Issues In Educational Research, 1(1), 1991, 31-42.

Teaching: Stress and satisfaction

Elizabeth Tuettemann
The University of Western Australia
Responses by 574 full-time classroom secondary teachers to a survey conducted in Western Australia during 1984 indicate that male and female teachers differ in the importance that they attach to the rewards of teaching, such as salary, promotion. Thus, while success with students and acknowledgment and appreciation from superiors and students are equally important to teachers of both sexes, males attach more value to salary and promotion than do female teachers. Differences also exist in the extents to which male and female teachers are likely to suffer psychological distress when these rewards are not forthcoming. While 45 per cent of teachers are stressed to some extent, female teachers are more likely than males to be stressed by lack of rapport with students and lack of recognition from both students and superiors. Fewer than 20 per cent of teachers considered that their work actually received much acknowledgment and appreciation for their work.

The stressfulness of teaching as an occupation is widely recognised, and several studies have been initiated in Australia and overseas to address its causes. In Western Australia, as elsewhere, teachers have been leaving their profession in increasing numbers. Despite the slackening of this trend during the past two years of economic recession, a high proportion of teachers who remain in their job freely admit their dissatisfaction and distress.

It is the levels of dissatisfaction and stress among teachers that are the focus of this paper. The findings adduced here are based upon a study of data collected in a joint survey conducted in 1984 by the State School Teachers' Union in Western Australia and the then Education Department of Western Australia. While these findings raise a number of important questions, and illuminate an area not hitherto addressed, they are subject to two main delimitations, as functions of the measuring instruments used and the data collected. Firstly, the stress measured in the survey, using the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), was "psychological distress" only, not the other possible manifestations of distress, whether physiological or behavioural. Teachers might well have been evincing symptoms of distress in the two other major areas. Thus, while a hypothesised stressor may appear to be explaining little or none of the variations in the GHQ scores, it may contribute significantly to other manifestations of stress. This view is corroborated by the findings of Pettegrew and Wolfe (1982), who investigated the construct validity of several measures of teacher stress and suggested that the phenomenon requires multivariate assessment. Secondly, the survey questionnaire made no attempt to measure, account for, or acknowledge the effects of stressors from sources beyond the school environment.

With these provisos in mind, it remains valid to address several questions related to the conditions under which teachers work, and their responses to them. The focus of this paper is on the following four questions:

  1. Which factors did secondary teachers rate as important to their job satisfaction?

  2. To what extent did they report achieving these in their work?

  3. What was the incidence of psychological distress among secondary teachers? and

  4. To what extent was non-achievement of satisfying outcomes to their work related to psychological distress among secondary teachers?
These questions were asked in the context of a broader study which addressed correlates of stress and its amelioration among secondary teachers (Tuettemann, 1988; Punch and Tuettemann, 1990). The way in which the sample of secondary teachers was selected is described in part (a) of the following section, and the measure of psychological distress is discussed in some detail in part (b).


(a) The Sample

During May-July 1984, through stratified random sampling, just under 20 per cent of the approximately 15,000 government school teachers in Western Australia received a postal questionnaire addressing the issue of stress in the workplace. The 2,138 teachers, administrators and lecturers who responded represented a very high return rate of 79 per cent - indicating considerable commitment to finding the causes and solutions to stress in their jobs. Two reports of this study have been published: a preliminary technical research report (Van Schoubroeck and Tuettemann 1985) and the Committee's report to the then Minister of Education (Joint Committee of Inquiry into Teacher Stress, 1987).

For the purpose of the present study, a subset of the respondents - 574 full-time secondary teachers - was chosen from the initial 789 secondary teachers who responded to the 30 page questionnaire. They were selected according to the following criteria: full responses to all questionnaire items; full-time classroom teachers; and without senior master/ mistress status or "support teacher" function. These teachers represented staff of 132 secondary schools in Western Australia, including Senior High Schools, District High Schools, High Schools and Agricultural High Schools.

