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For many educators, teaching has long been what could be considered a challenging career, underpinned equally by a passion and a desire to help children get the most out of their education and succeed in life.

While that sentiment may have kept many teachers within their roles for years or decades, today’s post-pandemic landscape is an entirely different hurdle. This a hurdle that many educators aren’t willing to overcome – and for a good reason.

Poor mental health is a concern across all sectors and industries. Still, for teachers, a combination of high-pressure environments, burnout, and overwhelming workloads make mental health problems as much a part of the school year as teaching mathematics or learning about the a-b-cs. Today’s educators are struggling more than ever with mental health concerns, resulting in a higher-than-ever rate of teachers leaving schools and students behind for less stressful, more rewarding careers.

The pandemic was undoubtedly stressful for everyone, from teachers learning the ropes of remote education to struggling parents trying to juggle remote working and virtual school. However, while many industries have returned to the status quo for work and life, that transition hasn’t been easy for educators. Double the workload for continually dwindling pay means teachers aren’t just overworked – they’re also underpaid, burnt out, and looking for the best way to exit a career they trained so hard to work in.

Why does poor mental health continue to perpetuate in education, what’s affecting teachers the most, and how is the education system failing teachers? We cover everything in our in-depth deep dive into mental health, teachers, and quitting for greener pastures below.

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Poor mental health is affecting teachers now more than ever before

Throughout the COVID epidemic and during the re-introduction of children into education, remote or otherwise, teachers were often hailed as unsung heroes. Alongside healthcare staff and key workers, they performed their role to ensure children received the best education possible in challenging circumstances. Despite this consistent praise towards the start of the pandemic, that sense of sticking together and working through hardship was quickly overcome by the stress and anxiety of facing new challenges with little support and guidance from the administration or parents.

According to research by EdWeek Research Center, 84% of teachers found teaching more stressful than pre-pandemic, significantly impacting their mental health and ability to provide the best to their students. That’s a marked increase over previous figures, with the 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey by The American Federation of Teachers finding 61% of teachers were consistently stressed in their role just a few years previously in 2017. Where significant increases in stress are found, it’s no stretch to say that long-term mental health issues relating to burnout, depression, and anxiety can soon follow.

More than half of educators are planning on leaving teaching early

More and more teachers struggle with their mental health and managing the day-to-day stress of the classroom, administrative struggles, and the uphill battle of continuing to support their students. As this number increases, so does the pressure educators are under to maintain their current productivity and capability in an increasingly hostile working environment. The result? Compared to pre-pandemic figures, more teachers than ever are opting to drop their careers entirely and investigate the other options available.

According to a survey by the National Education Association in 2022, more than 55% of their members considered leaving education far earlier than planned. Compared to a previous 37% in the year before, it’s clear that throwing in the towel for many teachers is the best solution to a challenging and often painful problem. A staggering 86% of members had also seen other educators opting to retire early or leave the profession since 2020. For students, this means fewer educators, and for remaining teachers, this often means more work – perpetuating the cycle and leading to greater fall-out with more resignations and career changes on the horizon.

Anxiety, depression, and STSD are increasingly common problems for educators

The burden placed upon teachers to support their students, provide education, and often act as underpaid support networks has real implications on long-term mental health. For many educators, depression and anxiety are common results of long-term stress. With the pandemic and growing pressure exacerbating this stress, it’s no surprise that a lack of support and no end to long work days, high workloads, and low pay can make educators unable to look after themselves properly.

Much like students require additional support to overcome mental health concerns. Teachers need the same care and resources to be the best educators they can be. While certain areas of mental health have become more of a priority for administrators and schools, such as supporting teachers with compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress from helping and supporting students in difficult circumstances, these resources are still few and far between. Without that support, the safest route to better mental health is often the most heart-wrenching, leading to resignations and career changes without the ability to continue in the field they were once passionate about.

What is affecting the mental health of teachers?

The declining mental health of teachers isn’t from a single source. Much like other professions, a collective of different pressures and concerns, in addition to teachers’ moral responsibility, combine factors in raising mental health concerns for educators. Some of the key areas that are affecting the mental health of teachers include:

Overworking

Overworking is a serious problem within the education industry, with the pandemic doing little to reduce that strain and adding extra pressure on top of an already challenging situation. Most teachers work far beyond their allotted school hours, from providing student support to running additional clubs and making work. Beyond that, some teachers are even picking up second jobs or overextending themselves with side hustles to make ends meet.

