5 Ideas for Preventing Teacher Burnout Amid a Pandemic
As teachers try to adjust to changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Walden University faculty member Dr. Crestie Smith weighed in on a familiar topic—teacher burnout.
“With school being held virtually as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, teacher burnout is certainly still a key topic. It’s easy to feel more isolated, alone, and anxious. Learning a whole new normal—whether it is adjusting to the new homework environment, the distance learning platform, or just monitoring the current pandemic crisis—can be overwhelming. As a result, stress that may have already been present is exacerbated,” says Dr. Smith.
“It’s important, as teachers, to maintain collegial contact through phone calls, audio and/or video conferencing, and e-mails. Without a doubt, your colleagues are going through the same things, feeling those same apprehensions. That’s why the support we can provide to one another is invaluable, just as it is during our typical—dare I say it, normal—school environment.”
Dr. Smith says she’s one of the lucky ones. She walked into college with a career goal and found a job in her field right after graduation. She’s now in her 30th year as an educator, leading middle-schoolers from her classroom in Bradenton, Florida, and teaching graduate-level students at Walden University.
When she began her career, that longevity was often the norm for teachers. But over the years, she’s seen a shift toward earlier retirements and teachers calling it quits before hitting the 10-year mark. By some estimates, over 40% of teachers leave the field in the first five years.1
Teaching now ranks as one of the most stressful professions,2 and job-related stress is a major cause of attrition.3 Overloaded, discouraged, and disillusioned, teachers are burning out. Dr. Smith likens teacher burnout to “a flame that has been extinguished.”
“I think most teachers would probably agree that it’s when you hit that wall; when you just feel like you’re uninspired, and not as motivated, perhaps. And I think a lot of teachers just kind of go into this autopilot mode. They may not tell you they're burned out, but they’re burned out, because there is no more flame there pushing them forward, making them excited and motivated,” she says.
Burnout can be difficult to address because many of the stressors causing it are outside of a teacher’s control.
“I would say that in the last several years, education, sadly, has become very politicized. And I think a lot of burnout comes from this feeling of not having any power. And that no matter what you do, you can't make the changes and do the things you want to do. And when someone is beating their head against a wall and that wall is not moving, after a while, you simply get burned out. You’re just going to stop beating your head, for self-preservation,” Dr. Smith says.
“A lot of teachers become very disillusioned and frustrated with the mandates that are placed on them, whether they be testing mandates, the number of trainings, or the number of certificates that they have to hold. Or, the idea that your pay is going to be connected to test scores. … And when all of this is tied to politics in some way, whether it be mandates or laws that are passed, that can be very frustrating, and it becomes very disillusioning,” she says.
But Dr. Smith says that despite the challenges, there is the hope of keeping good teachers. Her decades-deep experience is proof. The accomplished educator has held leadership roles in a variety of K–12 settings and at several universities. As a senior faculty member at Walden, she teaches a variety of courses in The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Human Sciences and has served on many committees and projects.
“I’m entering my 30th year of classroom teaching, and I’ve taught at the college level for a very long time as well. It does give me some interesting perspective because I’m still in that K–12 environment, but I’m also working with teachers from all over the country. So I’m getting these peeks into other people’s experiences as well,” she says.
Drawing on that knowledge, Dr. Smith offers these five ideas educators can use to help keep them from becoming teacher burnout statistics:
- Focus on Your “Kingdom”
“Teachers who teach a very long time will probably tell you the most hopeful things in their job and their profession are the kids that they teach. So, absolutely, there is hope because you have these wonderful kids coming into your classroom that you have the pleasure of being around. That is what keeps most teachers going. When they’re in their classroom, they kind of can get into their own little kingdom, so to speak: ‘When I’m in here and it’s my kingdom, I can do great things and I see greatness and I see wonderful, hopeful optimism for our future.’ ”
- Commit to Change
“A lot of people begin a degree: ‘I’m going to go back to school. I’m going to get my graduate degree. I’m going to see what kinds of things are out there.’ And hopefully they find a program that has the thread of social change, and being a positive change in your community, because I think that helps fight burnout. Walden University is a prime example of that. That is a thread that runs through all of our programs. And that does give me hope, because the more people we touch, the more people that come through our programs, we hopefully leave them with this idea: ‘OK, we can do this. We can be a positive social change. It starts with me. I can maybe get a couple of my colleagues on board and we can do something. We can change something at our local school board. We can rally teachers to unite and make our voices heard at the political level.’ Whatever it might be.”
- Build Communities
“For a lot of teachers, being in a professional learning community (PLC) is helpful, because you’re around other people who share your experience, who share your same feelings and thoughts, and truly understand. It does fight off that feeling of hopelessness. A PLC can be anything the PLC wants. … And in a school, they typically always have the goal of supporting students in their learning. But I think a PLC could certainly support other teachers and their well-being: ‘Let’s meet once a week. Let’s talk about what’s going on. Let’s talk about our frustrations. Are we feeling burned out? Who has suggestions on what has helped them?’ There are a lot of things that could be done. Call it a PLC, call it a support group, call it a group of friends. But the goal is the same. You’re working with other people to help make improvements.”
- Think Outside the Walls
“There are a lot of great PLC communities online. In one of the classes that I teach at the graduate level, that’s something we talk about—PLCs and how they can really change your practice and do really great things for student learning. But we also talk about how you can join online PLCs. Sometimes people feel a little more comfortable and they’re a little more willing to share. And it can also provide a sense of support.”
- Change Lanes
“Maybe you’ve become stagnant. You’re somebody who’s taught fifth grade for 10 years and you’re like, ‘I just can’t do it anymore. I’m becoming stagnant and because of that stagnancy, I’m burning out.’ Well, maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe try middle school, maybe try early elementary. It could just be you need a change,” she says.
Sometimes it can take just “one little thing” to help an educator avoid teacher burnout, Dr. Smith says, “but I think people have to be willing to help themselves.”
“I am an optimist. I think there’s always hope. And I think, with support systems—and sometimes you get schools or counties or districts that have great support systems—I think you can see a lot of great things happen. But I think people who feel unsupported and alone are certainly going to feel burned out probably much sooner in their career than others. So, the hope is that they find a way to combat that with something that works for them,” she says.
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