Survey Reveals That America’s Teachers Are Seriously Stressed Out

Mandated curricula and standardized tests are among the most stressful factors.

(Photo: Zachary Fagenson/Reuters)

May 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It sounds like the worst job ever. Employees complain about little autonomy, constant stress, being forced to implement new workplace demands without adequate training or institutional support to carry them out. As new recruits, nearly 90 percent were eager to get to work; by the time they’re veterans, more than three-quarters of them say the thrill is gone.

Welcome to the world of your child’s classroom teacher.

A new survey of 30,000 educators by the American Federation of Teachers found a broad swath of complaints about the job, including unfunded mandates such as the Common Core curriculum standards and high-stakes achievement tests, as well as negative headlines—and finger-pointing—about failing schools and the black-white achievement gap.

At the same time, however, surprisingly few say they’re ready to walk away from the Promethean board and leave the classroom.

Though it acknowledges that the 80-question online survey, conducted between April 21 and May 1, isn’t scientific, the AFT and its survey partner, Badass Teachers Association, found the responses by 31,342 educators so eye-opening that it has asked the U.S. Department of Education and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to follow up and make recommendations.

“We ask teachers to be a combination of Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and—I’m dating myself here—Tony Soprano,” Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, said in a conference call announcing the report. “We ask them to be Mom and Dad and impart tough love but also be a shoulder to lean on. And when they don’t do these things, we blame them for not being saviors of the world.”

Some of the survey highlights bear that out. Among the report’s findings:

  • Seventy-eight percent say they are often physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. Eighty-seven percent say the demands of their job at least sometimes interfere with their family life.
  • More than 75 percent say they do not have enough staff to get the work done.
  • Among the greatest workplace stressors were the adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development, mandated curricula, and standardized tests.

There was some good news: Despite complaints of time pressures, waning enthusiasm, and a lack of support, only 14 percent of survey respondents say they’re ready to move on from teaching within the next year.

There’s a dark cloud around that silver lining: Of the teachers who do want to bail out, nearly four in 10 are African American, a big problem for a profession that has struggled with diversity. Indeed, 81 percent of the survey respondents are white, and 80 percent are women.

“That’s because most of our urban district schools are under assault,” and a disproportionate number of minority teachers work there, said Marla Kilfoyle, a Long Island, New York, teacher and manager of study cosponsor Badass Teachers Association. Big-city school systems in Chicago, New Orleans, and elsewhere, she added, have closed underperforming public schools or turned to charter schools rather than fix the public school system.

“Other than the stress overall for teachers, the loss of our teachers of color is enormous,” Kilfoyle said.

Another problem, according to Kilfoyle: Most of the people making education policy decisions, ranging from local school district officials to the U.S. Department of Education, either don’t know what it’s like to teach or are so far removed from the classroom that they no longer remember.

“They don’t have a clue how classrooms are really run,” she said. “Education policy is not being written for kids. It’s being written for [education product] vendors, products, and services. That has to stop.”

While the bulk of the report cites problems, Kilfoyle said, there are bright spots, most notably the 60 percent of teachers who are willing to stick with the profession and hold out hope for improvement.

As in most professions, “the better you feel about your job, the better you are at it,” Kilfoyle said. “We’re not robots. We’re not computers. If you go to work feeling beat up every day, it transfers to kids.”

“My hope is that at the federal level, the Education Department and the legislature take this very, very seriously,” she added. If they don’t, “I think it speaks volumes about where they think education goes in this country.”