For many teachers, the education world looks vastly different from how it seemed before March 2020. Educators at all levels are confronting new and significant challenges. More than ever before, teachers are tasked with adapting new curricula to a growing range of learning styles, attending to students’ individual and sometimes special needs, all while managing the administrative aspects of the job through shifting education policies.
Confronting what may seem like unsolvable challenges can be a disheartening experience resulting in fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Left unmanaged, this interpersonal stress can result in teacher burnout.
SIGNS AND SIDE EFFECTS
The World Health Organization describes burnout as an occupational phenomenon characterized by three main attributes: exhaustion, cynicism, and incompetence. Excessive workloads and emotional strain can lead to physical and mental fatigue. It can interrupt sleep, cause irritability, and even affect eating habits, ultimately leading to feelings of mental and physical exhaustion. A continued state of burnout can lead to feeling mentally detached from one’s job. Attitudes about the profession can turn negative and cynical. A person experiencing burnout may participate less in faculty and department meetings and cut back on attending optional school events. Professional burnout can lead to perceived ineffectiveness and incompetence and create inefficiency. Burned-out teachers often feel little inspiration to share lessons, visit with their colleagues, or engage in email correspondence.
IMPACTS AND CONSEQUENCES
With a growing number of educational psychologists turning their focus on emotional intelligence, we have a better understanding of how emotions drive effective teaching and effective learning. It can be asserted that educators’ emotions matter because how we “feel” can influence our physical and mental health. Positive feelings such as joy and curiosity harness attention and promote greater engagement and comprehension. Negative feelings such as fear and anxiety work to disrupt concentration and interfere with critical thinking.
Chronic stress can be linked to decreases in motivation and engagement, both of which lead to burnout. Additionally, stress can result in the persistent activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the release of hormones like cortisol. Prolonged activation of these hormones and other neurochemicals impacts the brain structure associated with memory and executive functioning, diminishing our ability to be effective educators and undermining student learning.
A teacher’s attitude and student attrition go hand-in-hand. Teachers who are burned out may also struggle to be positive role models for healthy self-regulation. Additionally, it comes with no surprise that teachers who are burned out are more likely to leave the profession, which can also negatively impact student learning.
ADDRESSING SYMPTOMS AND WORKING FOR A SOLUTION
The solution begins with engaging in the right conversations. Rather than looking at teacher burnout as an individual problem, educational leaders must shift their focus to assess the problem as a systemic, institutional, and policy-based issue. The space between how we feel and how we want to feel presents an opportunity to improve the emotional climate of our schools. The solution begins with engaging in the right conversations.
Author Doris Santoro of Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay, explains that simple policy shifts can improve the teaching climate. She recommends school leaders get past simply following policy and encourages administrators to respond with flexibility and commit to deep engagement with educators about the issues preventing them from achieving their teaching goals and feeling rewarded. Schools can establish procedures and policies for reporting professional burnout. They can also provide information about the care available to teachers who are struggling.
Teachers experiencing symptoms that lead to burnout should seek attention from peers and administrators in a position to take direct action in response. Teachers know their circumstances best; however, school leaders should be providing choices with regard to care and solutions for managing the stress of the job.
Additionally, administrators must be mindful when assigning responsibilities that align with a teacher’s preparation and experience. Educational leaders can support teachers by setting boundaries on their behalf, such as communicating clearly to students and parents what teacher work hours are and putting limits on teachers’ obligations.
Schools at all levels of education can strive for a greater focus on adult health and well-being. This begins with understanding how teachers want to feel, and supporting them with what they need to experience the emotions that promote professional prosperity.
Brandon Dittgen (brandondittgen.com) is Assistant Director of Bands at Milford Exempted Village Schools. His duties include teaching band grades 6–12 and coordinating all percussion studies. He holds a Masters of Arts in Education degree from the University of the Cumberlands and a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Morehead State University. Brandon serves on the PAS Health and Wellness Committee.