The Challenge to Teacher Wellbeing
Many of us have experienced symptoms of burnout at some point in our lives, when the physical and emotional toll of serving -- our clients, colleagues, community, and cause-- catches up to us. We give, give, give, until our fuel tank (or some say, cup), run dangerously low. We no longer have the physical and emotional strength to show up the way we want to show up in our workplace and other professional spaces. We may end up leaving, or staying, but find ourselves mentally or psychologically checked out.
Do you relate? If so, you are not alone. If you are an educator, the idea of burnout may resonate even more. School teachers and principals are currently among occupations with the highest burnout rate. Roughly 500,000 teachers leave the profession each year, many due to burnout. In large urban school districts like Oakland, about one fifth of teachers leave each year, again many due to burnout.
Why Educators Burnout
One reason many educators burnout is because of how much they care. They care profoundly about their students, and the capacity of every one of them to achieve great potential if given a solid chance. They are deeply passionate about their profession, believing that good teaching can change lives and that good public education can be the social equalizer.
Yet this drive does not outweigh the fact that many schools don’t have adequate resources to give teachers the support they need. This includes professional development training, supplies, and sometimes even text books. Also, many schools are not designed to meet the needs of diverse student populations. There are students with varied learning styles and abilities, as well as students dealing with the emotional and physiological effects of violence, drug use, or trauma in the home and community. Add to that the pressures on schools and educators to demonstrate unprecedented levels of improvements in politically-driven timelines.
This is a perfect recipe for burnout.
5 Signs of Burnout
Since many educators (actually, most of us!) don’t recognize when burnout is happening, it is time we start talking about its warning signs.
The first step to recognizing burnout is distinguishing it from stress. It is natural to be tired from a long day, and some amount of stress is to be expected from having a demanding job. Stress can usually be relieved with days off, the occasional getaway, and support from trusted friends and family.
With burnout, the typical breaks and supports don’t help. Educators feel overwhelmingly depleted, exhausted, wiped out, hopeless, unable to foresee positive or constructive changes, and these feelings may creep into other areas of life. Consider the possibility of burn out when you or someone you know show one or more of these symptoms:
Even though helping students is often far beyond the realm of academics, many educators find great pride in their role in the lives of their students. Many enjoy knowing they have made a difference and could not imagine doing anything else. But as burnout starts to seep in, it can be challenging to feel joy in things that provided a sense of happiness in the past. We have heard teachers describe a sense of feeling numb to their student’s success and challenges, or even feeling bored in the classroom. The passion that once ignited them feels like it is being extinguished.
Most educators deeply value the time they get to meet and work with one another. Many are also dedicated about participating in various before- and after-school activities even those beyond their formal job requirement. But those who start to burnout will become increasingly withdrawn. An educator might dread and even stop attending meetings, social lunches, gatherings. They begin to take more sick days. Some may also stop responding to work emails, sharing lesson plans and be unavailable for anything beyond what is needed to ‘get through the day’. Isolation can also manifest outside of the workplace, such as withdrawal from family or friends.
Educators are typically great problem solvers. They may know a lot about school- and community-based resources that can help them and their students or know those who would.They usually persist in figuring out how to meet the needs of their students and school community, many going so far as to use their personal time and money. But when their well starts to run dry, they lose the knack for creative problem-solving even to handle small problems. They are less likely to ask for help, and they start to feel resentful, alone, and disillusioned.
Most of us might have been taught something along the lines of, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” But when someone starts to burn out and begins to lose hope in things getting better or easier, even the most polite people may resort to blaming others. Educators begin to complain more and more about the students, other teachers, administrative staff, families, the cafeteria staff, the list goes on. As they complain more, they are thinking less about solutions and aspects of the situation that they might have still have control over. This pattern sadly only brings on more negativity.
Loss of Productivity
Most educators wear many hats: during-school teacher, before-school and after-school tutor, life coach, family therapist, grief and trauma counselor, 24-7 cheerleader, community volunteer, etc. The more the school budget gets cut, the more roles the staff take upon themselves. But sustaining such a lifestyle is hard. When teachers begin to burn out, they experience difficulties with prioritizing, often skimping on self-care, which makes it even more challenging to be productive in one role let alone all roles. Forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating on basic tasks are early warning signs of someone who is burning out.
If you just finished reading this post and thought, “yep, I am experiencing burnout!”, remember, you are not alone! Burnout is something many people experience, but it is something that can be dealt with and overcome. It starts with seeing the signs.
In future posts we will offer some suggestions for dealing with the symptoms of burnout, but we invite you to take a moment and reflect on one thing you can do to take care of yourself right now.