Teachers Feel More Stressed and Disregarded Than Other Workers

Last Updated: April 27, 2014

This article appeared in the April 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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Teachers feel more stressed at work than other workers, according to Gallup’s State of America’s Schools Report released this month. They are also more likely to feel that their opinions don’t count.

The report, released earlier this month, found that nearly half of teachers report feeling “a lot” of daily stress at work. That was the same percentage as nurses and more than physicians, sales workers, managers and executives, and business owners.

A little over half (56%) of teachers reported feeling “not engaged” in their work. Teachers were slightly more likely to feel “not engaged” than the average American worker, where 52% of total workforce reported feeling “not engaged.

However, teachers were less likely than the average worker to report feeling “actively disengaged” (13% of teachers compared to 18% of total workforce). And, 31% of teachers, compared to 30% of the total workforce, reported being “engaged” at work.

The report also surveyed 600,000 students in grades five through twelve on their feelings of hope, engagement, and well-being. Student engagement and student success are strongly correlated.

Nearly half of students reported feeling disengaged at school. Nevertheless, students who reported having at least one teacher “who makes me excited about my future” and students who reported that their school is “committed to building the strengths of each student” were 30 times more likely to report being engaged at school.

These findings point to the impact of teachers and school climate on student outcomes and the need to create school environments in which teachers feel their work matters, their ideas and initiatives are heard, and that they are respected and given autonomy to do their work and to collaborate with each other. 

Recognizing strengths brings better outcomes

The report emphasizes the importance of "strengths development and engagement in the classroom" and argues that "unless U.S. schools can better align learning strategies and objectives with fundamental aspects of human nature, they will always struggle to help students achieve their full potential."

The report calls for personalizing students' education with strengths-based strategies that focus on enabling students to discover and develop their strengths and interests and use them during the school week.

It also recommends three steps to improving teacher engagement: asking teachers "important questions about curriculum, pedagogy, and schedules" and incorporating feedback "into the decision-making process;" partnering the most engaged teachers and administrators with new teachers; and helping disengaged teachers invest in what they do best with continuing education and by removing barriers to their engagement. 

Administrators have a significant impact on teacher engagement. Teachers who responded positively to three workplace questions had higher overall engagement levels. These questions were: In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work; In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress; and, At work, my opinions seem to count. 

The Gallup report attributes many of the issues with teacher and student engagement to the national emphasis on standardized testing. It argues that major reform initiatives of the past 20 years have had "an overwhelmingly remedial focus" that has "delineated a rigid set of education standards" and resulted in a focus on shoring up "areas of weakness." This negative focus has neglected the importance of recognizing strength and accomplishment and offering praise.

The report notes that specific, meaningful, public praise has strong positive impact on students' academic outcomes and motivation. It argues that the current testing regime leaves teachers with little time and latitude to tailor instructional approaches to individuals or to make sure their praise of individual students is "personal and meaningful."

The emphasis on testing and accountability in American schools also takes a toll on teacher initiative, intellectual engagement, and opportunities to collaborate at work. "Not thinking of teachers as talented professionals is one of the systemic flaws holding back the U.S. education system. Discounting teacher talent is doing a great disservice to this country's educators -- and, more importantly, to its students." 

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Read more from the April 2014 Rural Policy Matters.