school property

  9. hostility toward other students

  10. lack of interest in learning

Growing class sizes and increasing levels of student stress, which are associated with behavioral problems, contribute to classroom management problems for today’s teachers. As for standardized testing, 81% of teachers believe that students spend too much time taking mandated tests whereas 16% believe it is just right and a mere 1% think it is too little. For teachers, more time proctoring student tests and teaching to the test means less control over curriculum, less instructional time, and more stressed students. And, of course, all of those factors lead to more stressed teachers.

School Leaders

One of the major contributions to stress for teachers is lack of autonomy and input in decision-making. In response to an AFT survey, many educators complained that they had little to no influence on academic standards, professional development, curriculum, school spending, and disciplinary policies. Many studies have shown that autonomy in the workplace increases well-being and job satisfaction, so it is not difficult to understand why teachers may become dissatisfied when they are left out of major decisions made in their schools. In addition, when teachers are evaluated by school leaders, many feel that the feedback is unhelpful or even unfair. In a 2015 survey, 51% of teachers who were given an evaluation in the previous year found the feedback minimally or not at all helpful. Receiving unhelpful evaluations from school leaders, especially negative evaluations, can further add to tensions between teachers and principals.

Low Pay, High Duties

In addition to stressful conflicts with students and administrators, many teachers are stressed by finances. One of the biggest financial obstacles is that teachers make 17% less money on a weekly basis than their similarly educated peers. A recent survey also revealed that many educators are still drowning in debt from their college degrees, a mounting problem as many teachers are now expected to get a master’s degree as well as a bachelor’s. To add insult to injury, teachers are expected to perform many activities outside of the classroom, usually without extra compensation for doing so. These tasks include parent conferences, hallway duty, cafeteria supervision, bus monitoring, etc. 96% of teachers also take on leadership or student support activities, such as chairing a committee or leading the school’s literary magazine, and only 25% are paid for their extra work. Lack of time is a large source of stress for teachers, and when teachers were asked what action would make the biggest difference in their day-to-day lives, 50% said more planning time and/or smaller class sizes.

Trends

Although the factors above affect most teachers, not all teachers experience stress equally or for the same reasons. For example, elementary school teachers are consistently found to be more stressed than secondary school teachers; a recent study done by the University of Missouri found that 93% of elementary school teachers reported high stress levels. Researchers have also explored the relationship between years of experience and stress levels, often finding that there is no significant difference in stress levels between experienced teachers and novice teachers, although burnout levels are higher in early career teachers. It is likely that early career and late career teachers are stressed about different issues; the former may be struggling more with classroom management, for example, while the latter might have trouble adjusting to changing technology or curriculums. Lastly, teachers in urban settings are most likely to report violence, lack of feelings of safety, and poor community involvement as reasons for stress.

The Consequences of Stressed Teachers

Attrition

How do teachers respond to unrelenting stress? Data suggests that there are three main categories of responses: teachers 1) downshift responsibilities, 2) reframe their identities (often basing identity on roles outside of work), or 3) simply leave. It is this last response that is most problematic for our education system and our society as a whole. About one third of all new teachers leave education within the first five years of their career, and “the rate at which teachers leave the profession is significantly higher than the departure rate in other professions.” This flight away from the classroom is not just disheartening—it’s costly. According to researcher Richard Ingersoll, teacher turnover costs as much as $2.2 billion a year, money that is then not available for curriculum and instruction. Unfortunately, even the teachers that stay are not always able to serve their students effectively; nearly two out of three teachers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” according to their responses to a 2015 poll.

Student Achievement and Teacher Health

Teachers who are mentally and emotionally disengaged from their students’ needs are, naturally, less effective teachers. Research supports this intuitive conclusion, as there are negative correlations between emotional exhaustion in teachers and average student grades, standardized test scores, and school satisfaction. It follows that mentally exhausted teachers also suffer physically. Research done by Education Support Partnership shows that 75% of teachers have experienced “psychological, physical or behavioural symptoms because of work,” a significantly higher portion than the overall population. Since a 2016 study found that job satisfaction decreases physical symptoms in teachers, it is likely that the less satisfied a teacher is, the more likely they are to experience significant physical health problems. Sick and apathetic teachers miss school most often, further affecting their engagement with their students and their students’ achievement levels. Unfortunately, teacher absences are only rising; one in every 83 English teachers spent more than a month away from school in 2016-2017, a 5% increase from just the year before.

It is a serious indication of the state of our education system that so many teachers leave after their first few years of teaching, many others leave the classroom for days and weeks at a time during the school year, and still others may be physically there—but mentally, they are as far away as the teachers who have already left.

Solutions to Stress

Luckily, there are a variety of research-backed solutions that can help teachers stay in education and remain happy and healthy while they do so. Education Resources Information Center characterizes these solutions as primary prevention, which includes “organizational practices which allow teachers some control over their daily challenges,” secondary prevention, which “focuses on early detection of problems before they emerge as full-blown disorders,” and tertiary prevention, which “involves ameliorating symptoms of burnout.” Ideally, most solutions will fall into primary prevention, so that burnout can be avoided before it begins. Changes to teacher wellbeing across all three methods can occur structurally or individually.

