a fire that is totally destructive of something.
- Also, burn-out. Fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity.
Yeowch. It sounds so final. And so … depressing.
While researching this blog post, I interviewed a few teachers and noticed that once I said these words, their faces quickly lit up in recognition and then instantly fell. All teachers have heard of it, many have experienced it or observed it in others, and all seem to know how destructive and debilitating it can truly be.
When asked what it means to be burnt out, responses all centered around the idea of giving up, losing passion, feeling overwhelmed, and being unable to muster the ability to go on.
I was curious to hear what teachers saw as the root causes of burnout, thinking that if these could be identified, then perhaps schools and administrators could use these factors to spot teachers who were on the verge – or in the throes! – of burnout. I realized, however, that for many teachers, just the actual acknowledgement that burnout exists – and is a problem – is something that they find lacking when it comes to their schools and administrators.
Knowing there’s a problem
This led me to believe that the first step in dealing with burnout could be as simple as acknowledging the fact that burnout is actually a thing. Recognizing that there’s a problem is the first step in many self-help programs, and it’s for a good reason. If schools don’t acknowledge the fact that there is an issue, how can they go about supporting and retaining one of their most valuable resources – their teachers?
The reasons for schools not opening up the floor to a discussion on teacher burnout can be many and varied, not the least of which is the fact that many schools are ill-equipped to deal with the issue. Underfunded schools stretching their budgets to the max in an effort to stay afloat are often so focused on their students that the question of extending their limited resources to teachers as well is one that can get sidelined.
Squash the Complaining
Many of the teachers I spoke with said that while the issue might be openly discussed amongst some teachers, the conversations tended to take the tone of complaints, and productive discussions and real solutions didn’t seem to be the norm. Other teachers said they refrained from discussing their own burnout with teachers who had not experienced it (yet), for fear of either rebuke or a lack of sympathy. Many teachers agreed that they didn’t see many opportunities to discuss burnout at all, due to the fact that they felt isolated from other teachers and administration; being in a classroom all day with students, and grading papers on their breaks left little time for building relationships and discussing such a personal matter.
Understanding the Reasons Why – And Taking Action
The most common reasons for teacher burnout seem to fall into a few categories under one umbrella: A lack of training and support to adequately deal with the issues leading to burnout. The issues can be as straightforward as sheer overwork and exhaustion due to inordinate time demands, and as complex as the inability to disconnect from students at the end of the school day, bringing their problems home and feeling the resulting emotional drain.
Spotting teachers who are on the road to burnout can be a tricky task, especially in larger schools where they may be too many teachers for administrators to keep track of and/or develop individual relationships with. Teachers themselves say they don’t always know when their colleagues are ready to ‘check out’, except in some very extreme cases.
When it comes to burnout, changes in mood can be indicators of difficulty coping. Many teachers describe feeling anxiety, and getting the Sunday Blues, along with a reluctance to return to work on Mondays.
Burnout can also cause teachers to lose their confidence, which can result in withdrawal not only from school-related activities, but also from their own responsibilities. Keeping an eye out for teachers who suddenly begin taking sick days, or begin arriving late or entirely absenting themselves from school functions can be an effective way to spot burnout in its early stages, while teachers who used to show a passion for teaching and suddenly stop being available to students once the final bell has chimed are another example of changes in attitude that can indicate burnout.
When a teacher is feeling tapped out, chances are they aren’t going to have the energy or desire to communicate about it with their school leaders or administrators. If you notice that a teacher has suddenly or gradually stopped communicating or sharing with other staff, or no longer makes calls home to parents to discuss student progress, and keeps mum in meetings and gatherings, take the time to reach out to that teacher and see if they could benefit from some acknowledgment or support.
One of the major reasons cited by teachers as leading to burnout is the lack of resources to do their job, and do it well. Teachers choose this profession in order to teach students and positively affect their lives. Many express feeling overwhelmed with paperwork and data entry, which is not what they had in mind when they signed up to change the world. If your school has outdated systems and your teachers spend hours upon hours entering data that they don’t see any actionable results from, consider updating your school management system to one that gives time back to teachers. Schoolrunner offers an all-in-one online school management system that allows teachers and administrators to easily enter, aggregate, and analyze data, saving everyone time and giving teachers the opportunity to focus on the important things – like making sure they’re rested and refreshed for tomorrow’s lessons.
Since spotting teacher burnout can so difficult, the best method to deal with it – as with so many other things – is prevention. Regularly schedule 1-on-1s and check-ins with teachers. Seeing a teacher change (or not!) over a period of time is a surefire way to catch burnout as it occurs, even if the teacher is not aware himself.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory is a great tool that can help administrators gauge the degree of burnout experienced by educators. It’s a series of questions in survey form designed to explore three contributing factors to burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and (having a negative view of) personal accomplishment.
Spotcheck in the classroom. This is where a teacher spends most of her time, and students are the first to notice when a teacher has lost her shine. Pop in for unscheduled visits throughout the year, and see if teachers are actively engaged with their students, as opposed to reading the same old handouts and droning out the same script for every class, day after day, week after week, year after year.
Why Culture Matters
Open up a discourse and provide a safe space and resources for teachers who are experiencing burnout. Get your staff together for some team-building exercises so that they feel supported, and not isolated. Teachhub.com has some great ideas for exercises you can try at your school to increase teachers’ sense of community.
And last but not least, give teachers the tools they need to succeed, whether it be additional training on how to handle stress, or professional development aimed to teach time management skills. Next week’s post will address 4 ways to avoid teacher burnout – ideas teachers can use to help themselves and each other once they’ve spotted signs of educational fatigue. Stay tuned!