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Harvard EdCast: Will Teachers Stay or Will They Go?

Exploring job-related stress among teachers and school leaders.
New Teachers Thriving

Teacher retention has always been a challenge in the field. When the pandemic hit, changes to instruction and debates within communities around schooling increased teacher stress and further impacted their jobs. Elizabeth Steiner, a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, has released two studies exploring how job-related stress may lead to teachers quitting and affect the well-being of school principals. The initial report highlights how one in four teachers considered leaving their job in the wake of the pandemic. And reports of teacher shortages and concerns about teacher retention remain widespread.

“I do think that it is important to look beyond the number of teachers who are leaving or considering leaving their jobs or who are out sick or whatever the case may be, to really understand the working conditions and experiences that teachers are having,” Steiner says, sharing that teachers report three times the stress as the general working population. 

In this episode of the EdCast, Steiner discusses the findings of the studies exploring teachers’ intention to leave the profession and school leaders' wellbeing. She highlights what these findings mean for the profession and ideas for change. 

TRANSCRIPT:

Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Since the pandemic started, we've heard a lot about teacher shortages and how many teachers were going to quit from stress and burnout. Elizabeth Steiner is a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. She's released two studies in the past year exploring job related stress among teachers, and most recently, school leaders. She says the changing modes of instruction, changing guidance on quarantining, mask and vaccine debates and what safety measures should be taken affect educators. They are one of the most stressed and depressed professions. One in four teachers were considering leaving the profession a year ago, but then this mass exodus many feared didn't happen. I wanted to know why?

Elizabeth SteinerElizabeth Steiner: I'm not sure there is one answer and our study didn't speak to why. I will say that the particular question we asked on the survey was about teachers intentions to leave. We asked how likely are you to leave your job before the end of the school year? And because someone says they're likely to leave, doesn't mean that they're going to leave. There could be all kinds of reasons why someone would wish to leave, but feel that they were unable to. I think there were two things that were concerning about that statistic. One was that the proportion of teachers who said they were considering leaving their jobs was a lot higher than what we typically see in a pre COVID year for teacher turnover. Pre pandemic teacher turnover annually was around 16% and we saw about 23% of teachers saying that they were considering leaving their jobs.

Another thing is that there were differences by the racial identity of the teacher. About almost half of teachers who identified as black or African and Americans said that they were considering leaving their jobs. And that is perhaps not a surprise, teacher turnover among teachers who are people of color is higher than it is among white teachers. And that was true even before the pandemic. But the thing that was concerning to us too, is that we had the opportunity to compare our survey responses to survey of teacher who had already left the profession. And the things that were stressing the teachers who wanted to leave out, the things that they found really challenging about their jobs and that were connected to their intentions to leave, were really similar to those of teachers who had already left since COVID began. And so we said, "Well, maybe there's this group of teachers who weren't considering leaving before COVID, but now there's COVID and there's a special group of people who weren't thinking about leaving before, but are thinking about leaving now. And if we can speak to some of the stressors that they're experiencing, maybe they won't leave." and so it was an intention to elevate that idea, make education policy leaders aware of these particular experiences of these teachers, and try to do something about it, to the extent possible.

Jill Anderson: Anyone who follows education knows that attracting and retaining teachers is a problem in the field. It's not something new. How has the pandemic complicated this?

Elizabeth Steiner: Based on the work that we did, the pandemic has introduced new sources of job related stress for teachers. At the time of our survey, a lot of schools were still not back fully in person, or they were back in person for some students, but not others and teachers were teaching in this hybrid. Oh, they were in person for some kids, they were remote for others. And that was a particular source of stress for teachers. That wasn't something that teachers had to deal with before the pandemic. Also the uncertainty of changing instructional modes, like is the school going into quarantine? Is this class going into quarantine? Is the school closing for a temporary time because of COVID infection? Also, childcare was a stressor that may have been a little less salient prior to the pandemic. If you're trying to teach remotely at home and you have your own children on top of you, as I think every parent in the country has now experienced, it's hard to focus on your work if you're also trying to care for your own children and supervise their education.

