As nearly every career field was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, next to healthcare workers, teachers have a case for being spread the thinnest over the past few years. Teaching from home, in a hybrid role, or having to be the mask police in classrooms has pushed the job description of teachers to mental-breakdown levels, and many are now questioning if a career in education is their permanent gig.
While some leaned into technology to manage their increasingly brutal workloads — like testing some of the best teacher organization apps on the market — others have decided to leave the field altogether. An article by The Brookings Institution detailing a RAND (research and development) survey in January of 2021 found nearly 25 percent of teachers expressed a desire to leave teaching at the end of the school — a near 10-point increase from the pre-pandemic turnover rate of 16 percent.
For those wanting to stay, burnout rates are still soaring as teachers attempt to juggle at-home classes, deal with their own personal lives, and take care of their own children simultaneously. In a study of 1,045 teachers in March 2021, 30 percent said they taught completely remotely during the majority of the school year, while 49 percent taught in hybrid roles, and 21 percent taught fully in person.
A 2022 Gallup poll reported by US News & World Report showed that 44 percent of K-12 employees say they “always” or “very often” feel burned out at work, including 52 percent of teachers who reported the same. So how do teachers combat that feeling, and push through to best serve their students? We’ll focus on K-12-level teachers only going forward.
What Causes Burnout in Teachers?
Burnout is generally a condition that occurs after years of stressful accumulation of strain on a teacher’s job. There have long been issues facing teacher burnout that are independent from the catalyst that was the pandemic, including:
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
- Job dissatisfaction (salary, benefits, supplies, leadership, funding)
- Low self-esteem and morale
- Behavioral issues in the classroom
- Depersonalization in curriculum
- Being the scapegoat for low test scores
Teachers are usually put through the wringer through issues like a lack of political funding or backup, blame from parents or administrators about poor test scores, or the belief their teaching isn’t making a difference and can’t be personalized.
According to the George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF), there are three main contributors to teacher burnout.
- Consistency – These constant factors can lead to burnout over time and generally do not change. These issues could be poor salary or benefit packages, a lack of funding for necessary materials, and “testing and accountability measures that haunt educators year-round.”
- Pervasiveness – These issues are not ever-present, but rather come out of the blue and add to a teacher’s stress or feeling of burnout. Examples of this can include being presented with a moral dilemma, being exposed to abusive leadership, or suffering a traumatic experience at their place of work. Generally, pervasive issues are the straws that break the camel’s back when it comes to burnout.
- Additions – Other sources of stress that mingle with consistent causes of burnout, such as trouble at home, being reassigned to another subject or age group, committing to a larger role in education, or a global pandemic forcing them to work away from their classroom.
How Do Teachers Manage Burnout?
Additionally, the GLEF also details three actionable steps to fight or manage burnout in educators, though others may need to be added due to pandemic-related stress-inducers.
- Positive coping mechanisms – It’s easy to be demoralized when burnout shows its ugly face yet again. These overwhelming feelings of woe and dissatisfaction can manifest into addictions, poor eating habits, and affect sleep schedules. In high school environments, social anxiety in teens can become additions to teacher burnout, as teachers feel the need to overcompensate to alleviate their students’ concerns in a rapidly changing world. To try more positive coping strategies, many teachers exercise, take breaks throughout the day, and seek counseling or meditation.
- Self-efficacy – Educators often have a negative perception of their abilities, or believe no matter what they do, they aren’t enough for their students. This can lead teachers to overwork themselves in an effort to overcompensate for these feelings, and therefore burn themselves out.
- Mentorship and support – Teachers often are surrounded by other burnt-out educators, making the condition contagious. Maintaining positive company can have positive effects on a teacher’s mindset, and inspire them about the differences they’re making versus the conditions working against them.
During the pandemic, these internal battles became even more difficult for teachers. As more and more educators went to remote learning models, parents often felt teachers were on-call. Educators struggled with how to grade properly taking the unprecedented pandemic reality into consideration.
Often teachers felt they had no personal time for themselves, or their ability to manage a life balance was increasingly impossible. Zoom meetings made holding students accountable and attentive difficult, and educators struggled with how to handle these issues.
By setting their own routines and schedules, teaming up with parents to tackle curriculum, allowing themselves regular breaks and practicing self-affirmation, teachers were able to find some relief from intense feelings of burnout, though it’s much easier stated than put into practice.
The Troubling Future of Careers in Education
Over the last 50 years, there’s been an increasingly glaring shortage of those opting for a career in education. In short, teachers are leaving in high numbers and there aren’t many reinforcements coming to replace them.
Nearly 2,400 participating teachers responded to an American Federation of Teachers’ June survey this year, and 74 percent indicated they were dissatisfied with their job, up from 41 percent in 2020. Forty percent of respondents expressed their plans to leave the profession in the next two years.
Some state statistics compiled by Vox show startling numbers across the country:
- Houston is reporting 1,000 teaching vacancies in August
- More than 5,500 educators left the profession in Maryland in 2022
- 1,400 teaching jobs are unfilled in Kansas
- 8,000 teaching vacancies exist in Florida
It takes a different kind of person to dedicate their life to teaching, but even those who self-identify as educator-lifers have a breaking point, and the U.S. is seeing them boil over in real-time nationwide. Those teachers that can resist burnout have found healthy ways to cope, but it seems to be a growing crisis among all educators that can’t be escaped; just dealt with.