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Addressing interrupted learning due to COVID-19, managing student behavior, taking on extra work due to staffing shortages, and low salaries were among the highest reported stressors for teachers. Rich Vintage/Getty Images
  • A new report reveals teachers and principals report frequent job-related stress at twice the rate of the general population of working adults.
  • Well-being is especially low among teachers and principals of color, mid-career teachers, and female educators.
  • Poor well-being among educators can have ripple effects for teachers and students alike.

The last couple of years have been trying for every corner of society, but one of the most disrupted environments has undoubtedly been the nation’s school system.

A global pandemic, remote learning, and a spate of school shootings has forever changed teachers’ responsibilities and the ways they interact with their students. And educators are feeling the weight of it.

New research from the RAND Corporation finds teachers and principals report frequent job-related stress at twice the rate of the general population of working adults.

“Educators continue to report relatively worse well-being than other working adults,” said Elizabeth D. Steiner, lead author of the report and a policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. “In addition to being twice as likely as other working adults to say they experienced job-related stress, they were more likely to say they experienced symptoms of depression and were not coping well with job-related stress.”

For teachers, the most significant source of stress reported was addressing students interrupted academic learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other major contributors to teacher stress include managing student behavior, taking on extra work due to staffing shortages, supporting students’ mental health and well-being, and very low salaries.

“I think the key takeaway there is that teachers are super concerned about their students,” Steiner said.

Principals reported staffing shortages as their top cause of stress.

“Principals are worried about teachers being out sick, whether they’re going to be able to hire enough teachers, and they’re worried about the mental health and well-being of their staff,” Steiner said.

The research also reveals that well-being is especially low among teachers and principals of color, mid-career teachers, and female educators.

The researchers hypothesize that for mid-career and female teachers, juggling their work responsibilities with caregiving for their own children and families takes a toll on their mental health.

For educators of color, racial discrimination plays a major role.

“As an example, 40 percent of Black principals said that they had been held to a different set of standards and expectations than their peers because of their race or ethnicity,” Steiner noted. “Thirty percent of teachers who are Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander said that because of their race or ethnicity, people assumed that they weren’t born here.”

The results are based on January 2022 survey responses from a nationally representative sample of 2,360 teachers and 1,540 principals who work in kindergarten through 12th-grade public schools.

Other recent research sheds light on violence and harassment toward teachers and other school personnel during the pandemic.

Published in March 2022, the study from the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on Violence Against Educators and School Personnel, surveyed nearly 15,000 teachers, administrators, school psychologists, and other school staff members in Pre-K through 12th-grade schools. The researchers found that approximately one-third of teachers experienced at least one incident of verbal harassment or threat of violence from students during the pandemic.

“This includes verbal threats, cyber bullying, intimidation, and sexual harassment,” said Susan McMahon, PhD, of DePaul University and chair of the APA Task Force.

Teachers and school staff also have to worry about aggression from adults.

“Educators experience violence and aggression from a range of offenders, including parents, administrators, and colleagues – it’s not just the students,” McMahon said.

Nearly 30 percent of the surveyed teachers reported at least one incident of harassment or threat of violence from a parent of a student.

When it came to physical violence, 14 percent of teachers, 18 percent of school psychologists and social workers, and 15 percent of administrators experienced at least one violent incident by a student during the pandemic. This includes objects thrown, weapon use, sexual assault, and physical attacks.

“These rates are significant, particularly in the context of many schools operating in online or hybrid modalities,” McMahon noted.

While neither the RAND nor the APA Task Force reported on questions specific to school shootings, experts say the recent tragedies (as well as the need to prepare their own students for the unthinkable with lockdown drills) undoubtedly take a heavy toll on teachers and school staff.

“The effects of mass shootings on the school, educators, students, parents and the community are inconceivable,” McMahon said. “People shouldn’t feel like they have to risk their lives to do their jobs.”

Poor well-being among educators can have ripple effects for teachers and students alike.

