There’s long been a perception—even before COVID-19—that schoolteachers are perpetually stressed and on the verge of burning out. Teaching is, without question, a challenging profession. The nature of the work is uniquely challenging, and many facets of the job are outside of teachers’ control—namely, the experiences that students bring to class. And those facets that teachers can control, like lesson preparation and good classroom management, require long hours of managing emotions during the workday and extra, uncompensated effort at night.
Stories in popular media frequently tell these stories with a narrative arc that portrays teaching as a Sisyphean task. One such story, “Hey, New Teachers, It’s OK To Cry In Your Car,” caught our attention years ago due to the vivid description of a rookie teacher hitting her breaking point just a couple months into the school year. Listening to the story, we wondered if teaching really differed from other professions in terms of mental health issues, or if everyone’s similarly stressed out in an increasingly fast-paced, cynical world.
Exploring perception and reality
Does the perception that teachers are uniquely stressed out match the reality? Has mental health worsened over time? And how are trends in mental health different for teachers than similar nonteachers? With Rui Wang of Shanghai University of Finance and Economics and support from the Spencer Foundation, we answered these questions.
We use nationally representative survey data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth (NLSY) that tracks two cohorts of young adults as they age. The NLSY 79 sample includes roughly 13,000 respondents who were aged 14-22 when first interviewed in 1979; it assessed mental health in follow-up interviews in 1997, and at ages 40 and 50 for participants. The NLSY 97 sample includes roughly 9,000 respondents aged 12-17 when first interviewed in 1997; it assessed mental health in five different follow-up interviews spanning 2004 and 2015.
With these survey responses, we establish some basic facts about teachers’ mental health:
- In the 1979 cohort, women who became teachers had similar mental health to college-educated nonteachers prior to entering the profession. This suggests differences between teachers’ and nonteachers’ mental health are not due to pre-existing differences. We find no evidence that women with better (or worse) mental health than their peers opt for teaching as a profession.
- While teaching, educators appear to enjoy slightly better mental health, on average, than their nonteaching, college-educated peers. This is not to say that teachers experience no stress, but that their stress levels are no worse—and perhaps even better—than college-educated women in other professions.
- Regarding changes over time, in the 1997 cohort, teachers self-report worse mental health, on average, than their counterparts in the 1979 cohort. Yet, there is no significant difference between teachers’ and nonteachers’ mental health measures in the 1997 cohort—so it appears everyone has more stressors over time, and the decline in mental health is not unique to teaching.
These findings suggest that concerns about mental health, stress, burnout, and work-life balance are universal, and not unique (or uniquely pressing) in the teaching profession. A team at University College London has been studying similar questions in Europe and reached similar conclusions. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore teachers’ concerns, of course. Everyone needs to be in good mental and physical health to do their job well. And in the case of teaching, there’s a lot we can do to ease their workload, boost their morale, and provide supports that enable teachers to be their best selves in the classroom.
Teacher stress and mental health in the 2020s
A major limitation is that all of this research predates the pandemic. Alongside their role as educators, COVID-19 put teachers on the frontlines of managing ever-changing public health guidance and forced an abrupt pivot to remote instruction for prolonged periods of time. The dual burden has re-ignited concerns about teachers’ mental health, workloads, and what this means for the future of the teaching force.
As the pandemic and efforts to control it continue, teachers face unprecedented work-related stress, for sure. Recently, a survey released by the Alberta Teachers’ Association made headlines with the striking result that one-third of surveyed teachers said they were not sure they’d return to the classroom next school year. In the U.S. context, a recent survey conducted by the RAND Corporation finds a notable increase (almost 50%) in the share of teachers who say they might leave the profession at the end of the current school year, compared to pre-pandemic survey results. In addition to concerns about mass departures, stress hinders the effectiveness of those who remain in the profession. Protecting and maintaining a robust workforce of effective teachers necessitates helping teachers in developing the tools and skills for managing workplace stress. But first, we need to understand the sources of workplace stress.
As if keeping schools operational during a pandemic wasn’t stressful enough, keep in mind that teachers have had to confront the ripple effects of extreme political polarization in the U.S. in recent years as well. Teachers now find themselves in the center of conflicts over mask and vaccine mandates, how to teach about racial issues in social studies and history, and a nonstop cycle of current events that continue to raise the salience of both deep partisan divisions and racial inequities.
The need to address these controversial topics with students, with increasing interference from parents, has undoubtedly made an already difficult job that much more challenging. And, since public schools are a safety net institution in the U.S.—often providing children multiple meals per day and their primary access to technology—teachers, especially those in preschool and day-care centers, have also been tasked with helping students navigate pandemic impacts on basic needs while experiencing their own pandemic-related hardships. In short, America’s contentious political climate and ongoing pandemic have simultaneously increased teachers’ workloads—and work-related stress.
New podcast turns spotlight onto teachers’ workloads
To help parents, school leaders, policymakers, and teachers understand and confront these challenges, we created a five-episode podcast called “Mind the Teacher,” with support from the Spencer Foundation and American University’s School of Public Affairs. In it, we speak to a range of experts including educators, researchers, and journalists about identifying and addressing problems related to teachers’ mental health.
Our main takeaway is that mental health is an important, and too often overlooked, aspect of our lives. This is true for everyone: teachers and nonteachers, parents and students. The global pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of, and inequities in, mental health. It’s also made the broader public, including parents, more aware of the challenges that teachers face, and the hard work they do, on a daily basis. While mental health concerns are not unique to teachers, teachers play a hugely important role in society, and their concerns must be addressed.
There’s a lot that school leaders, policymakers, and community stakeholders can do to support teachers. Some of these lessons come from the general psychology literature on workplace mental health, some come from listening to teachers, and some are just common sense.
There’s no silver bullet here. Rather, our reading of the literature suggests a two-pronged approach, with both individual-facing interventions and organizational-level changes. Teacher-directed interventions may include increased pay or programs that provide free counseling. Other teacher-facing interventions that have been shown to lift teacher morale include mindfulness training, peer mentorship, and coaching programs. School leadership might consider allowing teachers more autonomy, input on policy issues, planning and preparation time, and paid personal/mental health days. Decision-makers can free up valuable teaching capacity by providing grading assistance, reducing class sizes, and employing more counselors, social workers, and supervisory administrators.
At the organizational level, interventions should focus on quality, supportive leadership, access to free or affordable health care (including mental health care), and systematic policies to ease teachers’ workloads. And leadership should recognize racial and socioeconomic disparities and design support systems that alleviate the historical stresses on Black and other marginalized teachers.
Ultimately, many aspects of workplace stress stem from anxiety about being effective at work. Teachers, like many other professionals, want to be effective in their jobs and suffer from increased stress, anxiety, and depression when they know they aren’t at their best or are not receiving needed support. Both the individual- and organization-level approaches outlined here share a recognition that teachers’ mental health is inextricably linked to feeling supported and effective in the classroom—and that means giving teachers the dedicated time, space, and resources they need.
At the end of the day, public schools play a fundamentally important role in society, and teachers play a fundamentally important role within schools. It’s a difficult job made even tougher by the pandemic. We should fully support teachers and their mental health, as they can’t do their best work—and ensure that our students reach their full potential—when they’re suffering from chronic fatigue, pressure, and stress.
Authors’ note: If you’ve read this far, we hope that you’ll give “Mind the Teacher” a listen. All stakeholders should find this to be a useful resource. Episodes are available on Apple and Stitcher, and can also be streamed from American University’s website; the latter also offers transcripts and links to the research referred to in each episode.