The more depressive symptoms third grade teachers had in a new study, the less progress in math their struggling students made during the school year.
This was only an exploratory study of 27 teachers and it’s too soon to be treating depressed teachers as a problem that needs to be fixed, said the paper’s senior author, but the connection to kids’ learning could be important.
Teacher depression may be one of many factors that determine how well kids can learn, Carol McDonald Connor, a psychology professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, told Reuters Health.
“If the teacher’s depressed but so good at teaching math, those kids are probably fine,” she said. “But if the teacher is depressed and struggling with a new curriculum, that’s going to have a much larger impact.”
The researchers looked at data on 520 third grade students around age eight in 27 classrooms in North Florida during the 2010-2011 school year. In the winter, the teachers used a 20-item questionnaire to rate their frequency of depressive symptoms like loneliness, trouble sleeping and “the blues.”
Also in the winter, researchers used classroom video observations to rate the quality of the learning environment using individualized instruction, organization and teacher warmth as metrics.
As teacher depression symptoms increased, the learning environment tended to become poorer quality, according to the results published in Child Development.
Using the students’ scores on math and reading ability in the fall and spring, the researchers found that teacher depression was only associated with poorer math scores, and more strongly for kids who started the year with lower scores to begin with.
Students with weak fall math scores and a teacher with many depressive symptoms improved less by the spring than similar kids with teachers who had no or fewer depressive symptoms.
“Intuitively, you can expect an effect of teachers' state on teachers' classroom climate,” said Renzo Bianchi of the psychology lab at the University of Franche-Comté in Besançon, France, who was not involved in the study.
Teachers tend to have higher rates of depression than the general population, but researchers aren’t sure why, said the study’s coauthor Leigh McLean, a graduate research associate at Arizona State University.
“Something about the stress of teaching may leave teachers more vulnerable to depression, or it may also be that the type of person who becomes a teacher also tends to be more sensitive emotionally,” McLean told Reuters Health. “But we haven’t tested that explicitly.”
Teacher depression rates and the relationship to student learning may depend on other factors like socioeconomic level, but that would require a larger study, McLean said.
One theory is that depression makes it harder for teachers to maintain the optimal learning environment for kids, Connor said. For third graders, that means an active and dynamic environment rather than a lot of desk work, she said.
“Our assumption is that the really important interactions are in some way disrupted,” she said.
But the relationship may go in the other direction, which is something the researchers did not test, Bianchi noted.
“Poor classrooms can cause teacher depression and depressed teachers can create poorer quality classrooms,” Bianchi said. “A circular causal pathway is at stake here.”
There is some evidence for both directions, said Bridget Hamre, associate director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
“This study is just a reminder that teachers are people and that for all of us our mental health impacts our daily interactions with others,” Hamre told Reuters Health by email. “For teachers that just has a higher stake than it does for some of us who work in an office.”
“It’s also just a nice reminder that we need to make sure that among all the discussion of school reforms we need to be thoughtful about creating work environments that can support teachers’ well-being,” she said. “Even the best curriculum won’t do any good in the hands of a teacher who is too overwhelmed and stressed out to implement it well or to develop positive relationships with students.”
One thing parents can do is get to know their children’s teachers and make sure they talk to their kids about what happens at school, Connor said.
“We don’t want teachers to become targets for blame,” McLean said. “We should promote a comprehensive understanding of mental health.”