Financial anxiety can take a toll on teacher performance

"Financial anxiety has a real impact on teachers' attitudes and behavior. "It's not just a fuzzy feeling—it's a real experience with serious implications for schools."(Credit: Getty Images)

Even in areas where teachers earn well above the national average, financial anxiety may affect job performance, which can have significant consequences for the students they teach, researchers report.

Researchers wanted to investigate what happens to schools when teachers don’t keep pace as cost of living surges in a number of US cities.

Survey data from more than 2,000 teachers at San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) showed that the teachers experienced greater economic stress than US workers more generally. What’s more, the teachers’ level of financial anxiety predicted behaviors such as attendance and the likelihood they will leave their job.

Financial anxiety has a real impact on teachers’ attitudes and behavior,” says Elise Dizon-Ross, a doctoral candidate at Stanford University Graduate School of Education (GSE) and lead author of the study in Aera Open. “It’s not just a fuzzy feeling—it’s a real experience with serious implications for schools.”

High anxiety among teachers

Through an ongoing partnership between San Francisco Unified School District and the Graduate School of Education, researchers emailed surveys to nearly all of the district’s K-12 teachers to measure the prevalence and patterns of financial anxiety. Nearly 70% completed the survey.

The survey posed questions about how frequently the respondents’ financial situation makes them feel anxious, how easy or difficult it is for them to pay their rent or mortgage each month, and how hard it would be to pay an unexpected expense of $1,000.

The survey also asked respondents about total household income, student loans, home ownership, child care costs, and other factors to get a fuller picture of their financial situation. The researchers adapted some of the survey questions from an economic survey of Americans nationwide conducted the same year for Marketplace, a public radio news program.

The researchers found that the teachers were considerably more likely to experience economic anxiety than the national sample. Nearly half of SFUSD teachers (48%) reported being frequently anxious about their current financial situation, compared with only 17% of employed adults in the Marketplace survey.

The researchers also wondered if teachers’ financial anxiety varied based on different characteristics, such as age, race, gender, specialty area, or years of experience. Most of these characteristics did not relate to the amount of economic anxiety the teachers reported.

“I was a little surprised to find out how consistent it was,” Dizon-Ross says. “Basically, everyone across the board was feeling it.”

Age matters

The one factor that did predict higher levels was age: Younger teachers were more likely to express economic anxiety across all of the measures, which the researchers suggest is probably due to earning lower salaries, being less likely to be part of a two-income household, and being more likely to rent or otherwise face higher housing costs if they’re new to the city or labor market.

The researchers included a series of questions about teachers’ attitudes and behaviors, then matched the survey data with administrative records from the district. Economically anxious teachers tended to have more negative attitudes about their jobs, had worse attendance, and were 50% more likely to depart the district within two years of taking the survey.

“Economically anxious teachers were more likely to leave their jobs at SFUSD, but they were also more likely to express interest in pursuing leadership roles at some point in the future,” Dizon-Ross says. “This suggests that they aren’t leaving their job because they no longer want to be an educator. They don’t want to exit the profession entirely.”

The study offers insight into strategies that could support teachers facing financial stress to make their career choice more sustainable. Beyond the obvious—raising salaries, which may not be politically feasible—districts and policymakers could take steps to develop subsidized housing for teachers closer to schools, the researchers suggest.

“Teachers in San Francisco are commuting a very long distance, which is untenable and causes them a lot of anxiety,” Dizon-Ross says. In San Francisco, the district has begun working with city officials to build a 100-unit affordable housing complex for district educators, currently slated to open in 2023.

Not just San Francisco

The study also suggests alternatives to the support systems that some teachers lack, particularly those in single-income households. Housing stipends, low-cost loans, or financial crisis grants—programs typically designed for low-income populations—could be appropriate in high-cost cities for middle-income professionals, like teachers, who need to be geographically dispersed.

While San Francisco is a striking example of a city where the cost of living is rising rapidly, the study points out that similar challenges face a number of other cities not typically considered among the most expensive, including Houston, Denver, Atlanta, and Nashville.

“There are a lot of cities around the country where the cost of living is going up quickly, and the income of teachers and other middle-income professionals is not keeping pace with what people need to live comfortably in that city,” Dizon-Ross says. “This is going to matter increasingly for districts all around the country.”

Additional coauthors are from Brown University; the University of California, Irvine; Christopher Newport University; and Stanford. The Silver Giving Foundation, the Stanford GSE Incentive Fund for Projects in San Francisco Unified School District, the Institute for Education Science, and the National Science Foundation funded the work.

Source: Stanford University