Table 1: The sample of secondary teachers by age and sex

Percentage in each age range (years)
Sex20-2526-30 31-4041-5051+

Male (N=335)14.7 29.635.915.34.5
Female (N=239)31.8 25.520.115.57.1
Total (N=574)21.8 27.929.315.45.6

As can be seen from Table 1, the majority of teachers were in the 20-40 age range, with clustering occurring for males around 31-40 and for females around the 20-25 age range. Their teaching experience ranged from zero to 38 years, with most of them reporting between one and eight. The mean number of years taught was 9.4, with a standard deviation of 4.4. Only 8 per cent of teachers had taught for more than 20 years, but since the categories of senior master/mistresses, senior assistants, deputies and principals had been eliminated from the present data set, this skewness was not unexpected.

(b) The measuring instrument

The measuring instrument used in the parent study was the questionnaire distributed in May-July 1984 as part of the Teacher Stress Survey, conducted by the Joint Committee of Inquiry mentioned above. Items in the 360-item questionnaire addressed the following areas: biographical and demographic factors such as age, sex, qualifications and school type; contextual factors such as school classification and subject areas taught; environmental factors such as time and role pressures, student factors, staff-staff and staff-administration relations and professional conditions; teachers' perceptions of their own competence and compensation; and two open-ended questions, the first regarding aspects of work found most stressful and the second inviting teachers' own suggestio ns for alleviating work-related stress. Along with these questions posed by the Committee, the 30-item version of the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) was the measure of stress.

Devised by Goldberg (1972), the GHQ is widely used as an indicator of minor psychiatric disturbance in the community. One advantage of this measure is that normative data are available for large samples of the Australian population, and the Perth population in particular (Finlay-Jones and Burvill, 1977). The GHQ has also been used in other studies of teacher stress, among them those of Finlay-Jones and Murphy (1979), Mykletun (1984) and Galloway, Boswell, Panckhurst, Boswell and Green (1985). In the 30-item version respondents are required to reflect on the past few weeks and to answer questions such as:

Have you recently been finding it easy to get along with people?
(Better than usual/ About the same as usual/ Less well than usual/ Much less than usual)

Have you recently been able to enjoy your normal day-to-day activities?
(More so than usual/ Same as usual/ Less so than usual/ Much less than usual)

Have you recently been thinking of yourself as a worthless person?
(Not at all/ No more than usual/ Rather more than usual/ Much more than usual)

Have you recently been able to concentrate on whatever you are doing?
(Better than usual/ Same as usual/ Less than usual/ Much less than usual)

The established scoring method for the GHQ, which has four response categories for each item, is to collapse the categories into a dichotomous response ("0" for the first two options and "1" for either of the second two options). According to their total score (the sum across all 30 items), respondents are generally classified as "cases" or "non-cases"; a respondent with a score of five or more is classified as a "case". These individuals are very likely to be suffering levels of tension, anxiety and depression high enough to have an adverse effect on their physical and mental well-being. People with GHQ scores greater than ten could be described as suffering severe psychological distress.

Teachers' responses to the 30-item GHQ were scored in two different ways: GHQ scores and GHQLIK (Likert) scores. Since the GHQ scoring is more often used in the literature, and since the division of GHQ scores into intervals corresponding to low, medium and high likelihood of the individual suffering from emotional distress has been documented in other studies, the GHQ score was used for determining the probability of distress states among teachers. However, for the various statistical manipulations used, a normally distributed variable was needed (rather than the exponentially distributed GHQ scores). Hence the GHQLIK score was used in the analyses involving simple and partial correlations, regression analyses and discriminant analyses. This alternative measure had a Pearson correlation of .93 with the GHQ. It was obtained by scoring the four ordered Likert scale responses to each item as "1" to "4" and summing all 30 responses to give the GHQLIK score.


(a) Factors rated by secondary teachers as important to their job satisfaction

In the teacher stress questionnaire, teachers were asked, "How important are the following factors in determining how satisfied you are with your job?" Among the factors listed were the following:
Having success with a difficult student;
Being appreciated by your students; and
Your work being acknowledged and appreciated by your superiors.
As shown in Table 2, the vast majority of secondary teachers considered classroom success, acknowledgment and appreciation to be important factors associated with job satisfaction. With respect to the tangible rewards of teaching, an interesting male-female difference was apparent. Salary was important to most teachers of both sexes, but statistically more so for the males (Chi-square (df 1) = 5.2, p<0.025) The difference was even more noticeable when promotion was considered. Over half of the male teachers considered this important to their satisfaction but only one-third of the female teachers reported this to be the case. (Chi-square (df 1) = 6.3, p=0.025)

From the information given in Table 2, it is apparent, for both males and females, that the less tangible rewards of teaching are extremely important. Particularly for female teachers, they far outweigh the job satisfaction value of salary and promotion. In section (b) the extent to which teachers reported having achieved these valued goals is examined.

