With its recent report “Unravelling the Layers of Teachers’ Work-Related Stress”, the OECD recently drew attention to some findings of the 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). The pandemic and post-Covid scenario have generated new challenges for teachers, but TALIS data can still provide insights for policymakers and school leaders. Analyses among OECD member countries show that while 90 per cent of teachers surveyed are overall satisfied with their jobs, this drops to 76 per cent when asked whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Additionally, one-third of the research participants wonder whether they would have been better off choosing another profession.
Work-related stressors are analysed to explore factors related to teachers’ perceptions of their profession. The goal is to design interventions that can improve teachers’ job satisfaction and well-being, starting from the identified areas. Work stress sources reported by teachers vary significantly based on the socioeconomic background of the schools. TALIS data reveal differences between disadvantaged schools—where over 30 per cent of students come from socioeconomically fragile families—and advantaged schools, where less than 10 per cent of students come from disadvantaged families.
Teachers in disadvantaged schools report managing student behaviour, adapting lessons to meet special needs, and keeping up with changing requirements as stressors. In contrast, teachers in more advantaged schools report dealing with parents’ concerns as the main source of work-related stress.
Regarding workload, it is more likely to be reported as a stressor by teachers in advantaged schools. However, a consistent pattern of differences between advantaged and disadvantaged schools concerning this stressor did not emerge. This suggests that working in advantaged schools brings specific workload-related challenges but is generally perceived among schools with different socioeconomic backgrounds.
The work stressors identified in the OECD study affect job satisfaction and teachers’ desire to continue teaching. Maintaining discipline in the classroom is the most common stressor related to teachers’ commitment. A negative relationship between this stressor and the number of years teachers intend to devote to the profession was recorded in two-thirds of the study participants. This is followed by stress related to the excessive number of lessons to be taught, which negatively impacts commitment in almost half of the participants. The same stressors—student behaviour and workload—have a negative relationship with job satisfaction in most teachers. However, positive relationships between these stressors and teachers’ job satisfaction and commitment were found in a small minority of TALIS participants. The finding could be related to the sense of mastery that teachers experience when they can cope with stressful situations.
The differences recorded between teachers working in disadvantaged schools and those in advantaged schools can be interpreted, as proposed in the report, by referring to the fewer resources available to teachers working in disadvantaged schools. What is the role of the educational institution within territories characterised by profound socioeconomic differences? In more complex contexts, teachers feel they have to deal with student behaviour and discipline, adapting their methods to the increasingly varied needs of students. In less fragile sociocultural contexts, teachers think they have to deal with the concerns of families regarding students’ school performance. Another source of stress in the study is the perception of being responsible for student achievement and success, an element on which no significant differences emerge between disadvantaged and advantaged schools.
Reading the data collected by the TALIS invites questions about how teachers manage to work effectively on students’ academic achievement if they struggle with maintaining classroom discipline and handling issues raised by parents about their children’s schooling. The question concerns how teachers represent the goals and stakeholders of their profession. To answer this, observing the type of relationship between the surveyed teachers and their students is useful. The common element in the critical issues reported in the research is the teachers’ difficulty imagining students as interlocutors and co-constructors of education. Managing classroom behaviour, modifying lessons to meet student’s educational needs, and preparing materials for lessons are all isolated behaviours of teachers. In these, an interlocution with students and their formative demands, understood as what boys and girls ask of the school regarding educational needs, future expectations, and desires, does not appear.
Working on students’ formative demands means thinking of the teaching profession as a duet tuned in with what students think, experience, and wish to know about the world around them. It’s about building an educational offer capable of helping boys and girls respond to the challenges of reality in its complex manifestations. In this sense, the school classroom becomes a resource and not a complication in the process of the ideal transmission of accomplished knowledge from teacher to student. If the formative demand of students is not placed at the centre of school practice, the risk is that teachers experience every demand of the school context as a potential stressor. This severely erodes job satisfaction and commitment to the profession.
Intervening in the relationship between teachers and the demands of school contexts is urgent, especially due to this profession’s decisive role amid cultural, climatic, and geopolitical instability, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers played a key role in that phase of radical transformation of education channels. They ensured access to education even at the cost of using new teaching methods—Distance Learning (DaD)—without having received specific training. Teachers became the point of reference for families regarding their children’s educational needs and, in many cases, for fears and concerns about the dramatic pandemic scenario. When classrooms reopened, teachers found themselves managing completely transformed environments, routines, and teaching approaches. In many cases, besides fulfilling their role as trainers, they had to mobilise to give their students a sense of responsibility toward themselves and others. This was through adherence to proper behaviours to reduce the risk of virus circulation.
These new demands added to an already high workload for teachers that, well before COVID-19, affected their job satisfaction and the presence of clinical conditions of emotional exhaustion (Ferguson K., Frost L., Hall D., Predicting teacher anxiety, depression, and job satisfaction, Journal of Teaching and Learning, 2012, 8(1), 27-42.). The combination of new and long-standing challenges in teaching has resulted in teacher shortages in many countries. This element makes it urgent to plan targeted interventions to improve school working conditions (Pressley T., Factors contributing to teacher burnout during COVID-19, Educational Researcher, 2021, 50.5, 325-327.).
A fascinating insight comes from a recent study conducted in the United States. It showed that organisational factors proved decisive regarding teachers’ work-related stress during the pandemic. Support from the school and satisfaction with organisational decisions were associated with greater personal fulfilment and reduced emotional exhaustion (Trinidad J.E., Teacher satisfaction and burnout during COVID-19: what organisational factors help?, International Journal of Leadership in Education, 2021, 1-19). These data and the considerations proposed so far suggest that working from a systems perspective is necessary to intervene in teachers’ correlated work stress risk factors. This starts from the relationship between teachers and students and extends to the broader organisational dimensions of educational institutions.
Putting at the centre of the discussion the future of the teaching profession, a profession that suffers from a chronic imbalance between public pronouncements about the decisive social function of the teacher and the well-known problems related to working conditions in schools implies questioning the representation that teachers have of their profession when they take their place behind the desk. This is an element closely related to teachers’ job satisfaction. Building on these considerations, there is an urgent need for policymakers and social partners to engage in the development of increasingly effective tools. This is to improve support systems for teachers and sustain their desire to invest precious years in the service of educating the next generation.