I’ve had the opportunity to speak with educators from across the teaching profession since starting Student-Centered World. From new teachers to veteran teachers to school leaders, teacher burnout hides from no one. It is very clear that the main pain point from all of them, no matter where they are in their teacher journey, is the fear of or onset of teacher burnout.
Given the amount of exhaustion (physical, emotional, and psychological) a teacher undergoes on a daily basis, it is no wonder this is at the forefront of so many educators’ minds. The 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey, put out by the American Federation of Teachers, alarmingly noted that 61 percent of teachers said their jobs were always or often stressful…and that was before a global pandemic.
Does this sound familiar?
This isn’t just a phenomenon in the United States, either. While the work environment in the US is different than in some other places, there are many school systems throughout the world where classroom teachers are struggling. Between working in high-poverty schools, dealing with unreasonable class size, or even simply what the expectation is for lesson plans, teachers in school districts around the world are facing the same instances of teacher burnout.
While still lacking, there has been some study done to look into this phenomenon and start coming up with improvement plans on a number of different scales (varying from the individual level to a more global perspective).
Table of Contents
What does it truly mean to be burned out as a teacher?
The American Psychological Association’s “Psych Learning Curve” points out a very interesting fact: burnout is actually considered, by all definitive accounts, work-induced depression.
This circles back to my point about talking about mental health, especially when it comes to teachers.
The symptoms of teacher burnout are often the same as those suffering from depression. Some examples of these include:
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Mood swings
- Sense of malaise
This is not an all-encompassing list but certainly helps prove its point.
Knowing that you want the fix is half of that battle. Remember that an important indicator of depression, and thus teacher burnout, is no longer finding joy in something you once had a passion for. It is hard to rewire our short-term thoughts into bringing back that love for teaching, but knowing that you want that is a good first step.
Beating Teacher Burnout…Before it Beats You
Remember back to what probably seems like a lifetime ago. You became a teacher to:
*Make a difference in the lives of students
*Be the person a child can look up to for guidance
*Follow your passion for education
But the changes we are facing every day in policy, procedure, and expectations are making it seem like a pipe dream. It doesn’t matter if you are in public schools or private. The truth is, even if you’re not getting the support you need from your administration, parents, and even students, you can still recapture that “new teacher” energy.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to teachers from around the globe, from those who were finishing student teaching to the ones preparing for retirement. No matter what country, socioeconomic status, or experience level they are, one concept comes forward unanimously and in almost every conversation.
Teachers are tired.
A profession that used to be held in such high esteem has dropped to being a scapegoat in so many places. Teachers chose to get into teaching to make a difference in the lives of their students, but many feel like they are nothing more than paper pushers in the society that we currently live in. Our teachers are in a state of chronic stress with no guidance on how to properly deal with stress management. It seems that each school year that passes, this gets worse.
In the first place, we know that teachers are the ones that mold the future for our incoming generations, but how are we supposed to do our jobs with energy, bravado, and excitement when we know that the next is unnecessary and often unfair hurdle is right on the horizon?
Teaching is one of the most stressful career choices out there. A report in The Guardian, “found that one in five [teachers] felt tense about their job most or all of the time, compared with 13% of those in similar occupations.” Age and job experience don’t discriminate with this statistic, either. No one is immune to the effects of stress in teaching.
After talking to many different people and doing much research, I was able to find several contributing factors and connections that may not be in a teacher’s immediate control but have the opportunity to be changed in regards to the outcome based-off some simple changes that a teacher can make.
The Demands of the job
When I left the classroom, it was because I wanted to shift my efforts into helping as many teachers as I could. I wanted to help them reach their full potential in teaching and to stop the debilitating feeling of being overwhelmed and questioning if the classroom was where you were meant to be. Trust me, I’ve been there and it’s not a fun place. Knowing the years of education behind you and the time, money, and effort you put into a career that is making you feel like you are spiraling out of control is not fun.
Yes, taking a mental health day when you need it is vital, but it is not enough.
According to an article from Edutopia, “Teacher stress is high partly because the demands of the job can lead to emotional exhaustion, which arises as teachers try to manage the emotional needs of their students in addition to their academic needs. Not all students come to school ready to learn, and distracted or disruptive students can quickly drain a teacher’s emotional energy.” We have more and more students entering our classrooms year after year who come carrying more emotional baggage than any child should be allowed to have.
Let’s be honest…their emotional baggage leads to ours as well.
This concept isn’t new, unfortunately. When I was doing research on the topic of teacher burnout, I came across a book that was published in 1980. In what could be considered “the good ole days”, there was still a risk of the burnout that many of us are facing today. The argument can easily be made that this book was merely a foreshadowing of what was to come and what we are living with now.
Why hasn’t professional development been focusing on this since not only is it not new, but it visibly getting worse?
Making Changes for Teacher Mental Health
As teachers, many times the outside influences in our lives certainly have an effect on our psyche and how we speak to ourselves. However, sometimes it’s our inner voices that have a direct effect on our reactions and how we move about our journey. This could be due to the way that we were raised or the self-talk that we have just learned over the years.
There are also things that happen in our personal lives that change our mindset.
Whatever the case, often we are our own worst enemy and this is something that we need to collectively work on because plainly stated when it comes to our teacher mental health, we have to.
We need to constantly tell ourselves that one cannot control how other people act or react to a situation, but can only control how personal actions or reactions to a situation.
