Solutions for 2 major teacher burnout causes

Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

The topic of teacher burnout continues to be at the forefront of education issues. Every day we hear stories of the teacher retention crisis and the subsequent Band-Aid solution of having unqualified teachers in our classrooms.

However, what seems to be talked about less is long-term solutions. Rather than continuing to reiterate the problem, let’s take a moment to consider two main causes of this burnout as well as potential solutions. And let me be clear: Teacher self-care is not one of them.  

Too many hats, only one head

As a teacher with 25 years of experience, I’ve lived first-hand the realities of our education system and the demands placed on teachers. I’ve worked in several different schools, as well as two different school districts, as a K-8 teacher, special education specialist and an instructional coach. No matter the school, district or position the realities were the same.

As I discuss in my book ”New Teacher Confidential: What They Didn’t Tell You About Being a Teacher,” teachers simply have too much on their plates. In addition to educating our youths, teachers are often called upon to be social workers, mental health professionals, behavior specialists, caregivers and providers of basic needs.

In between lesson planning, assessing student learning, differentiating instruction for diverse learners, writing report cards and IEPs, and communicating with parents, teachers are expected to run clubs, provide enrichment opportunities, coach sports and sit on committees.

Expert in everything right away?

At a moment’s notice teachers are expected to implement new curriculum, new technologies and new initiatives. Teachers also expected to be at the forefront of larger societal issues, prepared to answer questions from both students and parents about the latest news happening in the world. They are expected to be an expert in topics such as religion, race, gender identity, politics and more. Teachers are called upon to wear so many hats that it becomes almost impossible to do anything well. 

Most teachers are driven by an innate need to do all things well for children and be a “good” teacher. But too many competing demands (with many of the demands being outside a teacher’s area of expertise) are a recipe for disaster.

The second main factor causing teacher burnout is change fatigue: the constant inundation of change that teachers must endure on a monthly, weekly and daily basis in their working environment. Education is in a constant race to keep up with the latest research, technological advances, and societal preferences and norms. It is also heavily influenced by political factors and funding. With so many stakeholders influencing the education landscape the amount of change that happens in our schools is overwhelming. 

Often teachers are expected to simultaneously:

  • Learn and deliver a new curriculum developed by the government.
  • Use new resources and assessment tools driven by the latest research.
  • Implement the latest technologies that students need for their futures.
  • Ensure their teaching methods are culturally and socially responsive in an ever-evolving society.

All with no training and no funding, while 30 students are sitting in the room. Teachers are forced to build the plane while flying. The only other option would be to spend all their personal time building the plane. But how do they do that and practice self-care?

They don’t. This is how we get to teacher burnout.

Stakeholders need to step up

There is no time for self-care or finding balance until education leaders make it a priority to remove things from teachers’ plates. That’s the first step to easing teacher burnout. How can they do this?

  1. Provide adequate funding for additional educational service providers — such as social workers, mental health providers, psychologists and behavior specialists — so teachers can focus on being educators.
  2. Provide time for aspects of the job — such as writing report cards and IEPs or planning for the implementation of new curriculum, resources and initiatives — that cannot be accomplished when students are in the classroom. In addition, they can provide adequate training prior to expected implementation timelines.
  3. Respond to larger societal issues by making experts available to teachers for consultation, support or partnership when navigating issues such as race, religion or politics.
  4. Streamline and limit the volume of new initiatives and mandates that are expected of teachers during the school year.

People need time and consistency to do anything at a high level. Teachers are no different. We enjoy diving deep into the trenches and honing our practice to feel a sense of pride in our work and the impact we are having on children. Teachers need time so that they can live in that space with students and know that they are making a difference without the constant threat of more change on the horizon.

When change happens too often and in too many areas, teachers will inevitably stop taking the deep dive because the past has taught them that things are only going to change again and that all their previous efforts were in vain. This change fatigue in education is the thief of joyful and innovative teaching and is a major cause of teacher burnout.

Education changes are long past due

If we want to ease teacher burnout and solve the teacher retention crisis, education stakeholders need to take a long, hard look at the demands we place on teachers and their current working conditions. Just because we’ve always done things a certain way doesn’t mean it’s working. 

A cornerstone of education is innovation. We need to take this same approach with our teachers. We need to be innovative and think outside the box if we want to not only retain teachers but provide an environment where our exceptional educators can thrive.


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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