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The Case of Teacher Burnout (And What to Do About It)

/ Tyler Agnew

Empty classroom. Magenta filter over image.

A break – finally. Ping! Calendar Reminder: ARD in 15 minutes. The meeting runs over. Book it to specials to pick up the class. Two students argued in P.E. Gotta be solved. Several unanswered parent emails to respond to after school. Oh, and that afternoon math lesson that was going to be a homerun? Not so sure now. Might need to adjust in real-time. Stress levels rise. Teacher burnout creeps in. Lunch in 30 minutes. Duty free, right? Technically, but there’s an impromptu team planning brewing in a text thread.

According to a Gallup poll, teachers report feeling burned out more than any other profession. Why education? What's happening?

What is teacher burnout?

All jobs produce stress. 

Psychology Today defines burnout as "a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment."

Those in public-sector, service-based professions say they feel this phenomenon more often. Several statistics from the Gallup poll and other research shed light on the issue: 

  • Thirty-one percent of healthcare and law workers express burnout very often.
  • Teachers reported feeling burnt out 44 percent of the time.
  • Around 74 percent of teachers said they had to take up extra duties to cover the staff shortages, while 80 percent reported working beyond contractual obligations to meet school and student needs (NEA Survey).
  • 10.6 million educators worked in public education in January 2020. Today, there are 10 million, representing a net loss of around 600,000 (NEA Survey).

The National Educational Association (NEA) defined teacher burnout as "a condition in which an educator has exhausted the personal and professional resources necessary to do the job." 

So, how is teacher burnout different?

Teacher burnout is a unique issue

While all working professionals deserve recognition for their hard work during tough times, it's essential to look at the prevalence rate of teacher burnout and some of its causes. A deeper look shows teacher burnout is different. It's a difficult job. It's always been challenging. 

There's grading, there's paperwork, there's meetings, there's lesson planning — and historically, these alone created quite the workload.

Teachers today log, on average, seven hours more per week than other working adults. Many educators report working 15 hours per week over contract requirements. Nice. Bonus pay, right? No. Professionals in different fields often receive generous overtime rates. For educators, one out of every four hours per week goes uncompensated.

Pay is a key issue. But the stories educators share tell a broader story. Top of mind is student behavior. An executive brief published by EAB noted that "77 percent of school staff said student behavior was a top concern for them in 2022, up from 61 percent during the pandemic." 

The issues conglomerate. Many cite troubles with parents. Others blame leadership. 

Safety concerns, tense political climates, student absenteeism, and teacher evaluation systems make the list. Learning loss and increased workloads resulting from the pandemic exacerbate problems. 

All of this gets teachers thinking about other options. Same pay, less stress. It might be time.

What limits teachers and causes burnout?

A teacher leaning against wall and taking off glasses.

The Learning Policy Institute surveyed teachers who left the profession voluntarily and found out the following: 

  1. A quarter of the respondents said testing and accountability measures led to their dissatisfaction. 
  2. Another 21 percent cited issues with school leadership, and 
  3. Thirty-one percent left to pursue another job. 

Teachers also cited a need for more resources and funding as issues. Budgets remain tight. During the Great Recession in 2007, state and local revenues dropped by five percent, which led to school funding cuts. Stanford's Center for Education Policy Analysis researchers found a direct correlation between the 18-month recession and a severe student achievement downturn in math and English Language Arts (ELA).

The backdrop of teacher burnout goes beyond each classroom. It's a crossroads of trouble. State revenue loss outpaces federal funding. Societal woes spill into schools.

The literature on the issues is quite expansive and depressing. We'll proceed with some points to provide alleviation. Cautiously. Trivialized talks around teacher burnout remain an issue. Teachers and school leaders deserve more than arbitrary quick fixes providing no long-term support. These issues run deep and won't be solved in 1,500 words.

However, some proven steps may alleviate pain points at the campus level. 

