The Systemic Problem of Teacher Burnout

Last week, my students and I were out of the building on a field experience. As our speaker wrapped up, he called on one final student who had his hand-raised. The student said, “I’d like to acknowledge you for taking the time to talk to us today and for answering all our questions.”

Acknowledgments are a regular practice at Gamble, and I typically ask students to provide acknowledgments for our hosts at the conclusion of our field experiences.  This time, I had forgotten.  But Peter had not.

When Carissa, who was sitting next to me, heard Peter’s unprompted acknowledgment, she turned to me, smiling, and whispered, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”

She didn’t know it, but her statement was akin to throwing me a lifeline. You see, it was just two days before spring break, and I was running from the specter of teacher burnout and losing ground fast. It was a race to the finish to see which would break first – the school year, or me.

Burnout is defined as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” (Mirriam-Webster)

Teacher burnout is described in many ways, but I found this list of warning signs to be particularly helpful.[1]

  • Exhaustion – a fatigue so deep that there’s no way to “turn it off”
  • Extreme graveness –Realizing you go hours without smiling or laughing
  • Anxiety – The constant, nagging feeling that you can and should do more
  • Being overwhelmed – Questioning how you can possibly add one more task, expectation, or mandate to your plate
  • Seeking —Losing your creativity, imagination, patience, and enthusiasm
  • Isolation –Wanting to head for the deepest, darkest cave where no one will see your vulnerability

The stress and exhaustion of teaching is well documented. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 46% of teachers experience high levels of daily stress. This is on par with nurses, and tops the list of surveyed occupations.[2]

Another indicator of stress and exhaustion is the statistic that 43% of teachers sleep an average of six or fewer hours a night.[3] It’s little wonder then that “sleep” was the number one response my colleagues provided in answer to the question, “What are you most looking forward to about spring break?”

This continual stress and exhaustion leads to burnout, but teacher burnout is more than just a problem for individual teachers and schools. It is so pervasive that it has profound impacts on the profession as a whole.

NPR cites the following concerning statistics: [4]

  • 8% of teachers leave the field each year; only one-third of this attrition is due to retirement
  • 50% of the teaching profession turns over every 7 years
  • 40-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
  • Enrollment in teacher-training programs has fallen 35% in the past five years; a loss of 240,000 teachers

What exactly is it that causes such high levels of stress in teaching? Those who are not in the field of education are often stymied by this. “Seven hour school days and all major holidays and summers off,” they reason. “What’s so stressful about that?”

However, the difference between the working hours obligated by the contract (as described above) and the fulfillment of the contractual requirements of the job (as described below) is profound. I used to count my work hours each week, but after spending a year consistently tallying 65-70 hour weeks, I stopped counting. It was too overwhelming. And I’m not different from any of my colleagues. All of us work a tremendous number of hours beyond our contractual obligation. Some of this is expected. No one goes into teaching actually believing that the work will be contained within school hours, but how does a contracted thirty-five hour week balloon into seventy hours of work?

Let’s begin with the school day. For me, five of the seven hours each day are spent actively teaching. I am fortunate to have two “planning bells” each day; however one of these is used every day for different variations of team meetings, and the other one is almost always consumed by parent conferences or other meetings. On average, I have one bell (50 minutes) a week that I can actually use to plan.

During my half hour lunch, I open my classroom to students who need help with their work, or who are just seeking a calmer and quieter option than the cafeteria. I eat and work. Sometimes I forget to eat.

I have meetings after school every day with the exception of Fridays, and the third Thursday of the month. These meetings run for 60-90 minutes. Sometimes I have back-to-back after-school meetings.

All of the remaining requirements of teaching must occur outside of the time already listed above. These requirements include:

  • Designing curriculum
  • Writing lesson plans
  • Creating materials
  • Preparing the classroom
  • Grading student work
  • Entering grades
  • Discipline logging
  • Making parent phone calls
  • Completing paperwork (SLOs, IEPs, ETRs, 504s, WEPs, 90 Day Plans, … )
  • Copying
  • Stapling
  • Hole punching …

My friends in business can’t understand. They ask me why I don’t just delegate some of this work. “Delegate?!” I laugh. “To whom??” Teachers are at the bottom of food chain; most of us have no one to whom to delegate. (I am fortunate to have a paraprofessional on my team; however she is shared by seven teachers, so her time is spread very thin.)