The result of consistent overwork is, in most cases, increased stress, reduced mental health, and a whole host of potential long-term health issues, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure
  • Poor concentration
  • Increased weight
  • Higher cholesterol levels

With many teachers working consistently to achieve results in the classroom, meet administrative demands and keep parents happy, overwork is a serious concern. With more teachers resigning and existing educators picking up the slack as new hires are brought in and up to speed – or in some cases, not replaced – the issue of overwork is a significant problem within education.

Burnout

Teacher burnout has been a problem within the education sector for decades. On top of that, recent global changes and increased demand for educators have created a tense, high-pressure environment that breeds burnout freely. It’s more common than ever for teachers to experience burnout, and it’s happening earlier in their careers, with 40% of teachers changing their careers within the first five years of qualifying, a number that’s only increasing over time.

Burnout is more than just a buzzword. As a recognized phenomenon by the World Health Organisation in 2019, it’s clear that this significant level of pressure does lead to mental health concerns for people in all career paths. Some of the key indicators of this state of psychological and physical exhaustion include:

  • Tiredness and feeling drained
  • Feelings of defeat and helplessness
  • Feeling detached from the world
  • Feeling cynical and negative
  • Have self-doubt
  • Feeling overwhelmed

For educators already working in a high-pressure environment before the pandemic, the massive upheaval of remote learning, blended learning, and short staffing was the perfect recipe for burnout to flourish.

Underpayment

Chronically low wages consistently below the cost of living is nothing new to those within the profession. But the added stress of low pay, high expectations, and the expectation to reach into their pockets for supplies, resources, and classroom decoration are the perfect storm for creating pressure on educators and making them feel less engaged in their work. In a career where you aren’t paid your worth, it’s difficult not to be swayed by better hours, less work, and higher pay.

In 2020, research showed that many teachers earn 20% or less than other professionals with matching education and experience. Across the US, that’s reflected in pay below the family living wage. Financial stress is difficult for anyone, resulting in mental health problems. For educators that put a significant number of hours beyond their pay grade into their work, this lack of pay can quickly lead to dissatisfaction and difficulty maintaining a successful career. With no salary increases on the horizon, underpayment is a significant cause of mental health concerns among teachers and others working within the education field.

Parental pressure

Alongside the stress of overworking and underpayment, many teachers also have to contend with parents that have increasing sway in how children are educated, leading to larger workloads and difficulty in juggling typical teaching work and managing parental expectations. This phenomenon isn’t new, but according to The 5 Things podcast, since the pandemic, there has been a significant shift in the dynamics of parent-teacher relationships, with parents taking on a ‘customer’ role over working with teachers to resolve issues.

This customer-service approach results in administrators taking the parent’s side without a thorough investigation or explanation. Without the necessary support and additional pressure to meet parental demands, many educators are left with fewer hours to support their class, prepare for the upcoming day or maintain productivity. With many schools now offering live communication between teachers and parents, the downside of this availability is added stress and additional scrutiny, both of which are problematic for teachers’ mental health.

Remote requirements

From the pandemic’s start, many educators were thrown into a world of hybrid, remote, or distanced learning, attempting to provide students with the best possible education while maintaining safety and reducing the spread of sickness. While remote learning in many working environments provides a practical alternative to working from the office or traveling to corporate headquarters, for teachers, the act of ‘going remote’ was far more challenging to master.

From problems with student attendance to parents demanding more from educators, many teachers found themselves under extra strain to continue a high level of productivity. At the same time, much of the world wasn’t held to the same high standard. In some cases, remote and in-person learning created twice the workload, with teachers finishing their in-classroom teaching to go home and recording hours of remote lessons for employees unable to attend school. While the initial teething problems of remote learning aren’t a key concern for teachers today, the effects of that time have far-reaching issues for mental health, stress, and well-being.

Sickness stress

Sickness is inevitable for anyone struggling with the long-term symptoms of stress. For educators, being sick is stressful enough, with very few sick days per year offered and a culture of pressure around being always available during the academic year. Recent reports have shown that, with many schools removing any additional sick leave allocated for COVID-19, teachers are rapidly running out of sick days, leaving them to work while ill or staying home and receiving no pay.

