Teaching Profession

Educators Are More Stressed at Work Than Average People, Survey Finds

By Madeline Will — October 30, 2017 3 min read
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Teachers are feeling especially stressed, disrespected, and less enthusiastic about their jobs, a new survey has found.

The survey, released by the American Federation of Teachers and the advocacy group Badass Teachers Association on Monday, included responses from about 5,000 educators. It follows a 2015 survey on educator stress—and finds that stress levels have grown and mental health has declined for this group in the past two years.

AFT surveyed a random sample of 830 of its members, and the rest of the respondents took the survey online after the survey was pushed out on AFT and BAT social media channels and email lists. It’s worth noting that the respondents who follow these channels might be more likely to feel more passionate about social justice in schools, and because they chose to take the survey, might be more disgruntled with their working conditions.

The survey also cites 2014 national stress data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for comparison to average U.S. workers.

The survey found that educators find work to be stressful 61 percent of the time—and nearly a quarter of respondents said work was “always” stressful. Meanwhile, workers in the general population report that work is stressful 30 percent of the time.

Respondents in the AFT random sample reported an average of seven days in the last month that their mental health was not good—and respondents to the public survey reported 12 bad mental health days. Meanwhile, the majority of U.S. working adults reported zero days in the last 30 that their mental health was not good.

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Why are teachers feeling so stressed? The survey points to several factors. While most educators report having control over classroom-level decisions, like teaching techniques and homework and grading policies, they have less influence over schoolwide decisions. Most teachers have minor or no influence over school budget decisions, nearly half have little or no say in determining professional development content, and 40 percent said they have minor or no influence in establishing curriculum at their schools. (A different study released last week found that when teachers have more control in schoolwide decisions, student test scores are higher.)

The AFT/BAT survey also found that educators are much more likely to be bullied, harassed, and threatened at work than other workers. About 26 percent of respondents in the random sample said they were bullied at work in the last year, and 43 percent of respondents in the public survey group said the same. Meanwhile, only 7 percent of U.S. workers experience workplace bullying. They noted that 50 percent of teachers identified a student as a bully; 35 percent identified a principal, administrator, or supervisor; 31 percent identified a parent; and 23 percent identified a co-worker.

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Finally, many teachers reported not feeling respected by the media and state and federal elected officials—and 86 percent said they felt disrespected by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. AFT President Randi Weingarten pointed out in a press call that the uptick in teachers’ stress and anxiety corresponds with the presidential election and President Donald Trump taking office.

“A different, newer stressor is becoming more clear—the sense of courseness, division, and polarization that is coming directly from the White House,” she said. “All of these outside stressors—top-down requirements, [policymakers] not listening to their voice, tweets every single day from the president, the enabling and increasing in bullying—all of that is seeping into their classrooms every single day.”

A recent study from UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access found that not only are high school students negatively impacted by the national political divisiveness, but 67 percent of teachers surveyed said their stress levels increased during the 2016-17 school year, with almost half of the teachers pointing to the election as a cause. Teachers said they struggled to create classrooms that are safe and welcoming for all students.

As part of an Education Week Teacher special report on teachers’ social-emotional competencies, I reported that self-care is essential for teachers—educators and researchers both agree that happy teachers lead to happy students. One award-winning teacher wrote that it took a trip to rehab to make him realize that he needed to set boundaries as a teacher to stave off burnout.

“No more giving ‘whatever it takes,’ but giving ‘what I can give within the context of my health, finances, and family,’” he wrote. “Treat teaching as a calling and a career. This is sustainable. This is how you last.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.