Teaching Profession

Here’s What Teachers Say They Need Most to Manage Stress, Mental Health

By Madeline Will — July 18, 2023 7 min read
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As teacher stress and burnout levels remain high, and the pressures of the job continue to grow, educators say one thing can go a long way in making teaching a more sustainable profession: more time.

“We want the gift of time,” said Anna Aguilar, an elementary teacher in the Twin Rivers Unified school district in Sacramento, Calif. “We don’t need more [professional development]. We don’t need to be told what to do. We have plenty to do, which is part of the problem. You keep adding stuff to our plates. I’m telling you I need time to do those things.”

Yet school districts often don’t seem to be listening, Aguilar and four other educators said in a roundtable discussion at the National Education Association’s representative assembly here in early July. Many educators say that teaching has gotten harder since the pandemic, as student academic needs have gotten greater, behavioral challenges have increased, and substitute and other staffing shortages have continued to plague schools.

“We’re always asking more of our educators and not less,” said Robert Gould, a special education teacher and the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “We never take anything off their plates.”

A recent RAND Corp. study found that teachers are nearly twice as likely as other working adults to report having difficulty coping with job-related stress, and 10 percentage points more likely to experience burnout. Frequent and long-term stress increases the risk of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.

Yet a nationally representative survey of teachers, conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in January, found that districts’ mental health programming for their employees is sparse, even as more than half of respondents said that the mental health and wellness of teachers in their school had declined over the course of the 2022-23 school year.

Some teachers are leaving the profession altogether because of the stresses of the job, while many others are pushing through—which experts say is bad for both their own mental health and that of their students.

“When you have burnout, you’re coming to work with a very negative attitude and very negative energy,” said Donna Christy, a school psychologist and the president of the Prince George’s County Educators Association in Maryland. “And kids are so empathic that they feel your negative energy, and that spurs their negative energy, which causes more behavior problems and challenges.

“It just becomes this really vicious, horrible cycle of a really negative climate within our schools where the educators are dysregulated, and the students are dysregulated, and we’re all feeding each other’s dysregulation, and it’s just a time bomb—and it erupts frequently.”

What educators say could help improve employee mental health

The educators said they need time and space to do their jobs well. They want to teach—and spend less time doing administrative tasks and paperwork.

Christy called for an audit of the educator workload: “What’s a must versus a want in terms of what you’re asking educators to do?”

For example, she said, officials in her district want teachers to call home every time a child is absent, but a robocall system could take care of that. Teachers are also expected to pull reports on every student who is in danger of failing, but the central office has access to that data, too, she said.

“What’s burying [teachers] is all this work that they shouldn’t have to do—just let them teach,” Christy said. “Let them plan their lessons, let them teach. And everybody outside of the classroom should be thinking, ‘What can I do to support what’s going on within those four walls of the classroom?’”

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Her teachers’ union in Prince George’s County focused on reducing educator workload and protecting planning time during bargaining last year. Ultimately, the district agreed to build in more planning time in the contract. Middle and high school teachers, for instance, now have at least 45 minutes of planning time every day—and a full class period for two days each week.

Wayne Spangler, a 2nd grade teacher in Peterstown, W.Va., said his principal has made sure that all grade-level teachers have the same planning period. Sharing that time “helps our mental health,” he said, since it allows them to go over what is working and what’s not.

But the lack of substitutes in his district sometimes cuts into his planning time, he said. Administrators will ask teachers if they’re willing to give up their planning period to cover this class, and offer a $25 incentive.

“It’s hard to say, ‘No, I don’t want to do that,’” Spangler said, because he knows that if he doesn’t step up, the students will either be missing out on instruction or will be spread across other teachers’ classes—which brings class sizes to “almost an unmanageable point.”

In general, large class sizes are also a major time-suck for teachers, said Gould, the Denver teachers’ union president. With smaller class sizes, educators would have more time to implement the inclusive practices that they want to do and that support students, he said.

Other educators in the school building can also lessen teachers’ loads, but staff shortages have made that harder as everyone in the building is stretched thin. For example, Christy said school counselors are often tapped to coordinate tests and facilitate special education meetings—reducing the amount of time available to lead social-emotional learning in the building or respond to students’ mental health needs.

Nicolle Reyes, an education support professional in Harrisburg, Pa., said she wishes every classroom had an assigned paraprofessional. She is often sent into classrooms to help students with behavioral challenges, but she said her presence can make the entire classroom run more smoothly and alleviate the teacher’s stress.

“I was sent into a classroom to support the kids, but truthfully, it turned into a support to the teacher,” Reyes said. “She kept saying, ‘Thank you for being here.’ ... She would give me a group [of students], and we’d divide and conquer.”

Mental health days are not necessarily the answer

A dozen states allow students to take a day off from school for mental health reasons, but the practice is less common for teachers. In the EdWeek Research Center survey, about half of teachers said their school or district permitting or encouraging mental health days would support their well-being.

But the educators at the roundtable weren’t convinced—in part because that time off won’t solve the root of the problem.

“Having a day off to take care of my mental health to recover from my job is not the answer,” Christy said. “The problem is fixing the job so that it’s not so stressful that you need to be taught how to cope with it.”

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In many districts, sick days can be used for mental health as well, but “teachers don’t always feel like they can take that day,” Gould said, pointing to the lack of substitutes and a general desire to want to be there for students.

Aguilar, the California elementary teacher, works with children with disabilities. She hesitates to take days off because she wants her students to have consistency. It can be stressful for them to have somebody new at the front of the class.

Also, she added, it’s “stressful for you as a teacher to have to plan literally every second of the day as if you’re there, to explain to [a substitute] in words how to do what you do.”

Aguilar said her union did successfully bargain for bereavement time for pregnancy loss—part of a growing trend in certain districts to support educators who have a miscarriage or stillbirth but are unwilling or unable to take sick time. (Oftentimes, teachers are trying to save their sick time to take when a future baby is born, since many districts do not provide paid parental leave.)

“If we value mental health, it should come from the adults,” Aguilar said. “Adults should put on our [oxygen] masks first, so we can help our children. If we’re not OK, it’s going to be very, very difficult to do that.”

Removing barriers to mental health support

In a small town, teachers might be deterred from taking a mental health day or visiting a therapist for fear of word getting out, said Spangler, the West Virginia teacher.

And there’s a generational divide, he said: He’s noticed younger teachers being more open about struggling with their mental health and being proactive in seeking support.

But for veteran teachers like himself, “we don’t do that. We power through,” Spangler said.

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Kasia Bogdańska for Education Week

School and district leaders have to create a culture where it’s normalized to seek mental health care, the educators said. Part of that is reducing any barriers to access.

For example, Gould said the Denver Classroom Teachers Association has successfully negotiated with the district that starting this year, educators won’t have to pay any co-pays for mental health support, relieving a big financial burden.

“That was a major reason why people didn’t go—I want to have this relationship with somebody over time, but if I’m going to be shelling out a thousand dollars over time, it doesn’t make much sense,” he said.

Above all, the systemic issues that make teaching so hard must be addressed, the educators in the roundtable discussion said.

“People come into the education profession thinking it’s one thing, and then the reality is something so completely different,” Christy said. “That’s why they leave. ... If we could make the job what people think it is, people would actually enjoy it and stay. They would not be burned out, and we would not have mental health crises.”

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