The culture surrounding the education sector and sickness has always been a challenge for educators, with many school districts offering 15 days or less of paid sick leave. Teachers have pulled both ways in the wake of the coronavirus, where it’s even more important to protect students and prevent the spread of disease. Either they attend school while sick to meet administrator expectations and avoid using precious sick days, or they stay home and have the financial stress of their next pay packet being smaller.

Over-demanding administrators

The relationship between teachers and administrators is increasingly strained, with a rapidly growing divide between achieving results and providing teachers with the means and resources to reach those KPIs and goals. With administrators focusing on improving test scores and metrics within education, teacher well-being has been left to the wayside to attain continual improvement and simultaneously appease parents. With teachers being pushed to their limits and administrators continuing to demand more, it’s no surprise that many teachers are considering quitting their careers.

From attempting to rectify the Covid learning slide to adding busy work onto their plates to tick boxes and make parents happy, administrators are directly impacting the mental health of teachers within their employ. Without the resources and means to protect teachers, from counseling and mental health resources to acceptable time off and financial support, it’s no surprise that many teachers are quitting. If only to free themselves from the intense pressure placed upon them to reduce mental health problems and gain space to breathe.

Lack of student support

By nature, teaching is a caring profession. Many educators choose to go into teaching to improve children’s lives, positively impacting their learning and forming connections with kids in need of help and support. However, the reality of the education system means many teachers face a lack of support and resources available to support children in desperate need of extra help. Whether through lack of funding or additional layers of bureaucracy, it’s easy to burn out emotionally with the feeling of helplessness that can come from caring for students.

A CDC study conducted in 2022 found that 37% of students in US high schools reported mental health struggles during COVID-19, with this trend continuing following the return to school. For teachers, the pressure to support students and provide the help they need with little help can be a crucial factor for their mental health struggles with anxiety and depression. Making it more difficult to support students in desperate need of help.

No change on the horizon

A lack of change within any profession can lead to stagnancy and dissatisfaction. Teaching is an industry that matches those specifications exactly, with many teachers striving to improve working conditions, increase pay or increase the accessibility of support with little result to show for their effort. With many administrators pushing back against teacher requests and calls for change, educators are left to work with the cards they are dealt.

With no positive change coming and little likelihood of a pay raise to match current living standards, many teachers feel stressed or helpless. Without something positive to work towards, this can spell big problems for their mental health, leading to poorer productivity, little innovation in the classroom, and no motivation to work harder or achieve more without any incentive.

Little control or influence

The ability to control and influence the education environment directly impacts the mental health of educators. In fields where workers have autonomy, a say in their workplace, and day-to-day functionality, productivity and job satisfaction are far higher. Teachers cannot create curriculums, support students outside of strict guidelines, or innovate lessons to enhance learning in the education sector.

A study by the University of North Dakota in 2021 found that teachers became demoralized in the workplace due to a lack of control over work processes, resulting in negative mental health concerns. The more autonomy teachers have in their working environment, whether contributing to school policies or being granted a level of freedom by administrators, the more likely they are to struggle with anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns.

How the education system is failing teachers

With many of the critical causes of poor mental health in teachers covered, it’s worth considering the circumstances that lead to educators experiencing anxiety, depression, or even PTSD in some cases. Like many mental health struggles, it’s often a collective of factors leading to teachers quitting their field and exploring new pastures. Here are some ways that the education system is failing teachers, resulting in them reaching breaking point sooner each year:

Stuck in survival mode

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many educators have been plunged into survival mode. Requiring them to use all their resources, skills, and capabilities to support students in challenging circumstances. While the early panic of the pandemic is long behind us, many teachers are still struggling to keep up with the continual demand placed on them by the education system to bring students back up to speed.

For instance, implementing hybrid and remote learning introduced an additional layer of intricacy to teaching. From engaging students in virtual Zoom lessons to providing parents with updates via only systems and check-ins, the workload for teachers quickly became a burden too heavy to bear for many, leading to early retirements or plans to move into another career as swiftly as possible.

Ever-growing hurdles with little support

Infrequent or unreliable support from administrators and other professionals within education has been a point of contention for teachers for many years. That concern combines with growing expectations from parents and administrators to improve grades, expand curriculums and provide students in larger classes with the same level of personal care. Teachers are more under pressure than ever to continually improve, evolve, and meet KPIs and standards, requiring more work hours and less time connecting with students.

