Here’s why stressed out educators are still showing up for work

Nearly half of teachers say supporting students’ academic achievement is the top source of tension.

Teachers and principals are twice as stressed out as the rest of the workforce, with well-being especially poor among Hispanic, female and mid-career teachers. This level of emotional distress may be hindering K-12’s attempts to recover from COVID’s extensive disruptions, according to the latest educator survey by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

Public school teachers, principals and working adults were asked about five aspects of well-being: frequent job-related stress, ability to cope with job-related stress, burnout, symptoms of depression, and resilience to stressful events. Among the educators surveyed:

  • Nearly half of the teachers said supporting students’ academic achievement was the top source of stress.
  • Two-thirds of the teachers reported taking on extra responsibilities during staff shortages caused by COVID–such as covering classes or bringing additional students into their classrooms.
  • For principals, staffing was the leading cause of anxiety.

Another troubling finding is that, among educators of color, more than one-third of teachers and nearly half of the principals reported experiencing discrimination. The most common sources were fellow staff and students’ family members.

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The types of discrimination reported included educators of color being: mistaken for foreigners, held to different standards and expectations, singled out for certain tasks because of their race, and harassed in-person or online. Teachers of color were also more likely than white teachers to report struggling with depression.

“Teachers told us that their dedication to working with students kept them in their jobs, even though pandemic conditions have made teaching more challenging,” said Elizabeth D. Steiner, lead author of the report and a policy researcher at RAND. “Teaching conditions–not the work of teaching itself–are what they find to be stressful.”

Top sources of educator stress

Here are the top sources of stress for teachers:

  1. Supporting students’ academic achievement
  2. Managing student behavior
  3. Taking on extra work because of staff shortages
  4. Supporting students’ mental health and well-being
  5. Too many hours spent working
  6. Salary is too low
  7. Implementing masking and other COVID-19 mitigation measures
  8. Feeling like the goals and expectations of the school are unattainable

The top causes for principals:

  1. Hiring a sufficient number of teachers and other staff
  2. Supporting teacher and staff mental health and well-being
  3. Making up for instructional time lost during COVID
  4. Supporting students’ mental health and well-being
  5. Implementing COVID-19 mitigation measures

Access to district-provided mental health care is reducing stress and increasing resilience for principals and teachers. But about one-fifth of principals and 35% of teachers said that they do not have access to such support or weren’t aware if it was offered. And others in the survey did not find the existing services worthwhile.

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“For many principals and teachers, available mental health supports were not helpful or convenient or were too limited to address their needs,” said Sy Doan, co-author and an associate policy researcher at RAND. “District leaders should avoid the appearance of treating wellness as a superficial or short-term problem and offer mental health and well-being supports tailored to educators’ needs.”

Teachers’ and principals’ reasons to stay

Many educators, however, told RAND that they are finding joy in their work and managing stress, and ranked the reasons they would stay in their jobs. For teachers, those reasons were:

  1. More pay
  2. Spending less time on non-teaching duties
  3. Smaller class sizes
  4. Working fewer hours per week

For principals:

  1. Spending more time on instructional leadership activities
  2. Working fewer hours per week
  3. Hiring more teachers, teaching assistants, paraprofessionals and counselors
  4. More pay
  5. More support, such as coaching, mentoring and professional development
  6. More decision-making authority (e.g., fewer district or state directives)
  7. Less interference from national political issues

The researchers encouraged K-12 leaders to put as much priority on strengthening adult relationships as they place on building positive student-staff relationships. District leaders can also reduce stress by relieving teachers and principals of tasks that interfere with their core responsibilities of working with students and providing instructional leadership.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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