(b) The extent to which valued, school related goals are achieved

It is difficult to assess from the questionnaire responses the extent to which teachers were satisfied with their salary and prospects for promotion. Several questionnaire items, however, lend themselves to an analysis of the teachers' feelings of achievement regarding students, and of their perception of being valued and acknowledged by their superiors.

Regarding their perception of achievement with students, the responses to five questionnaire items are set forth in Table 3. It is apparent that most teachers felt competent in helping students academically, but at least half of them felt, at least sometimes, that what they taught was irrelevant to their students. In fact, nearly one-third of them considered this to be the case "often/very often".

Nearly one-third (29 per cent) of the teachers found that they could not be on as close terms with students as they would like. Forty-three per cent of them considered that students who needed their help did not seek them out. Nineteen per cent of the sample "often/very often" experienced inability to control severely disruptive students.

Table 2: Importance of various factors to job satisfaction among secondary teachers

Proportion who considered this
important to job satisfaction
Possible source of job satisfactionMale (N=335)Female (N=239)Overall (N=574)

Salary86% 73%81%
Promotion54% 36%47%
Success with a difficult student94% 98%96%
Appreciation from students96% 97%96%
Acknowledgment and appreciation
from superiors
90% 90%90%

Table 3: The extent to which teachers reported inability to achieve various classroom goals

Responses of teachers (N=574)
How often do you experience the following?Very often/

Feel powerless to help students academically?9% 36%55%
Feel that what you teach is irrelevant to some students?32% 50%18%
Find that students who need your help do not seek you out?43% 43%14%
Feel that you cannot handle severely disruptive students?19% 39%42%
Find that you can't be on as close terms as you would like with students?29% 41%30%

There were significant differences between responses for males and females in three of the above items. As shown in Table 4, male teachers were more likely than female teachers to consider that the curriculum they taught was "often/very often" irrelevant to students; that students frequently did not seek help from them; and that they often could not be on as close terms as they would like with students.

Table 4: Comparison between male and female teachers' reports of inability
to achieve various classroom goals

Number of responses
Reported experienceMales (N=335)Females (N=239)

Feel what they teach is irrelevant to some students119 (36%)65 (27%)
Find students who need help don't seek them out164 (49%)81 (34%)
Find they cannot be on as close terms as they like with students113 (34%) 54 (23%)

Receiving acknowledgment, praise and recognition for their work was clearly of importance to teachers. The extent to which they reported having received this from their students and their superiors is shown in Table 5. More than 90 per cent of both males and females considered that they received at least some acknowledgment of their work from students. Marginally more females than males reported that this occurred to a "large extent" (17 per cent compared with 10 per cent). Over 80 per cent of both male and female teachers considered that they received at least some praise and recognition from their superiors.

Table 5: Extent to which teachers reported receiving recognition for their work

Proportion of teachers reporting receiving acknowledgment, praise and recognition (N=574)
Acknowledgment, praise and recognition received from:Very littleSomeLarge extent


In the above, the reported situation among the 574 secondary teachers for selected variables in their school environment has been described. The extent to which these teachers were suffering from psychological distress is examined in section (c), and the possible associations between teacher stress and job satisfaction is explored in section (d).

(c) The incidence of psychological distress among these teachers

In order to classify the respondents according to the extent to which they were distressed, the teachers' GHQ scores were interpreted as indicating low, medium or high psychological distress as follows:
Medium GHQ
High GHQ
Score 0-4
Score 5-9
Score 10-30

Teachers in the low GHQ category are unlikely to be suffering from psychological distress. In the medium GHQ category there is a moderate likelihood that they are suffering from psychological distress. In the high GHQ category the likelihood of psychological distress is considerable. This classification is based on normative data collected by various researchers in Australia and the United Kingdom, as previously described in the method section. The tripartite distribution of GHQ scores is shown in Table 6.

Table 6: Distribution of GHQ scores, showing the proportions in each interval,
overall and by sex (Ranges: males, 0-28; females, 0-29)

Secondary teachersLow GHQ
Medium GHQ
High GHQ
Mean score
(Std. Dev.)


