Teaching Profession

Teachers Are More Likely to Experience Depression Symptoms Than Other Adults

By Madeline Will — June 15, 2021 7 min read
Illustration of a figure under duress.
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Teachers are almost twice as likely to experience frequent job-related stress and nearly three times as likely to experience symptoms of depression than the general adult population, a new survey finds.

These results—which are alarming but perhaps not surprising—were reported by RAND Corp. researchers, who fielded a nationally representative survey of teachers in late January and early February and then surveyed a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults in early March. (The study was financially supported by the two national teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.)

The results highlight the toll from a school year rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, in which many teachers say they’ve been pushed to the brink and are now considering leaving the profession.

Teachers have spent the school year juggling remote and in-person instruction—pivoting between the two, and often even doing both at once. They’ve had to contend with technical problems—both theirs and their students’—and the fear of contracting COVID-19 in the classroom. They’ve struggled to engage students who are emotionally checked out or who have stopped coming to class.

And, the RAND study found, 1 in 3 teachers had to care for their own children while teaching.

Teaching was already a high-stress job before the pandemic, but this school year has compounded the problem. Now, 78 percent of teachers said they experience frequent job-related stress, the survey found, and 1 in 5 said they were not coping well with that stress. Half of teachers reported feeling burned out, and 27 percent said they experience symptoms of depression.

“It’s concerning,” said Elizabeth Steiner, a policy researcher at RAND Corp. and the co-author of the report. “People who are experiencing symptoms of depression and burnout can be less engaged in their work, they may be absent more often. … Those behaviors can impact students unfavorably, not to mention the impact depression has on teachers themselves and their well-being and their relationships.”

And the high stress levels contributed to more teachers saying they wanted to find a new job, the RAND survey found. Nearly 1 in 4 teachers said they were likely to leave their current teaching jobs by the end of this school year. Meanwhile, an EdWeek Research Center survey, conducted in March, found that 54 percent of teachers say they’re “somewhat” or “very” likely to leave teaching within the next two years.

Before the pandemic, federal data showed that about 16 percent of teachers quit their teaching job every year, either to go to another school or to leave the profession entirely.

The RAND survey also found that nearly half of Black teachers said they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of this school year, a higher percentage than teachers of other races. Steiner said the researchers didn’t have the data to analyze why this is. But past research has found that Black teachers—who make up less than 7 percent of the teaching workforce—have higher rates of turnover, in part due to experiencing microaggressions, being tasked with additional and unpaid responsibilities (like serving as disciplinarians), or otherwise working in unsupportive school cultures.

An important caveat to RAND’s findings: Many teachers who say they’re considering leaving the profession won’t actually do so. Some teachers may not be able to find other jobs, while others close to retirement age will decide to stick it out a little longer for their pension.

“Our survey measured intentions and likelihood, it certainly didn’t measure actual attrition or actual turnover,” Steiner said. “An intention to leave could turn into actually leaving within six months, within a year, within five years.”

Teachers’ job-related stressors could be a ‘long-term issue’

The RAND study echoes previous surveys that have found an uptick in teacher stress and a decline in teacher morale. In a nationally representative survey administered by the EdWeek Research Center in late April, 92 percent of teachers said teaching is more stressful now than prior to the pandemic. And 78 percent of teachers said teaching is a lot or somewhat more stressful today than it was a year ago, back when schools had abruptly shut down and remote instruction was still new.

That might be because many teachers are now expected to teach both in-person and remote students at once—the RAND study found that hybrid teaching was one of the top sources of stress for teachers. Teachers say that mode of instruction requires them to do two jobs at once, and it’s exhausting.

Yet many district leaders have said they anticipate keeping remote options for parents and students who want them. The RAND researchers recommended that district leaders work with teachers to develop policies for when teachers will be expected to teach remotely, what they will need to do so, and whether hybrid instruction will be on the table at all.

“If hybrid and remote teaching are here to stay, this is a long-term issue, not a short-term concern,” Steiner said.

But there are perhaps ways for district leaders to alleviate some of the sources of stress, she said, like hiring more technology support staff or standardizing equipment for students and staff.

District leaders should pinpoint sources of stress

In a statement, AFT President Randi Weingarten said the findings show that the pandemic has made an “already unsustainable situation” worse, and that teachers need to be both paid and respected more.

“No group of people have been as creative and flexible in dealing with this crisis, turning on a dime to engage their kids,” she said. “But the months of intense effort and shifts from remote, to hybrid, to in-person, and back again have taken a toll that will be felt—disproportionately by Black and brown educators—for years to come.”

Going forward, district and school leaders, along with policymakers, should “think about how to collect data on the needs of their specific teacher populations,” said Ashley Woo, an assistant policy researcher at RAND and the co-author of the report.

That can be done through surveys or one-on-one conversations with school leaders, the researchers said. Teachers will have different stressors depending on their individual circumstances.

For example, 32 percent of teachers with children living in their house said they were responsible for their children while they were teaching. Among only the teachers with children who needed care or learning support, 41 percent were in charge during the workday.

Although the researchers were unable to determine the gender breakdown of which teachers were providing child care while teaching, most teachers are women. Across job sectors, women have borne a disproportionate burden of child care during the pandemic.

“That was a challenge that came up again and again,” Steiner said. She and Woo found that teachers who said they were likely to leave their job were disproportionately responsible for child care and overseeing their own children’s learning while they were teaching.

Districts, the researchers said, should consider offering child care for teachers, even beyond the pandemic. (Some districts have long offered child-care benefits for their staff as a retention strategy.)

And districts should also offer mental health supports for their teachers, the researchers recommended, adding that they could use some of their federal relief money to do so.

See also

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In the meantime, teachers say they’re exhausted and ready for a break. Tina, who teaches 7th grade Texas history and asked not to use her last name because she had not been authorized to speak by her district, said the school year had been grueling.

She was teaching in person for most of the year, with one virtual class for the first semester, but her students were more checked out and glued to their phones than in previous years. And “the pressures that are placed on teachers did not change,” she said, adding that she was evaluated and experienced multiple classroom walk-throughs.

Before she was vaccinated, Tina, who is 59, was also worried about contracting COVID-19 in her classroom. The stress from the school year caused her health to suffer—her blood pressure increased and she had trouble sleeping. She also felt like teachers weren’t respected by the public this year and were vilified for not wanting to go back into school buildings at the height of the pandemic.

Tina thought about leaving the profession, but she has decided to stay one more year: “I don’t want to go out on a bad year,” she said.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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