“Teachers in grades K through 12 are more burned out than workers in any other industry, according to a new Gallup poll that finds 44% of K-12 employees report “always” or “very often” feeling burned out at work. That number climbs to 52% when looking just at teachers.“– The Conversation, June 2022 .
Teacher burnout is real. If you know me personally, then you know this to be true. I’ve been trying to find a graceful exit from education for about 5 years now. My burnout began pre-pandemic just from good old fashioned too much work. But when you add the pressures of the post-pandemic teaching world, the stress and pressure becomes ever more damaging.
I’ve also never been the best at setting healthy boundaries between my personal life and my professional life. For the past 15 years, I’ve likely been averaging between 60-70 hours of work per week. Often, when I get home from school, I continue to check email, complete documents, prepare lessons, you name it. I think most of my closest friends would agree with me if I told them I had teacher burnout. But what exactly is teacher burnout?
Burnout is usually a temporary condition in which educators have exhausted the personal and professional resources necessary to to their jobs well. When an educator believes they are put in a position where they are unable to perform their job in ways upholding the standards of the profession, they might begin to feel demoralized.
Happy Teacher,– Said every teacher, everywhere
In the case of an educator, teacher burnout doesn’t just affect them. It affects students, co-workers, really the entire educational system. Those experiencing teacher burnout are more likely to quit. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, about a half a million teachers leave the profession each year. And again, this estimate was from before the pandemic.
It seems to me teacher burnout is currently at a high. Is there a way to reverse teacher burnout? In my case, it feels to me like runaway greenhouse effect, however others believe the answer is yes. But, it would require districts to make significant changes in order to reduce stress and improve morale within their schools.
Until then, there are a few suggestions to help alleviate the suffering of teacher burnout.
What are the Symptoms of Teacher Burnout?
The symptoms of teacher burnout can be put into three major categories: Cynicism, feeling incapable of doing one’s job and exhaustion (both emotional and physical). You might be struggling with teacher burnout if you are experiencing a combination of some of these characteristics:
- Cynicism is a sense of detachment. This can be from either work or life. It’s a loss of enjoyment, isolating oneself or feeling pessimistic.
- Feelings of incapability include apathy, elevated irritability, lack of productivity, poor performance or even hopelessness.
- Exhaustion, both emotional and physical, can look like many things. A person might often, sometimes always, feel tired or unable to sleep. It might also be forgetfulness or trouble concentrating, anxiety, depression or anger.
Not every teacher’s work situation looks the same. There are multiple additional factors affecting the level of teacher burnout one might be experiencing. According to a 2020 study of teachers in Finland, teacher burnout might be related to individual factors such as:
- Early career teachers are more likely to experience burnout than those with more experience. This could be due to a lack of effective classroom management skills or from a lack of teaching experience.
- Grade level influences burnout out. Elementary and special education teachers experience teacher burnout more often than primary, middle or high school teachers.
- Poverty hurts many areas in one’s life, including education. Teachers are more likely to leave a school when they’re teaching in high-poverty schools. Unfortunately, this also affects the educational outcomes of many at-risk students.
- Female teachers are more likely to experience excessive amounts of stress at work compared to their male counterparts. On the other hand, male teachers are more likely to experience feelings of cynicism than female teachers.
What Can You Do if you are Struggling with Teacher Burnout?
Teaching is an incredibly important but highly demanding job, and there’s no shame in admitting you need help or support. Here are a few suggestions that may help you stop teacher burnout before it becomes a runaway burnout effect.
1. Don’t Be Afraid To Talk About It
Talk to someone you trust, call a friend, or go for a coffee with a dependable colleague. If you can, talk to someone with their own long-term teaching experience. They’ll be able to better understand and empathize with what you’re feeling.
The key is to simply start talking. Laugh, cry, don’t hold anything back. When you choose to withhold, feelings of frustration and stress will simmer inside you until it boils over. That isn’t fair for you or your students.
This might sound odd, but sound advice is irrelevant in this case. What’s most important is to break the isolation of your work and know you’re not alone.
Every teacher can tell you stories of job-related stress. This way you can support each other.
