“What does it truly mean to be burned out as a teacher?”

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As Student-Centered World has grown, I have had the opportunity to speak with educators around the globe. 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 educator 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. Sound familiar?

We decided to explore this and determine ways for the everyday teacher to help beat 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).

The question begs to ask, “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:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Sense of malaise

This is not an all-encompassing list but certainly helps prove its point.

Most information on the subject focuses on how to help this phenomenon, and rightfully so. Our Beating Teacher Burnout series was created because teachers wanted a fix, wanted to know what worked for someone else and wanted it taken care of fast.

Knowing that you want the fix is half of that battle. Remembering 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.

Eliminating it on a scale outside of your own person will only be successful when all stakeholders (teachers, administration, etc.) get to the root of teacher burnout and make overarching adjustments to educational culture.

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What can administration do?

Putting safeguards in place and being very open with staff is a good beginning to eliminating the teacher burnout issue within a school. However, if this process is moving forward to remove the school from a negative situation, then more care needs to be placed on teachers already in the system.

With the mental health connotations surrounding teacher burnout, especially with the overlap of depression, counseling should be available if psychological attention is deemed necessary. Helping teachers suffering at this magnitude is vital in helping bring them back from the burnout level they have reached.

This is an excellent way to begin to focus on the importance of mental health and removing the stigma behind it. Too many people try to mask their mental health symptoms for fear of retribution or ostracisation by their co-workers or administration. This fear needs to become non-existent if we truly want to help our peers. We need to have peer-to-peer opportunities with mental health training and a large scale understanding of what to do if we see someone suffering (even if that person is us).

It is also important to take a macroscopic view of the school culture and determine risk factors for teacher burnout within that particular setting. Stress affects every person differently, but finding triggers in procedures or general ways of being can certainly make a difference if amended appropriately.

male and female sitting on computers

Administrators must also keep teachers at the forefront of decision making. Having their say in what professional development workshops will be the most helpful, having open collaboration when coming up with campus events, and creating a culture that respects boundaries for life outside of work are just some simple examples that will make teachers feel heard and thus, feel respected.

That respect is far-reaching. Administrative teams need to be open and approachable. The only way they will truly make a difference with their teachers is if they appear to be open to conversation and dialogue about what the root issues are in their schools. Only then will there be a level of trust where changes can be made.

man sitting with laptop, pondering

Those conversations should lead to positive suggestions for what that teacher may need. Perhaps it’s mental health assistance or teaming up with another teacher who is having a similar issue. Maybe it’s an out-of-school event that a particular teacher may find interesting or a YouTube video or someone fantastic to follow on social media. It is the suggestion of these types of interactions that will make a difference with staff and shift school culture away from the “burnout model”.

Everything ends up focusing on culture and changing a normalized model that too many people have fallen accustomed to. Without making necessary changes that are draining teachers, nothing other than fueling the cycle of teacher burnout will happen moving forward. If something is broke, it is imperative that it is fixed before the destruction is too much to come back from.

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