One of the fears my students have as they begin their careers as educators is occupational burnout and not being able to keep up with the daily demands of the profession. This is a legitimate concern. Every teacher I’ve encountered has horror stories and even some “battle” scars from their first year teaching. It’s almost a competition on who had the worst first year experience, and we wear those scars with pride because we survived the first year. Let’s be honest the first year of any job is hard. You’re trying to figure out your role, learn from your peers, and of course learning to maneuver through workplace politics. Yet, the first year of teaching there’s the added element of working with children and/or teenagers, which has its own set of stresses. Not to mention, the additional pressures of students passing standardized exams. Sometimes I wonder, why did I get into this field? And, I know many of my students ask themselves this questions at some point too. We do this important work, because we believe in the value of education brings to our society and enjoy working with children. However, some of the daily stressors and administrative tasks hamper our ability to do what we love to do, which leads to burnout.
So, how do educators prevent or resolve the very real issue of burnout? The first truth everyone needs to know is that burnout is NOT YOUR FAULT. No matter what you tell yourself, or what your colleagues and leadership tells you. You are probably not the only one experiencing burnout in your school, and it’s the result of greater issues that are beyond your control. Let’s dig deeper into what burnout is, what it feels like, the causes, and ways to develop a solution.
Occupational burnout and dissatisfaction
Occupational burnout is caused by long-term and unresolved stress related to work. This term was first used in 1974 by Herberty Freudenberger in a published paper, in which he describes his observations and own experiences as a volunteer in a free clinic for drug addicts. He explained that the symptoms include exhaustion, frequent headaches, insomnia, reactive, and closed-mindedness. Recently, researchers have found that workers who are burned out report as many symptoms of being depressed as clinically depressed patients (Bianchi, Schonfeld, and Laurent, 2014). I will admit that I found this the most interesting and shocking aspect of burnout. How wild is it that burnout shares the same symptoms as depression, which makes burnout a serious issue and a concern for those of us in the field of education.
Signs you are burned-out
Before I describe the signs of being burned-out I want to be very clear that experts on this topic including Maslach and Leitner (1997) explain that “burnout in individual workers says more about conditions of their job than it does about them” (p. 21). This is huge! It’s not your fault that you’re miserable at work, that you feel overwhelmed, and just unmotivated. Burnout was NOT caused by you. It was created by the work environment and the demands placed on you. Phew! That’s a relief! So what are the telltale signs that you or someone you know is experiencing burn-out?
If you read my post on stress then you know that the symptoms listed above are very similar (especially the physical and emotional symptoms) to the symptoms of chronic stress. It’s not surprising since the causes of burnout are strongly associate by stressful and even chaotic work environments. If you’re still not sure if you are experiencing burnout here’s a quick survey created by the Mind Tools Team
that can help you identify if you are burned out or on the path to burnout.
However, I do want to note that if you have many of the symptoms listed above to seek medical advice from your physician, because some of the physical and emotional symptoms may be caused by other serious physical and mental diseases. It is imperative that you rule those out before you self-diagnose yourself with burnout.
What causes burnout?
According to Maslach and Leitner (1997) the causes of burnout in the workplace are work overload, lack of control, no or little reward for hard work, a lack of community, a lack of fairness, and conflicting values. I will describe each cause, especially a related to teaching.
Those of us in the field of education know that teachers have a lot of work to do. The work of a teacher goes well beyond what people observe in a classroom. There’s the planning, grading, team meetings, before and after school supervision of students, school events, additional instructional time for individual students, contacting parents, and other administrative tasks that take up additional time and responsibilities. Teachers spend well over the 40-hour work weeks completing their tasks.
They are spending more time working and their workload continues to climb, especially for those who are exceptional teachers and leaders in their department and school. Sometimes this leads to a culture of busyness and multitasking and the busier one is the more one must be accomplishing, or at least that’s the perception. Unfortunately, additional burdens and responsibilities can cause unnecessary stress in the workplace. The additional strains on teachers’ workload are caused by additional pressures from state and local policies, high-stakes testing, parents’ over or under involvement in students’ academics, and a shortage of teachers, especially teachers who specialize in Special Education and English as a Second Language.