2. Maybe it’s Time To Change Something in your Classroom
If you’re feeling cynical, uninspired or frustrated with your teaching, it could be a sign you need to troubleshoot your classroom. Whatever you decide, it’s important to realize the end goal is not to add another task to your growing to-do list — it’s to get you (and your students) excited about learning.
Choose something that feels enticing but not too overwhelming. Maybe something fitting in nicely with your existing routine. Start with small goals and soon you’ll see how much they can grow.
3. Practice Self-care
Self-care routines help you prioritize your own health. Set some time aside on the weekend or in the evening to do something that benefits you physically or mentally. What relaxes and refreshes you? Some ideas include:
- Practicing meditation
- A quick morning yoga routine
- Taking a walk and experiencing nature
- Reading a chapter of your favorite book
- Creating a sleep schedule (and sticking to it!)
- Relaxing with your drink of choice and favorite reality TV show
If you’re stuck inside and teaching from home, try taking a screen-free lunch break or taking a short walk during a break. When you prioritize yourself, you’re better equipped to help your students.
4. Know when to take a break
When you start feeling teacher burnout, pause and take a big breath. Leave your work at work: the thoughts of grading, lesson planning, field trip permission slips, parent teacher conferences and completing report cards.. this only names a few.
Make yourself a list. Write down everything you think needs to be done over the next few days. Once your list is complete, choose the top three items. I call this teacher triage. Then, put work aside and make the rest of the evening about you. Make a fun meal, read a book, watch a funny movie or simply catch up on some much needed sleep. What a novel idea!
It’s important to set boundaries. Step away from your computer screen at the end of the day and remind yourself it’s time for you. Play some uplifting music or phone a friend. Take a walk to help transition out of work. According to a Finnish study, changing your own behaviors and thoughts is one of the ways teachers can avoid and/or alieviate teacher burnout. Self-regulation includes:
- Prioritizing one’s most important tasks
- Slowing down one’s working pace
- Leaving work at school
- Trying different time-management techniques
Just like teaching, if one strategy isn’t working, simply try another. This was some of the best advice I had gotten as a new teacher. Reflect and today and then put it to rest. Tomorrow is always a new day!
5. Try Keeping Things in Perspective
Teaching will consume you if you aren’t careful. Any job is capable of doing this. When you start having thoughts of quitting or fail to give yourself self-care, your situation has become terribly unhealthy.
Forgetting this important reality can quickly lead to teacher burnout. You know, that feeling when the weight of the job starts to drown out your joy. When you are a teacher, you really are so much more. You’re a parent, a friend, a spouse or partner, a student and so much more.
When the boundary between personal and professional life falls out of balance, other areas of life begin to fade from you. What’s life without a personal one? Show yourself compassion and try to remember to practice healthier work habits. I refer to this as giving myself grace.
6. Maybe it’s Time to Try Something New
Just like on those days when your classroom seems out of control, you might ring the bell and tell the class you will be reading a book for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe in the same way, teacher burnout is the Universe is telling you it’s time to throw in the towel. It’s a scary proposition. I know because I’ve been weighing the pros and the cons for several years now.
I think the modern term “quiet quitting” applies here, too. I’m near the point where I feel I’m choosing between my dignity and mental health or my livelihood. For me, it’s becoming a simpler and simpler decision.
Perhaps this also means it’s time to re-evaluate our priorities in Public Education. Instead of claiming we care about education, educators or the outcomes of our students, maybe we should start acting like me mean it.
Why are teachers feeling more and more demoralized from the job that once gave them a sense of satisfaction, or at least a sense of contributing to our community?
It’s time to get serious about teacher burnout. Gaslighting and a chair massage once a year during teacher appreciation week just isn’t enough anymore. It’s time to have an honest conversation about what isn’t working in our public schools.
I’d love to hear your opinions. What are your thoughts on Teacher Burnout? Do you have a suggestion for another blog topic? Please feel free to send me an email with your thoughts and experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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References & Read More:
Teacher Burnout Hits Record High
By The Conversation, June 2022
Getting Serious About Teacher Burnout
by NEA, November 2021
‘It Just Isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts
By Dana Goldstein (The New York Times), December 2019