“A good teacher is like a candle––it consumes itself to light the way for others,” reads a quote often attributed to Turkish statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But a growing body of inquiry wonders: must this be so? Must teachers sacrifice their own mental health to safeguard and shape the young minds in their care?
SPA Associate Professor Seth Gershenson considers this question in Mind the Teacher, a new five-episode podcast miniseries devoted to understanding and addressing the challenges of poor mental health in schools. The series, cohosted by Steve Holt of SUNY Albany (SPA ’17), draws on original research and real-life stakeholder accounts to help determine the causes and consequences of teacher stress, and to craft solutions to keep the candle from burning away.
Gershenson has spent years tracking the effects of educational policy on public school outcomes, both from an empirical and a personal perspective, and developed a special interest in teacher stress.
“I heard a story on NPR about a new teacher crying in their car in the parking lot after a tough day,” he recalled. “It was really moving, and it made me want to know: are these isolated incidents, or is this really a big problem across the board?”
Prior to the COVID pandemic, Gershenson and Holt conducted a study on mental health by profession, using a nationally-representative dataset from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1979-1997). They found that, while teachers’ stress levels rose over this period, so did that of most other professions. This line of research was funded by the Spencer Foundation, which recently piloted a research communication grant program designed to translate and disseminate academic research for a broader audience.
“They asked how to translate that work for regular people,” Gershenson said. “Steve and I talked about it and decided on a one-off podcast, to talk about the research findings, their implications, and how we can act on them to make everybody's lives easier and less stressed.”
Their project was approved, but reshaped by the realities of the pandemic, including the shift to remote K-12 education and the resulting traumas to teachers, children, and parents, and compounded by the difficult national dialogue on race and a contentious presidential election.
“While teaching is tough in normal situations, it became extraordinarily difficult during the pandemic,” said Gershenson. “Taking over the teaching role when schools closed was really eye-opening for a lot of parents, [showing] just how difficult it is to set a lesson plan every day, organize a classroom, and get students to behave and follow along.”
Mind the Teacher begins with a general discussion of mental health, its markers, and stigma around diagnosis and treatment, but moves onto its substantial impacts on individuals, families, and the wider economy. Guest scholars Daniel Eisenberg (UCLA) and Barbara Biasi (EIEF, Yale, and NBER) weigh in.
“Just like physical health, we know that mental health can have pretty dramatic effects on people's lives,” said Biasi, “specifically on their career and labor market outcomes. For example, we know that people with certain types of mental health conditions tend to have more fragile families and be on disability or welfare programs. They are less likely to be employed and they tend to work less.”
Biasi’s work, which focuses on Europe, also affirms the importance of nationally funded health insurance: accessible mental health resources that provide early screening and intervention improve health, and, therefore, economic outcomes. This access raises employment levels and earnings, supports innovation, and lowers dependence on safety net programs.
Episode 2 hones in on the experience of Stephen Guerriero, a long-time, highly decorated Massachusetts public-school teacher and vice president of the Needham Teacher Association. These roles allowed Guerriero a unique district-wide and longitudinal perspective.
“When I walk into the classroom, I have to go from zero to 60, right at 7:25 in the morning, and I’ve got to maintain that until the kids leave,” he said. “There is a cost to maintaining that super-high level of energy and optimism and excitement and understanding and social empathy, non-stop, all the way through the end of the day.”
Teachers are required to make hundreds of small decisions a day, and their coping mechanisms inform the quality of their teaching, Guerriero continued. The pandemic, with its remote, technical aspect and constant policy changes, made it even more difficult to meet student needs, especially as blocked access to vital school-based interventions left some less healthy and less safe.
This perfect storm of stress underlines the importance of resources for teachers, such as mental health leave, free access to counselors, classroom coverage, personal days, flexibility, and a culture of trust and mentorship, said Gershenson.
“[Guerriero’s] biggest idea for addressing this problem is supportive leadership, i.e., principals, which meshes with a lot of the research. But he also emphasizes access to a mental health care professional, covered by your insurance and outside of the physical school. That's an easily doable [and affordable] solution that a lot of teachers' contracts and health insurance programs could incorporate.”
The third installment of Mind the Teacher examined the empirical evidence for teacher stress, with insight from guests Sam Sims and John Jerrim (University College London) and Elizabeth Steiner (RAND).
The hosts’ longitudinal study found that mental health worsened in U.S. teacher populations between 1979 and 1997, especially among Black teachers, likely due to exacting accountability measures and cultural changes. Sims and Jerrim, who study these outcomes internationally, found teacher job satisfaction in the U.K. to be lower than that of other professional occupations, affecting the recruitment and retention of quality educators.
Steiner discussed a recent RAND report showing that teachers’ levels of job-related stress (80%) and symptoms of depression (27%) far exceed those of employed U.S. adults in other professions (40% and 10%, respectively). Again, Black teachers were more affected. This new picture of teacher mental health brought fears of burnout, retention, and racial underrepresentation.
“The teachers in our study who were still in the profession, but were considering leaving their jobs, cited stressors that were similar to those of teachers who had already left the profession,” said Steiner. “That raised some concerns for us.”
In addition to their own professional anxieties, teachers absorbed the pain of students suffering disrupted home lives, said Gershenson.
“The RAND survey bears that out. Hopefully, it's wrong, in the sense that those people who said they're going to leave don't leave. But even if they stay, that attitude is going to affect their teaching.”
In Episode 4, Gershenson and Holt were joined by Alberto Ortega (Indiana University) and Travis Bristol (UC Berkeley) for a deeper discussion of these racial disparities in teachers’ mental health. Teachers of color tend to select into and/or be placed into under-resourced schools, which are more likely to serve victims of historical trauma and have higher rates of burnout and turnover.
“Black teachers have [always] been teaching in a pandemic,” said Bristol, referring to incidents like Hurricane Katrina and the racialized interventions of the criminal justice system. He argued for school-based “affinity spaces” in which teachers of color have the chance to connect and validate experiences of anti-black racism.
Even before COVID, significant evidence revealed racial achievement gaps and disparities in access to school resources. The pandemic compounded these inequities. Recent economic data indicate that Black Americans suffered disproportionately from the pandemic in terms of health outcomes and job loss.
“Zoom opened a literal camera, for the first time, onto the household living situations of these families, in which students were responsible for caring for younger siblings,” said Gershenson. “[As Bristol pointed out], it was already difficult to be a Black student or a Black teacher in many schools in the United States. Everybody got the COVID stress. Everybody got the COVID pandemic shock. That's the multiplier that he's talking about.”
On the series’ final episode, which aired last month, Gershenson, Holt, and guest Matt Barnum, national reporter for Chalkbeat, discuss evidence-based interventions that may alleviate teacher stress and improve school and student outcomes.
“What do we do with all this information?” asked Gershenson. “What do we know about workplace interventions to boost mental health and reduce stress? Our reading of the literature suggests a two-pronged approach, with both individual-facing interventions and organizational-level changes. By combining those two different levels, we can move the needle immediately, and sustain it, in terms of improved mental health.”
These teacher-directed interventions may include increased pay. Some schools, said Barnum, have implemented targeted pay increases in areas of high turnover, so-called thank-you bonuses. Employee assistance programs that provide free counseling and other benefits have been shown to lift teacher morale, and mindfulness training, peer mentorship programs, and formal mechanisms for mental health checkups may also help.
Local school leadership may also consider allowing teachers more autonomy, input on policy issues, planning and prep time, and/or paid personal/mental health days. Further, as discussed in Episode 3, workload management is critical: decisionmakers can free up valuable teaching capacity by providing grading assistance, employing more counselors, social workers, and supervisory administrators, and reducing class sizes.
School administrators can also help by providing safe, well-maintained working conditions, positive feedback, and quality training and development, such as evidence-based, customized coaching programs.
“One of the best ways to reduce stress at work is to make people better at their job, so that they're more confident and efficient,” said Gershenson. “Investing in teacher skills via professional development programs and teacher coaching programs is a double win: not only is it going to make teachers better and deliver better outcomes to students, but it’s also going to reduce their stress and improve their mental health.”
At the organizational level, interventions should focus on quality, supportive leadership, access to free or affordable healthcare, and systematic policies to ease teachers' workloads. Finally, leadership should recognize racial and socioeconomic disparities and design support systems that alleviate the historical stresses on Black teachers.
Gershenson hopes that Mind the Teacher can serve as a resource for local union leaders, teachers, principals, school boards, parents, state and federal education officials, and others concerned with protecting mental health in the school environment. All episodes are available on Apple and Stitcher, and can also be streamed from AU’s website; the latter also offers transcripts and links to research referred to in the episode.
Gershenson, a long-time fan of the medium and host of JPAM’s Closer Look, appreciated the podcast production process, from creating the raw audio to editing, mixing, and uploading the final product.
“I do enjoy the podcast part of it and trying to distill and translate academic research for broader audiences,” he said. “I had a lot of fun doing this podcast with Steve, so I'm open to the idea of doing another one of these deep-dive miniseries.”