Teaching—an important job, but a challenging work environment

We received some useful comments on the first reports of the teacher shortage series, both by email and through social media. One was particularly surprising—aside from slightly premonitory at that time (as its contents were related to a “to be released” report).

Ms. Whisler, a teacher herself according to her profile, wrote: “After 6 years of teaching high school social studies, my son is changing careers to become a firefighter. Less stressful he says.”

Of course anecdotal evidence is not scientific evidence, but Ms. Whisler’s case felt enlightening. What could make teaching so stressful that would expel teachers out? How can teaching rank higher in stress than working as a firefighter? Regardless, would it matter if this were not a problem at a larger scale?

EPI released a report this week—Challenging working environments (“school climate”), especially in high-poverty schools, play a role in the teacher shortage—that describes the school climate and the scale for the shares of teachers facing such challenges. The school climate is shaped by multiple factors, including: the presence of barriers to teaching and learning, the stress and threats to safety, the relationships between teachers, administrators, and colleagues, the dismissal of teachers’ voices and knowledge, and teachers’ satisfaction and motivation. In short, the patters we describe for most of these indicators are tough in manners that would lead most of us to consider switching jobs, were we to face them. This is also seen, descriptively, for teachers, which implicates tough school climates in the teacher shortage. Some of the findings of our 4th report in our series examining the teacher shortage are as follows (see Figure A).

Figure A

School climate indicators are tough across the board

Parents struggle to be involved 21.5%
Students are not prepared to learn 27.3%
Have been threatened 21.8%
Have been physically attacked 12.4%
Stress and disappointments outweigh positives 4.9%
Staff cooperation is not great 61.6%
No significant role in setting curriculum 79.6%
No significant say over what I teach in class 71.3%
Not fully satisfied with teaching here 48.7%
Plan to quit teaching at some point 27.4%
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The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Note: Data are for teachers in public noncharter schools. See notes to Tables 1–6 for full definitions of the given indicators.

Source: 2015–2016 National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS) microdata from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

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Many teachers face the learning barriers their students arrive at school with. Just like these barriers impede children’s learning, they are also obstacles for teachers to do their jobs well. Between two and three in ten teachers see that students coming to school unprepared to learn (27.3 percent) or that parents struggle to be involved (21.5 percent) are serious problems for the school, and even a small share see students’ poor health as a problem (5.1 percent). The relationships between teachers, administrators, colleagues, and parents are described by teachers as being not fully supportive, and their voices and influence over school policy and in their classrooms as being often quieted or ignored. Significantly, even though most would think teachers have full autonomy in their classrooms, in tasks such as selecting content, topics or skills to be taught, textbooks and other instructional materials, less than 30 percent recognize they have a great deal of control of such aspects. About 12 percent teachers have been physically attacked by a student from that school and almost twice that have been threatened. These previous statistics may make the following data point look small—that about 5.9 percent of teachers strongly agree that the stress and disappointments in teaching are not worth it. However, it is not to be dismissed, because of its meaning and repercussions—for Ms. Whisler’s son and for everybody else. . We see that about half of the teachers express some level of dissatisfaction with being a teacher in their school (48.7 percent), more than one-quarter think about leaving teaching at some point (27.4 percent), and 57.5 percent are not certain that they would become teachers again if they could go back to their college days and make a decision again.

It should not be that surprising that teachers’ morale, satisfaction, and hopes about staying in the profession, or entering it, would pale (aside from others described in the series, because no factor—school climate, pay, professional supports, prestige, etc.—operates in isolation here). Our data do indicate that school climate is implicated in voluntary attrition because of the relationships between tough climate indicators and quitting that our analyses uncovered. Larger shares of teachers who ended up quitting in the 2012–2013 school year had felt, in the year before they quit, that the stress and disappointments involved in teaching weren’t really worth it, compared with teachers who did not quit (12.5 percent vs. 3.6 percent), had less influence in their schools and classrooms (82.2 percent greatly influenced the contents vs. 78.2 percent), thought that their students came to schools with more impediments to learn (39.0 percent of their students were unprepared to learn, vs. 29.4 percent), and had expressed some level of dissatisfaction with their school (60.5 percent vs. 43.3 percent).

Certainly, in light of this picture, there is no question that teachers must be wearing multiple hats at their jobs—which they do well, helped by their training, ability and dedication. However, one may wonder if we are asking teachers to do too many things beyond their main role of educating our children to cope with these circumstances, or, more precisely, if we are asking that without providing them neither adequate supports nor sufficient resources.

The evidence in this report helps connect the issue of the teacher shortage with the vast literature that examines education equity (here, a list of our own studies in this area and references to others), whose solutions and recommendations overlap with the ones here. It is not to be missed that school climate is shaped by larger societal forces such as poverty, segregation, and inequality—and that the climate, the inequities in education, and the shortage greatly reflect the underfunding in education and public policy more broadly. Problems here converged because teachers’ and students’ needs go hand with hand. Clearly, children are not put first when their teachers’ working conditions are let be so distressing.