2. Lack of control
None of us are truly in control of every aspect of our lives. We can’t control the weather, traffic, or other people. But there is an expectation of having a sense of control in our own work. We feel most in control at work when we are trusted, we have creative freedom, choices, and when we are in a flow from one task to the next without feeling overwhelmed. However, when a teacher is burned out, he may feel like he’s lost control of her work. He may feel like he lost control of his classroom management, the pile of assessments to grade is overwhelming, the additional administrative tasks are consuming his time, and/or he may feel like school leadership is micromanaging the curriculum and pedagogy impacting his motivation.
3. No or little reward
We go into teaching because we believe education is fundamental for the survival of a free and democratic society. We also love working with children and adolescents. However, none of us in the field of education took a vow of poverty. We all have student loans and bills to pay, healthcare costs, housing, and all the other living expenses, not to mention the thousands of dollars many teacher pay out of pocket for school supplies. Yet, educators, like many other professionals, have not seen a significant increase in their salaries. This of course can lead to great frustration as teachers take on additional roles and responsibilities, but are not compensated for their work. Additionally, many teachers live in at-will states, which means an employer can terminate an employee for good cause or no cause at all, sometimes making their employment status a little more precarious. All of this can lead to a loss of intrinsic motivation and can just suck the joy out of working with children when there’s is little or no recognition and a stagnation in salaries for the hard work and long hours.
4. A lack of community
In education collaboration is essential for the success of teachers and students.
However, when there is a lack of trust and insecurity in people’s employment it can lead to a lack of community and really toxic work environment in which people are competitive, manipulative, and creating drama. A lack of community can also occur when the time and space for collaboration is not given and/or honored by leadership and other colleagues. Often times teams work is required, but teams are not given the procedures and tools to collaborate effectively, especially when there is a dispute.
5. Lack of fairness
Trust, openness, and respect are obvious qualities for a healthy, fair, and safe work environment. Fairness indicates that people are respected for their professionalism are expertise. When teachers feel like parents, leadership and other colleagues are treating them unfairly or disrespecting their professionalism then this can create a work environment that leads to cynicism, which leads to more cynicism. Unfortunately, the cynicism then seeps into the teaching and classroom environment impacting students and their sense of fairness.
6. Conflicting values and actions within the organization
Perhaps what plagues many schools today are the conflicting values about the purpose of education and the actions that do not always align with best practices. These conflicting values and actions between policymakers, schools administrators, parents, and teachers can lead to a mismatch on teachers work expectations and the reality. Parents and educators believe that the purpose of education is to support children’s development and skill of knowledge and thinking in order to become productive members of a democratic community. This is a concern because even though school communities share the same value and philosophy on the purpose of education the actions by lawmakers do not align with the values. As a result, teachers and administrators become disheartened, frustrated, and angered by the lack of understanding of fundamental practices in education by policymakers who develop policies that diminish students and teachers into test scores, which assess rote memorization, rather than developing humans that can think critically. Such policies and high stakes testing can become a drain on teachers and students.
Needless to say when teachers are burned out not only do colleagues, family and friends notice, but so do students. When teacher burnout impacts students that’s when additional problems can make the burnout even more acute. Teacher burnout can lead to a learning environment that is no longer fun, safe, and rigorous for students and teachers. Students notice the change and can themselves begin to act in disruptive and even disrespectful ways. That’s why teacher burnout should be taken seriously since it not only impacts the individual teacher, but the entire school community making the teaching and learning environment toxic for everyone.
The cost of teacher burnout
Recruiting and retaining new teachers in the field is becoming a real problem. Education researchers found that attrition is highest among new teachers, who leave within the first three years of teaching, and of course more experienced teachers reaching retirement (Ingersoll 2001; Kelly 2004; Marvel et al. 2007). Ingersoll (2001) found that the significant factors to new teacher attrition are low salary, student behaviour issues, lack of support from school administration, and the lack of decision-making power. Additionally, there are indications that prescribed curriculum and school leadership’s discouragement of creativity in teaching (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006) are additional factors to new teacher leaving the profession. These are all symptoms of burnout.
Teacher burnout is a problem, because it causes disruption in a school community when new hires turnover so quickly and is a financial loss for the district who may have invested in additional training and resources for new teachers. Not to mention, it’s a loss in investment for the young teacher who may have spent a year and went into debt to earn a teaching license and maybe even a Master’s degree. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF, 2007) estimates the cost of teacher turnover across the country at $7.3 billion annually, which includes the cost of recruiting, hiring, and training new teachers. More importantly, it is destabilizing for students who do not receive consistently high quality instruction with teachers constantly leaving, especially in schools that serve high poverty areas.
