Fighting Teacher Burnout & Fighting for Equity

Written by Jenny Rankin, Ph.D. on January 17, 2018

Teacher burnout is a pandemic impacting just about every country with an established system of education. More than 41% of teachers leave their jobs within five years of starting (Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey, 2014), and 15% of teachers leave the profession each year (Haynes, 2014). However, the latter statistic rises significantly to an annual loss of 20% of teachers when it comes to high-poverty schools serving traditionally underserved populations of students (Haynes, 2014).

High teacher turnover rates rob students of stable adult relationships, disrupt school culture, hamper student achievement, erode trust between teachers and students, and are especially damaging in neighborhoods serving students of color (Neufeld, 2014). Students in high-poverty schools are more prone to unstable adult relationships in their personal lives, and when they forge relationships with teachers who are gone the following year, the experience reinforces feelings of abandonment, loss, and distrust. Meanwhile, their schools suffer from the steep loss in funds that teacher absence and attrition causes (Haynes, 2014; Stanley, 2014) and the repercussions of hiring new and less experienced teachers to replace teachers who quit.

We need to collaboratively support teachers in fighting burnout. This fight is in the interest of equity, in the interest of students, in the interest of teachers, and in the interest of our society. This world could look brighter if students were spared the harm caused by teacher burnout, and our teachers—those heroes on the front lines—deserve to feel peace and success on a regular basis.

When conducting research for my recent book (Rankin, 2016) on teacher burnout, I identified dominating contributors (in terms of prevalence and impact) to teacher burnout. Though an entire book’s strategies cannot fit within a single article, I have summarized these burnout triggers below with some sample tips for combating them.

Mindset

Teachers must care for themselves just as they would after experiencing a trauma, tragedy, and/or any prolonged stress. While the work itself takes a toll on teachers, so does the emotional baggage we take home after witnessing and hearing about the hardships our students face. We need to embed sources of encouragement in our work day, such as displaying letters from students of their successes, and collaborating on solutions with colleagues.

Mindset can improve teachers’ enjoyment and longevity at work, such as through avoiding complainers and focusing on solutions rather than the overwhelming nature of problems. However, I am not suggesting that having a better attitude about a horrible situation (while doing nothing to change that situation) will prevent burnout, as it will not. Rather, exercising a growth mindset (see Dweck, 2007) helps tremendously while applying other recommended strategies to combat burnout.

Environment

Many teachers work in environments that are inadequate for their teaching needs. Old and missing resources—most common in economically disadvantaged areas—cause and exacerbate stress. There are grants and other funding sources, like Donors Choose and Fund for Teachers, which teachers can leverage for more effective classrooms.

There is also much teachers can do with what’s at hand. Teachers can reassess how their room’s setup supports their individual processes and rearrange as necessary. For example, I pushed all my students’ desks into a huge circle so we could play learning games on the floor inside and easily move into fluid groups. Veterans warned me this setup would mean chaos, but it supported my style of teaching while keeping students highly engaged, and thus well-behaved.

Teachers can also prime their classrooms with systems that help the classroom remain orderly and effective. For example, I put a sticker on the arm of every chair’s desk that had a color, number, and arrow. This allowed me to call out different directions (e.g., “get with your partner,” “get with your color, “evens get with evens, and odds with odds,” etc.) to quickly form groups without aggravation.

Overstimulation

Teachers can reduce distractions by putting limits on their technology use. For example, they can set their smart phones up so that work emails are not loaded there, thus encouraging a true break from work after hours. They can limit their use of social media for professional development purposes (or other distractor) to a set time frame, such as only on one afternoon per week.

Teachers can limit demands by setting boundaries for others and setting boundaries for themselves. For professionals who are especially caring (see Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014), it can be hard for us teachers to say no (to chaperoning the school dance, to teaching that after-school intervention class, etc.). Yet we have to pick key things we will do and then gain comfort in saying no to the rest. Otherwise we will be less able to give our best in our remaining commitments.

