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Burnout in Our Schools: What is it, What to do about it, and How to avoid it

March 2, 2022

“I haven’t seen you for so looong!” I remarked to the Kindergartners last week as I entered their cheerful classroom. Teaching once a week in kindergarten-5th grade classrooms has allowed me to connect with students and teachers. I enjoy my one day a week at school, walking down the hallways and being greeted with smiles or the question, “Are you coming to our room today?” I enjoy my unique situation of being in the classroom, with my magic bag full of books, puppets, and stuffed animals, and come out 30 minutes later feeling joy. 

I didn’t always feel this way as a full-time middle school teacher. I loved teaching. I enjoyed seeing students learning about science and being inspired to dive into a topic on their own. However, my mind was constantly running through the ongoing list of things I needed to accomplish, and my weekends were spent catching up on grading. I felt like I wasn’t doing a “good enough” job.

What did I need to get done for the next grading period?

How can I get all the supplies I need for the project?

Why was this student behaving this way and making my life so stressful? 

All too common thoughts on a daily basis.

I was driving a daily round trip of 120 miles from home to school, making it hard to balance my work and personal life in those years as a newly minted teacher. I needed to let go of some of my expectations and that my personal life was essential. I would hope things have changed in 25 years. Sadly, they have not for the teaching staff in many ways.

Teacher burnout is at an all-time high. Teachers are leaving the profession and not just newly licensed teachers; veterans also say they can’t take the expectations and stress anymore. 

What is burnout?

Listening to The Happiness Lab podcast, I was intrigued by Burnout and How to Avoid It. Dr. Laurie Santos interviews Jonathan Malesic about his new book “The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us And How to Build Better Lives.” I related my past full-time teaching experience to burnout’s three hallmarks:

  • Overwhelming emotional exhaustion
  • Cynism and detachment from work
  • A sense of reduced personal accomplishment 

I could see all of those in my time leading up to my job change. I was overwhelmed and felt incompetent as a teacher. Constantly running on the hamster wheel of life and knowing there wasn’t time enough time in the day to get all the work done for my job. My exhaustion led me down the road of cynicism in explaining to non-teacher friends the reasons why teachers need the summers off. I felt I wasn’t connecting with “those” students and behavior problems were the only thing I could see in my classroom, especially in a predominantly male last-hour 8th-grade classroom of students. All classic signs of burnout!

Christina Maslach, Ph.D., is a longtime researcher on burnout in the workplace. On the podcast, Speaking of Psychology, she says that burnout is the relationship between people and their job. The individual effects of burnout will tell you much more about what’s going on in the workplace culture.

There are six major areas in which a mismatch between the job and the person can cause the effects of burnout:

  1. Workload: high demands with low resources
  2. Control: lack of control and choices over the work that is done
  3. Reward: recognition for having done something well
  4. Community: relationships in that workplace community supportive in working out problems and doing things better
  5. Fairness: equality in the treatment of employees
  6. Values and the meaning of the work: taking pride in doing it well and contributing something

These six areas of workplace culture—workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values— drive the risk for burnout.

What can be done? 

Working on individual strategies that reduce stress and increase resilience is essential. Self-care is always an important step towards the effects of burnout. I dive into my strengths and values to help me develop a personalized self-care plan. My strengths can point me towards what needs I am looking to meet and doing it in a good way!

However, individual strategies are not the only factors; change needs to happen in the school culture to decrease teacher burnout. The two factors work together. You can take a vacation or be off for the summer; if the culture in the school doesn’t change, you can be right back into feeling the effects of burnout by Thanksgiving.

The biggest challenge is to dive into the six workplace factors that need addressing at your school. In December, I wrote about finding your resilience support team at your school, colleagues you can engage with to build a supportive community to connect and solve problems. Administrators can start small by adding some connection activities to begin and end your staff meetings. Another idea is calling out staff in an authentic way for the excellent work they do in the school or evaluating and letting go of time-consuming activities that create more work for the staff.

I attended a workshop recently focused on social and emotional learning in school. At the workshop, a school culture and climate team demonstrated how to help staff align their values with the school mission and values. This process allowed staff to identify and discuss their values and dive deeper into what the school values and how we can intensionally bring that into the school community’s culture. 

Meaningful work on building a positive school culture along with developing personal strategies to reduce stress is the long game of decreasing teacher burnout. Teachers leaving the profession has turned into a national crisis. Teachers are valued members of the community and need the support of parents, administrators, and community members at all levels. Let’s vow to do the work necessary on the individual, the professional, and the workplace levels to support the teachers in our schools. Let’s do this for the well-being of the teaching profession and, ultimately, the well-being of our children.

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