Most of us know an educator who has “had enough.” An educator who doesn’t sleep well at night, who becomes exhausted by the ratio of classroom discipline to actual teaching, and who doesn’t like pandering to standardized tests that increasingly fail to reflect actual learning in students, according to many in the curriculum and education sectors.
The collective symptoms of fatigue, overwhelm, boredom, depression, anxiety, stress, apathy and frustration (among other negative emotions) are referred to as “teacher burnout.” While these may characterize any educator who has hit their limit, the condition most commonly affects classroom teachers, who deal with day-to-day student interaction.
This alarming state of education in America is bad not only for teachers, but for students as well. Not to mention the entire future of the United States, which is sadly behind in the production of qualified STEM workers – those in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. It’s just as pernicious a problem as teacher bias and teacher stress (the latter of which leads directly to burnout).
If we want to solve these issues, if we want to produce happier students and teachers, it’s time to take a hard look at the many questions surrounding teacher burnout: it’s definitions, causes, symptoms, prevention and more. Whip out that notepad or tablet and get ready to take note of the answers that might save American – and global – education.
What is Teacher Burnout?
Before we can devise and implement effective methods for addressing burnout, we must understand what it is. That’s where a good teacher burnout definition comes in.
“Burnout syndrome has been clinically characterised by a series of three subtypes: frenetic, underchallenged and worn-out,” explain researchers Jesús Montero-Marín and Javier García-Campayo, adding that it is “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job.” In other words, burnout is a state that persists over time, leading the teacher to develop one of three coping mechanisms:
Exhaustion: a state in which the teacher feels they cannot offer any more of themselves
Cynicism: a distant attitude toward work, colleagues, students and other aspects of the job
Inefficacy: a feeling of becoming incompetent and ineffective at the job
It scarcely needs to be said that this state is damaging to students, to teachers, to administration (which must deal with the stress of unhappy teachers and high turnover), to parents and to the union as a whole.
What do the Teacher Burnout Statistics Say?
Teacher burnout isn’t merely some anecdotal problem, either; it’s more than the stories we hear from friends and colleagues, and even the children whom it affects. The condition is backed up by very real and very disquieting statistics.
“Roughly half a million U.S. teachers either move or leave the profession each year,” reports the Alliance for Excellent Education, adding that this deluge of attrition disproportionately affects high-poverty schools. Moreover, it “costs the United States up to $2.2 billion annually,” a shocking figure when considering the budget shortfalls that already plague public schools – especially distressing in the face of increasing enrollment. With a million more children who entered the system between 2008 and 2016, and half a million teachers leaving or relocating annually, the amount of churn and disruption is huge.
While the oft-quoted statistic that 50% of teachers leave within their first five years is erroneous, new research indicates that the number sits around 17%. That’s almost one-fifth of the workforce, a number that could never go unnoticed among burgeoning classroom sizes and spending cuts.
Sadly, the end of a long career is far from the most common cause of teachers leaving the profession. “About 90% of the nationwide annual demand for teachers is created when teachers leave the profession, with two-thirds of teachers leaving for reasons other than retirement,” says a Learning Policy Institute report. Inherent in this statistic is also the fact that increasing school demand isn’t what’s causing the shortage: it’s teacher burnout.
The report also found that turnover rates are:
50% higher in Title I schools
70% greater for math and science teachers in Title I schools
80% higher for alternatively certified teachers in Title I schools
If these teacher burnout statistics tell us anything, it’s that the problem is more immediate than many people want to believe.
What Are the Impacts of Teacher Burnout?
Teacher burnout leads to reduced educational quality, because it increases the numbers of underqualified or straight-up unqualified teachers in the system. Record numbers of “emergency” teaching certificates signal the desperation for anyone to take over classrooms in the absence of “real” educators, with all the training and experience that entails.
This is a devastating outcome of burnout, leading to reduced student achievement and a particularly severe impact for students of color, continues the Learning Policy Institute: “Turnover rates are 70% higher for teachers in schools serving the largest concentrations of students of color. These schools are staffed by teachers who have fewer years of experience and, often, significantly less training to teach.”
The numbers increase as the concentration of students of color increases, with teacher turnover 90% higher “in the top quartile of schools serving students of color than in the bottom quartile for mathematics and science teachers, 80% higher for special education teachers, and 150% higher for alternatively certified teachers.”
Continuing the already well-established racial and ethnic achievement gaps, these numbers signal a still-devastating division between white students and students of color. While the achievement gap is declining, it’s happening slowly and unsteadily, and these statistics could mean a plateau or even reversal in the future.
