Your Teachers are More Stressed Than Ever Before:
How Can You Help Them This School Year?
There are a critical number of people who rely on teachers. Students depend on them to teach educational and life lessons, parents depend on them to guide their child’s academic experience and serve as a lifeline between their child and the school, and principals and superintendents depend on them to help execute their vision for their school and their students. With so many entities relying on teachers being able to perform at a high level, school leaders cannot risk teachers being unengaged or in any way inhibited from fulfilling their duties. Unfortunately, there is a significant risk that teachers face that could severely impact their ability to be the type of resource students, parents, and administrations need: stress.
Stress among teachers is a growing concern within school districts and the academic community. Nearly half of all teachers, 46 percent, say they experience daily stress according to a report by Gallup—a percentage comparable to other expectedly high-stress occupations, such as nurses, physicians, and business managers. As teachers face growing threats in the classroom, and increased pressure to perform to state and parental standards, emotional stress is placing critical pressure on teachers and leading to consequences that can impact everyone who relies upon their performance and engagement.
The Factors Causing Teacher Stress
There are a variety of contributing factors to teacher stress. First, teachers must be successful in teaching lessons while simultaneously managing student behavior in the classroom. Serving as the disciplinarian can become an ongoing pain point particularly for teachers faced with a classroom of students that collectively lack structure and respect for authority. Repeatedly stopping class to respond to misbehaving students can put teachers behind in their assignments and lead to high levels of general agitation and anxiety.
Teachers must also help students grow and develop socially in a healthy way, even though some adolescents face difficulties outside the classroom that impact inside classroom behavior, and that teachers cannot influence, such as issues at home or mental health conditions for which the student may or may not be receiving treatment.
Also, teachers must continuously coordinate with other teachers and parents, keeping detailed records and often fielding questions and inquiries from dissatisfied, sometimes confrontational parents. Teachers already feel the weight of helping each child meet his academic potential, so when a frustrated parent challenges their teaching methods or outcomes, it can result in increased feelings of stress, worry, or fear of failure.
Finally, the rise of school violence and ongoing fear nationwide of classroom attacks, coupled with pressures from some advocacy groups for teachers to arm themselves to protect their classrooms, may leave teachers feeling threatened, vulnerable, and fearful on a daily basis.
Potential Consequences of Teacher Stress
Rising rates of teacher stress put schools and school districts at risk of increased teacher attrition. According to a study conducted by the Georgia Department of Education, nearly half of all new teachers leave the field within the first five years, while according to a 2015 poll, almost two-thirds of those who stay report being “not engaged,” or mentally and emotionally disconnected from their teaching and their students’ needs.
Also, teachers constantly under high levels of stress may not perform to high, or even expected standards, which impacts learning opportunities for their students. According to a 2016 study conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, when teachers are highly stressed, their students show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance.
Of even more significant concern, continually facing high levels of stress could result in teachers being at higher risk of physical illness, such as chronic fatigue or heart disease. Unhealthy teachers require more time off, which can negatively impact their classroom. It may also lead to periods of short-term disability, which can leave administrators scrambling to identify short-to long-term substitutes who are capable of picking up where regular teachers unexpectedly left off. Excessive teacher absences also disrupt the consistency of instruction, behavior management, and student relationships.
Chronic high levels of stress can also make teachers more susceptible to mental illness and can increase emotional ailments such as anxiety, irritability, mood swings, and exhaustion, which can inhibit their ability to effectively lead their classroom, especially in moments where students are not engaged or disciplined.
Signs of Burnout in Teachers
Your teachers may be experiencing detrimental stress if you observe any of the following behaviors:
- A reduction in work quality
- Anxiety or seeming ill-at-ease on a daily basis
- Indecisiveness or indifference
- Poor judgment
- Loss of humor
- Complaints of regular illness, such as headaches or physical pain that may or may not accompany increased sick leave
How to Alleviate Teacher Stress
With a new school year about to begin, superintendents and school administrators should commit to taking steps to mitigate teacher stress and cultivate a culture of wellness predicated on support and that encourages teachers to seek help if they feel overwhelmed. Begin by following these best practices.