Jill Anderson: Right. I think that the report highlighted a lot of those areas. And when I think about trying to find childcare, using new technology and just even the debates that have been happening about mask mandates and vaccinations, there's so much chaos. I don't know how anyone could deal with that on their job. Can you recognize teacher stress on the job? Do we know what that looks like? Or does it just look different for everybody?

Elizabeth Steiner: I think what school leaders and district leaders might consider doing is trying to gather some data about what their teachers are experiencing. They could do this through a survey. They could do it through conversations. But it probably looks different for everyone. The triggers are probably different for everyone. And if school leaders are going to try to gather these data, I think it's important that they do so in a way that sensitive and confidential, but also that allows them to understand the variation among their teaching staff. The needs of parents, for example, are probably very different than the needs of staff who don't have children or whose children are grown. The needs of women might be very different than the needs of men. The needs of teachers who are people of color are probably very different than those of white teachers. And it's important to understand those nuances and understand what the experience of each group of people is like, and then understand what could be done to help.

Jill Anderson: It sounds like it's a lot of work. Is it a lot of work to collect that type of data? Is this something that can be done in some easy way?

Elizabeth Steiner: It could certainly be done through conversations. It could be done informally. But it could probably also be done through a three or four question online survey. But as you point out, it might be the kind of thing that school leaders don't have time to do right now, because they're also experiencing high levels of stress and lots of new things happening in their jobs that require immediate attention for a lot of people.

Jill Anderson: I want to talk a little bit about the new report that you just released a few weeks ago, looking at similar issues with school leaders, what did you find out about how the pandemic has affected them?

Elizabeth Steiner: It's probably no surprise that the vast majority of principles, about 80%, reported experiencing what we call frequent job related stress. Which we defined as a response of often or always to the question, how often has your work been stressful? And this was far higher than the general adult population where our survey was done at about the same time, and about 40% of the general employed adult population said that they were experiencing frequent job related stress. And this high level of job related stress was consistent across pretty much all of the different types of principles we looked at. So whatever school you were in, how much experience you had as a principal, your gender, your race, I mean, everyone was experiencing this very high level of stress.

We also found that particular groups of principals were experiencing constant job related stress, which was a response of always, my job is always stressful. And in particular, we found that principals who identified as people of color, principals who identified as female, principals who led schools with high poverty student populations and principals who led schools with high enrollments of student color were more likely than their counterparts, so white principals, male principals, to experience this constant job related stress. And that could be for lots of reasons. It could be that there are different things going on in their lives. It could be something about the characteristics of the schools that they lead. I mean, female principals and principals of color are systematically more likely to lead schools that have high poverty student populations and might therefore have higher needs.

We also found that principal whose schools were fully remote at the time of the survey were more likely to experience constant job related stress and more likely to struggle coping with that job related stress. And the stressors experienced by principals who are in person, hybrid and remote varied a little bit. Remote principles experienced a different set of stressors than in person principles.

Jill Anderson: These have always been such stressful jobs. Does it look different or what can be done to help school leaders versus teachers? Are some of the recommendations for helping ease some of this job stress similar?

Elizabeth Steiner: I think by and large, they're similar, actually. I would be curious to know what principals and teachers think themselves. But one suggestion we made for principals is to collect better data on what principals are experiencing and what principles of different backgrounds are experiencing and in their different school contexts. But particularly speaking to this finding about constant job stress among particular groups of principals, there could be programs that might help, maybe something like culturally responsive mentorship or coaching or pairing principles of color or female principles with someone of a similar background and experience, peer support groups. Those types of interventions might particularly help principles who are experiencing constant job related stress.

Something else we found is that principals were particularly stressed out about the wellbeing of their teachers and the social and emotional state of their students. And if principals felt that their staff were more stressed, they were more stressed. And so if we could build this from the ground up and think about it holistically, help students, help teachers, that would also help principals who were worried about the people in their communities.

