Teaching and Job Stress

By JOHN SULLIVAN • March 2, 2012


It is hardly unusual for employees in any field to complain about stress related to their jobs. Teachers are certainly no exception, but what are actual job stressors and do teachers suffer more than most? This is an important issue because job stress should have a relationship to compensation. For example, it would be argued that running backs in the NFL deserve high compensation because their average working life in that position is very short. It could be argued that air traffic controllers deserve high compensation because they spend their entire working day with the lives of others in their hands. It is difficult to list or even imagine all job stressors, but an incomplete list follows.


1.   Loss of job.

2.   Low pay.

3.   Uncertain pay.

4.   Uncertain working hours.

5.   Weekend work.

6.   Little vacation time.

7.   Work related travel.

8.   Safety on the job.

9.   Responsibility for employees.

10. Uncertainty of raises.

11. Saving for retirement.

12. Late retirement.

13. Job relocation.

14. Increased regulation and paperwork.

15. Problems with customers.


“Loss of job” is considered the most important stressor and can come about in many ways, including product obsolescence, structural unemployment, job elimination, discharge, etc. How many autoworkers, steelworkers, keypunch operators, tech employees and so on lose their jobs? The numbers are usually announced in the tens of thousands. Due to tenure, union protection, and leverage against parents, teacher job loss is almost nil. I read recently that 46% of employees are afraid of losing their job. I would guess that few of these are teachers.


Low pay would certainly not be a source of job stress for teachers. Teachers are required to work about six hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year with 15 paid sick days per year that can be accumulated. They may-or may not- work additional hours for no pay. On a monthly basis, the average teacher makes 2-3 times what a private-sector employee makes with similar credentials. 


The amount of pay is known, sometimes years in advance. Compare this to a commission-only salesman of  business software that works now for an uncertain payoff six months from now or perhaps a trader on the Chicago Exchange who might make $10,000 today and lose $10,000 tomorrow. These are occupations where “uncertain pay” is truly a job stressor!


Most people have jobs that require flexibility re working hours. Construction workers might find out on Friday that they have to work until the job is done. Attorneys might find out that an important case means that they cannot take any time off indefinitely.  Pilots may get stuck on the other side of the world due to snow in Chicago. These are certainly job stressors, but not for teachers.


In that vein, it is certainly stressful to realize that your employer considers your weekends off to be optional. How many employees have to change their weekend plans because they have to work? Do Chicago snow-plowing personnel get to enjoy the weekend off during a blizzard? Not if they want to keep their jobs! In contrast, I have never heard of a teacher who was required to work on a weekend.


Typically, in the private sector, one receives a week of vacation after the first year of employment, followed by two weeks after five years, three weeks after ten years, and four weeks after twenty-five years. The private sector of this country works more hours per year than every other developed nation in the world. I know people who haven’t had a week off in ten years. Teachers have about four months off per year beginning immediately. My guess is that “lack of vacation time” is not a stressor for teachers.


Travel, while stressful, has become much more so due to increased security at airports. I used to travel moderately in my career, but I certainly wouldn’t want to today. In other words, I would have to receive a lot more compensation to take a job that required travel.  Teachers do not have this stressor.


Teachers have some safety concerns in the workplace. Teachers can be assaulted like anyone else and there is always the possibility of accidents. This is a stressor for anyone either on or off the job. However, teachers do not work with machinery or equipment, around hazardous or dangerous materials, come into contact with dangerous people like policemen do, work underground, underwater or high in the air, or have any kind of activity that would be considered inherently dangerous. They do not have to evade tacklers or work for a contractor in Iraq. They do not lose arms or legs on the job. As a job class, teaching must be among the safest.


Most managers would say that responsibility for their employees causes them a great deal of stress. Most have had to lay off one of their people, given them unfavorable job review, had to fire them, seen them hurt on the job, suffered with them when they lost a loved one, lost their retirement money or pension, or harmed in any of the ways that a person can be harmed, particularly if it is in an area that is the manager’s responsibility. Teachers have no employees.


We can take it for granted that everyone likes to make more money, especially in the face of inflation. As a rule, people need a 3% raise every year just to break even. Over the past twenty years, real wages have been flat so, on average, the private sector has received this. However, with the severe concentration of income in the top 2% of the population, it should be safe to say that the “average person” has seen his real wages decline. Further, increases are often determined by factors outside of his control. If his company does poorly, if the economy does poorly, if health insurance costs rise, if his performance suffers from causes that he can’t control, etc, his salary may actually decrease. This would not be a stressor for teachers. They get automatic raises in excess of inflation that are unaffected by any economic factors. They can also get fixed raises if they get additional education. For example, a master’s degree might get them a 15% raise and a corresponding raise in their pension. I have never heard of anyone in the private sector receiving a raise just for getting their master’s degree.


Retirement concerns are a huge stressor in the private sector. Defined contribution plans are subject to market forces and the contributions made by their employers are optional. 


The company may make a matching contribution to some extent when times are good and stop contributions when they are in difficulty. Contributions in the private sector are minimal as compared to the contributions made to teacher’s retirement plans by the taxpayers. Pensions in the private sector are becoming rare but are in force for all teachers.


