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A recent report suggests that well over half the nation’s teachers are suffering from stress-related mental health concerns, an increase of more than 20 percent in three years.  Issues ranging standardized testing and discipline have for years concerned teachers and administrators, but now the head of a large teacher union says it may also be caused by the current political discourse and concern about school violence.

Patricia Jennings, a University of Virginia professor who has specialized in the issue, says teachers are emotionally exhausted from having to be constantly engaged in the classroom and facing a variety of other difficult challenges – including pressure for students to perform, increased parent involvement online, poor training and preparation in classroom management and budget cuts and other more public issues involving their jobs and reimbursement that have been widely publicized with teacher strikes.

“Beyond that, a classroom can be like a pressure cooker,” she says. “Teachers are pretty much trapped there no matter how they are feeling or how the class is responding. The have to be constantly aware and very outward directed in an atmosphere with a lot of energy – every day. It is bound to take its toll.”

Her research has shown that it not only limits teacher effectiveness and hinders teacher retention (one report says it is the biggest causes of teachers fleeing the professions) but it causes students to perform poorly, a problem she has identified in research she is about to release soon.

She is founder of Care For Teachers, one part of a resiliency program for educators that focuses on using simple research-proven mindfulness techniques, and has written a book on the topic.

Teacher stress also affects the school climate and makes educators reluctant to be involved in the school community or take extra steps to engage with parents. Recent research also has shown that teacher stress levels have a significant affect on student behavior, creating a “burnout cascade”. Other research suggests teacher anxiety affects learning too.

The American Federation of Teachers report released recently showed that teachers more broadly were concerned about the discourse in national politics and threats by the Trump administration to abandon policies that support public schools.

That survey of teachers showed 58 percent reported they have poor mental, double the national average in all jobs. The report also showed

  • Eighty-seven percent say job demands interfere with family life.
  • Seventy-eight percent are at the end of the day often physically and emotionally exhausted.
  • More than 75 percent say their school does not have enough staff. 
  • Only 20 percent feel respected by government officials or the media.
  • Only 14 percent say they trust their administrator or supervisor to a large degree.

AFT says schools can help reduce the problem by providing better training about new initiatives and by giving teachers more autonomy.

“While the majority of educators felt they had moderate to high control over basic decisions within their classroom, their level of influence and control dropped significantly on policy decisions that directly impact their classroom, such as setting discipline policy, setting performance standards and deciding how resources are spent,” the report says.

It also notes that efforts to “support healthy interactions in schools are tremendously important,” and that workplace harassment and bullying causes stress. The 30,000 teachers surveyed reported workplace bullying at a rate triple that reported in other jobs.

“The stressful workload, the feeling of having to be ‘always on,’ the lack of resources, and the burden of ever-changing expectations take a toll on educators, and the health problems educators face are compounded by deficient building conditions, equipment and staff shortages, and insufficient time to prepare and collaborate with colleagues.”

Written by Jim Paterson

Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md.