As I write this, it's March, the time when many educators begin planning for the next school year, and when teachers have to start deciding whether or not they're going to return in the fall.
Meanwhile, almost daily, my various news feeds seem to bring me articles about teachers who quit, teachers who choose to stay, and theories proposing reasons why teachers burn out. Most of these discussions bring up fair points, but I almost always walk away from them disappointed.
Sometimes, it's because the situation being described is pretty narrow and doesn't look like the version of burnout I'm experiencing, or it only raises problems and solutions for one narrow portion of a more complex problem. But like most things in education, teacher burnout isn't a simple problem with one shared experience and one easy solution.
Feeling the Heat
The reality is that, just as there are many different kinds of teachers, schools, and students, there is more than one root cause of teacher burnout. And when society tries to talk about it holistically, then those conversations risk falling flat for the listeners who need that dialogue most: administrators, lawmakers, parents, and the teachers who need to hear it most.
For example - I've known teachers who have (essentially) said, "Well, it could be worse, so I probably just need to suck it up." But in reality, what the teacher was feeling at the time was completely valid too. Suppressing or misdiagnosing our own feelings helps no one.
I've experienced all five types of burnout described below - to different extents, and for varying lengths of time. The truth is that they can overlap, they can leave and reappear, they can be seasonal occurrences, and sometimes they can be fixed completely. These five sources of heat have left me feeling everything from what I call "crispy" to searching through job listings online.
While I'm not calling myself an expert on the topic (or even particularly good at preventing my own feelings of burnout), the ideas below are things I have seen, felt, or experienced, including acts of kindness that other people have done for me.
Be Part of the Solution
This post can't possibly address every systematic change that could or should happen to reduce the number of good teachers who quit the profession. While our society DOES need to think more critically about how we value and reward good teachers, I'm focusing today on how to triage individual cases of burnout. No matter what your role is in schools, or to what extent you feel burned out by your current situation, I invite you to reflect on what the true root cause is and what can be done to fix it.
In the sections below, the "How to extinguish it" tips are written with the teacher in mind to self-diagnose and self-treat. The "How to help" tips are for interested stakeholders - like colleagues, friends, and family - who can make a difference.
Burnout Type #1: Health and/or Family
How to extinguish it: Your solution will vary by the situation, and quitting your current teaching job may be a completely valid course of action. If you want to try to make it all work, you may need to be more honest about how much you can reasonably accomplish in a day, and negotiate with other people (at school AND home) about what tasks they can either share or take completely. No matter what, you have to live with your decision, so do what's best for you and your family.
Pro Tip: Whose opinions are you asking about this topic? Are they TOO biased? Do you need a more objective person to help you decide what to do?
How to help:
- Pitch in, even if only on a one-time basis. The teacher will see the kindness beneath your gesture and will appreciate that just as much as the action.
- Don't judge. As hard as it might be, accept both how the teacher is feeling and what he or she does to try to fix it. Though you might not like their leaving/staying, give him or her respect for what is being done to make it work, and trust that the situation is serious enough to merit conversations and/or change.
Burnout Type #2: Exhaustion
How to extinguish it: Though you might need more hours of sleep - even just one good night's worth - getting more sleep might not be possible, and it might not truly fix the underlying causes of your exhaustion anyway.
Think about where your time is being spent, if that time-consumer is being dealt with efficiently, and if there's light at the end of the tunnel. Are you in a heavy season of grading that will soon be over? Are you trying to accomplish too much each day? Are there people at school or home who could help you solve a problem? Are you taking care of yourself?
Meanwhile, if you can't get more sleep, what CAN you do? Is it time for a power nap? A massage? More caffiene? A quick walk? Boost your energy long enough to get a positive outlook again.
Pro Tip: Don't just self-medicate with food and caffeine. Flip through the Humor section of Pinterest, adjust your music playlist, or watch a good video that will wake you up and make you feel better.
How to help:
- Ask questions. Help the person pinpoint the sources of exhaustion and problem-solve out of them. Listen if she needs to vent. Share ideas if he's looking for advice.
- Be patient. If he isn't as social as you'd like, or if she isn't meeting your needs right now, try to understand that the teacher is behaving this way for a reason, and might be legally required to persist through her current workload. Now is not the time to draw conclusions about either of you as individuals or your relationship together.
Burnout Type #3: Overload
How to extinguish it: If any of your workload is self-imposed, it might be time to either say no or do it differently. Are there changes within your control that could be made to your curriculum? Could your assignment or rubric be changed to be easier to assess? Are you optimizing what can be done when (and how fast)? Does something need to go? Are you taking on things that someone else could (or should) do?
In the short term, you may need to keep your promises and finish what's currently ON your plate, but at the very least, you may need to be more honest about how you got here and if it's all really necessary.
How to help:
- Offer assistance, if you can. Ask if you can take something off his or her to-do list, do it WITH them, or somehow add some comic relief to the situation.
- Be patient. If it's temporary overload, then just ride it out. If it's a pattern, then try to be part of the solution instead of being resentful about it.
Burnout Type #4: Insufficient Support
How to extinguish it: Recruit, IF you can. Can you bring in parent volunteers? Get a student teacher or student observer? Join forces with a co-worker, and have their back in return when they next need help? Can you ask a colleague what he/she does in the same situation? Can you observe someone else's classroom? Can you find someone else who has been there, done that? Would internet research help? Can someone either help you grade, or keep you company while you do it? Do you need to involve an administrator to either support you in the short-term situation now, or help you make a change?
Pro Tip: Use a digital signup form, like SignUpGenius, or an online donation website, to get what you need.
How to help:
- Offer, even if the person says no. Be willing to help with both the mind-numbing tasks AND the more creative ones.
- Recommend a person or resource. Suggest an option. Even if it doesn't help, it might trigger a good idea.
Burnout Type #5: Greener Grass
How to extinguish it: Ask yourself what quality or characteristic of this alternative is so appealing to you. Is it the salary? Is it other benefits? Is it something to do with passion, interest, or quality of life? Think about what you want, if you can modify your current job to get it, and if the new job really would give it to you.
Pro Tip: Talk to an honest person in that other career field. Ask them about BOTH what is great AND terrible about it.
How to help:
- Be encouraging. Don't immediately dismiss an idea, even if it seems risky.
- Help the person make the right decision at the right time. Is now the best time to be making this choice, or would it be smarter to make it a few weeks or months from now? Is this questioning coming from a healthy place, and for the right reasons? Do you have all the facts? Is there a safe way to let the person know if now isn't the best time?
I don't necessarily hope that this post has pushed you toward or away from teaching, but I do hope more people stop looking at "burnout" as one diagnosis when it's far more nuanced than that. Asking the right questions can go farther to undo or prevent burnout than any single band-aid action can.
If you have anything to add, or if something that was said here resonated with you, please let me know in the comments section!