It’s not surprising, of course, that teacher burnout and turnover are especially prevalent at schools with reduced services, larger class sizes and troubled budgets … but it does indicate a serious need to recognize burnout sooner, implement supports for teachers, and try to keep qualified teachers in place, especially in the low-income environments where it is so common.
What Are the Teacher Burnout Signs & Symptoms?
Signs and symptoms of burnout vary depending on the type of burnout any given teacher experiences, explain Montero-Marín and García-Campayo: “Despite the various definitions of the syndrome presented in the literature, burnout has traditionally been described as a relatively uniform entity in all individuals, with more or less consistent aetiology and symptoms.”
However, the research shows this view to be overly simplified, which in turn impacts the care teachers can expect for the condition. Instead, the field needs to offer support to educators that matches their need. In other words, they “need to characterise the different types of burnout in order to adjust lines of therapeutic action for more effectiveness.”
According to Montero-Marín and García-Campayo, the three sub-types include:
Frenetic: This category includes teachers who put a lot of time and energy into their work, are extremely dedicated to achievement and attach personal ambition to their efforts. Consequently, their personal lives often suffer, as they feel they cannot get the self-care they need to balance out their workload.
Underchallenged: The underchallenged type lacks motivation and interest, does not apply themselves to their work beyond a superficial effort, and their experience of boring routine and lack of acknowledgement drives them to seek other employment.
Worn-out: When the teacher no longer has anything to give to the profession, they become completely worn out, disregarding their responsibilities. They feel a lack of recognition and lack of power that eventually leads to significant neglect of their duties.
While these teachers have different feelings about their job, and therefore different needs when it comes to support in their personal and professional lives, teacher burnout symptoms as widely reported by multiple studies include:
A feeling of unfulfillment in the work, depleted by overwhelming mountains of grading, constant meetings and an ongoing sacrifice of personal time
Overwhelm, or the sense that the teacher can never “get it all done,” no matter what they do
Frustration from not having the ability to change the system, from teaching to tests that don’t reflect student learning and take away from meaningful education time, and jumping through professional development hoops
Exhaustion, both emotionally and physically, as teachers cannot get enough sleep (staying up all night grading) and can’t seem to affect change in the system (standardized tests, student outcomes), forced to witness the same problems play out again and again
Stress, stemming from lack of self-care, ongoing repetitive classroom issues, overwhelm, lack of support and expectations teachers don’t feel able to meet from administration, parents and tests
Weight loss, weight gain, lack of sleep and other physical conditions associated with stress and overwork
These symptoms, which pertain to all three of the teacher burnout types, stem from many causes.
What Causes Teacher Burnout?
Burnout, like its signs and symptoms, arise from many interrelated and pernicious causes. These include:
A lack of autonomy, with professional teachers unable to make critical choices in their own classrooms and about their own curriculum
Student behaviors including disrespect, inattentiveness and sociability, which affect the teacher burnout statistics around the world
Lack of support from administration
A frenzied environment, where teachers rush from place to place and duty to duty, with too little rest for regrouping and not enough time spent on each activity
Freighted relationships and poor communication with parents and administration, with the teacher feeling unable to communicate their needs
Lack of budget to buy appropriate materials
Lack of time for each lesson or segment of the day
Lack of time in the day to adequately prepare for lessons, leaving teachers the choice between teaching poorly or losing out on sleep/family time/self-care/hobbies
Referred mental trauma from working in close context with students who experience abuse, neglect and trauma in the home, in foster care or in other settings
These teacher burnout causes, while distressing, contain within them the seeds of hope, because they point to ways in which the educational field can begin providing teacher burnout solutions today.
Teacher Burnout Prevention & Solutions
Teacher burnout prevention is one of the most pressing needs in the educational sphere today. Teacher burnout requires that administration, teachers, support personnel and aides all work together to create a more nurturing environment for teachers.
The goal: to bring more qualified educators in – despite widely publicized and off-putting elements of the job such as low pay, low recognition, difficult classroom management and others – and to keep them there.
The solution needs to start with helping teachers already in the field, then extend to widespread support that embraces new teachers as soon as they step into the classroom. These solutions include:
Give Teachers More Control Over Their Daily Lives
For a quarter-century or more, teachers have had a limited belief in their own ability to effect change in the classroom. It is a problem still very much in existence today, if ongoing discussions on the importance of teacher autonomy are anything to go by.