There is a great article in Psychology Today by Robert Goldman J.D., Psy.D. titled Teachers Are Hurting and a New Approach Is Needed. He sums up the current state of teacher burnout by saying, “Teaching has long been proven to be one of the most emotionally exhausting professions (Day, 2008). Taking work home, lack of resources in schools, unsupportive administrators, parents, and an imbalanced ratio of students in the classroom all contribute to the decreasing mental health in this field. Now, teachers have faced and worked through yet another factor that has put them at risk for burnout, the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This is unacceptable.
We shouldn’t be leaving school each day with feelings of ineffectiveness because of limited resources, unreasonable teacher evaluations, or lack of emotional support for us (even though we know we are supposed to be giving our students grace, right?). From general teachers to special education teachers to substitute teachers, the trickle-down of all of this is real and at the end of the day will have a huge negative impact on our students.
Teaching isn’t easy and we certainly know in the last few years the landscape of what it means to be an educator has changed dramatically. We aren’t teaching the same students that educators were dealing with 30, 20, even 10 years ago.
We went from having the role of an educator to now a plethora of other helpers to try to meet the needs of each and every student in our classroom. More and more is expected of us, but at no time was asking what WE needed to be able to accomplish all of those things. The mental health of teachers is too often ignored.
How to fix it
I think most are just attested to the fact that we do, in fact, want to do what we can to help every single one of our students achieve their greatest abilities, but we can’t be getting dumped on more and more and more without taking a step back to figure out how we could do all of those things in an effective way.
How can our communities support teachers, decrease teacher demoralization, and increase job satisfaction?
If you talk to former teachers, they have a lot to say about this.
Folks, there are warning signs here. Anyone in the classroom will be happy to sit down and talk about them, am I right?
Some of these changes that need to happen are out of our control. A lot of it comes down to politics (and so much of that is in its own tumultuous state right now that we are a small sliver of that pie that needs to be adjusted).
However, there are a lot of small changes we can make in our own classrooms to help with the long hours, the lesson planning, the time management issues, and our professional lives in general.
I am not saying it all needs to be on us (goodness knows it’s not all COMING from us), but we need to be able to control what specifically we can control.
Creating a Sustainable Plan
There are a lot of naysayers out there saying things like there are simply not enough hours in the school day or “I just don’t have the ability to do all of these things”. While there is some truth in that, that’s the new normal for education. We are caregivers, social workers, parents, life coaches, and anything in-between ALONG with those responsibilities that include teaching our children knowledge.
This isn’t going to change anytime soon.
We can wait for adequate teacher mental health training, or we can start tomorrow with little tweaks WE can make in the classroom to help keep our psyche on the right path, creating our own support systems that allow us to feel like we have enough time to do good work in the classroom. To identify the root causes of teacher burnout and to help as many teachers as possible step backward from the breaking point they have gotten to and help to eliminate unnecessary teacher stress and educator burnout.
Too much time has passed where we keep having things dumped on our plate with no way out besides the door. We need to take that back.
So what can teachers do?
Knowing What You Can Actually Control
We know that we can only control what we can control, and being dumped on every day by administrators, parents, or the community doesn’t help that….because we can’t control it.
There are two things that we absolutely can control. The first is taking care of ourselves. Setting boundaries. Putting ourselves as human beings before all else.
It sounds cliche as hell, I know. But hear me out: we are trained from early in our careers to put everything else before ourselves.
But what good does it do if that makes us not at the top of our game?
Taking care of yourself is the biggest piece to being able to not only make it through the day, but to make it through the day well.
Teacher self-care is more than a buzzword and more than taking a hot bath at night. It is a distinct strategy with a plan that works for you as an individual, finding the places where you’re struggling and creating a system to heal those areas, making you stronger.
The second thing to do is to adapt what you’re doing in the classroom.
There are certain things we can do for teacher self-care, but as I said before, we need to change how we react and interact with these situations in our schools. As teachers, we need to be organized…and I’m not talking about having your copies done a day ahead of time.
Coupled with the emotional side of the coin, it is literally not possible for the students we have in our classroom today to learn and comprehend the information on deeper levels if we teach the same way that we taught previous generations. They need to be engaged and have their interest sparked to reach the level of student achievement we are hoping for…and yes, it is possible to do this in every subject matter in any grade. It just takes a little elbow grease before you walk into the classroom and keep a keen eye on what is going on while you’re there.
After that, it’s cake …and will meet your expectations for what your classroom should be like on every possible level.
We need to know our students on an individual level to figure out what is going to make him or her tick, what is going to set them off, and what will make sure that they achieve at the greatest possible level.
That level is not going to be the same for every single student, but we need to make sure that we’re lifting up our struggling students as well as challenging our more advanced ones.
Finding This Necessary Balance
This is not easy to do by any means, but it’s the world that we live in and if we can find a way to balance this along with all of our other responsibilities as teachers (being coaches, family members, and everything else), think about how much less stressed, more productive, and more satisfied we will all be…and how improved your teacher mental health will be.
It’s no secret that having our students engaged and behaving in the classroom helps our mental health more than we like to talk about. Coming up with plans and strategies to make this the norm, not the exception, isn’t difficult, it just needs to ebb and flow with the students and where they are (physically, mentally, and emotionally). Being flexible is the key to making all of this work. The key is engagement.
There are four keys to student engagement that I discuss in my video training challenge called “Finding Your Student Engagement Formula” and it walks you through those four keys and how to implement them in the classroom.
If you are interested in registering (it’s totally free), visit the Finding Your Student Engagement Formula Challenge registration page and you will be notified the next time the series is available.