Compared to teachers in the 80s, today’s educators are less experienced – with an average of one to three years in the field – but are expected to operate at high productivity levels from the start. With no time to gain a sound footing within the field, develop their style, or support students properly, many teachers leave education after becoming disillusioned and struggling with mental health problems relating to stress, anxiety, and helplessness.

Fewer teachers for growing numbers of students

With the stress, low pay, and high proportion of mental health problems easily advertised online, it’s easy to see why fewer people than ever are choosing teaching as their profession of choice. A significant proportion of graduate teachers decide to move into other fields after a short time within this challenging sector. According to recent studies, since 2010, the number of teachers in training has dropped by a third.

While there has been a slight decrease in students entering the public health system in the past couple of years, there’s been a far more significant dip in the number of teachers available to students within public education. The result is larger classes per educator, which further compounds the stress and workload involved in providing students with the best possible education. With administrators failing to hire more teachers, whether due to shortage or budget, this leaves teachers with more work than ever before.

Poor pay for difficult work

It’s no secret that lack of money is a key reason many teachers look outside their training area for better-paying work. Teaching has long been a career below a living wage, with the only option for progression to move into administration and away from the classroom. With schools failing to pay high-quality teachers enough to stick around, their options are divided between private education, where pay may be higher for strong experience, or looking elsewhere for a more financially rewarding role.

During the pandemic, stress topped the charts as the primary reason teachers quit their jobs to work outside of education. However, the pay was another key factor – financial stress also directly influenced teachers’ mental well-being, particularly with double the workload caused by remote and hybrid learning environments. In a 2021 RAND study, insufficient pay was the second most common reason for quitting teaching. There was also no access to health insurance or retirement benefits, causing potential long-term financial strain for educators.

Failure to be flexible

Lack of flexibility in the workplace is a primary concern for many teachers. Whether it’s the flexibility to protect themselves and their families by working remotely or the ability to teach students in the most beneficial ways, the administration’s inflexibility can quickly take its toll. While the post-pandemic landscape for many career paths has led to increased options to support employees, education has returned to its rigid roots, leaving many educators dissatisfied and looking for a career path that offers the flexibility they need.

Flexibility isn’t just beneficial for teachers. By allowing educators to build better relationships and adapt their curriculum to help students learn more effectively, grades and student happiness can also benefit from a more flexible arrangement. With the proof that certain teaching aspects can be done online, from assigning homework to attending training, it’s no surprise that teachers are frustrated with an inflexible system that is seemingly counter-intuitive for students and educators alike.

Resistance to change

Sticking to the status quo regardless of its suitability or fit has long been the standard within education. Many administrators are highly resistant to change, doubly so when teachers provide suggestions and innovations to make their jobs easier. Research has found that education is an environment bound by tradition, where administrators are far more likely to passively stick to the rules over searching for new ideas and concepts to improve teacher and student lives.

The result of resistance to change is teachers that feel unheard, underappreciated, and uninvolved in providing students with an education. The less involved educators are, the less likely they will engage with their workplace and stick around for longer. By contrast, workers that feel appreciated and listened to in any environment are far more likely to have stronger retention, remaining in their role and feeling a bigger part of the workplace. For many teachers, quitting is the outcome of becoming detached from the school they work for after going through the motions and following rules for years without any input.

Teacher hustle culture

The ‘hustle culture’ concept transcends different career paths and skill sets, but many teachers have always felt the pressure to hustle within the education environment. From bright, bubbly teachers with resource-filled YouTube channels to crafty educators creating resources for use in classrooms, the teaching culture has an inbuilt concept of going the extra mile, both within the workplace and in the precious few hours rest educators get at home.

Anyone engaged in hustle culture for a significant amount of time has plenty of warning stories about burnout, stress, and anxiety caused by never ‘turning off from work. For educators, who already have a packed schedule, this effect can be doubly so. The ‘just hustle’ culture in education emphasizes the teacher as the only person who can solve problems, achieve goals and do more in a limited time. While many educators may start with good intentions and high productivity, over time, that hustle culture erodes work-life balance, leading to an ultimate crash and burn.

