Teachers who report experiencing symptoms of depression teach their classes differently than their peers, according to new research.
The study, published in the Journal of School Psychology, looked at 32 3rd grade teachers and their 326 students across eight schools in north Florida. Researchers observed classroom literacy instruction three times over the course of the year.
The researchers collected teachers’ self-reported depressive symptoms using questions from an adapted version of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale—a screening test for clinical depression—that were integrated into a survey about teachers’ experiences and perspectives on their profession. (Most of the teachers—92 percent—were white, which the researchers said may limit the scope of the study, as teachers from underrepresented backgrounds could have different experiences.)
Teachers in the study who reported more depressive symptoms on the survey spent less time in two specific types of instruction: teacher-led whole group instruction, and what the researchers call “planning/organizing instruction,” which includes activities like giving directions, setting classroom norms, or explaining a new task or assignment. The relationship with depressive symptoms was especially strong for this second type of instruction.
While this study doesn’t demonstrate that depression causes teachers to use some teaching stratgies more often than others, the researchers say the link between symptoms and instructional choices is significant. It’s possible that teachers who have more depressive symptoms may be choosing to teach lessons that require less energy, the researchers write.
“A teacher who uses a lot of planning and organizing instruction is also a teacher who has planned activities that are complex enough to warrant explanation to the students,” said Leigh McLean, the lead author of the study, and a postdoctoral research associate in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University.
Teachers with depression may be less able to do this kind of advance planning, she said. “Depression is really associated with these huge feelings of fatigue and this lack of ability to put forth a lot of effort.”
This study builds on research McLean published in 2015, which found a link between teacher mental health and student performance. In that study, 3rd graders whose teachers reported more depressive symptoms showed lower math achievement than students in classes whose teachers reporter fewer depressive symptoms.
Other studies support the idea that teacher well-being has an effect on student outcomes. A 2014 report published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that depression in early-childhood teachers is associated with higher levels of aggression and sadness in the students they work with. In a 2017 study from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, teachers who exhibited higher levels of stress at the beginning of the school year were observed to use fewer effective teaching strategies in the classroom.
McLean says her research demonstrates that teachers need better access to mental health resources as part of their training.
Teachers in the U.S. have access to many opportunities to improve their instruction, says McLean, but few to support their emotional well-being. Last year, as part of Education Week‘s special report on teachers’ social-emotional competence, my colleague Madeline Will reported that very few teacher-preparation programs work with preservice teachers to identify and talk about their feelings, or how to manage stress.
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Professional development that focuses solely on pedagogy “might be lost on a teacher who’s having more difficulties with their mental health,” said McLean. “They could take in the information, but they may lack the energy and the resources to actually implement that in the classroom.”
McLean said she would like to see more professional-development opportunities that are a “marriage between instructional interventions and teacher well-being interventions,” integrating concepts like emotional regulation, resilience, stress relief, and mindfulness into preservice training and continuous development.
“Teachers need infinitely more support than they currently receive, and we’re hoping that this study can provide more compelling evidence that systems of support should be implemented,” said McLean. “Not only for teachers’ sake, but for students’ sake as well.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.