Teaching Profession

What’s Happening to Teacher Stress Levels

By Madeline Will — June 21, 2023 5 min read
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Teachers are feeling happier at work than in previous years—but they’re still nearly twice as likely as other working adults to experience frequent job-related stress.

That’s according to the RAND Corp., a nonpartisan research organization that took the pulse of a nationally representative sample of teachers in January. The survey found that, while teachers’ stress levels have rebounded since the start of the pandemic, the job still carries significant challenges. About a quarter of teachers said they were likely to leave their job at the end of this current school year, though it remains to be seen how many actually will.

Among the teachers who want to leave, 70 percent said it was because the stresses and disappointments of teaching were not worth it.

Nearly half of the teachers said their top source of job-related stress was managing student behavior, which past surveys have indicated has worsened since the pandemic-related school shutdowns. In fact, 26 percent of teachers reported that they feared for their physical safety at school, mostly because their students misbehave or have verbal altercations.

The survey results come from a sample of 1,439 teachers, as well as 527 working adults. Black and Hispanic teachers were oversampled in the survey. This was the third year in a row that RAND researchers have conducted a similar survey of teachers.

Black teachers in particular were significantly more likely to report burnout than white teachers and were also more likely to say they intended to leave their jobs by the end of the 2022-23 school year.

“This is something that is very concerning to us,” said Elizabeth Steiner, a policy researcher at the RAND Corp. and an author of the report. The data, she said, is “a pattern that plays out in real life. Black teachers do turn over [and] leave their jobs at higher rates than white teachers.”

Seventy-two percent of Black teachers who were considering leaving said that a low salary was a top reason, compared with 57 percent of white teachers.

“Black teachers might have different financial considerations or pressures than teachers of other races and ethnicities,” Steiner said, citing student loan debt, which past research shows disproportionately falls on Black educators.

Also, she said, a similar survey from the RAND Corp. conducted last year found that more than a third of teachers of color experienced an incident of racial discrimination on the job last year. Those incidents included 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.

The teaching profession is 80 percent white, and Black teachers make up just 6 percent of the workforce.

Well-being indicators show some improvement

The RAND results echo what an EdWeek Research Center and Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College survey found in January, too: Teacher job satisfaction levels have increased this year, but they’re still down from a decade ago.

See also

Amber Nichols, a teacher at Eastwood Elementary School in Morgantosn, W. Va., leads her class in a lesson on May 11, 2023.
Amber Nichols, an award-winning teacher at Eastwood Elementary School in Morgantown, W.Va., leads her class in a lesson on May 11, 2023. She said post-pandemic consistency and structure have renewed her love of the profession.
Rebecca Kiger for Education Week

In the RAND survey, 58 percent of teachers said they experience frequent job-related stress—a 20 percentage point reduction from 2021.

Other indicators improved, too: Twenty percent of teachers reported experiencing symptoms of depression in 2023, compared to 27 percent in 2021. And this year, 27 percent of teachers said they didn’t feel resilient, meaning they bounce back quickly after stressful or hard times, compared to 54 percent last year.

Yet even though teacher well-being has improved, it is still worse than the general population of employed adults on some indicators. For instance, just a third of other workers said they experience frequent job-related stress.

The RAND survey found that three-quarters of teachers reported having access to at least one type of support for mental health or well-being from their employer, health insurance, or professional association. That’s 11 percentage points higher than last year, which Steiner called “encouraging.”

Still, 46 percent of teachers said those results were inadequate. When asked why, many teachers said they needed class coverage or enough paid leave so they could access mental health support during the day.

Teachers often say, “the school day ends at 3:30, I have to pick up my kids at 4—I can’t stay until 4:30 for a counseling session or a yoga class or to exercise with my colleagues,” Steiner said. “There’s a sense that if there isn’t a range of things available at times when teachers can use them, it doesn’t feel that useful.”

Politics are a source of tension

The RAND survey found that about 1 in 6 teachers marked “the intrusion of political issues and opinions in teaching” as a top source of job-related stress.

Schools have been at the center of political and cultural debates over the past few years, and teachers have felt caught in the middle. Eighteen states have imposed restrictions on how teachers can discuss racism and sexism since January 2021, according to an EdWeek analysis.

A quarter of teachers said their school or district leaders have directed them to limit discussion about political and social issues in class. Self-censorship was far more common: Nearly two-thirds of teachers said they limited such discussions on their own. (White teachers were about 10 percentage points more likely than Black or Hispanic teachers to do so.)

Nearly half of the teachers who decided to limit classroom conversations about political or social issues said they weren’t sure if their administrators would support them if parents expressed concern. And 36 percent said they were afraid of verbal or physical altercations with upset parents.

That fear affected teachers’ sense of physical safety at work, too, the survey found. About a third of teachers said the thought of hostile, unauthorized people—such as upset parents—who are not active shooters coming into their school was one of their top reasons for feeling unsafe.

And 22 percent of teachers said one of their top safety-related fears was getting into verbal or physical confrontations with students’ family members.

Yet one of the top safety-related fears was related to gun violence: About half of the teachers said the fear of an active shooter coming into their school was one of their top reasons for feeling unsafe at work.

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