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Beating Teacher Burnout

How to identify, and tackle, the warning signs so that you can regain your love of teaching.

By Calvin Hennick
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

4 Burnout  Banishers Michael Leiter, a psychology professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and coauthor of Banishing Burnout, recommends these four solutions to common burnout scenarios.

1. The Toxic Team

Your coworkers are ignoring or sniping at one another during team meetings.

Solution: Address It With an Ally

Leiter suggests partnering with a colleague to ask the group to be more positive—and then modeling that positive behavior. Just broaching the issue can help, he says.

2. The Rigid Role

You don’t feel like your job allows you to be creative and make your own decisions.

Solution: Keep a Job Journal

Leiter recommends spending time thinking about what you’d do if you had more flexibility, and then figuring out where you have the most leeway in your job. “Generally, people will find that they have more latitude than they anticipate.”

3. Nonstop Work Thoughts

You leave school at 3 p.m., but your brain never clocks out.

Solution: Make Nonwork Plans

Having more to do can make you feel less stressed—as long as the “more” isn’t related to work. “Parents are less likely to experience burnout than people who are not parents,” Leiter says, “because they have something that takes them out of the work.”

4. Initiative Fatigue

Your job now includes learning and implementing 10 new systems— all this year!

Solution: Decide What to Give Up

Leiter advises explicitly asking your principal which part of your job you should replace when a new initiative comes down the pike. If you can’t get a straight answer, decide for yourself what is a priority and what has to go.

You’re just starting to get a handle on the Common Core when you discover your state is opting out. You find out you’re expected to learn three new forms of technology—within weeks. Plus, report cards are due in two days, your grade-level meetings have degenerated into sparring matches, and parent conferences are looming.

Oh, and you’ve read yet another op-ed about how teachers should stop complaining because, after all, they have summers off.

You might be able to handle everything for a while. But when you find yourself regularly dreaming about chucking it all to sell flip-flops at a beachside stand on a Caribbean island, you know it has hit you: burnout.

“It’s exhaustion where you feel like you could literally go to sleep for two or three days, and then you might catch up,” says Wendi Pillars, a veteran ESL teacher in Siler City, North Carolina.

“I forgot what it was like to wake up and feel happy,” says Ellie Herman, a former teacher in California who left the profession after five years—in large part due to burnout. “That was really scary to me. I felt like I’d become a really grim person.”

Herman isn’t alone. According to a January 2015 report from the Center for American Progress, about 30 percent of beginning teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Other studies show that those who quit blame the decision to leave on several factors: an absence of administrative support, isolated working conditions, poor student discipline, inadequate salaries, and a lack of teacher influence over school-wide decisions.

“We keep increasing the demands on teachers, but we haven’t increased the time, the resources, and the support,” says Richard Ingersoll, an education and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research is quoted in the report. “All of that leads to demoralization and [high] turnover rates.”

But burnout doesn’t have to mean the end of your teaching career. If you identify the early warning signs and causes of burnout—and if you are determined to adopt strategies for preventing and dealing with it—you can go back to loving your job.

What Causes Burnout?

On top of everyday stressors like scant resources and long hours, there’s a surprising culprit behind many cases of burnout: teachers’ own beliefs that they’re not able to do all the different (and changing) parts of their job well.

Even skilled veterans sometimes feel like they’re bad at their jobs, explains Mike Anderson, a former teacher and the author of The Well-Balanced Teacher, simply because they’re being asked to do more than is possible.

When Anderson was still in the classroom, he realized he had an average of three and a half hours of class time to teach five hours’ worth of material each day. “I said, ‘Oh, this is one of the reasons I’m feeling so incompetent and exhausted.’ ”

Also, many teachers are bombarded with new initiatives. “Teachers are suffering from ‘initiative--itis,’ ” Anderson says. “They don’t feel like they’re able to get good at anything. When teachers are asked to implement something before they’ve even wrapped their heads around it, that adds a huge layer of stress.”

Watch for Warning Signs

For Pillars, burnout hit her quite suddenly one day last fall.

“I couldn’t stop crying, and I’m not a crier,” she says. “It was 7:30 in the morning, and one of my friends came in [to the classroom] and asked what was wrong, and I realized I’d been holding all this in for a really long time.”

Candace Roberts, an elementary teacher in Barrington, Rhode Island, was nearing the end of her 21st year in the classroom last spring when she started waking up with a pit in her stomach and experiencing panic attacks during her drive to work.

“It wasn’t happening during the summer,” she says, “and it wasn’t happening on vacations.”

There are other, subtler warning signs that burnout may be setting in. Roberts remembers negative thoughts taking over—things like “I’m the worst teacher in the world” or “I’ll never be able to get through to this class.” Other teachers report physical symptoms, like headaches or constant colds.

The clearest indicator of all, though, might be that you’re just not excited about your job anymore. If you look forward to leaving at the end of every day instead of arriving in the morning, you know it’s time to take action.

What You can Do About It

When she faced her bout of burnout, Roberts sought counseling and learned cognitive techniques to help her through tough periods, transforming her negative thoughts into positive “self-talk.” She also knew she needed to burn off negative energy—she began taking her running hobby more seriously, which allowed her to set and accomplish goals that were unrelated to teaching. And she deleted her school e-mail account from her phone and stopped checking the account at home after 7 p.m. “That has made a huge difference,” she says.

Nicole Zuerblis, a literacy coach in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, advises that teachers have at least one close confidant on staff, “someone you can vent to appropriately.” Cora Kolosso, an art teacher at a private school in New York City, agrees, and also recommends connecting with colleagues socially—although she warns against letting get-togethers turn into gripe sessions. “Staying out of drama is really, really important,” she says.

Pillars’s first step toward conquering burnout began with taking a personal day. She used the time to start rethinking her work priorities, and to recognize which parts of her job involved things she simply couldn’t control. “I have more on my plate now than I did last year,” she says. “But I know now when to step back and say, ‘Is this important to my students? Is this important to my family?’ ”

 

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Photo: Roger Hagadone

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