Luckily, an increased level of autonomy is something other countries have achieved, according to the above article. The answer? It may be as simple as letting teachers choose more of their own curriculum and seeing where it goes. The results in Finland and other notably successful countries are hopeful indeed, so it might be time for administration and state policy-makers to ease up on mandated curriculum and let teachers do what they were trained to do.
Help Teachers Modify Their Reactions
Most teachers come into the field full of hope, then watch those hopes get dashed against the rocks of student trauma, overwhelm, frenzied school environments, towering expectations and more. This leads to feelings of hopelessness, despair, emotional drain and other symptoms of burnout.
To say that teachers need to “adjust their attitudes” sounds damaging and heartless, yet it may be a secret for preventing teacher burnout. Studies indicate that “modifying one’s reactions may reduce the stress that leads to burnout” and that “coping skills and strategies can be developed over a period of time that can help to eliminate the negative responses that fuel burnout.”
This means, of course, creating workshops and trainings to teach the teachers. Humans don’t necessarily turn to the right coping mechanisms when faced with stress, and must be guided toward these healthy “attitude adjustments” through education, counseling and guided practice. Help with reframing issues, stepping back and compartmentalizing will go a long way.
Publicize and Look for Early Detection of Warning Signs
No one can expect change if its need and routes aren’t well-known. This means publicizing the nature, causes and – most importantly – signs and symptoms of burnout. That in turn means developing trainings for teachers to help them recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout in themselves and others. If teachers know what to look for, they’re more likely to report on themselves and others with compassion rather than judgment, and are less likely to stay quiet.
It’s not just teachers who need to put more effort into detecting burnout, however. Administration must also take an active role. Administrators need to set up routine meetings with teachers in which they inquire genuinely about the teacher’s wellbeing and ferret out lurking signs of burnout.
That said, it’s important to avoid attaching a stigma to burnout. Because there is so much stigma already associated with common burnout symptoms – depression prime among them – there exists the danger of creating a negative association that will discourage both self-reporting and gentle reporting on others’ behalf.
Offer Mental and Physical Health Amenities
Teachers have notoriously tight budgets. Especially considering the staggering number of teachers who spend their own money to outfit their classrooms (94 percent, according to recent figures), we can’t expect teachers to spend the money on commonly suggested self-care solutions: yoga, counseling, hobbies.
What education can do, however, is provide these amenities in a school context. Studies show that “Mindfulness, self-compassion, personal efficacy, and positive affect were associated with emotional support while emotional exhaustion and depersonalization were negatively associated with emotional support.” Moreover, “Depression was negatively associated with emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support.”
Providing mindfulness practices in a school setting will help teachers feel supported, increasing those positive associations such as self-compassion and personal efficacy, not to mention a generally happier frame of mind. Ideas include hobby courses, yoga and meditation, journaling practices and other at-will (not mandatory!) offerings.
Create a Clear Path for Addressing Symptoms of Burnout
Lastly, educators need rapid responses to burnout when they arise. If teachers know that administration will take steps to help them recover, they will be more likely to report symptoms of burnout. As it is, they know no help is coming. Today, they may even fear negative outcomes of self-reporting, such as lack of faith in their teaching and consequently an even greater lack of autonomy.
Instead, teachers need:
Widespread policies for how to report teacher burnout and receive care
A direct path to administration’s ear when reporting burnout
A reasonable expectation of getting help
Choice in what type of care they’d like to receive
Assistance in adjusting their workloads and lifestyles to manageable levels
An administration actively watching for and helping with burnout
Because of the limited resources for teachers to date, it will take time to train teachers that they can ask for help. Only by proving consistently, over time, that asking delivers help can administrators and policy-makers convince teachers to take the difficult step of reaching out.
A Single Step: Starting Down the Path to Teacher Fulfillment and Satisfaction
Unsurprisingly, teacher burnout will not be addressed overnight. It will require a cadre of administrators, policy-makers, teachers and support staff working in concert in order to eliminate – or at least ameliorate – the emotional hazards of the job and create environments in which teachers wish to remain for life.
Yes, as with a journey of a thousand miles, addressing teacher burnout starts with a single step. A single teacher who asks for help rather than stews in frustration; a single administrator who advances self-care initiatives; a single policy-maker who advocates funding for workshops related to burnout and its prevention.
The good news? A single step is pretty small. Wherever possible, we should all “step” up to make such changes – for ourselves, for our students, for our country and for our world.