And I think the last thing that we put forth in the report as a possible suggestion is helping principals manage the operational aspects of their job. And in particular, those that are directly affected by COVID. So staffing for one. If a principal is experiencing lack of substitutes or teachers are calling in sick, or they're having a trouble hiring in a particular category, maybe district leaders can help them do something about that. Maybe they can facilitate hiring. Maybe they can recruit from a broader or area or something like that.

And then providing guidance to principles on how to implement COVID safety measures and how to communicate or message those measures to staff. And parents. Principals seem to spend a lot of time doing that, figuring out the communication strategies. And sure, to some extent that is important to do locally, but if there are ways the districts can take some of that burden off of principles, that might help alleviate their stress.

Jill Anderson: I think that's what both of those surveys highlight, that from all different levels, this work is so challenging, especially now. There might be some educators listening, wondering where they can start, especially if they're in a district or a school that just doesn't offer much support, aside from going and finding a new job. Is there anything realistically that they can do to help themselves?

Elizabeth Steiner: They could look to their professional associations. I actually just saw on Twitter this more morning that the AFT is starting to offer webinars and professional learning courses on identifying mental health challenges for yourself and strategies that you as an individual can use to mitigate the effects of stress. I would imagine that other local or national professional associations, who certainly have this issue on their radar, could offer similar supports. I think that peer support can be really, really important. And I wonder whether educators in communities or schools where there are strong peer networks and strong teams might find support within their team or build such a team informally. It doesn't have to be something formal to support themselves and their colleagues.

Jill Anderson: I think I read earlier today that self-care just isn't really cutting it. That's often the prescription for helping your well-being, but it's not enough usually.

Elizabeth Steiner: It's not, and it's not always realistic for some people, I think. I think there's a multi-layered approach that is probably necessary here. For some teachers self-care might be terrific and they might be in a position to find the space in their lives to do that. For others, it might not be realistic. They might not have space in their lives. And so I think that district and school leaders too, should try to think out of the box, they should try to think broadly. For a while, LAUSD was providing monthly childcare subsidies. I think they provided about $500 for kids five and younger. And if childcare is a struggle, maybe districts could think about how to pool resources or leverage community resources to find childcare for the children of teachers so they could return to work with school is remote or they could work more effectively if school is remote. I mean, there certainly is a stigma to seeking support or care for mental health, but maybe there are ways to do that, that don't feel so personal or so judgemental for teachers.

Something else I was reading this morning is that some districts are using chat bots to help to put out messages about mental health care and to check in with families, to check in with teachers. That my good for some people where it's not a human on the other end, it's not someone judging you, but you can still access resources and feel that you're talking, letting some of it off your chest.

Jill Anderson: There's so much emphasis right now on teacher shortages and whether teachers are going to leave the profession, but are we missing something bigger that needs to be considered in all this?

Elizabeth Steiner: I think in some ways it is right to focus on teachers not being in the classroom because that has implications for student learning and student experiences, and more broadly, for families and communities. But I do think that it is important to look beyond the number of teachers who are leaving or considering leaving their jobs or who are out sick or whatever the case may be, to really understand the working conditions and experiences that teachers are having. The other piece of the puzzle, or something else we found in the report from last year, is that about 20% of teachers reported experiencing symptoms of depression. And that was about three times as many as the general working population, about 10% of whom reported experiencing symptoms of depression, at the same time, this was back in January of 2021. And beyond the job related stress, that speaks to the challenges teachers are experiencing in their work and their lives. And without wanting to sound super dire about it, it is something I think that education policy leaders need to think about how to address in their local communities as well as nationally.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much, Elizabeth. I appreciate you taking the time.

Elizabeth Steiner: Thank you so much. It was lovely to speak with you.

Jill Anderson: Elizabeth Steiner is a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.