Private pensions are somewhat determined by market returns and may be reduced or terminated at any time. Pensions, even in retirement, may be reduced if the company goes bankrupt. For example, consider a pilot who negotiated increased pension benefits in lieu of pay and retired with a $100,000 per year pension. His company goes bankrupt and he only receives the portion of his pension that is insured by the PBGC. His pension is reduced to $35,000 per year even though he is retired. Teacher’s pensions are guaranteed by the Illinois Constitution and they must be paid before the state can spend a cent on anything else. Teacher’s pensions are based on a high guaranteed investment return. Any shortfall is paid by the taxpayers.


Private pensions are subject to inflation risk. A $3000/month pension will only have $1000/month in buying power in 30 years at only 3%/year inflation. Teacher’s pensions have an automatic 3% increase every year.


Teachers receive about 80% of their pay in pension at age 60 if they have sufficient years of service. This works out to about a 50% pension and a 30% substitute for Social Security. However, Social Security is paid for by its participants. The 30% substitute is not. 


No, I don’t think that retirement concerns are a stressor at all for teachers.


As stated, teachers can retire at age 60 with a full pension. This should not cause stress.


Job relocation is a stressor for those in the private sector. The work location may move or the work location may be closed and the employee may either move or lose his job. This is often a tough choice because the spouse may have a job they would have to quit if they relocate. Children are uprooted from their school. Children do not like to lose their friends. The family often would be moving away from their extended family. They may lose money on their house. Schools don’t relocate, so this would not be a stressor for teachers.


Increased regulatory matters and paperwork is a stressor for teachers, as it is with virtually everyone else.


Problems with customers are a problem with teachers as well as in the private sector.  However, problems with customers will not lose a teacher their job. Also, problem customers in the teaching profession are often outsourced to “special ed” teachers. The private sector has no such help.


One of the worst stressors that I hear of doesn’t really have a name, except perhaps “rat race.” Forty years ago, employees did “one job.” Twenty years ago, employees did “two jobs.” Ten years ago, they did “three jobs.” Five years ago, they did “four jobs.” Now, employees do what five people used to do with only a minimal increase in real compensation. This is “productivity.” Employers get more output per unit of labor cost.   Now, everything that I’ve read says that the amount of “education” turned out by teachers in Illinois has been declining for decades. Yet, compensation for those teachers has been going up at twice the rate of inflation.


Now, if the amount of output from teachers is going down as compensation is going up, then why in the world would anyone think that education would be improved if only we increased compensation? The trend for the last twenty years is that the more teachers are paid, the less they produce. Wouldn’t that lead us to believe that the surest way to poorer education is “more pay for teachers”?


How can this be?  I submit that this is the normal course for union labor, both on an empirical basis and an a priori basis.  Empirically, we only need to remember the railroad unions, the auto unions, and the steelworker unions.  What has happened to these industries?  They went through a cycle of higher wages for the same work, higher wages for less work, loss of jobs, less money for the same work, less money for more work, and subsequent loss of industries.  The unions were unable or unwilling to adjust quickly enough to the correction in the mispricing they created. 


After all, you can mandate higher requirements for teachers, but the union limits them to a fixed amount of hours of work per year and as yet, they have been unwilling to bend.  They will break, of course, but the employers who will go bankrupt are the state of Illinois and its municipalities. In general, absent competition, one should not expect a quality product from union labor. 


A priori reasoning should indicate that the quality of product should diminish regardless of compensation. There are employees who work hard and those who don’t. Teachers get the same pay whether they work 30 hours or 60 hours, whether they produce a good product or a poor one. Gradually, the hardworking teachers realize that they are making sacrifices as others are skating by and they begin to increase the ranks of the “skaters.”   The 30 hour teachers chide the 60 hour teachers for anti-union activity. After all, the union negotiated six-hour days – why are they working more? They are “tools of management” and soon “management will want everyone to work 60 hours a week for the same pay.” Further in the process is that this job choice will attract those who want a lot – but don’t want to work for it – and are willing to do dull, repetitive work.


Consequently, it would not seem that this “rat race” is a stressor for teachers. They are not forced to do any more than one job, they get three months off every summer, class sizes are half of what they were forty years ago, they get “assistants,” they have a union and campaign contributions to protect them, they deal with recalcitrant children instead of recalcitrant adults, and they have almost none of the stressors that others have to endure.


Why do we hear so much crying about the “stress of teaching?” First, a few teachers work very hard and take a lot of responsibility no matter what pressure is put on them by the union and other teachers. Second, it is good politics to complain. Who is going to pay teachers more if they say that their job is really easy? Third, I would guess that teaching is not an occupation that attracts a lot of “mentally tough” people. When I think of “mentally tough,” I think of policemen, firemen, business owners, commission salesmen, the military, politicians, attorneys, etc. When I think of occupations that do not require much “mental toughness,” I think of assembly line workers, government workers, forest rangers, librarians, clerks, and teachers. You know – the ones who complain the most!


John Sullivan is a financial analyst and adviser who lives in Palatine, Illinois.


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