“We know from other research that people who are experiencing a lot of stress in their jobs can have problems with their physical health and problems with their mental well-being,” Steiner said. “Those things could then cause them potentially to be absent from school or to be less engaged in their jobs.”

For students, educators who aren’t present (both physically and mentally) often translate to less detailed and meaningful feedback, less challenging assignments, and overall less engaged teaching.

“Those sorts of actions can also affect student learning,” Steiner said.

Turnover is also a concern.

The APA Task Force report found that nearly half of the teachers surveyed expressed a desire or plan to quit or transfer to another school.

Similarly, the RAND report found that educators who were not coping well with job-related stress were more likely to indicate that they intended to leave their job.

“Of course, saying you’re going to leave your job and actually leaving your job are two very different things,” Steiner said. “But if people do leave their jobs, turnover is not great for schools, it’s not great for school climate, it’s not great for student learning.”

Experts say educators need more support, particularly in the current climate.

“Most teachers approach this career because they want to teach and they’re inspired by making a difference in children’s lives,” McMahon said. “Many go into this career because it’s a calling and they really enjoy the actual teaching part. But across so many different levels, they’re not valued or respected the way that they should be.”

Indeed, the RAND report found that despite the prevalence of job-related stress, many teachers do still enjoy their work.

“Many teachers we talked to said they love teaching and they really find joy in their work, even though it’s incredibly difficult right now,” Steiner said.

But most educators are in dire need of additional resources.

Steiner and her colleagues note that district leaders can help alleviate educators’ stress by expanding tutoring programs, investing in summer school, and hiring additional staff to address student behavior and mental health concerns.

Many schools also need to invest in more mental health and well-being programs for teachers. In the RAND survey, 20 percent of principals and 35 percent of teachers reported not having access to employer-provided mental health support or did not know if they had such access.

Many educators who did have access to these resources reported that they weren’t always convenient and often scheduled at times they could not attend.

With all of the challenges facing teachers right now, experts say it’s important for educators to prioritize their own mental health.

“Educators can’t put their own mental or physical health on the back burner in the service of their school, their job, or their students,” McMahon said. “It’s like when you get on an airplane and you hear the flight attendant say if there’s an emergency, put your own mask on first, and then you help your child. You can’t help your children if you’re not doing well enough to help them.”

Experts say the current summer break can be an ideal time for teachers to relax and recharge after another stressful year.

“For many teachers having an upcoming summer break or reduced schedule will come as a huge relief and an opportunity to focus their time and energy on their own needs and/or their family’s needs rather than that of their school systems,” said Jessica Stern, PhD, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health.

Teachers may want to consider the following advice to make the most of their summer break.

Figure out what it is you need

Whether it’s completely ‘vegging out,’ working on home projects, traveling, or attending to healthcare needs, think about what it is you most desire.

“The most important thing is to identify what it is that you need and want, not what others tell you you ‘should’ need or want,” Stern said. “After thinking on that, it can be helpful to communicate that with friends, family, and colleagues who can support that.”

Spend your time wisely

Once you figure out what it is you need out of summer break, it’s time to prioritize your time and try to only commit to activities that serve your needs.

“Be intentional about how you spend your time,” said Justin Barterian, PhD, a licensed psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Individuals prioritize values differently and it is beneficial to make sure you are spending your time in a way that is consistent with your values.”

For example, it may be important for you to prioritize spending time with your family, reengage with your hobbies, participate in community events, or simply catch up on Netflix.

Consider therapy and/or mindfulness meditation

To stay focused on the here and now, rather than getting pulled back into the stress of the past or upcoming school years, Barterian recommends trying mindfulness meditation.

If you’re finding managing your mental health particularly challenging right now, you may need professional help.

“For teachers who find they are struggling with stress or rumination about the past or upcoming school year, speaking with a mental health provider who provides cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based treatment protocols may be helpful,” he said.

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