Teaching Profession

Stress, Burnout, Depression: Teachers and Principals Are Not Doing Well, New Data Confirm

By Madeline Will — June 15, 2022 6 min read
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Yet another survey confirms: Teachers and principals are stressed and burned out—and more than a quarter are experiencing symptoms of depression.

In fact, educators navigating pandemic-era schooling are faring worse than other working adults these days. That’s according to a new nationally representative RAND Corporation survey of 2,360 teachers and 1,540 principals, conducted in January. The researchers fielded the same questions to a nationally representative sample of working adults to compare results and found that educators have worse well-being on all five of the indicators in the survey.

Nearly three-fourths of teachers and 85 percent of principals are experiencing frequent job-related stress, compared to just a third of working adults. Fifty-nine percent of teachers and 48 percent of principals say they’re burned out, compared to 44 percent of other workers.

A silver lining? Most educators say they’re coping well with job-related stress. And just under half of teachers and two-thirds of principals report being resilient, meaning they bounce back quickly after stressful or hard times.

In interviews, many educators “talked about how they still find great joy in their work,” said Elizabeth Steiner, a policy researcher at RAND and a co-author of the report. “They don’t want to leave teaching, but they find the context [in which they are teaching] stressful.”

About one-third of teachers and principals said they were likely to leave their current job by the end of this school year, up from when RAND last surveyed educators in early 2021. Teachers of color were more likely to say they intended to leave than white teachers—41 percent compared to 31 percent.

District leaders and policymakers have been concerned about the possibility of educators leaving en masse at the end of this stressful school year. However, previous research suggests not everyone who says they’ll leave will actually do so. A prepandemic analysis found that just one-third of teachers who indicated they would leave the profession as soon as possible actually did so.

And the RAND researchers estimated that only 19 percent of principals who reported on a previous survey that they intended to leave their jobs before the end of the 2020-21 school year resigned by fall 2021.

Even so, the researchers noted that district leaders should still take seriously teachers’ and principals’ intent to leave. Educators who experienced frequent job-related stress, burnout, symptoms of depression, and who were not coping well with stressors were more likely to say they intended to quit, they found.

“The intention-to-leave measure is still a very, very important indicator of job satisfaction,” said Sy Doan, an associate policy researcher at RAND and a co-author of the report. “Despite the fact that it is an overestimate, ... it relates a lot to the general theme of educator well-being.”

Educators are under a lot of stress

The new research broadly echoes past EdWeek Research Center data showing that teacher job satisfaction appears to be at an all-time low as their stress levels have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. While most schools were open for in-person learning this academic year, teachers still had to navigate staffing shortages, COVID-19 quarantines, interruptions in student learning, an uptick in misbehavior, and political tensions over what is taught in schools.

The RAND survey found that the top-ranked sources of job-related stress among teachers were:

  • Supporting their students’ academic learning because they lost instructional time during the pandemic (47 percent),
  • Managing student behavior (29 percent),
  • Taking on extra work because of staff shortages (25 percent),
  • Supporting students’ mental health and well-being (24 percent),
  • Spending too many hours working (23 percent), and
  • Having a salary that’s too low (22 percent).

The top-ranked sources of job-related stress among principals were:

  • Staffing teaching and nonteaching positions at their school (56 percent),
  • Supporting teachers’ and staff’s mental health and well-being (44 percent),
  • Supporting students’ academic learning because of lost instructional time (34 percent),
  • Supporting students’ mental health and well-being (32 percent), and
  • Implementing COVID-19 mitigation strategies (31 percent).

Female teachers and principals were more likely to experience frequent job-related stress than their male counterparts, the survey found, perhaps due to child-care responsibilities, which disproportionately fall to women.

Also, Hispanic teachers—who make up about 9 percent of the workforce—were more likely to report poor well-being than any other teachers. One-third of Hispanic teachers experienced symptoms of depression compared with a quarter of non-Hispanic teachers. That difference remained significant even after the researchers controlled for the demographic characteristics of their schools.

The RAND survey, which over-sampled educators of color, also found that nearly half of principals of color and 36 percent of teachers of color said they experienced at least one incident of racial discrimination on the job this year. Those incidents include being held to a different set of standards and expectations than their peers because of their race or ethnicity; experiencing verbal or nonverbal microaggressions at school; and having people act as though they were uncomfortable approaching them because of their race.

Seventy percent of principals who experienced racial discrimination said that parents and family members of students were the source, while 56 percent of teachers who experienced such discrimination pointed to fellow staff as the culprits.

Both teachers and principals of color who work in schools in which at least half the teaching staff were people of color were less likely than their peers to report experiencing racial discrimination. Nationally, nearly 80 percent of teachers and 78 percent of principals are white.

Lean into timely mental health supports, researchers say

The RAND study found that positive school environments—in which educators are involved in decisionmaking and feel supported—are linked with better educator well-being and a decreased likelihood of leaving. Teachers and principals told RAND researchers that positive relationships with their colleagues help them cope with the stresses of their jobs.

See also

From left, ESL Campus Coordinator Steve Clark and English Teachers Suzanne Cunningham and Claudia Hendricks listen to an idea from Stacey Flanagan during a meeting at Lowery Freshman Center in Allen, Texas on Tuesday, February 1, 2022.
From left, ESL Campus Coordinator Steve Clark and English teachers Suzanne Cunningham and Claudia Hendricks listen to an idea from Stacey Flanagan during a meeting at Lowery Freshman Center in Allen, Texas on Feb. 1.
Emil Lippe for Education Week

District leaders should try to facilitate those positive relationships, paying close attention to the needs of educators of color, the RAND report says.

And districts should offer mental health supports, the researchers said. Twenty percent of principals and 35 percent of teachers said they either didn’t have access to employer-provided mental health supports or didn’t know whether they had access.

Sometimes, district offerings aren’t convenient or are too limited to meet educators’ needs, the researchers noted. For example, Steiner said that teachers complained in interviews that district wellness programs would start well after school ended, and they needed to get home or spend time grading and lesson-planning.

“There seemed to be a disconnect between what teachers and principals needed or found helpful and what districts are offering,” she said.

An EdWeek Research Center survey, conducted in January and February, found that the most common step among school and district leaders to address staff mental health needs was offering professional development on self-care. But many teachers say sessions on superficial self-care—like breathing exercises, yoga, and reminders to take a bubble bath or go for a walk—are no substitute for the kind of broader, systemic change that would keep them from feeling that their jobs have become untenable.

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