There are additional stressors beyond those of limited time as well. Some commonly cited external factors are:[5]

  • Lack of resources
  • Low pay
  • Test score pressure
  • Changing assessments and expectations
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Ever-increasing paperwork requirements

It’s not a mystery why fewer and fewer college graduates are choosing to become teachers. Those who do choose to enter the field of education join dedicated veteran teachers in seeing teaching as more than just a job. For most, teaching is a calling or a purpose.

Anything that is seen not just as a profession, but as a vocation, a mission, a passion, and a purpose requires an internal fire to fuel it. And all fires run the risk of being extinguished.

There is precious little fire-feeding oxygen left in American education, and this is showing up in extraordinarily high rates of burnout and teacher turnover.

So what can we do about it?

When I turned to the internet for answers, I was startled by what I found. There was certainly no dearth of advice, but all of it placed the responsibility for solving burnout on the struggling teacher herself, – “Teacher, heal thyself!”

“5 Ways to Prevent Teacher Burnout”

“6 Signs of, and Solutions for, Teacher Burnout”

“7 Self-Care Strategies”

“10 Steps to Avoiding Teacher Burnout”

And my personal favorite …

25 Tips to Reduce Teacher Burnout”

Because that’s just what a stressed-out and overwhelmed teacher needs – 25 more things to add to her to-do list. Number 2 on that list, by the way, is “Smile.”

The message that these types of articles are sending is that burnout is a failure of the teacher to properly take care of herself.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that each of the suggestions on all of those lists are good ways to encourage people to take care of themselves, and they place the locus of control with the teacher, which is empowering. My issue, however, is two-fold: these articles attempt to treat the symptoms and not the problem, and they ask the teacher whose internal fire is dying to re-kindle her own flame, when she is likely the person least able to do this.

Let’s start with the problem. I am often told that I “shouldn’t work so hard.” That’s a nice platitude, but I find it profoundly frustrating because when I ask which part of my job requirements I should fail to complete, or complete with marginal quality, in order to save myself some time, I never get an answer.

I often say that the greatest challenge of teaching should be educating the students in our classrooms. That’s a hard job all by itself for a wide-variety of reasons. When it is made harder by policies, inefficiencies, and bureaucracy, we have done everyone involved a grave disservice. I have previously written about the seemingly insurmountable challenges placed on teachers by educational legislation here and here.

A friend of mine who has studied organizational management had this to say regarding teacher burnout, “I think with what we are asking of teachers the question is, ‘How could teachers not be burned out, and how can all of us (administrators, community members, school boards) help to combat this?’”

And that’s just it. If education is important to our society, then teachers must be deemed important as well, and all of us must help to solve the societal problem of teacher burnout. Our children need good teachers, and good teachers work very hard. Keeping them in the profession is a shared responsibility.

Some action steps:

  • Vote for school levies, even if you don’t have a child in school – resources, especially as related to staffing (the greatest single expense), are key.
  • Speak out against the school reform madness – especially if you are a parent in an affluent school district.
  • Don’t participate in teacher or school bashing, or allow others to do the same – the vast majority of parents are happy with their child’s teacher and school. The narrative that America has a preponderance of bad teachers and bad schools is simply not upheld by data.
  • Demand that your local school board set decent wages for teachers, and that they provide appropriate cost of living increases.
  • Support your child’s teacher – give the benefit of the doubt, encourage your child to develop independence, and nurture his or her self-advocacy skills before getting involved in potential school conflicts (see The Gift of Failure)
  • Acknowledge teachers for the positive work that they do – better yet share these acknowledgments with administrators. Parents with complaints readily share their concerns with administration; positive comments should be shared as well.
  • Don’t tell a teacher to “take time for herself – sleep, exercise, meditate, invite a friend for lunch, smile” unless you’re willing to help take something off her plate that allows her to do that.
  • If you know a teacher, ask how you can help – anyone can cut, collate, staple, hole punch.
  • Say thank you – again and again and again. This is why we do what we do.

I remain hopeful that those things can make a difference, but I don’t have much faith that the epidemic of teacher burnout will change soon. The anti-education “school reform” movement is powerful. It will take time to weaken its death grip on the throat of public schools.

But in the interim, all is not lost. Who better to support burning out teachers than those who know the industry the best – teachers. We are all on fire, but we burn with different levels of brightness at different times. We can each use our spark to help kindle the dwindling embers of another’s fire. A wise teacher I know said, “When we become a true community of educators in our building and in larger society, I find that I am not the island.”