Why quitting seems like the right option for many educators

Quitting isn’t easy for any teacher. As a career often led by passion and a wish to help children succeed, taking steps to explore another career can be as heart-wrenching as conflicting. Despite this, thousands of teachers across the US are leaving their classrooms behind and landing higher-paying, more flexible roles in other industries. Here are a few reasons why quitting feels like the right idea for many teachers:

The freedom of a nine-to-five

While school hours may sound shorter than the average workday in the abstract, the reality for teachers is that they’ll work far longer than the typical work week month after month. From preparing and creating resources to supporting remote learning and preparing their classroom to mark, many unseen hours go into the average teaching job outside lessons themselves. As such, the ideal of working nine-to-five and then finishing on time every day sounds like a luxury that’s worth considering.

With 44% of public schools reporting teaching vacancies for the new educational year in 2022, a significant number of teachers opting to jump ship and head for the freedom of a nine-to-five over the long hours and high demand of the average school. An ever-increasing workload and an inability of administrators to be flexible and amenable to teacher requirements mean the grass is looking far greener, encouraging educators to quit in droves.

Flexibility within working hours

The strict hours enforced for teaching are another key area of contention for educators. While it does make sense that teaching happens during school hours, the lack of flexibility in teaching arrangements and part-time work means many educators end up leaving positions to find something that better suits their lifestyle. For instance, teaching-adjacent jobs like tutoring or online school provide far more hours, providing teachers with the flexibility necessary to care for their children, reduce their workload or keep up with other responsibilities.

A recent teacher survey by Chalkbeat found that a lack of flexibility was one of the primary reasons teachers were moving on from the classroom. With fewer people enrolling in teacher training, schools compete for qualified educators without offering the incentive and flexibility necessary to retain them in teaching roles. Many teachers are unwilling to compromise without flexibility, whether through differing hours, extra sick pay, or the option for holiday pay.

Reduced responsibility and moral pressure

Education doesn’t require training and expertise in a subject area. Most teachers agree that a passion for supporting students and a drive to help them achieve their best is key to excelling in your role as an educator. However, along with that engagement comes moral pressure and responsibility, with many educators experiencing burnout or mental health struggles due to over-empathizing and emotionally connecting with students.

Compared to other careers, the burden of that responsibility and pressure can feel overwhelming, leading to teachers choosing to leave their careers sooner and explore other less taxing options for their mental health. In 1998, a study on moral stress in teaching identified this condition of a feeling of burden at work. Moral pressure and obligation have long been a consideration in what causes teachers to burn out and leave their careers, whether due to ethical dilemmas or lack of freedom to do the ‘right’ thing due to administrative rules and regulations.

Improved mental health and wellbeing

A less stressful career can typically benefit employees’ mental health and well-being. As a career that’s often considered high-pressure, working as a teacher can exacerbate existing mental health conditions and cause anxiety or depression due to stress. Many educators choose their mental health as their primary reason for seeking work elsewhere, whether considering changing careers entirely or looking to work for a different district or education administration.

The increasing focus on driving teachers hard to get results, plus added external pressure during and after the pandemic, provides a perfect storm that many educators choose to get away from as quickly as possible. With many teachers leaving education in the first five years, it’s easy to see how mental health problems can occur swiftly in an environment where high productivity is expected.

Better pay with less personal cost

For teachers in the US, it’s not just the low wages that are a source of burden. Up to 94% of US public school teachers spend their own money on school supplies to prevent their classes from going without the necessary resources. This added financial cost quickly adds up to a below-living wage salary, leading to hardship. In comparison, other careers with little overhead and higher wages can look highly appealing to underpaid, overworked educators.

As one of the primary causes of stress, a lack of financial security can be a problem made worse by long hours, difficult administration, or challenging parents. The result is a mass exodus of teachers leaving their classrooms to explore anything from teaching-adjacent roles to completely different career paths, gaining additional income and lowering stress simultaneously.

What does the future look like for mental health in education?

Without change, the future of mental health in education doesn’t yet have a silver lining. Post-pandemic, with all sense of camaraderie and working towards a common goal gone, many educators have reported worsening mental health, difficulty with micromanaging administration, and increasingly pushy parents.

By refocusing on teachers’ mental health, looking at their workloads, and examining the bloat in work required each day, it’s possible to reverse the current trend over the next decade. Whether or not that happens depends entirely on how administrators react and respond to growing unrest in the next few years. For happiness, fulfillment, and retention, mental health is important and shouldn’t be missed.