High stress levels are plaguing the teaching profession, but one factor makes a big difference in terms of whether teachers are still satisfied with their job: their ability to cope with the stress.
A team of researchers from the University of Missouri analyzed survey data of 2,300 teachers from Missouri and Oklahoma who were asked to rate their levels of work stress, job satisfaction, and how well they feel they can cope with work stress. They found that teachers who say they are not coping well with work stress report far lower job satisfaction compared to teachers who say they have found ways to manage workplace pressures.
“In my experience as an educator, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about stress management and coping, but the findings of the research show that stress is bad for everyone,” said Seth Woods, a co-author of the study and the principal at Beulah Ralph Elementary School in Columbia, Mo. “But it is less negatively impactful if you have strong coping mechanisms.”
The study points to the need for more of an emphasis on stress management in professional development or teacher preparation, Woods said. Other research shows that high stress levels negatively affect not only teachers’ own well-being, but the well-being and academic achievement of their students. Stress is also one of the main reasons why teachers quit.
“There has to be a more intentional focus on recognizing the need to teach coping skills to the adults in the education system, because it’s not something that’s systematically taught,” Woods said. “I’m not saying it’s a magic solution, but it certainly would not hurt.”
After all, he said, much of what makes teaching stressful, like inadequate resources to do what needs to be done, is sometimes beyond the control of school leaders. But helping his staff develop healthy coping mechanisms is “a part that I could help bring some modicum of control to,” Woods said.
Woods and Keith Herman, a professor at Missouri and a co-author of the study, shared six positive, healthy coping strategies teachers can use to manage stress.
1. Write down what you’re grateful for
Keeping a gratitude or affirmation journal can be a simple way to positively alter your mindset, the researchers said.
“It’s easy to get stuck on the things that don’t go well on a school day,” Woods said, adding that the positive moments can sometimes become routine.
Taking the time to jot down the good things that happened—a positive interaction with a parent, a lightbulb moment for a student—can be a healthy coping mechanism for stress, he said.
Rebecka Peterson, a high school math teacher in Tulsa, Okla., who was named the 2023 National Teacher of the Year, credits this practice of intentional gratitude to saving her career. She was overwhelmed and stressed her first year teaching K-12, but her perspective shifted when she started contributing to a collaborative blog called, “One Good Thing.”
“I’m naturally a glass-half-empty type of gal, so this really did rewire brain into seeing the beautiful, small, everyday, moments that were happening in the classroom,” she told Education Week in an interview last month. “It helped me tuck those away away, and then they sustained me.”
Woods also recommended writing a short letter of gratitude to a colleague or a family member. Whether you deliver that letter or not, it can still help reduce your stress, he said.
2. Pay attention to your mood
Herman said he recommends teachers make a practice of monitoring their mood at least once a day and writing down circumstances that are associated with a negative or positive mood.
“It sets us up to be more mindful and aware of how we’re feeling throughout the day,” he said.
The practice can help you uncover patterns, which can then help you better manage your emotions. (Here’s a mood monitoring form that Herman developed.)
3. Avoid workplace gossip and venting sessions
It can be tempting to commiserate with colleagues, Herman said. But spending too much time ruminating on workplace frustrations can have a negative, enduring effect on your mood, he said.
“Think about who you are spending time with,” Herman said. “Does that feel like good social support? Does it feel like it’s enriching you, or making your mood better?”
In 2016, elementary teacher Lauren Powell wrote an essay for Education Week, titled “Why I Avoid the ‘Teachers’ Lounge’ and You Should, Too.” In it, she argued that gossiping and complaining with her colleagues brought everyone down.
“The problem with being a part of the teachers’ lounge is that it breeds negativity,” she wrote. “As that negativity festers, it spreads like the plague, polluting the minds of an entire team of teachers.”
4. Practice adaptive behaviors and thinking
Adaptive coping means changing your behavior or way of thinking to manage stressful conditions or emotional distress. Some examples of this coping strategy include changing expectations or taking actions to reduce stress.
It doesn’t mean ignoring the problem: “We don’t encourage teachers to put on rose-colored glasses and say everything’s OK,” Herman said.
But it could mean thinking about the problem in a different way. For example, imagine that your administrator is not providing you with enough resources or support before or during classroom observations, Herman said.
“Think about: Am I willing to live with this? Can I change the way I think about it, [so it will be] less upsetting?” he said.
If not, then it could be time to have a conversation with the administrator and tell them how you feel and what you need, Herman said. If you don’t feel comfortable having that conversation—or you do, and it doesn’t go anywhere—Herman suggests seeking out other workplace allies to get the positive feedback and support you need.
5. Seek out professional development
Competence at work is linked to occupational stress, Herman said. If you’re not able to effectively manage your classroom, for example, you’re more likely to be stressed. And student behavior has been a major challenge for teachers since the start of the pandemic.
“It can become an awful cycle,” Herman said. “You tend to have conflicted relationships with students—that’s not why teachers got in the profession. It also makes you feel bad and [have] negative thoughts of work.”
But when teachers have more positive interactions with students, it creates a healthy cycle of, “I feel better about my students; I feel better about my work,” Herman said.
Receiving feedback or professional development on skills that you struggle with can help, he said: “There’s not a simple solution to any of this, but set goals around different areas that you’d like to get better in and see how much of a difference it makes in your stress level.”
6. Have a book club
Herman also recommended having weekly or biweekly meetings with colleagues to learn about evidence-based practices on stress management. Ideally, this would be facilitated or organized by a school leader, he said, since the act of intentionally setting aside time during a busy school day to focus on coping strategies sends an important message to staff.
In 2019, a team of researchers (including Herman) studied the effect of a stress management program for teachers, in which the participants read the self-help book Stress Management for Teachers: A Proactive Guide, written by Herman and Wendy Reinke, a professor in school psychology at the University of Missouri.
In addition to reading a few chapters of the book each week, the teachers went through one in-person training and three additional online webinars that complemented the books. The researchers found that by the completion of the program, teachers had lower stress, improved coping strategies, and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.
One of the researchers adapted the program into a free online webinar series that can be completed without the book or the in-person training.