What do teachers and nurses have in common? For one, they both report the highest rate of stress among all occupational groups (during the school year, at least).
Almost half of teachers say they experience high levels of stress every day. Fewer than one-third of teachers in K-12 schools say they feel engaged at work – and they report that their engagement fell significantly within their first few years at the front of the classroom. Between 23 to 42 percent of teachers quit their job within the first five years.
Contrary to popular belief, pay isn’t always the main factor. Rather, teachers who leave say their decision was based on the things that cause them stress: job dissatisfaction, poor working conditions, classroom resources, unsupportive leadership, and lack of autonomy, to name a few.
It isn’t just your teachers’ mental health that bears the burden. It bleeds into your school’s turnover rate, student outcomes, and even your budget. By some estimates, high teacher stress could be costing U.S. schools billions of dollars each year.
So let’s take a look at why teacher mental health matters, understand the common sources of teacher stress, and share effective ways to address the issue – before it becomes more of an issue.
The true causes (and costs) of teacher stress
If we’re going to prioritize teacher mental health, we first need to understand what factors put their wellbeing at risk.
Teachers are people first. They face family issues, health problems, financial obligations, or other major upheavals in their lives like anyone else. On top of that, they may already be struggling with very real mental health conditions, like generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and ADHD, to name a few.
On top of that, consider some common workplace contributors that can burn teachers out fast:
- Lack of autonomy: Especially with high-stakes testing, teachers feel like they don’t have the control or decision-making power they need to manage what they teach and the pace at which they teach it.
- Interpersonal relationships: Not only are teachers tasked with managing behavioral problems inside their classroom, but they also report added stress from handling difficult parents.
- Unsupportive culture: When teachers feel like colleagues and school administration aren’t taking their concerns seriously, they don’t feel like valued members of the team – or like their opinions matter.
- Resource shortages: It’s not just a dearth of textbooks on bookshelves. Teachers often don’t receive the tools they need to help struggling students who are struggling inside (and outside) the classroom.
- Long hours: It’s not uncommon for teachers to take their heavy workload home with them. Many spend their evening hours grading papers or planning lessons rather than decompressing and practicing self-care.
- Compassion fatigue/Burnout: Teaching is a “caring profession” – in other words, it revolves around looking after others. These kinds of jobs carry emotional labor above and beyond classroom tasks and activities, which can wear teachers down over time.
- Toxic positivity: Teachers are expected to be patient, stable, caring and in control. But under that mask of positivity, they suppress their real struggles to meet the expectations of their profession.
Addressing stress at the school level
We can’t expect teachers to shoulder the responsibility for on-the-job stress alone; nor should we expect them to “fix” the issue on an individual level.
Though individual interventions may help teachers deal with in-the-moment stressors, organizational interventions are better equipped to stop stress before it becomes a problem – and can be more effective as a whole.
So what can schools do at an organizational level to help manage teacher stress?
Create a supportive workplace
A supportive workplace is one in which teachers have strong leadership from their principal, where they collaborate openly with their colleagues and where there are structures in place for wellbeing.
Teachers (especially those who are new to the profession) can benefit greatly from the experience of others who have been there before. Mentoring can also connect teachers across grade levels and subject areas to share insights and promote more effective communication.
Build coping skills into professional development
Educating teachers on effective strategies for mental health management as part of their ongoing professional development sends the message that their wellbeing is important. It can also help normalize talking about mental health in the workplace.
Listen to (and involve) teachers
Let teachers know their opinions matter by giving them a seat at the decision-making table. Set time aside to listen to their concerns and work with them to find solutions to their problems. Then show them that their voices are being heard through your actions.
Provide the right resources
Teachers and school staff alike can benefit from access to apps, support groups, websites, books and podcasts that discuss mental health and stress-busting strategies. Not only can these resources help manage an in-the-moment crisis, but they can also prevent a crisis from happening in the first place.
Stress tools that matter for teachers
Of course, if you’re a teacher experiencing a stressful moment, we have a few ideas to share on how to defuse the situation:
Inhale deeply through your nose for four counts. Hold for four counts. Exhale evenly through your mouth for four counts. Hold again for four counts. Then repeat. This is called box breathing, and if you keep it up for just five minutes, you may be surprised at how much better you feel.
Reframe the situation
Stress itself isn’t the enemy. In fact, it’s a useful tool that can help us understand our challenges and motivate us to grow. So the next time you feel stressed, think about what that stress is trying to tell you. Reflect and reframe what it means to you. Embrace it, own it and harness its motivational power. As one Ted speaker puts it, stress is your body helping you rise to the challenge.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it’s a sign of strength; a sign that you recognize you can’t do everything on your own and that you’re willing to work alongside others to grow. Research shows it can put you at an advantage rather than a disadvantage – and that others are more willing to assist than you might expect.
You don’t need to squeeze a whole workout into your routine to benefit from the stress-relieving properties of exercise. Even a 20-minute walk can take you far when it comes to kick-starting those endorphins and boosting your mood.
Gather your resources
We can’t list every great resource out there in one article, but we can get you started with some popular options to explore:
- Meditation apps like Headspace and Calm provide guided exercises in mindfulness, stress relief and more.
- Websites like Resilient Educator bring together toolkits, news and views on self-care specifically for teachers.
- Self-evaluation tools like Mental Health America’s Stress Screener questionnaire can help you assess the level of stress you’re experiencing.
- Books like The Happy Teacher’s Handbook and Today I Made a Difference can help you overcome overwhelm to reconnect with your motivation.
- Communities on social media or organizations like Happy Teacher Revolution connect you with other educators and resources they’ve found helpful.
- Podcasts like the Teacher Self-Care Podcast and Teacher’s Aid dive into topics of self-care and managing teacher stress.
When teachers succeed, everyone succeeds
When a recent survey asked more than 5,000 teachers about the three most frequent emotions they felt each day, they noticed a trend: five in particular emerged as the most common. Those feelings? Anxious. Fearful. Worried. Overwhelmed. Sad.
When the same survey asked those teachers how they wanted to feel, six different emotions emerged as the winners. Happy. Inspired. Valued. Supported. Effective. Respected.
Addressing teacher mental health and the stressors that put teachers’ wellbeing at risk can help bridge that gap, while saving money for schools, improving turnover rates, boosting student outcomes – and above all, keeping teachers happy.
Additional resources for teachers; 10 Tips for Keeping Your Teachers Motivated, and 7 Tips for Teachers Who Want Better Work-Life Balance.