Catherine McTamaney writes about this same thing in her book, A Delicate Task. “Teaching is hard. [We] are asked to give up so much of ourselves, to make ourselves humble and lowly before the child, to be servants, to be scientists, to be saints … but there are others on the path with us. We can lean on each other. We can walk in each other’s footsteps. Sometimes we’re at the front of the path. Sometimes we’re following another traveler. Sometimes we’re resting … Sometimes we’re so far ahead or behind that we can’t even see each other anymore. But we’re not alone. We are each other’s navigational stars.”[6]

To be “each other’s navigational stars,” we have to be connected to one another, and we have to pay attention to one another. While I believe that all teachers can help each other to combat burnout, my interpretation is that this work should fall most heavily on veteran teachers, mentor teachers, building leadership, and administration.

In supporting each other, we must not simply be content to provide inspiration. We must work to create environments that make teaching easier without sacrificing the best interests of our students. Here are some of the in-building supports that teachers say help them to be more resilient.

  • Leadership that is supportive and non-punitive
  • Having someone willing to slow down and listen when they have a concern
  • The provision of more time to allow for planning and collaboration
  • Work that is equitably shared by everyone
  • Meeting time spent to facilitate efficiency and effectiveness in the classroom, not to create additional work
  • Good communication
  • Consistent expectations
  • Follow-through: being able to trust that what was agreed upon will occur
  • Celebration of successes
  • Acknowledgment of good work

In my role as team leader, I’ve recently initiated a process to try and help with some of this. For each of the last two quarters, I’ve met one-on-one with every member of my team. To prepare for our meetings I’ve asked them to consider their responses to four questions.

  • What are three things you want to brag about from this quarter?
  • What is your current burning issue?
  • How can I help?
  • What I can do to be more effective in my role as team leader?

We’ve had some rich conversations, and I’ve gotten to know each of them better, but my great hope is that I’ve helped them to see the value in what they do, and to examine how they can keep improving.

The hardest question is always “What are three things you want to brag about?” At just about every conference, I hear, “I can’t think of three.” My response? “Yes, you can. Think harder.” And they do.

Asking them to identify a burning issue is the same thing as saying, “What do you most want to improve?” – except somehow it feels more approachable.

How can I help?”  is my favorite of the four questions. I’ve learned that it is much more powerful than its more common counterpart, “Let me know if I can help.” The latter provides an option to decline by omission; the former does not. If I ask about a burning issue and then don’t seek ways to help, I am essentially saying, “I see you struggling. Best of luck to you!”

The final question is purely selfish. I simply want to know how to get better at what I do.

I have only just begun this process, so I cannot say how effective it will prove to be in the long run, but I’ve gotten short-term positive feedback. Recently, I offered the opportunity to correspond via email if scheduling meetings took too much precious time. In response to this, one of my colleagues said, “Oh no. I wouldn’t want to give up the deliciousness of that meeting with you.” While I can’t say whether or not our meeting was “delicious,” we did have a powerful dialogue.

No single strategy will suffice to fix the great challenges and stressors in education. Teachers must remember, sometimes through the fog and the haze of exhaustion, that it’s really all about the students. The students are the most powerful motivators and sustainers of all. I, like many teachers, keep a file full of notes like this one.

We must remind ourselves, and each other, every day if necessary, that the work we do matters.

As Carissa said, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”

Hold on to those lifelines. Write them down. Remember them, and help each other to see them.  Keep those fires burning.

 

 

[1] Pillars, Wendi. “Six Signs Of—and Solutions For—Teacher Burnout.” Education Week Teacher. N.p., 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[2] Turner, Cory. “Teachers Are Stressed, And That Should Stress Us All.” NPR. NPR, 30 Dec. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[3] Stuart, Dave, Jr. “Not Getting Enough Sleep? Tired Teachers Aren’t Usually the Best Teachers.” NEA Today. National Education Association, 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

[4] Westervelt, Eric. “Frustration. Burnout. Attrition. It’s Time To Address The National Teacher Shortage.” NPR. NPR, 15 Sept. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[5] “Surviving Teacher Burnout.” NEA Today. N.p., 01 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[6] Edd, Catherine Mctamaney. Delicate Task: Teaching and Learning on a Montessori Path. Place of Publication Not Identified: IUniverse Com, 2012. Print. p.xv.