Imperatively, the factor most closely associated with teacher job satisfaction is administrative support. Teachers who report feeling satisfied with their working conditions also report feeling less stress and being more committed to their position and their students. Administrators should hold teachers to high standards that enable quality student performance, however, school districts need to cultivate an environment where teachers feel supported by their leaders, and believe they can speak up if they need help, whether it be managing workloads, adapting to new state curriculum, or resolving a stressful situation with a student or parent.
Encourage your principals to establish an open door policy that encourages teachers to report concerns, ask for help, or suggest improvements. Principals and administrators should also routinely seek teacher input, hold team meetings to discuss collective concerns and collaborate on solutions that will allow teachers to be more effective and less stressed.
Also, encourage teachers to collaborate with and support one another. Teachers will feel more confident and capable if they believe they are not alone in facing daily challenges. Having the support of administrators is not enough. Encourage teachers to support one another inside and outside of the classroom and create an environment where collaboration is promoted and positively reinforced through shared learning and open peer-to-peer dialogue.
Provide Regular, Constructive Feedback
When teachers feel their performance, and their achievements are observed and acknowledged they are more likely to remain engaged and dedicated to future goals. Administrators should ensure teachers receive regular formal performance assessments as well as informal feedback from principals and administrators. In all instances, feedback should be poised as constructive, collaborative, and actionable. Teachers who feel they are routinely criticized, or given critical feedback not tied to solution-oriented goals, are at risk of experiencing higher levels of stress.
Also, make sure each teacher has a professional development plan. Feeling that their leadership supports them in achieving professional goals will help teachers remain motivated, especially through hard times. It will also reinforce that the school and school district value their contributions and are making a long-term commitment toward their success—which can help to mitigate feelings of apathy and alleviate attrition.
Promote Effective Teacher-Student Relationships
One of the most significant causes of teacher stress is the constant need to manage student behavior and maintain a disciplined classroom. School districts that collectively execute strategies to reward positive student behaviors support teacher efforts by maintaining a productive learning environment where students treat one another—and their teachers—with respect, thus reducing instances of teacher burnout. A 2015 study conducted by the University of Washington College of Education and Social Development Research Group recommends that teachers should strive to implement five positive supports (such as praising and rewarding students for doing what is asked and expected), for each punitive action (such as the removal of privileges or disciplinary actions).
Teachers also need to do their part to maintain a healthy lifestyle and manage stress. This process should include eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising regularly. It may also involve practicing stress-reducing mindfulness techniques such as yoga or meditation. To enable and encourage these behaviors, regularly educate teachers about the importance of self-care.
Provide lists of available local resources for gyms and yoga studios where teachers can participate in healthy behaviors, provide healthy foods during staff meetings, and encourage principals to identify early signs of burnout in their teachers so that they can intervene early by encouraging them to take planned time-off for self-care. Offer informational classes, resources, guest speakers, and seminars regarding stress management. Also, consider adding mental health days to vacation and sick day banks and encouraging teachers to take time off for rest and rejuvenation when necessary.
Put a Proactive Plan In Place to Mitigate the Threat of an Active Shooter
It may not be possible to eliminate teachers’ concerns regarding an act of violence in the classroom such as a school shooting, but teachers may feel more confident that they are as protected as possible if their school puts a proactive plan in place to minimize the chances of a school shooting. Such efforts may include the use of education and training, locks on all exterior building doors, and the use of closed-circuit cameras to monitor the grounds and the interior of the buildings.
Administrators may also want to hold school shooting education sessions and hold safety drills with faculty and students. Partner with your local law enforcement agency to educate faculty, staff, and students on proven best practices to follow in the event of an active shooter situation, including where to hide, who to call, and how to evacuate. When teachers feel informed on what to do in an emergency, they will feel more comfortable and confident and can focus on student learning.
Your teachers are your most valuable asset. Your school district cannot function at a high level unless its teachers are functioning at a high level too. By giving teachers the resources they need to feel supported and valued, they will turn to available tools when days, semesters, and even school years feel challenging to manage. Most importantly, they will have the capacity to focus on student learning and enable the high academic outcomes everyone wants from their classrooms.