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Teacher Stress and Burnout is Real

December 11, 2019 • Jennifer Barton

Teacher Stress and Burnout is Real

It’s no secret that teacher stress is at epidemic proportions, and it’s affecting students in the classroom more than ever.

Recent studies report teachers experience the same amount of stress seen in other high-demand professions such as nursing and law enforcement. Their ability to cope and practice emotional resiliency in the classroom is leading to burnout and high levels of turnover, which creates both monetary and emotional costs for school districts and students. District leaders must acknowledge the impact of teacher stress and find ways to support teachers in this important and challenging job.

The state of education

In The Epidemic of Teacher Stress, the Graide Network notes that 46 percent of teachers report experiencing high daily job stress. Mark Greenberg, a researcher on teacher stress, suggests teachers feel pressure from three main sources:

  • Student behavioral problems: Teachers report more and more students are inattentive and even hostile to the teacher. Large class sizes lead to classroom management issues which detract from learning and student engagement in the classroom.
  • Standardized testing: High stakes testing and increased accountability demands are creating a hyper-focus on testing of students. Teachers have less freedom in the classroom and less choice in curriculum implementation. Lack of autonomy decreases motivation and the overall excitement of delivering instruction to students.
  • Unsupportive school leadership: Teachers’ number one reason for leaving a school is unhappiness with school administration. School climate is key to teacher engagement and buy-in. When teachers feel unsupported by school administration, distrust surfaces which causes more suffering in the daily work at the school.

Teachers of younger students tend to endure more stress, and teachers across the nation are experiencing more uncertainty in feeling safe and secure in their school. Although the current state of education may be the causation of stress, there are ways districts can reduce the strain and anxiety of the profession by strengthening teacher resilience and coping in the classroom.

Symptoms of stress

The first step in addressing stress and burnout is recognizing the symptoms teachers exhibit when in crisis. Stress symptoms and responses may include:

  • Physical manifestations that lead to illness and absenteeism
  • Difficulty concentrating or making appropriate decisions
  • Withdrawal and isolation from colleagues
  • Low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy when thinking about their performance
  • Downshifting responsibilities and vocalizing quitting the profession

School leaders may be the first to observe changes in the behavior of their best teachers by needing to address performance issues at an increased rate. They may notice the teacher acting differently, and they may even see the teacher react more emotionally in regular circumstances. When these behavioral changes occur, it is important that school leaders look for root causes and seek more information about how to support and help the teacher overcome current stressors.

Strategies for mental wellness

A variety of research-based strategies are available to support and promote mental wellness among teachers throughout the school year:  

  • Work-place structures: These need support in a variety of ways, but structures on campus can positively impact teacher efficiency and effectiveness. Time for collaboration, autonomy of decision-making in the classroom, and flexibility in the use of scheduled time help teachers feel more in control of their environment which allows them to manage stressors better and more rationally.
  • Wellness programs: Some districts offer employee wellness programs, but campuses can provide wellness activities to support the self-care and health of their teachers. Activities such as mindfulness training, group fitness classes, and wellness seminars help teachers engage in healthy habits without traveling to find alternatives outside of work.
  • Social Emotional Learning (SEL): One of the biggest stressors for teachers is managing student behavior. When teachers focus on social emotional learning in the classroom, students benefit exponentially. Teachers work to build stronger relationships with their students, and they tend to find proactive ways to meet individual needs of students. Districts should offer teachers curriculum resources and professional development related to SEL to implement in the classroom.
  • Recognition and rewards: Teachers need to feel valued for their work. Total rewards packages should be competitive and provide a variety of incentives for teachers. Additionally, recognition programs at the district and campus levels motivate and reward teachers for the hard work performed over the school year. Teachers who know they are important to the organization will be more likely to engage in the goals and initiatives planned for the school year.

Prioritize teacher needs

Teachers who are stressed and burned out have a difficult time providing quality instruction and connecting with students in meaningful ways. Districts who prioritize the needs of teachers will improve retention rates and reduce the costly effect of turnover. District leaders must remember that teaching is an extremely hard job, and the management of the social and emotional well-being of teachers is crucial to keeping the best talent in the classroom.


Jennifer Barton is a Compensation and HR consultant at TASB HR Services. Send Jennifer an email at jennifer.barton@tasb.org.


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Tagged: "Employee performance", Retention, "Teacher shortage"