Teacher Burnout: The Root Cause and How to Recover
My Burnout Stories
Twice in my life I have experienced teacher burnout so intensely that I came to the conclusion I could not continue on the teaching path I was on.
This first happened at year seven. I had been teaching at the same high school my entire career, I had an awesome group of colleagues, I had finally gotten my own classroom (I was a “cart-teacher” no more), and, thanks to a colleague’s retirement, I was able to teach the Honors American Literature course I had coveted for years. You would think I was in a good place professionally, but I wasn’t. You see, I had just had my first daughter, and the reality of being a teacher and a mother was hitting me full force. My school was still on an 8 period schedule, and, due to budget cuts, our class sizes were always pushing 30 students. This means I had upwards of 180 students. That’s 180 essays to grade, 180 students to assist in passing state tests, 180 kids to try to get to know and help navigate through the trickiness of the teenager years. Adding in one beautiful baby girl pushed me over the edge. I couldn’t handle 181; I couldn’t be the mom my daughter needed and the teacher my students deserved without losing my sanity.
The second episode happened at year thirteen. I had left my job at the high school and had been hired at the virtual middle/high school run by the same school district. The virtual school was actually just launching, so I was able to jump on board and join an amazing group of passionate educators who created the structure and rules of the school. We also got to choose our curriculum and map out our own courses (following state standards, of course). It was invigorating, exciting work. I could also now teach from home to have more time with my daughter. I had it made, right?
Well, here’s the rub. As a virtual teacher, I didn’t have 180 students; to make up for the lack of structured classroom time that face-to-face teachers have, our student to teacher ratio as virtual teachers was 300 to 1. And with a grading policy that students had the entire 18 week semester to submit work (a policy set by my district leadership), that meant much of the work was dumped on teachers in the final weeks of the semester, because it is in teenagers’ nature to procrastinate. The result was that I began to feel like a grading monkey. My least favorite part of my job became 80% of my job. I really missed interacting with my students. I felt so isolated working from home, staring at a computer screen all day. Sure, I got to spend a lot more time with my daughters (my second was born my third year of teaching online), and I will never regret that time, but my professional life definitely suffered.
The Root Cause of Burnout
Teacher burnout has been a topic of much discussion in the education world for the last decade. According to the American Federation of Teachers’ 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey, 58% of teachers said their jobs were “always or often” stressful. With such a stressful job, it is not surprising that the report released in April 2018 by the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education found that 17% of teachers leave within their first 5 years. That’s almost 1 out of 5 teachers! And there are currently teacher shortages in major subject areas in almost every state, especially in rural areas.
Teachers who are experiencing burnout are typically feeling overwhelmed, anxious, fatigued, experiencing mood swings, and beginning to lose interest in work or personal interests. Most experts have attributed burnout to the inability of teachers to find work-life balance, and to them giving too much of themselves to the job (see the candle image below with the famous quote from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk). Because of this, they have encouraged teachers to re-energize themselves by practicing self-care in the form of exercising, eating healthy, socializing, practicing meditation and other mindfulness strategies.
The issue with this approach to addressing burnout is twofold. First, a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Stress Management found that almost 90% of teachers who were experiencing burnout met the criteria for a diagnosis of work-induced depression. While exercising and meditating can absolutely reduce the symptoms of depression, they cannot by themselves solve the problem. In fact, intervention by a healthcare professional may be necessary.
Second, this approach only treats the symptoms and does not get to the root cause of the burnout or depression, as the root cause is almost always deeper than just working too many hours.
In her new book, Demoralized, Doris Santoro, chair of the education department at Bowdoin College, documents interviews with 23 teachers who burnt out and, ultimately, left the professional for moral reasons. Her core argument is that encouraging teachers to become more resilient to relieve burnout simply won’t work because the root cause of burnout is actually teacher demoralization. On page five of her book she explains that “the process of demoralization occurs when pedagogical policies and school practices (such as high-stakes testing, mandated curriculum, and merit pay) threaten the ideals and values, the moral center, teachers bring to their work – things that cannot be remedied by building resilience.” So essentially, unless teachers can articulate the core morals and beliefs that are being violated to cause their burnout, and unless the school system as a whole begins to change to better align to the teacher’s morals (or that teacher finds another school system that does), the feelings of burnout will not diminish. In other words, we must all recognize that “the problem is with the conditions of the work rather than with the teachers themselves.” (13) Can I get an AMEN?!
Hindsight is always 20/20, and after reading Santoro’s book, the demoralization I was experiencing in my own two instances of burnout mentioned earlier became clear. At year seven I was frustrated by the constant budget cuts that forced class sizes to balloon to thirty combined with the unrelenting state testing (a result of No Child Left Behind). I went into teaching to make a personal connection with teenagers and help them grow into the best readers, writer and people they could be; this was my moral imperative. But the system created a situation where this was no longer possible. At year thirteen, I was questioning if virtual teaching was truly beneficial for me and some of my students. I was feeling so isolated and couldn’t form meaningful relationships with students in a virtual setting. Again, the personal connection was missing.
Ways to Re-Moralize
The good news is that there are ways to re-moralize and recover from burnout. The first step is the one I just completed: to recognize and clearly articulate where your teacher morals are being violated. Drill down and try to figure out where in your teaching day you are being asked to do things that inherently feel wrong.
Next, Santoro argues on page 109 that “teachers’ professional moral centers may require that they push back with resistance rather than bounce back with resilience.” So how can we “push back” and resist? Santoro outlines strategies for re-moralizing that fit into five broad categories: student-centered action, teacher leadership, activism, voice, and professional community.
Without knowing it, I actually utilized 4 out of 5 of these re-moralizing strategies in my own life (as an introvert, I resisted activism, though I have been rethinking this decision lately). While working at the virtual school I became the teacher-leader for the English department, and as such, I pushed for more electives and student-driven curriculum. I also completed training to become an instructional coach. When I left the virtual school and started at the career and technical center where I currently work, I became a part-time instructional coach, and working with other instructors has instilled me with a new sense of purpose. Over the last two years, I started blogging about my teaching to find my voice, and I have joined several local and online teacher communities so I don’t ever again experience the professional isolation I experienced as an online teacher.
But the most important thing I did was have the courage to leave school systems where school administrators weren’t receptive to my concerns, systems I knew would not change any time soon to match up with my core morals as a teacher. I knew I was a good teacher, and I still wanted to teach. Therefore, I was careful and focused in my job searches, and I found other systems that would be a better match.
Ultimately, educational leaders and school administrators need to recognize the essential role they play in the re-moralization process. First, they can give teachers more outlets to voice genuine, moral concerns. Then, they can have real conversations with teachers about their concerns and collaborate to find solutions. These solutions will not happen overnight, but if slow and steady progress can be made, schools can retain the experienced, passionate teachers that students deserve to learn from.
If you liked this blog, check out more great thoughts from Megan about mindfulness in the classroom: