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The Great Resignation is calling to teachers, and we should all be worried. In fact, more than half of teachers in this country are so burned-out that they want to quit. We’ve talked about burnout before, in doctors, but the same phenomenon is now happening in teachers. You might be inclined to think that this is due to COVID, but teacher burnout has been coming for a much longer time than that.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of chronic exhaustion from near constant stress. Burned-out teachers feel like they are working as hard as they can while getting very little support or control over their work. This leads to teachers becoming cynical about their jobs. They no longer find joy in a profession they once loved, and they feel like they can’t do their jobs anywhere as well as they could before.
Symptoms of burnout often parallel those of depression. These teachers often have trouble sleeping and feel exhausted before they even start the workday. They often report “brain fog,” feeling forgetful and having trouble concentrating. Additionally, they can struggle with appetite changes and weight fluctuations. Ultimately, severe, long term burnout culminates with full-blown depression.
Burned out for years
Burnout has been creeping in on teachers for years before COVID it. In 2017, the Educator Quality of Life Survey revealed that 3 out of 5 teachers felt their jobs were stressful either all the time or almost all the time. Just as many reported that their jobs negatively impacted their mental health, and over half report low morale.
The turnover rate for teachers us unacceptably high: About 1 in 7 leave their jobs each year. The rate is even worse (1 in 5) in low income school districts, reflecting how it’s a systemic problem, not an individual one. Overall, 40% of teachers don’t last more than 5 years before they switch to a different career.
Systemic sources of teacher burnout
Teachers get into their profession because they want to teach, but so many aspects of the system work against them. It seems like the situation is almost designed specifically to take advantage of teachers. Here are some of the major issues facing teachers and contributing to teacher burnout.
Too much to do and too little time to do it, that is possibly the most common complaint that teachers have. A teacher’s day does not begin and end with kids in the classroom. Planning lessons, grading papers, and creating tests all take many extra hours. Teachers work 53 hours a week on average, way more than you would think. They frequently take work home with them, blurring the line between school responsibilities and personal time.
2. Lack of support.
A major source of teacher burnout is the lack of material support for them to do their jobs. They often feel forced to work in systems that are literally falling apart. This includes poorly maintained facilities that lack of heating, cooling, and ventilation (something that was especially prescient during COVID). They have outdated textbooks and lack enough materials for all their students. As a result, they often end up spending part of their meager pay on the resources they need to do their jobs. In fact, half of the money spent on school supplies in America comes from teachers spending their own money.
3. Poor relationships with administration.
This issue ties in with the previous one. When teachers don’t feel supported by their administrators, it adds to their feelings of isolation. Principals may make them teach classes they aren’t qualified for or take on students with behavioral problems that they aren’t trained to handle. Teachers suffer when administrations don’t respect their personal time and requests for assistance. While this doesn’t happen in every school, when it does, it creates an “us versus them” environment that contributes to burnout.
4. Student behavior.
Watching students succeed is immensely rewarding for teachers, but classroom behavior problems rob them of this. Schools are taking on more and more social services roles, such as psychological support and health care, and much of this falls on teachers’ shoulders. As the number of available teachers shrinks, the average class size grows, making classroom management ever harder.
5. Lack of advancement and pay.
Lack of pay is the number one reason teachers cite when they leave the profession. It’s one of the lowest paying jobs that also need a college degree. With the way our schools are set up, teachers have little opportunity for advancement. They end up doing roughly the same job for years on end with little improvement in their position or pay.
6. Problematic public.
When teachers hear public complaints about the quality of schools, it’s impossible for them to not take it personally. The saying “those who can’t do, teach” is a perfect example of this pervasive disapproval. Criticisms of the public school system are plentiful, but efforts to help teachers do their jobs better are scarce. Where are the calls to increase school funding, to reduce class sizes, or to update teachers’ resources? Nowhere, but critics are everywhere.
The pandemic piles on
For every existing complaint that teachers had about their jobs, COVID made it worse. The move to online learning has made even more work for teachers, forcing them to be more available and work longer hours than ever before. At the same time, remote teaching has made it harder to monitor pupils’ behaviors and made it harder to connect with students in general. It has robbed teachers of the most rewarding aspect of their job. Teachers have borne the brunt of increasing political polarization. They’ve faced attacks from parents about masking, racial justice, and LGBTQ topics.
The result of all this is that teachers are quitting in droves. They’ve had enough. Two years in, there are 567,000 fewer active teachers in the U.S. than there were before the pandemic. This exodus is crushing school systems around the country, who are forced to close because of lack of staff. The teachers who stay struggle with even bigger workloads, making it even harder to teach well.
What needs to change
The problems leading to teacher burnout are widespread and systemic, and we are not going to solve them in the span of this essay. But we should make a few things clear.
1. It’s the system.
Teachers are not responsible for the vast majority of their job stresses. The onus should not be on them to solve burnout. Changes the keep and attract teachers need to happen on the district, state, and federal level. The public need to put pressure on elected officials, rather than individual teachers, to fix the problems in American schools.
2. Pay them more.
America has a free market, and higher quality goods and services cost more. For so long our school systems have exploited teachers’ love of teaching in order to pay them so little. It is crazy to expect to attract the best and brightest to this profession without raising salaries significantly. Ninety-six percent of teachers say higher pay would help them stay in the career.
3. Give them better resources.
You wouldn’t expect a surgeon to operate without a scalpel, so how do we expect teachers to teach without classroom tools? “Not enough money” is not a sufficient answer, either. Our governments have lots of money, but we just need to change our priorities, and that’s where you, the voter, come in.