Starting the high school day after 9 a.m. has gained popularity as a way to boost adolescents’ alertness for morning classes. But a new study suggests secondary teachers may be less stressed and more effective if they get to sleep in, too.
Researchers led by Kyla Wahlstrom, a senior research fellow for education and human development at the University of Minnesota, analyzed the sleep habits and teaching of more than 1,800 teachers in a large, unnamed suburban school district as it implemented a new school schedule that delayed start times for middle and high schools.
They found after the schedule change, high school teachers slept on average 22 minutes longer and woke on average 28 minutes later than they had before the policy change. Moreover, they showed significantly less sleepiness throughout the day.
There were no significant differences in total sleep or daytime effectiveness for elementary and middle school teachers, though elementary teachers did wake nine minutes earlier on average.
“Something like 80 percent of the secondary schools in the country start before 8 a.m. So teachers have to get up early, just like the kids,” Wahlstrom said, “And although they don’t have the sleep phase shift that the teenagers have, teachers still have to be on the job ... Imagine having to be prepped and ready to go teaching a calculus class at 7:30 a.m.”
Many teachers are sleep-deprived
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults sleep at least seven hours per night, but more than 1 in 3 American adults don’t meet that sleep bar.
Teachers, in particular, tend to have awful sleep habits. Prior studies have found more than 40 percent of teachers get inadequate sleep on weekdays—with high school teachers getting more than 40 minutes less rest on average than other workers—and a majority of secondary teachers reporting signs of excessive sleepiness during the day.
Research also suggests work start times play a significant role in sleep deprivation among teachers, particularly for women, who reported more disrupted sleep and more daytime sleepiness than their male peers. One study released in September of more than 50,000 women in the California Teachers Study found 75 percent reported having trouble sleeping at least once a week, and 20 percent had sleep problems at least three times a week.
In a nationally representative survey this spring, the EdWeek Research Center found U.S. teachers shoulder 56-hourworkweeks on average, with teachers regularly reporting staying up to grade student work, plan lessons, and do other work.
But losing out on sleep can make teachers less effective in the classroom. “Whether you’re 16 or 35 or 55, the human brain needs a minimum amount of sleep to process the day’s events, so memory is significantly impacted by sleep duration,” Wahlstrom said. “So when adults are sleep deprived, they’re less able to remember things and ... tend to have greater mood swings and greater mood vacillation.”
Teachers experiencing sleep deprivation can be more nervous and irritable in the classroom—and tend to pass those negative emotions to students, reducing their motivation to learn, according to 2019 study of high school classes in Hong Kong.
Being chronically sleep-deprived makes adults more vulnerable to both infections and chronic diseases like diabetes, which can put schools at further risk of teacher absenteeism.
Creating better sleep hygiene for teachers
In addition to considering teachers’ rest needs in developing district schedules, experts say districts should do more to help teachers understand and improve their own sleep habits.
For example, the California teacher study found those exposed to more artificial light at night were more likely to experience shorter and more difficult sleep.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, recommends its members "[build] a schedule that prioritizes sleep and forces teaching work to fit into the finite time slots you actually have.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as Later School Start Times Could Help Teachers, Too