According to the figures shown, nearly half of the teachers are at least moderately stressed. Among these teachers, half again have scored in the "high stress" range, with an overall 23 per cent of males having a GHQ score of ten or more, and a corresponding 20 per cent of females also scoring in this "high stress" category. At the other end of the scale, 59 per cent of female teachers have scored in the "low stress" category - comparing with only 53 per cent of males. However, these differences are not statistically significant (Chi-square=2.08; .30<p<.50).

The normative data (see Table 7) reported by Finlay-Jones and Burvill (1977) indicate that only between 10 and 20 per cent of the Perth population could be expected to be psychologically distressed (using the GHQ cut-off point of five). It is apparent, then, that the proportion of 45 per cent of Western Australian secondary teachers having medium or high scores on the GHQ is at least twice that of the general population. Moreover, the mean GHQ score for these teachers is 5.66, compared with 3.97 for the normative population of Goldberg (1972).

Table 7: Normative data for GHQ by social class for Perth males
(Finley-Jones and Burvill, 1977)

Social Class*12 3456

Case Rate (%)9.712.5 12.210.719.817.0
N165136 156196126141

* Workforce stratified into social class using the 6-point ANU classification of Broom,
Lancaster Jones & Zubrzycki (1965). School teachers are classified as Class 1, Professional.

For Social Class 1 (professional) to which teachers belong, the proportion expected to be suffering stress is ten per cent. The comparison figure for a predominantly middle-class Australian community (Canberra) surveyed in the late 1970s is only approximately nine per cent (Henderson, Duncan-Jones, Byrne, Scott & Adcock, 1979).

In summary, the analysis of teachers' scores on the GHQ has revealed that the occurrence of severe psychological distress among secondary teachers is twice that expected in the general population, and that there is no significant difference in this respect between male and female teachers.

(d) Association between non-achievement of satisfying outcomes to their work and psychological distress among secondary teachers

Using the GHQLIK scoring of the General Health Questionnaire explained earlier, the possibility of relationships between psychological distress among secondary teachers and the individual school factors listed in Table 8 were explored. The 0.001 level of significance was used as the criterion. All weaker cor relations were dismissed as being possibly artefacts of the large sample size.

Table 8: Correlations between various school factors and the level
of psychological distress among secondary teachers

Correlation with GHQLIK
(psychological distress)
Extent to which teachers experience:Male (N=335)Female (N=239)

Lack of recognition from students.14.15
Lack of recognition from superiors.06.25***
Inability to help students academically.10.16
Curriculum taught irrelevant to students.21***.22***
Inability to handle severely disruptive students.24***.23***
Unable to be on as close terms as they like with students.12.21***
Students needing help do not seek them out.01.20***

*** p<0.001

As can be seen from Table 8, lack of student acknowledgment of teachers did not correlate significantly with distress for either males or females. However, there was significant correlation for both male and female teachers between psychological distress and their perceived inability to handle severely disruptive students. Significant correlation with distress was also found for teachers who considered what they taught to be irrelevant to students.

Female (but not male) teachers tended to be distressed by situations in which students needing help did not seek them out for assistance with their work (r=0.20, p<0.001). This was the case despite the fact that many more male teachers (49 per cent) than female teachers (34 per cent) considered that students did not consult them when they needed help (Table 4). Similarly, only among female teachers was there a significant correlation with distress when they felt unable to be on close terms with their students.

Lack of recognition from superiors was not related to distress among males to the same extent as it was among females. In fact, there was no significant correlation for males and a comparatively strong correlation for females.

Figure 1 illustrates one-by-one the relationships between the superior-related factor, the six student-related factors and the proportion of teachers who scored high on the GHQ (that is, had a high likelihood of psychological distress). The highest rates of distress among both male and female teachers (between 30 and 40 per cent of respondents likely to be highly distressed) occurred where respondents indicated their perception that they were often/very often unable to handle severely disruptive students; that the curriculum was often/very often irrelevant to students; and that they received very little recognition from superiors. The same very high rate of distress occurred among males who often/very often felt powerless to help students academically.

Teachers perceptions of achievements and recognition

Frequency of occurrence
*** indicates significant correlation (p<.001) with distress.