Rethink the master schedule with teacher input

A master schedule built with teacher input helps educators do the good work they long to complete. Teachers desire collaboration. They feel greater personal satisfaction when they believe in their efficacy, are involved in decision-making, and can establish strong collegial relationships.

Much of this takes place in professional learning environments and collaborative planning. 

A survey of 6,300 teachers revealed that only 25 percent said that most of their professional learning occurs during school hours.

Unlocking Time is a national Always Be Learning, Inc. (Abl) project, helping schools improve teaching and learning by creating better master schedules. Whenever master schedules conversations begin, it causes anxiety for the administrator — their minds race. 

The logistics of such moves make supply chain management look like child's play. The usual concerns start as, "Can we get substitutes to make a move like this?" "Our support staff is severely understaffed; who will cover the class?" And it spirals toward budgetary concerns. It's complicated. 

A teacher looks at a paper.

However, in a case study provided by Unlocking Time, the administration at Aurora Hills Middle School developed a strategy that created uninterrupted, collaborative lesson planning time for teachers, and it all takes place in the building, with no need for substitutes, and within the regular school budget. 

Here's the breakdown: 

  • Academic teachers join interdisciplinary teams.
  • Enrichment teachers receive enrichment teaching or weekly "PLUS team" teaching times. 
  • Interdisciplinary teams teach their students four days per week, with daily prep, while students take a daily elective.  
  • One day per week, the enrichment team of PLUS teachers takes the class. The PLUS days are the key. 
  • The schedule frees up time for lesson planning and study as well as strategies regarding individual student problems when students participate in an elective they choose
  • Students receive non-traditional learning time in electives, teacher burnout lessens through providing time to collaborate and plan during the day, and the budget remains untouched. 

Changes like this don't work in every case, but plenty of free resources and ideas from Unlocking Time and other organizations provide conversation starters. Some tools, like WeVideo's Co-Teacher Flow, prioritize teacher collaboration inside their platforms, making planning much more enjoyable. 

Utilize turnkey educational technology

Edtech tools alleviate stress in specific cases.

Around 90 percent of educators support the idea of reduced paperwork to relieve teacher burnout. Edtech tools provide this solution. They serve a unique role in boosting teacher effectiveness and helping decrease stress. 

District and school leaders that include teachers in ed tech conversations might have an easier time improving adoption rates. All stakeholders must know the benefits of a tool. When teachers push back against ed tech, the ancillary tasks might worry them — not the tool itself. Pinpoint the deeper concerns.

A "we don't have time for that" response is nuanced. 

What's more likely being said is, "This will change our lesson planning and our formative assessment," or "Are you expecting us to make sure these resources align with standards?" or "We can't make space for another committee for implementation." 

Make sure the edtech tools used provide turnkey-type functionality.

Does the tool easily embed with what your teachers use now? For example, schools using Google Classroom benefit greatly from tools equipped with an add-on. Generating buy-in is a long-term process, so address teacher objections honestly, often, and truly listen. 

Auto-grading sells. Detailed assessment reports teachers can use for differentiating instruction generate buzz. 

Gameplay with teachers. The tool will be tested. The hype often fades when tools roll out with no plan. When 27 children sign-on, can the tool hold up? How will it take students to log on? Talk through expectations and procedures.

School leaders benefit when two tools mesh. Reduce the tech stack. Save some money. 

A tool like WeVideo offers engaging learning opportunities and assessment in a single platform.

This combination saves teachers time and eases onboarding stresses.

Little moves matter. Solving teacher burnout is a complex, long-term ordeal, but changes at the campus level provide relief. Thinking through ways to increase teacher collaboration and ease workloads is a step in the right direction.

Tyler Agnew.
Tyler Agnew
Tyler Agnew is a writer, TEFL-certified educator, and web designer. He has contributed sports stories to USA Today and reviewed restaurants for Traveling and Living in Peru. Tyler now puts his M.Ed. in Administration to use by helping K-12 schools and higher education institutions develop microcredentials and adopt Open Educational Resources (OER).