It’s Time To Take Teacher Burnout Seriously. Here’s How.

Opinion | Teaching and Learning

It’s Time To Take Teacher Burnout Seriously. Here’s How.

By Tim Klein and Belle Liang     Jun 15, 2022

It’s Time To Take Teacher Burnout Seriously. Here’s How.

As educators, mental health professionals, and authors of a new book on helping students cut through stress and pave the way to purpose, we’ve spent our careers supporting students to manage their mental health and reach their potential. We’ve created award-winning high school programs, re-imagined college courses and leveraged technology to meet the ever-growing mental health needs that have been exasperated by the pandemic.

Our work has centered on students—their mental health, their well-being and what it takes to help them thrive.

As we’ve expanded our work and research to schools and colleges across the country, there’s a shift emerging: it’s not just students and their families in desperate need of support. It is educators themselves reaching out for our help.

Teachers, school administrators and academic leaders in public and private schools have been seeking our services to cope with their chronic fatigue. Lifelong educators reach out daily to explore possibilities for alternative careers, confiding that they’ve never felt this bad. Exasperated school leaders request workshops to cope with widespread distress and disillusionment, which are spurring a mass teacher exodus.

It’s not just us noticing these trends—recent research reports and surveys from a number of organizations reveal alarming statistics on teacher well-being. According to a national poll by the EdWeek Research Center, sixty percent of teachers are finding their jobs frequently or always stressful, compromising their physical health, sleep and ability to enjoy free time with family or friends. Many say they feel less effective when they’re stressed, which research shows can negatively impact the quality of their instruction, classroom management and relationships with students suffer. And only 12 percent of teachers report that they are very satisfied in their roles.

The educational climate is rapidly deteriorating, the ripples of which we have yet to fully feel. Burnout now dominates cultural conversations around school and work. Articles, podcasts and books about burnout are released every day.

As much as we talk about burnout, many people struggle to define it. Is it an occupational phenomenon, a syndrome, a clinical term? American psychologist, Dr. Christina Maslach identifies its three universal symptoms in her book, “Burnout: The Cost of Caring.”

  • Exhaustion—feeling constantly drained of energy (“I have problems that I’m too tired to solve”)
  • Ineffectiveness—feeling like your work doesn’t accomplish anything, no matter how hard you try (“I have problems that I can’t solve”)
  • Cynicism—seeing the people you are trying to help as the source of your problems (“I have problems that people won’t help me solve”)

A common response teachers hear when they express their exhaustion is, “practice self-care and put yourself first.” And when teachers feel ineffective, they are encouraged to “work smarter, not harder.” While well intentioned, this advice fails.

First, it puts the onus of responsibility on teachers themselves, which implies that teachers are to blame for their burnout.

Second, it is difficult to implement. A “self-care” practice can feel counter to the ethos of the teaching profession. Education is a human service: it’s about putting others first. Advice encouraging teachers to “work smarter” than they already are isn’t actionable for many teachers because they have no additional bandwidth. No amount of effort can solve the morass of challenges facing teachers and students.

Finally, this advice only targets the symptoms of burnout. Not the root cause.

This is akin to seeing plumes of smoke billowing out the windows of a burning building and concluding that we need a fan to blow the smoke away.

The smoke is a symptom of the real problem: the fire we cannot see that is burning everything from the inside out.

Author Jonathan Malesic describes the cause of burnout as “being pulled between expectation and reality.”

In our work with teachers, we describe this as simultaneously living in two worlds, the world in our mind (how we think things should be) versus the reality of the world and our lives. The bigger the gap between the two, the more exhausted, disempowered and cynical we become.

Teachers tell us they feel this tension every day. They live in a world where they are expected to uphold pre-pandemic academic standards, while managing widespread student disengagement, chronic mental health issues and increasingly dire societal issues spilling into the classroom.

If we really want to combat teacher burnout, we need more than lip service about resting up and working harder. We need to overhaul the expectations put on our teachers and stop serving students at our teachers’ expense.

To do so, we can learn from other industries.

When COVID-19 forced people to work from home, savvy businesses quickly adapted. They shortened work weeks and implemented flexible work schedules. These adjusted expectations paved the way for hybrid work, which is leading to a permanent distributed workforce.

As a result, employees report increased productivity and satisfaction, thanks in part to reduced commute times, more opportunity to exercise and quieter, more convenient work environments. Of course, educators can’t, and shouldn’t work from home. But there is a wise lesson to be learned from this.

It wasn't going remote that made these companies succeed in the face of adversity. Rather, they shifted what they expected of their employees by adapting the work environment in response to new challenges brought on by the pandemic.

In education, we’ve done the exact opposite. We’ve moved the goalposts further away. In an effort to make up for lost time and combat learning loss, expectations placed on teachers have been raised. Not right-sized.

Educators are expected to improve standardized test scores and get students “back on track.” All while navigating massive teacher shortages, increased logistical complexities, a culture war in the classroom and a teen mental health crisis.

We’ve come to expect our teachers to do more with less, at a time when their job is harder than ever. It’s time we align the expectations placed upon teachers with reality.

We can start by helping school communities apply a values-based approach to designing their models. This approach serves as a decision-making framework that ensures every decision made adds value to all constituents—students, families and staff.

We must examine every policy, practice and initiative our educators are expected to implement and for each one, we must ask the simple, yet profound question, what’s the purpose of this and does it benefit our students and teachers? These inquiries may lead to tough conversations about the role of standardized tests, AP classes, school start time and a host of other entrenched educational practices. But if a policy or practice does not meet the threshold of adding value to both teachers and students, then we must consider: Do the potential benefits outweigh the subsequent costs of teacher burnout?

The future of our teachers, and our students, depends on getting this question right.

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