Figure 1: Proportions of male and female teachers with high GHQ scores (that is, high likelihood of psychological distress) for given scores on five Classroom Achievement scales and two Acknowledgment/Recognition scales

Three of the graphs in Figure 1 illustrate an interesting difference between male and female stress responses to their relationships with students. Those female teachers who rarely found that they could not be on close terms with students and that students did not seek their help, and those female teachers who reported having received recognition from superiors "to a large extent" had considerably lower stress rates than male teachers in the same three categories. In fact, the incidence of psychological distress among these female teachers was about that of the general Perth population (assessed according to the criteria of Finlay-Jones and Burvill, 1977).


It is clear from the results of this study that the great majority of secondary teachers consider success with students and recognition from both their superiors and students very important to job satisfaction. These factors are more highly rated than salary or promotion, especially among female teachers. This view notwithstanding, fewer than 20 per cent of teachers considered that their work actually received much recognition. Moreover, while most teachers felt competent with the academic aspect of their work nearly one-fifth of them reported dissatisfaction with their relationships and achievement with their students. Thus, 19 per cent of teachers frequently felt unable to handle severely disruptive students and 32 per cent considered what they taught to be mostly irrelevant to their students. The last two factors were significantly related to psychological distress among male and female teachers.

Among female secondary teachers, as distinct from their male counterparts, lack of recognition from superiors or lack of rapport with students, when either or both occurred, was also significantly related to distress. This link raises the question of sex-related differences in the teaching profession, particularly as they apply to relationships with students and superiors.

A broader issue that arises is the question of disparate values placed by male and female teachers upon the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and satisfactions of teaching. Given the high levels of dissatisfaction and of psychological distress among teachers, the whole issue of teaching satisfaction has to be addressed in the interests of providing administrators, teachers and their students with an environment that acknowledges the value, needs and potential contributions of each individual in the educational community.


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Finlay-Jones, R. A. & Burvill, P. W. (1977). The prevalence of minor psychiatric morbidity in the community. Psychological Medicine, 7, 475-489.

Finlay-Jones, R. A. & Murphy, E. (1979). Severity of psychiatric disorder and the 30 item General Health Questionnaire. British Journal of Psychiatry, 134, 609-616.

Galloway, D., Boswell, K., Panckhurst, F., Boswell, C. & Green, K. (1985). Sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction for New Zealand Teachers. Educational Research, 27(1), 44-51.

Goldberg, D. P. (1972). The detection of psychiatric illness by questionnaire (Maudsley Monograph No. 21). London: Oxford University Press.

Henderson, S., Duncan-Jones, P., Byrne, D. G., Scott, R. & Adcock, S. (1979). Psychiatric disorder in Canberra. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 60, 355-374.

Joint Committee of Inquiry into Teacher Stress (1987). Teacher stress: Summary report (Report of the Joint Committee of Inquiry into Teacher Stress appointed by the Minister for Education and Planning in Western Australia and chaired by Dr L. W. Louden). Perth: Government Printer.

Mykletun, R. J. (1984). Teacher stress: Perceived and objective sources, and quality of life. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 28(1), 17-45.

Pettegrew, L. S. & Wolfe, G. E. (1982). Validating measures of teacher stress. American Educational Research Journal, 19(3),373-396.

Punch, K. F. & Tuettemann, E. (1990). Correlates of psychological distress among secondary school teachers. British Educationa l Research Journal, 16(4), 369-382.

Tuettemann, E. (1988). Stress and its amelioration among secondary teachers: Effects of basic needs satisfaction. Unpublished Master's thesis, University of Western Australia, Perth.

Van Schoubroeck, L. & Tuettemann, E. (1985). Teacher stress in Western Australia: Technical Research Report. Perth: Research Branch, Education Department of Western Australia.

Author: Elizabeth Tuettemann is currently lecturing to Master of Medical Science students at the Community Health Research and Training Unit, Department of General Practice, the University of Western Australia. She has a BSc and a DipEd from the University of Melbourne and an MEd from the University of Western Australia. She specialises in sociological, historical and biographical research, and has major interests in linking sociological and epidemiological research, sex-linked differences and stress and its management.

Please cite as: Tuettemann, E. (1991). Teaching: Stress and satisfaction. Issues In Educational Research, 1(1), 31-42.

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