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Teachers Are Stressed, And That Should Stress Us All

Vivian Shih for NPR

We all experience stress at work, no matter the job. But for teachers, the work seems to be getting harder and the stress harder to shake.

A new report out this month pulls together some stark numbers on this:

Forty-six percent of teachers say they feel high daily stress. That's on par with nurses and physicians. And roughly half of teachers agreewith this statement: "The stress and disappointments involved in teaching at this school aren't really worth it."

It's a problem for all of us — not just these unhappy teachers.

Here's why: "Between 30 and 40 percent of teachers leave the profession in their first five years," says Mark Greenberg, a professor of human development and psychology at Penn State.

And that turnover, he says, costs schools — and taxpayers — billions of dollars a year, while research (like this and this) suggests teacher burnout hurts student achievement, too.

Greenberg has studied America's schools for more than 40 years, and, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (also an NPR funder), he helped author the new brief exploring teacher stress.

He says teachers feel frazzled for many reasons, including high-stakes testing and the fact that many students are themselves coming to school stressed. As for the fixes, Greenberg recommends a few.

New teachers who receive steady mentoring are less likely to quit. Workplace wellness programs can also help. But both require schoolwide, even districtwide buy-in. If that's not realistic, Greenberg suggests a fix that is well within every teacher's control, one that just might surprise you ...


That's right, mindfulness. For teachers. Patricia Jennings wrote the book on it (literally). It's called Mindfulness For Teachers.

Jennings was a teacher herself for two decades and now studies stress in the classroom as a professor and researcher at the University of Virginia. The Journal of Educational Psychology will soon publish a study of her work in New York City, teaching mindfulness to more than 200 educators in high-poverty schools.

Jennings says the teachers who received mindfulness training "showed reduced psychological distress and time urgency — which is this feeling like you don't have enough time. And then improvements in mindfulness and emotion regulation."

Translation: These teachers were better able to cope with classroom challenges and manage their feelings, which made it easier for them to manage their students' big feelings. And that, says Jennings, helps students learn.

What is mindfulness? Definitions vary, but Jennings likes to think of it this way: attending to things in the moment with curiosity and acceptance.

If this all sounds a bit ... squishy, rest assured, there's even research on how mindfulness can help reduce stress in U.S. Marines preparing for deployment.

Meria Carstarphen is not a teacher but knows a thing or two about classroom stress. She has run a couple of big city school systems and is now superintendent in Atlanta. Carstarphen says she advises new teachers: You can't take care of your students if you don't take care of yourself.

"Put your oxygen mask on first," she tells her rookies. "Then we'll talk about everybody else."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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