Teachers’ quality of life in France: is the picture really that bleak?

Although disparities exist, French teachers are generally satisfied with their jobs. Shutterstock

Now and then, here and there, some dramatic events crop up in teaching establishments, painting a specific, sometimes dire, picture of the teaching profession.

But do such extreme events really represent what most teachers actually experience? To form a more accurate picture of the reality of teaching at a given level, one must be able to draw on information which represents all teachers at that level.

In France, this was the objective of a representative health survey among teachers titled “Qualité de vie des enseignants” [Teachers’ Quality of Life] conducted in 2013 by the MGEN Foundation for Public Health, in partnership with France’s Ministry of Education.

The overview offered by the survey establishes a nuanced state of play on the teachers’ quality of life and deconstructs certain clichés associated with the profession. At the end of the day, the picture is not quite as bleak as one might (at first) believe.

In 2013, 5,000 teachers were selected from members of the national education directory. They were sent a detailed questionnaire focused on their work environment, professional well-being and quality of life. The response rate was 54%, which is quite high for this kind of study. The responses were weighted using administrative data on gender, age, teaching level and sector, to make them applicable to all teachers in France.

Teachers: reasonably satisfied

According to the survey results, teachers are coping well on the whole. While close to 60% recognise that the job is becoming increasingly difficult, 82% say they are satisfied or very satisfied with their professional experience.

Teachers in France generally feel positive about their quality of life: 65% feel it as good or very good, compared to 8% who feel it as bad or very bad (the rest indicate that it was “neither good nor bad”). They are also satisfied with the state of their general health, their physical mobility, their ability to concentrate and their psychological health. On the whole, teachers positively rate their social relationships, both at home and at work, as well as their physical environment, including place of residence, access to medical care, and transport.

Nevertheless, satisfaction appears to be more mixed when it comes to the balance between income and expenses, the opportunities for leisure activities, the quality of sleep as well as feeling safe in their daily lives.

Furthermore, these general tendencies should be balanced against certain professional factors, including the level of teaching, the type of establishment and seniority. An important lesson from the study is that despite the profession’s supposed uniformity, working conditions and teachers’ level of experience are very diverse. The everyday life of a teacher of a multilevel class in a small rural school will be quite different to that of a P.E. teacher in a secondary school in the suburbs or that of a university lecturer.

The voice: a teacher’s Achilles’ heel

One organ is particularly sought after in the classroom: vocal chords. For teachers, the voice is an indispensable tool of the trade and as soon as it stops working properly, all areas of daily life, both professional and private, are negatively affected. This has been highlighted by a specific part of the survey dedicated to vocal problems.

Voice disorders among teachers are far from rare, and, more importantly, they are never trivial. At the time of the survey, 13% of teachers complained of a moderate to severe vocal handicap, 16% were unable to give classes at least once a year and 23% had already consulted a health professional because of a voice problem.

The worse the social-environmental context was reported to be (e.g., living environment judged to be unhealthy, educational establishment located in a socially-underprivileged area), the more frequent vocal problems were. Voice disorders were closely associated with less satisfaction with the professional experience and quality of life.

A profession that is less lonely than it seems

A lone teacher, on a platform in front of a board, facing his/her class. This is the image that often comes to mind when we think about the teaching profession.

However, social connections formed by teachers within the professional setting, with students, their families, colleagues, managerial staff, etc. are numerous and rich. A large majority of teachers appreciate these interactions. Moreover, social support at work, particularly from supervisors, appears to be important for teachers to combat the symptoms of burnout.

In the section of the analysis dedicated to the differences in teachers’ feelings according to their seniority, a decrease in well-being, particularly professional well-being, has been brought to light among teachers nearing the end of their careers (i.e., 30-plus years in the profession). This trend is seen even though their working conditions are globally better: for example, these teachers tend to more often work in higher-level educational settings and with more privileged pupils.

Also, the study highlighted a hot topic for teachers at the beginning of their careers: while they lack experience, and need more time to prepare their lessons, these young teachers also experience less favourable environmental conditions overall (both at work and at home).

School violence from the point of view of teachers

During the school year, 17% of teachers were victims of hostile behaviour and 40% witnessed this type of behaviour in their workplace. A careful analysis, including textual analysis, of cases of violence described by teachers who were themselves victims has highlighted that the “school” violence (typically from students in secondary school or from parents in pre-school) is not the only type of violence affecting teachers’ well-being. “Internal” violence, inherent in the professional world (i.e. conflicts between colleagues or with the hierarchy), is equally problematic. This is particularly the case in confrontational relationships or tensions with leadership.

Having been a victim of violence is closely associated with negative health indicators: symptoms of burnout, reduced quality of life, voice problems and absence at work.

Gender inequality exists in teaching too

Teaching is a very female-centred sector. Nonetheless, there is a clear gradient that shows that the higher the level of teaching, the more the men are represented. In the study, this gradient was accurately reproduced, as well as differences in working conditions between men and women in primary, secondary and higher education. For example, female teachers more often work part-time than their male peers, who more often teach in scientific or technical disciplines and in secondary and higher education.

In terms of professional well-being, gender-based differences were less notable, except in secondary education where female teachers appeared overall to be a little more satisfied with their professional experience than the male teachers. While, statistically speaking, female and male teachers might work according to significantly different modalities, their professional well-being would be comparable, with a few exceptions.

Satisfied and healthy teachers overall

In conclusion, the overview of the results of the “Teachers’ Quality of Life” survey reveals that teachers in France are generally in good health and satisfied with their professional experience, but that, nonetheless, some refinement is needed regarding their shared concerns for the future. This set of results opens up potential ways to improve teachers’ quality of life, in particular by strengthening social support at the educational team level or by improving the psychosocial and environmental framework.

This article was originally published in French