Underappreciated & overworked: 94% of middle school teachers are highly stressed

COLUMBIA, Mo. — There is perhaps no profession that is quite as important yet simultaneously unnoticed and underappreciated as grade school teachers. It’s a job that isn’t quite as distinguished as teaching at a university, and certainly not as high-paying as becoming a doctor or lawyer. Regardless, teachers pour their hearts into their work; sculpting lesson plans, maintaining order among their students, and in many cases, decorating and stocking their classrooms with supplies using their own hard earned money. And yet, for all that dedication and devotion to their students, an unsettling new study finds that the vast majority (94%) of middle school teachers are constantly stressed out.

These findings are, of course, concerning for the teachers themselves. That being said, all of that anxiety weighing down instructors’ minds can’t be good for their students either. The study, conducted at the University of Missouri, advocates for the creation of more robust support options for U.S. teachers to help them soothe stress and cope with the intensity of their jobs. Ensuring our teachers are in a better place mentally will do wonders for student success, both on an academic level and behaviorally, researchers believe.

This study adds to an already strong base of evidence indicating that teacher stress levels are directly tied to their students’ success, or lack thereof.

“Many studies of teacher stress have used samples from elementary schools,” says Keith Herman, professor in the MU College of Education, in a release. “However, middle school is a particularly important time in students’ lives as they transition from elementary school and have many different teachers. It’s critical that we understand how stress impacts middle school teachers so we can find ways to support them.”

The study’s authors analyzed data collected from nine middle schools in urban areas of the Midwest. Studied information included teachers’ own opinions on their daily stress levels, their ability to cope with these feelings, their students’ disruptive and prosocial behavior, and typical levels of involvement from their students’ parents.

Across the board, nearly all studied teachers reported high levels of stress. Interestingly, many teachers displayed different coping abilities. Most teachers (66%) reported high levels of stress and high coping abilities, meanwhile 28% reported high stress and low coping skills. Finally, 6% said they don’t feel stressed all that often, but know how to cope adequately when stress pops up.

“Unfortunately our findings suggest many teachers are not getting the support they need to adequately cope with the stressors of their job,” Herman adds. “The evidence is clear that teacher stress is related to student success, so it is critical that we find ways to reduce stressful school environments while also helping teachers cope with the demands of their jobs.”

The research team recommend that school districts provide middle school teachers with access to support services, such as wellness programs, support programs at the institutional level, and free mental health interventions if need be.

“There are research-based tools that can help screen and identify teachers who might be at risk for problems with stress, coping and the risk of burnout,” Herman concludes. “Knowing what we know about how teacher stress can impact students, it is imperative that district and school leaders examine policies and practices that make the job less burdensome while also supporting teacher well-being.

The study is published in the Journal of School Psychology.