National teacher survey: 'Overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, questioned and blamed'

A teacher survey released today by the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association shows high levels of stress in the profession, which is unlikely to surprise anyone who has been in a classroom in the last year.

One source of that stress is the federal government, which has an education leader at the helm who has made school choice a top priority and described teachers as being in a "receive mode" and” waiting to be told what they have to do." The survey suggests great teacher unease over Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Trump White House's education policies in general.

The AFT has 1.7 million members. The Badass Teachers Association is a network of more than 60,000 teachers committed to social justice in education. It began in 2013.

Below is the official release but I wanted to share some of the findings from the full survey results.

These are critical observations for policymakers to consider:

  • The people who know teachers the best—parents, co-workers and students—showed much more respect for teachers than elected officials and media members, many of whom rarely set foot in a classroom.
  • While educators felt most respected by their colleagues, they also indicated that their direct supervisors showed them much more respect than their school boards, the media, elected officials and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (86 percent of respondents did not feel respected by DeVos).
  • While the majority of educators felt they had moderate to high control over basic decisions within their classroom, their level of influence and control dropped significantly on policy decisions that directly impact their classroom, such as setting discipline policy, setting performance standards and deciding how resources are spent. This lack of voice over important instructional decisions is a tangible example of the limited respect policymakers have for educators.
  • Policies that support healthy interactions in schools are tremendously important. The survey found that educators experience workplace bullying at a much higher rate—more than three times as high—than other workers. While most educators reported that their schools have workplace harassment policies prohibiting bullying, a smaller proportion of respondents said that their schools or districts offered regular training on bullying.
  • These and other factors contribute to an unhealthy work environment. Teachers reported having poor mental health for 11 or more days per month at twice the rate of the general U.S. workforce. They also reported lower-than-recommended levels of health outcomes and sleep per night.
  • The stressful workload, the feeling of having to be “always on,” the lack of resources, and the burden of ever-changing expectations take a toll on educators, and the health problems educators face are compounded by deficient building conditions, equipment and staff shortages, and insufficient time to prepare and collaborate with colleagues.

In reading the full report, I thought these teacher quotes basically said it all:

“This job is stressful, overwhelming and hard. I am overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, questioned and blamed for things that are out of my control.”

“We have too many unrealistic expectations put on us now, and there is a constant message that we aren’t important or worth our pay. Plus, we must teach a dictated curriculum that may not match the needs or abilities of our students, which adds stress.”

“What my school really needs is more social and emotional support for students (more counselors, social workers, etc.). We have students who have experienced trauma, and we struggle with behavior because of it; it causes a lot of stress for everyone.”

Here is the official statement about the survey:

A survey of nearly 5,000 educators released today by the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association shows that nearly two-thirds of educators usually feel stressed out, twice the level felt by workers in the general population.

Most surveyed feel demoralized and disrespected by state and federal officials, especially Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. By contrast, educators in two school districts that have forged strong collaboration among educators, administrators, parents and community reported less stress and were less likely to leave the profession than educators in the broader survey.

In the “2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey,”4,000 educators responded to a public survey and 850 AFT educators responded in a random sample. The survey also oversampled members of the Solvay (N.Y.) Teachers Association and the North Syracuse (N.Y.) Education Association, which have strong collaborative labor-management environments. National stress data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was cited for comparison.

“Teaching is a tough job that carries with it high levels of stress, which obviously affects both students and educators. Stressful work environments can affect student achievement and educator effectiveness, and can be mitigated by a collaborative culture that respects educators and the work they do,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “The survey shows that a supportive work environment is vital to creating schools that are places where teachers want to teach and kids want to learn. These kinds of environments do not come about by chance—they must be intentional.”

Stress levels have climbed over the last two years. “Since President Trump took office, stress and anxiety are on the rise, and we now have a secretary of education whom educators in our survey overwhelmingly feel does not respect them. State and federal cuts to education spending will only make things worse,” Weingarten said.

Marla Kilfoyle, executive director of the Badass Teachers Association, said: “Educators in America continue to report stress levels that exceed the national average. Educators work with our most valuable resource—children. We must continue to push for schools that respect educators and the work they do with our children. In supporting educators, we also support environments for children that are safe, happy and productive.”

The AFT and the Badass Teachers Association conducted a survey in 2015 in which 30,000 educators reported often feeling emotionally and physically exhausted at the end of the day. They cited as the primary workplace stressors the adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development, mandated curriculum and standardized tests.

In the 2017 survey, educators remain highly stressed, with the biggest difference between 2015 and 2017 being the jump in the number of days per month educators said their mental health was not good. In 2015, 34 percent said their mental health was not good for seven or more days in the last month. In 2017, that number climbed to 58 percent.

“Things have gotten measurably worse for teachers’ mental well-being in the last two years, and it coincides with Trump’s and DeVos’s cruel and unrelenting disrespect for public schools and teachers. This is the opposite of what teachers need to meet the needs of their students,” Weingarten said.

A study released by UCLA earlier this month shows that since Trump’s inauguration, high school teachers are reporting an increasing problem of stress, anxiety and bullying among their students.

The first step toward reducing educator and student stress is to find out what is happening in our schools, and to build good, collaborative labor-management relationships, Weingarten said, adding that “top-down, mandated ‘quick fixes’ do not work. School districts, school communities and education unions can play a role in improving working and learning conditions.”

Highlights of the 2017 survey include:

  • On amount of time feeling stressed: Nearly two-thirds, or 61 percent, of educators find work “always” or “often” stressful, twice the rate of other workers.
  • On being bullied, harassed or threatened on the job: 27 percent of educators said they have been threatened, bullied or harassed, versus 7 percent of employed adults in the general population. When asked who was the bully, 35 percent identified a principal, administrator or supervisor, and 50 percent said it was a student.
  • On respect: Educators felt most respected by their co-workers, students and students’ parents—the people with whom they interact daily—and felt most disrespected by DeVos (86 percent), the media (61 percent) and state and federal elected officials (59 percent).
  • On control and influence at work: Educators said they have at least a moderate level of control over basic decisions in their classroom, but they report having far less influence over policy decisions, such as establishing curriculum (nearly 40 percent), professional development content (nearly 50 percent) and budget decisions (nearly 80 percent).

Weingarten noted that 34 states still spend less on education than before the beginning of the recession in 2008. DeVos has proposed cutting the federal education budget by $9 billion.

Highlights of results from educators in the Solvay Union Free School District and the North Syracuse Central School District. (The two local unions and their school districts have forged strong collaborative labor-management relationships. Both focus on developing good supports for teachers, including peer mentoring programs, especially for new teachers.)

 •On stress: Solvay educators said work is “always” stressful 19 percent of the time; North Syracuse educators, just 15 percent of the time.

•On respect: 67.5 percent of Solvay teachers and 54.8 percent of North Syracuse teachers strongly agreed that their supervisors treated them with respect, compared with less than half in the broad survey.

“Collaboration doesn’t eliminate all of a district’s problems, but it does enable everyone connected to a school to develop processes that lead to joint solutions to problems, creating a sense of shared responsibility and agency. High levels of stress undermine the ability of schools to be safe, welcoming and healthy places for educators, students and community,” Weingarten said.

A national AFT poll of parents released earlier this year found that parents want well-funded neighborhood public schools that are safe and welcoming, help children develop their knowledge and skills, and ensure equal opportunity for all kids.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.