Work Volume and Grading

Having too much to do and not enough time to do it is easily one of the most common and most detrimental burnout triggers. This can be improved with better grading practices that streamline and eliminate grading (see Passarella, 2015 and Pope’s research out of Stanford on how excessive homework is detrimental to students), effective collaboration, not overcommitting, acquiring better curriculum or using sources that make finding such curriculum fast and easy, and leveraging the right technology tools that make a teacher’s job easier.

Collaboration is extremely powerful in cutting teachers’ workload and helping teachers feel supported. Even teachers resistant to collaboration (being “Type A,” I was one of them!) can start small, with one colleague who shares a similar work ethic and teaching style. You need not create a lesson hand-in-hand; rather, you can “divide and conquer” (e.g., you create the warmup, examples, and formative assessment prompts whereas your colleague creates the learning activity and all of its components) to maintain the speed you’re used to when working independently. Be clear about what each person is doing, when it will be done, and what the finished products will look like. Expect some bumps in the beginning as you perfect this new approach to working, and then enjoy the split workload. Add more contributors in time to cut your workload even more.

Tedium

Though many teachers are shocked to hear that busy teachers struggle with monotony, tedium is highly common for veteran teachers who find themselves doing the same thing year after year. These veterans can pursue ways to fight routine and invite challenge, such as by teaching a new grade level or using new instructional strategies.

Teachers can also share their professional expertise outside of the classroom to ignite passion and joy in their days. For example, teachers can write articles and books, appear on NPR, give a TED Talk, serve on research panels, pursue awards like the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize (the “Nobel Prize in Teaching” that gives the winner $1,000,000 and an international platform to share what is working in the classroom), speak at conferences (including international online conferences, which teachers can “attend” from the comfort of their homes), etc. There are so many of these opportunities that my next book Sharing Your Education Expertise with the World will be devoted entirely to them. When teachers share their expertise outside of their classrooms, they can make a difference for other educators’ students, help shape policy in positive ways, raise awareness about their profession, and breathe new life into their own practice and sense of accomplishment.

Student Behavior

Student behavior—particularly in rougher schools—is one of the most commonly mentioned burnout triggers for teachers. Teachers often seek to solve this with improved classroom management strategies, and that is a great place to start (e.g., be proactive while working with students, manage student behavior effectively, and turn around tough situations).

However, classroom management is only part of the puzzle. Making deep and meaningful connections with students is vital, and this can be especially elusive with students whose backgrounds differ from ours. I highly recommend the book Yes, You Can!: Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color and pursuing opportunities like the Equity Symposia that help teachers forge meaningful connections with students. The impact these solid bonds have on students’ behavior and teacher’s fulfillment are dramatic.

Administration and Community Relations

Sometimes teachers feel downtrodden as a result of other stakeholders, such as administrators, parents, the media, the school board, and other members of the community. Yet teachers are not powerless and can advocate for change.

Key to improving relations—though it’s sometimes not a well-liked recommendation—is to assume you are on the same side. Finding common ground can help with this (e.g., you both wish to help students), as can using language that emphasizes this partnership. Be clear about challenges (e.g., rather than merely complain you don’t have a particular policy in place, share statistics and cite research and professional sources to communicate your school’s reality versus what is recommended) and schedule time to talk where both parties can feel comfortable and free from distraction. Ask “how” you can do something rather than “if” you can do it, as this shifts the effort into a team endeavor, implies flexibility, and makes it easier for others to consent (Hess, 2015).

A Message for Teachers

Though there are too many burnout-fighting strategies to fit into a single article, the above guidelines can help you work toward the joy and success you deserve. Start with strategies that target the burnout triggers you find to be most stressful, and then move onto new strategies as you are able.

Your efforts to fight burnout will benefit you and your students, particularly in high-poverty areas, where traditionally underserved populations are hit hardest by teacher burnout. As a teacher, you are our world’s greatest chance at progress, and I hope you will devote as much care to your own well-being as you heroically do to your students’ day after day.

*****

JENNY GRANT RANKIN, PH.D. was honored by the White House for her work as a junior high school teacher, served in administrator roles, and now teaches the Post Doc Masterclass at University of Cambridge.

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