Structural Changes

In order to keep his teachers happy and healthy, the headmaster at Three Bridges Primary School utilizes primary prevention by letting teachers have more more control over the daily challenge of grading. He notes that it is beneficial to “give teachers the professional autonomy to decide when written marking is appropriate and when it would be better to use oral or peer-to-peer feedback.” Allowing teachers to make these decisions helped give Three Bridges the nickname of “The Happiest School on Earth.” For more on effective grading strategies, see our Ultimate Guide to Grading and Feedback.

Setting up relevant workshops and programs for teachers is another way to address teacher stress before it becomes overwhelming. For example, “at present, only three states require schools to provide induction supports to new teachers for more than one year,” but providing teachers with orientation, guidance, and mentoring programs has been proven to decrease attrition rates, increase teacher satisfaction, and boost student test scores. In such a program, helpful activities can include mentorship from teachers in the same subject, opportunities to communicate constructively with administrators, and workshops on time management and team building. Mentorship can be particularly helpful, and it is unfortunate that many late career teachers are only asked to evaluate new teachers rather than mentoring them, which results in additional stress rather than additional support.

In conjunction with increased professional support for new teachers, wellness programs have been shown to improve health outcomes for teachers and even save schools money due to lower medical costs and absences. In one school district, a wellness program led 46% of the employees to lower their body mass index, 34% to lower blood pressure, and 38% to lower cholesterol. These same employees then had lower medical claims payments, leading to over three thousand dollars in savings for the district, which paid for the cost of the program three times over.

The last type of program that can benefit teachers is social and emotional learning programs (SEL). Since one of the main sources of teacher stress is student behavioral problems, SEL programs that help teachers manage their students more effectively can greatly reduce teacher anxiety. One study of urban teachers found that teachers who were trained to manage classrooms with an SEL curriculum reported higher levels of personal accomplishment; other studies have linked SEL programs to lower levels of anxiety and depression, higher levels of teacher engagement, and higher levels of perceived autonomy in the classroom. Research has also found that teachers who are coached specifically on their interactions with students often have students with higher test scores. Further, schools that encourage their teachers to reward positive student behaviors have lower levels of burnout. Although the issue of teacher stress is complicated, it is encouraging that programs that improve the lives of teachers will often improve the lives of students, and vice versa.

Individual Changes

Although structural changes are often the most powerful way to improve the lives of teachers, many educators also have advice for their peers on how to reduce stress levels. Some of these suggestions have to do with timing:

  • arrive at school early for productive quiet time before the chaos begins

  • leave work at school at the end of the day so time at home is truly restful

  • leave school on Friday with the next week prepped so Sunday isn’t the most exhausting day of the week

  • close the door during prep periods so socializing doesn’t eat up all the available work time

Others have to do with delegation:

  • share the workload with other teachers by planning lessons together

  • give time-consuming (but simple) tasks like photocopying to parent volunteers

  • don’t overcommit with extracurriculars

One insightful but less obvious tip is to treat teaching like an athletic activity and yourself like an athlete: eat nourishing foods, get in good shape, get enough sleep, buy high-quality supportive shoes, etc. This is a particularly important tip in light of the many physical symptoms of chronic stress. Some other teachers also advise educators to maintain other hobbies and relationships outside school. If you base your entire self-worth on one area of your life, then any obstacle in that area can make your whole life feel stressful and unsuccessful. Being careful not to do that with teaching will protect against burnout.

Lastly, many teachers (and researchers) suggest lowering stress by lowering grading time, often in the form of letting some assignments go ungraded. However, one of the most effective ways to reduce grading time without robbing students of vital feedback is to partner with The Graide Network. Our trained future educators will give your students detailed, actionable, and encouraging feedback while you have more time to think through pedagogical choices, brainstorm interesting new lessons, and engage with your students in ways that will enhance their learning outcomes and reduce your risk of burnout. To find out more, drop us a note here.

Looking Forward

Reading about teacher stress can be overwhelming: the statistics are daunting, the effects are dire, and the solutions are slow and complex. However, there is reason for hope. While teaching always makes the list of most stressful jobs, it nearly always makes the list of most satisfying jobs as well. In a recent poll, 82% of teachers said that making a difference in their students’ lives is the most rewarding aspect of teaching, and 68% of teachers said they became a teacher in the first place for that same reason. Teaching, then, is a job with many difficulties but many rewards. Most teachers today will tell you as much.

In order to encourage the best and brightest graduates to become teachers and ensure that effective teachers remain in education, we must make sure that teachers can appreciate the rewards of teaching without being overwhelmed by the difficulties. In essence, we must find ways that teachers can make a positive difference in their students’ lives—without allowing teaching to make a negative effect in theirs.

At The Graide Network, we recruit and vet the best and brightest future teachers and enable them to support the critical work of current educators, making the profession friendlier and more sustainable for everyone.