School & District Management What the Research Says

What School Leaders Can Do to Ease Teacher Stress

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 17, 2023 4 min read
Instructor Emily Daniels, left, raises her arms while leading a workshop helping teachers find a balance in their curriculum while coping with stress and burnout in the classroom, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, in Concord, N.H. School districts around the country are starting to invest in programs aimed at address the mental health of teachers. Faced with a shortage of educators and widespread discontentment with the job, districts are hiring more therapist, holding trainings on self-care and setting up system to better respond to a teacher encountering anxiety and stress.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Teacher stress and burnout continue to rise in many school districts, worsening teacher absenteeism and turnover and generating national attention. But emerging research suggests principals can do a lot to help teachers cope.

“Stress is a function of how we think about demands in our environment and the resources we have to meet [them], so it’s kind of a psychological balancing act,” said Christopher McCarthy, an education psychology professor at the University of Texas-Austin, one of the researchers discussing teacher stress last week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association here. “There are very specific demands unique to the teacher’s work environment, and also various resources that they have to meet those demands … so stress is the teacher’s perception that their demands are exceeding their resources.”

Since 2020, McCarthy, Richard Lambert, an education leadership professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and their colleagues have tracked the links between teacher stress and school climate among nearly 2,000 elementary and secondary teachers in a large, diverse suburban school district. They monitor teachers’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as surveys of teachers’ ratings of their classroom demands and resources, their perceptions of instructional support from administrators, and their job satisfaction. The teachers’ data were mapped to their schools and analyzed in connection to principals’ longevity, experience levels, and leadership styles. Then the researchers looked at the third of schools with the highest classroom demands (and thus the most risk for stress) reported by teachers.

As the study started during the pandemic, teachers across the district reported rising classroom demands. While turnover among both teachers and principals has risen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers found having a new or less experienced principal did not necessarily increase teachers’ stress. Rather, teachers’ stress was linked to their principal’s overall leadership qualities and approach to the job.

To reduce teachers’ stress, McCarthy and Lambert found school leaders can:

  • Listen to teachers. Teachers are more likely to report a disconnect between their demands and capacity if they’re not consulted on decisions about school support and resources. (This is particularly important when it comes to teacher wellness initiatives; mandated teacher-relaxation interventions, for example, can backfire if staff don’t want a particular approach.)
  • Nurture a climate of self-care. Encourage teachers to set professional boundaries and protect teachers’ break and planning times.
  • Take a trauma-informed approach. Mental health problems have risen among children and adults alike since the pandemic began, and educators are often the first to confront the effects of anxiety in the classroom. The Los Angeles Unified schools even launched a professional development course for its principals on how to implement trauma-informed supports for their staff and students.

Perhaps one of the most important ways principals can support teachers is by providing time and space for them to support each other. In a separate study, researchers Iksang Yoon and Roger Goddard of Ohio State University studied social-emotional climate and curriculum in 25 Midwestern schools employing more than 1,000 teachers overall. They found that a principal’s instructional leadership—demonstrated, for example, by providing tools and training in social-emotional learning—boosted teachers’ comfort with implementing SEL programs. But how effective principals were at leading that implementation was closely tied to teacher collaboration. The more frequently teachers worked together, the more confident they were with implementing social-emotional programs.

Identify underlying stressors

While burnout is often associated with withdrawal, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found that across jobs, 1 in 5 workers reported being passionate and interested in their work—and were likely to be highly engaged and often actively learning new skills—but also reported high stress, fatigue, and frustration. And these “engaged/exhausted” staff had the highest turnover rate of any group. A related study by Shengjie Lin, a postdoctoral researcher at the Yale center found about 70 percent of teachers reported feeling competing exhaustion and determination.

“How many of us love our work, but we are freaking tired? Those are the people you have to be careful about, because you don’t notice it,” said Marc Brackett, director of the Yale center.

In follow-up studies of teachers, the Yale center researchers found administrators need to go further than just a staff survey to understand what underlies teacher stress.

“When people say they are tired, ask, is that really exhausted or anxious or frustrated?” Brackett said. “Knowing that will shift the way you support [teachers].”

For example, he said, knowing whether teachers are stressed about health concerns or student behavior makes a difference in whether a leader should focus on COVID protocols or new discipline intervention.

Experts also advised administrators to consider different sources of stress for teachers of color. For example, a Pennsylvania State University study of more than 3,000 teachers found that teachers of color were more likely than white colleagues to report being stressed because they felt inconsistency and a lack of communication from administration.

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2023 edition of Education Week as What School Leaders Can Do to Ease Teacher Stress

Events

Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
STEM Fusion: Empowering K-12 Education through Interdisciplinary Integration
Join our webinar to learn how integrating STEM with other subjects can revolutionize K-12 education & prepare students for the future.
Content provided by Project Lead The Way
School & District Management Webinar How Pensions Work: Why It Matters for K-12 Education
Panelists explain the fundamentals of teacher pension finances — how they are paid for, what drives their costs, and their impact on K-12 education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Video 'Students Never Forget': Principals Call for Help After School Shootings
School leaders are lobbying Congress for more financial support for schools that experience gun violence.
2 min read
Forest High School students console one another after a school shooting at Forest High School Friday, April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Fla. One student shot another in the ankle at the high school and a suspect is in custody, authorities said Friday. The injured student was taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Forest High School students console one another after a school shooting at Forest High School Friday, April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Fla. One student shot another in the ankle at the high school and a suspect is in custody, authorities said Friday. The injured student was taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Doug Engle/Star-Banner via AP
School & District Management Opinion In School Leadership, Busy Is a Given. Chaos Is a Choice
There will never be enough time, money, or resources to solve every problem in education, so we must learn to operate within constraints.
Kate Hazarian
3 min read
Two hands attempt to hold chaos.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management How Sweltering Heat Disrupts Learning and What Schools Can Do
Extreme heat is becoming more common across the United States. Schools need to start preparing now.
5 min read
A boy cools off at a fountain during hot weather in Chicago, on June 16, 2024.
A boy cools off at a fountain during hot weather in Chicago, on June 16, 2024.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
School & District Management Opinion 'I Don't Know What to Do': Facing Today's Education Leadership Challenges
Here are three concrete steps for getting ahead of controversies and creating a supportive learning environment for every student.
Jennifer Perry Cheatham & Bonnie Lo
5 min read
A leader encourages a large group of people across a bridge made of pencils. Proactive leadership.
Raul Arias for Education Week