Teacher strikes target salaries, but promoting wellness and fighting stress are the real issues

Just as one teachers' strike ended in Los Angeles another continues in Denver. Many teachers report being happy with their jobs but are unable to make ends meet, which is why salaries are the primary bone of contention in these strikes. Teachers have a strong case to make that they need and deserve more pay, given the discrepant pay between teaching and comparable professions: Teachers earned 4.3 percent less than workers with similar education and experience in 1996, a gap that grew to 17 percent in 2015, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

But we do a disservice to our teachers and our children if we focus only on teachers’ salaries. Their jobs are stressful, and many feel underprepared for the emotional demands of being in the classroom all day. Teacher wellness needs to become a priority in our schools.

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Forward-thinking private companies have an incentive to keep their employees well. The financial bottom line is healthier when employees are healthy. If we only address the financial needs of teachers and fail to invest in their personal and professional well-being, current trend lines are likely to continue: decreasing numbers of college students interested inteaching careers, increased turnover among new teachers, and high stress levels among teachers who remain in the profession.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, U.S. teachers put in 1,000 hours of instructional time per year, which puts them in sixth place in terms of total hours worked among the 36 countries in the organization. This figure does not include all of the hours that teachers put into their jobs, but even if it did, those 1,000 hours of classroom instruction place heavy demands on teachers.

As many as a third of teachers report excessive stress levels, and nearly all find their jobs extremely challenging. 

When teachers are overwhelmed, they are more susceptible to professional burnout and are more likely to leave the profession. Research my colleagues and I have conducted with a national survey of beginning teachers that followed them for four years found that new teachers who experience high stress during their first year of teaching are twice as likely as other teachers(25.5 percent vs. 12.4 percent) to remain in the profession by year five. Replacing teachers costs school districts billions annually and deprives students of experienced educators.

School systems need more systematic efforts to promote the wellness of teachers and can borrow from those used in corporations.

When I gave a presentation on coping with stress at Apple’s new office complex in Austin years ago, I was impressed with their campus commitment to wellness. Employees had access to a gym on site, received fitness and nutrition coaching and participated in companywide wellness initiatives. Many other corporations offer similar benefits to their employees. Healthy workers are more productive and more likely to stay with their employer.

Some school systems conduct working condition surveys to gauge the overall satisfaction of teachers on a given campus, but more targeted assessments are needed to identify which teachers are most vulnerable to stress. Such teachers could then be connected with resources that promote wellness.

As one example of promoting wellness, my graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin lead groups on K-12 campuses designed to help teachers understand and manage stress. Interestingly, what teachers often find most helpful, beyond the information they receive about stress, is the support they can offer one another about effective ways to cope.

Teachers also need information and resources aimed at their own mental health, not just professional development for how to educate students. Providing such resources to teachers is inexpensive compared with the costs of constantly recruiting for open positions when teachers leave education.

Yes, we need to make sure we pay teachers well so they do not have to strike to make ends meet. But if we really want the best educational environment for our students, we need more investment in the occupational health of teachers.

Christopher McCarthy is a professor and chair of the Department of Educational Psychology in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.