The Resilient Educator: Recognizing the Signs of Teacher Burnout
Experts offer insights into spotting burnout and how to prevent it.
Teaching in a COVID-19 world has certainly brought about new challenges for teachers everywhere. As schools close and learning from home becomes the “new normal,” teachers are faced with a myriad of obstacles including technological difficulties, lack of parental involvement, deteriorating student engagement, and more. To make matters worse, no one is immune to the isolation and economic uncertainties the pandemic has brought. For these reasons and others, teacher burnout continues to be a very relevant topic.
At Walden University, not only are we are proud to educate educators, we’re also devoted to the success of our students and graduates. In light of the current challenges, we would like to share a recent article on the topic of teacher burnout in hopes that it will benefit educators and administrators.
At the 2019 National Teacher Leadership Conference in Orlando, Florida, Jennifer Teasdale, a member of the product management team in The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University, convened educators with decades of combined experience for an insightful and timely discussion about burnout.
Walden, a longtime supporter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), which hosts the annual conference, frequently brings together top educators to glean their insights on current issues. With over 40% of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years,1 and many of them citing job stress as the cause,2 teacher burnout is one of education’s urgent concerns.
When Teasdale asked what percentage of teachers might be experiencing burnout, one participant’s comment filled the room with knowing laughter: “We all have it at some point in the year. We think, maybe this isn’t what we want to do. A job in retail sounds so much better.”
A retired teacher from Long Island agreed. “I think that almost everybody has those feelings at some time or another. But what I consider burnout—crashed, burned, done—maybe 5%–10%,” he said.
The educators acknowledged there is a marked difference between navigating an intense period of stress and that state of “crashed, burned, done.” One teacher said, “It’s a bottomless pit when you hit burnout. It’s hard to get out.”
Several of the participants shared this observation: Teacher burnout follows a familiar course.
“I think you can almost chart teacher burnout as a pattern throughout the school year: When state testing is due, when grades are due, when parent conferences are due,” said one longtime teacher. “It’s a given that it happens to everybody. It’s just how resilient you are in getting back up and getting moving and getting energized.”
The educators said teachers experiencing burnout may be:
- Unwilling to learn
- Disconnected from the life of the school
The causes of burnout vary, but the participants said they may include:
- Lack of professional development
- Student behavior: “They (students) can be exhausting and can make or break your year. You’re trying every tool in your toolbox to just get the children to learn. It becomes a real huge breaking point for some teachers.”
- Lack of administrative support
- New technology: “Sometimes we jump into technology too quickly.
- Some schools implemented a 1:1 iPad program without any idea of how to utilize them, and it just became a toy, or a distraction, as well as a chore,” a teacher said.
- Feeling underappreciated
- Parents who lack respect for educators
The group consensus was that teacher burnout requires serious study to help promote the health of educators and the teaching profession. A 2017 study shows teachers experience what they consider “poor mental health” 11 or more days each month, a rate twice as high as workers in other professions.3
“We shouldn’t throw the word ‘burnout’ around,” one teacher said. “It’s like having a diagnosis of some sort. That’s how we should treat it. We should respect the word a little more and understand that when a teacher gets to the point of being burned out, there could have been so many steps we could have taken to support them.”
Combating Teacher Burnout
The focus group participants shared examples of the tools and teaching strategies they use to combat burnout:
- Self-care. The educators believe teacher training should reinforce the importance of self-care. “Instead of focusing on burnout, reframe it in a more positive way, promoting teacher self-care, for example, to make sure teaching is a sustainable career,” one teacher said. This emphasis may help reduce first-year teacher burnout.
- Accountability partnerships. “At my school, you’re matched with someone outside of your hallway, and every day you have to check in. It can just be, ‘How are you doing today?’ but you have to be honest. Just that little check-in forms friendships and relationships,” a participant related. “Just knowing you can vent to someone … It’s wonderful.”
- Mental health checks. Another educator told the story of a kindergarten teacher who developed clinical depression. She had been teaching kindergarten at a small school, in a church basement. She was the only adult in that building. “It was very isolating. No one could see what was happening, to say, ‘You seem a little down,’ until she lost her career. It’s so important to have somebody that is noticing that.”
- Customized/personalized learning platform.
- Intentional, purposeful, and continuous professional development.
- Top 20 Training. This program is proving lasting and effective in one participant’s school, where signs show a space divided into two quadrants: 20% above the line, 80% below. The messages remind educators to “stay above the line,” which is the realm of creativity and positivity. “It’s hard to maintain that positive atmosphere all the time. It’s OK to fall below,” the teacher explained. “But what are we doing to pull ourselves back up? Do we need someone else to pull us up? What’s keeping us below? It wasn’t a professional leave-and-forget-it. We still use it.”
- Creating a version of Red Table Talk at schools. One educator is creating a platform for teacher connection, modeling it on the web-based TV talk show that Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith, and Adrienne Banfield-Norris launched in 2018. Her version, called Green Table Talk, will convene twice a month to get teachers talking, building community, and finding solutions.
- Honoring teachers and their achievements. “We never hear about all the great things that are happening,” one educator said. “We need to celebrate all the great things that we do, so that teachers will feel more appreciated. And when they hear about all the amazing things we’re doing, other people may decide to become teachers, too.”
Recharge With an Education Degree
Walden University uses feedback from top professionals like the NNSTOY focus group participants to help inform its online teaching degree programs. Because of this dedication to excellence and quality, Walden ranks No. 1 in MSEd graduates.4
Its Master of Science in Education (MSEd) degree program can refresh your skills and deepen your knowledge, helping you to become a more effective and resilient teacher. An online master’s in education can help fuel your efforts to lead students to new heights. Or, choose from one of 14 specializations to take your career in a new direction.
As a student in one of Walden’s graduate programs for teachers, you’ll:
- Have access to master teachers, researchers, and nationally recognized education experts.
- Learn practical, research-based strategies for improving student outcomes.
- Receive enriching professional development opportunities and field experiences.
- Gain access to state-of-the-art technology that enables educators to choose when, where, and how they learn.
An MS in Education can boost your confidence and build resilience, helping you to become the best that you can be. Let your example inspire others. Together, educators can chart a course to healthier careers and a robust future for the teaching profession.
Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Education degree program online with multiple specializations. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.
4Source: Burning Glass Technologies. www.burning-glass.com. Retrieved April 2019, using CIP code 13.0101 (Education, General). Includes 2017 data.
Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org.