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