How to prevent or minimize the impact of burnout?
Many times organizations ignore burnout believing it is perceived to be an individual problem, which does not have direct impact on the school or the quality of work. This misconception is detrimental not only to the teachers who are burned out, but to the whole learning community, including students. The problem isn’t the person, but rather the mismatch between the individual and the work environment. Many times school districts believe the solution is to have a professional development on self-care and how the individual can just manage their stress better. This form of professional development that focuses on the individual, though useful, is not necessarily addressing the real problem of burnout. In addition, leadership is sending a message that the problem is you and only you can resolve your burnout. This is false, not helpful, and can create even more resentment in the work environment.
Maslach and Leitner (1997) argue that the process of changing the work environment can start by an individual or by the organization, but the process is the same either way. I will explain the process Maslach and Leitner developed, but will also add the element of mindfulness and compassion to this process.
1. It starts with you
First, you must recognize that you are burned out. Then sit with this recognition. You’ll feel uncomfortable with the unpleasantness of being burned out, but as you deeply reflect on the feeling of being burned out and what it does to you, you’ll be able to understand the unpleasantness and name the concern(s) surrounding the work environment.
2. Create a group project
Then, find colleagues that also share the feeling of being burned out. You’ll develop a team of teachers across discipline and experience levels to research and understand the concerns fully and its impact on the work and the greater learning community. Remember this is not a group therapy session. The individuals in the team can share their grievances, but there must be an effort and plan to go beyond sharing stories to researching more about the causes and impact of the burnout and preliminary ideas on solutions.
3. Connect with the school community
As a result, the team reaches out to employees, leadership, and parents, and possibly students to understand how burnout is impacting them. To discuss and share experiences and of course possible solutions. This should be done mindfully. Meaning that the conversations should occur in spaces that are safe, where people will not be judged, or worse penalized for expressing their thoughts about the work environment. It may be necessary to just start of with a survey and then build from there focus groups. From there a solution or solutions will arise.
4. Implement the solution(s)
By understanding the underlying issues a process can be developed to address the organizational mismatch, which may mean hiring more teachers, staff, asking for more volunteers, a pay raise or bonus for employees, professional support that is meaningful and individualized, or changing school policy on student discipline or grading. As a result, burnout among all teachers and attrition among new teachers can be minimized with schools addressing the organizational concerns.
5. Remember the outcome is a process and needs compassion
Addressing the issue(s) is a process, it’s not perfect, it’s not quick, and it can get messy. These changes will not lead to a magical happy ending, but it can relieve some of the stress and mismatch between teachers and the work they do. The community needs to allow there to be space and compassion for the process to unravel. This of course can be difficult, especially in today’s world where we want quick, easy, and cheap solutions and results, but with dynamic concerns that arise in an ever changing work environment such quick, easy, and cheap solutions often come at a great cost, don’t resolve the issue, and create new and even worse problems.
Remember, burnout is not created by one individual and it doesn’t impact just one person. Burnout is like a nasty virus that spreads throughout the community and impacts everyone, including students, which is why it’s important for the whole community to be involved in the solutions and the process with compassion.
The value of teachers and their work
Working with children and adolescents is incredibly hard work. It takes a lot of energy to maintain engagement from 25+ students, manage behaviours, prepare lesson, and respond to students’ individual needs. Yet, we do it and we do it with love for our students and the work we do. However, teachers must be valued by society, policymakers, parents, leadership, colleagues, and students. It is hard to continue the difficult work when the value of our work isn’t there. Education is all about valuing children, but we must also value the adults that work so closely with these children.
The United States can learn from other countries who value teachers, such as Finland. In Finland a great investment in preparing teachers and supporting teachers in their careers has been made (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Teachers have great autonomy and are trusted in developing curriculum. In addition, Finland’s teachers, though not the highest paid compared to other EU countries, are paid more than teachers in the U.S. (The Brookings Institute, 2016). Additionally, standardized exams are used, but are not used to penalize teachers, students, or schools, unlike in the U.S. The investment, support, trust and respect embedded in Finland’s culture and policies makes it an attractive country to be a teacher, because they value teachers and their work. Perhaps it’s time for U.S. policymakers and school leadership to take a lesson from our friends in Finland.
Teacher burnout is not inevitable. We can all take steps to ensure our school communities are healthy teaching and learning environments for everyone. Learning communities that are compassionate and value all should not be the exception, but the expectation.
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