Teacher stress and burnout are deeply damaging to all — and there are antidotes!

I just came across a most interesting and — weirdly, you might say — reassuring document called Teacher Stress and Health. The report is weirdly reassuring to me because it boldly states the truth about teaching these days: that teaching is MEGA-STRESSFUL.

“Of course it is!” you might be thinking. “Who doesn’t know that?!?” I’m guessing a lot of people don’t, but that’s less important than some of the specifics the report contains as well as its recommendations.

Here’s a specific that I bet few people know: teachers tend to experience more stress on a daily basis than people in other professions. As the authors of Teacher Stress and Health put it (on page 5), “According to a national survey, 46 percent of teachers report high daily stress during the school year [here they cite a Gallup poll]. This is the highest rate of daily stress among all occupational groups, tied with nurses, also at 46 percent, and higher than physicians, at 45 percent.”

Wow. And yeah. But consider: Even if nurses and doctors have difficult patients or have to witness unbearable suffering, the exposure is generally time-limited. Teachers return to their students every day for 180 days and, unlike most doctors and nurses, do not always enjoy the trust of their “patients.” Being helped — or forced — to learn is not always as welcome as being helped or forced to heal and feel better.

Here’s another specific: Teacher stress can lead to a number of very undesirable outcomes. The authors again (p. 2): “High levels of stress are affecting teacher health and well-being, causing teacher burnout, lack of engagement, job dissatisfaction, poor performance, and some of the highest turnover rates ever.” This list is disturbingly gloomy, but what astonishes me is the researchers’ use of the word “cause.” The claim that stress causes such terrible outcomes is HUGE. Researchers rarely lay claim to cause and effect. The fact that these authors do pretty much obligates us to do everything we can to reduce teachers’ stress.

A few more facts, just to confirm what you might already know:

  • High-stakes testing contributes to teacher stress because it “limit[s] teachers’ control over the content and pace of their own work” (p. 3)
  • Teacher stress is highest and most damaging in the neediest schools: “Because turnover is most likely to occur in poorly performing schools, it leads to long-term destabilization of low-income neighborhood schools which lose continuity in relationships between teachers, students, parents and community” (p. 6).
  • It’s not just students who make teachers’ lives miserable; parents do, too: “Managing students with behavior problems and working with difficult parents are two other demanding interpersonal challenges that produce chronic stress and leave teachers more vulnerable to depression” (p. 4)

And, finally, this: stressed-out teachers don’t teach very well, which means their students don’t learn very much. On the other hand, “engaged” teachers teach better and their students learn better. Another quote from the report (p. 5): “When teachers are highly stressed, children show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance. Most strikingly, a survey of over 78,000 students in grades 5-12 in 160 schools showed that higher teacher engagement in their jobs predicted higher student engagement, which in turn predicted higher student achievement outcomes.”

Perhaps to point out the obvious: When the students of stressed-out teachers “show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance” — that is, act out and resist learning — those students behave in ways that add to their teachers’ stress. Which leads to teacher and student disengagement, which leads to more acting out, which leads to more stress and disengagement. Which leads to burnout and attrition for both students and teachers. And, by the way, the cost of teachers’ attrition could be over $7 billion per year (this from p. 6 of Teacher Stress and Health).

And just to hammer the point home:

When high job demands and stress are combined with low social-emotional competence (SEC) and classroom management skills, poor teacher performance and attrition increase [citation]. A teacher’s own SEC and well-being are key factors influencing student and classroom outcomes [citation]. Yet, few teachers have had training opportunities to attend to and develop their own SEC. If a teacher is unable to manage their stress adequately, their instruction will suffer, which then impacts student well-being and achievement. In contrast, teachers with better emotion regulation are likely to reinforce positive student behavior, and support students in managing their own negative emotions [citation, citation]. Teachers with high SEC also report more positive affect, greater principal support, higher job satisfaction, and a sense of personal accomplishment [citation]. (pp. 4-5)

Let us pause for just a moment and dwell on this profound paragraph. Teachers, it says, need to be socially and emotionally competent. I don’t know what percentage of people develop social-emotional competence on their own, but my experience of life says: not many. And even if a vast majority of people demonstrate social-emotional competence at work or in their families, where they’re dealing with one or two people at a time, how many of them are equipped to exercise SEC with a roomful of toddlers or tweens or raging adolescents? None of whom is related to them? Some of whom do not share their goals and values?

The report’s authors seem to have similar questions. They stress that, even as teachers are expected to deliver SEL curricula to their students, the teachers are not expected or trained to exhibit Social Emotional Competence (SEC) themselves. “[F]ew teachers,” the report’s authors state, “are offered professional development to nurture their own social and emotional competence” (p. 10). But, the authors claim, “[t]eachers receiving coaching focused on improving the quality of their interactions with students have led to a significant increase in student achievement [citation], suggesting that systematic and sustained coaching supports may be a critical component of SEL interventions for teachers” (p. 8).

Bottom line: Teachers need support and training in SEL. They need it for their own sakes — for their own health and wellness. But they need it for their students’ sakes as well. And, given the importance to human society of well-adjusted, mentally balanced, productive citizens, they need it for the world’s sake!

So what would teachers’ SEL look like? What kind of “coaching focused on improving the quality of their interactions with students” would teachers welcome? What kind of training would they seek out? What would their schools provide and for how long? Given its foundational relationship to effective teaching and learning, why isn’t this kind of support and training available on every school campus?

I actually offer this kind of support. And I still don’t know the answers to these questions. I’d love to hear your answers!