Against the backdrop of a national survey showing half of teachers experiencing “great stress” on the job, the head of California’s teacher credentialing commission says that stress levels among the state’s teachers are likely to be even higher.
“I would think California would be at the forefront of this group (of stressed-out teachers) and teachers’ stress levels here even higher,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of Education at Stanford University’s School of Education and chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. “California’s teachers are undoubtedly stressed and very concerned about the level of support for children and schools and teachers in this society.”
The 29th annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, the most authoritative gauge of teacher attitudes, was released this week. The MetLife report is based on the survey responses of 1,000 teachers across the nation, reached by phone in October and November 2012. It indicates that teacher satisfaction is at its lowest level in 25 years. Teacher satisfaction peaked in 2008, just before the Great Recession, with 62 percent reporting they were very satisfied. But that number has been dropping ever since, to just 39 percent this year.
The report noted that budget decreases were associated with lower morale and greater stress among teachers. Some 51 percent of teachers feel under “great stress” at least several days a week. Stress levels are greatest for elementary school teachers, with 59 percent reporting “great stress” compared with 35 percent in the 1985 survey. Teachers who work with low-income students and who are in schools that have to cope with budget cutbacks experience even more stress.
California teachers have had to endure five years of sustained budget cuts, which they’ve experienced in numerous forms: massive layoffs, unpaid furlough days, freezes on cost-of-living increases, and the trimming or elimination of support programs, professional development and class preparation time. At least 30,000 teachers have lost their jobs in California over the past five years – some 10 percent of the teaching force. But as EdSource’s “Schools Under Stress” report noted,
Just the threat of layoffs can demoralize staff, with a rippling effect in classrooms and throughout a district, potentially affecting student academic outcomes. Thus, even when teachers are rehired, the issuing of layoff notices can inflict significant damage on the culture of a school.
During the same time period, teachers have collectively been the target of relentless criticism, including from the Obama administration, that they are a major cause – and in some cases, the major cause – of low student achievement. That, Darling-Hammond said, has also contributed to plummeting satisfaction levels.
“The huge dive in teacher satisfaction has to be correlated with the teacher bashing that’s been going on for the past four years – beginning at the White House,” said Darling-Hammond. “Teachers are dealing with racial issues, poverty, violence, homelessness. Then they are subjected to a continual refrain that ‘teachers are the problem, let’s get rid of the bad teachers’ without acknowledging society’s role in taking care of kids.”
Ellen Moir, executive director of the national New Teacher Center, which works with new teachers to help them become more effective, is worried that the low satisfaction rates and high levels of stress reported by teachers could have a dampening impact on attracting – and retaining – new teachers. The MetLife survey, she said, “is particularly worrying given there is a need to recruit 2 million new teachers into the profession over the next 10 years. It highlights how important it is to make sure every new teacher gets the support he or she needs to improve student learning and to remain committed to teaching.”
Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association (CTA), said the survey results are not surprising considering the combination of budget cutbacks and the inability of teachers to control what they teach in the classroom.
Teachers want to “instill a love of learning” rather than preparing students for tests, he said. “Teachers are not supported in doing what they know is essential and right in maintaining and sustaining positive learning environments for kids. Teachers believe what they are being forced to do is counterproductive, and they feel complicit in it.”
Vogel said elementary school teachers experience higher levels of stress because high school teachers, who generally report to a department chair, feel more in control of their classroom. Besides having to teach all the subjects, elementary school teachers are much more responsible for the psychological well-being of their students, he said.
Despite dipping satisfaction levels, teachers appear to be embracing the Common Core state standards. More than two-thirds of the teachers surveyed (69 percent) reported feeling “confident” or “very confident” in the new standards, and 71 percent agreed that the new standards will better prepare students for college and the workforce than their state’s prior standards. And 93 percent felt that their colleagues had the ability to teach to the new standards.
Martha Infante is a history teacher at LA Academy Middle School in South Central Los Angeles and a member of the Educator Excellence Task Force appointed by Superintendent of Public Instuction Tom Torlakson. She said teachers are always willing to implement new approaches like the Common Core standards. But she said the many unknowns teachers face, including the imminent introduction of the Common Core, contributes to the stresses they feel. “We don’t know what’s coming next,” she said. “We don’t know where the profession is headed.”