Understanding Teacher Burnout and What to Do About it

Guest Blogger: Dr. Kelley Munger, Innovation Manager, FuelEd

Teachers carry so much in their day-to-day lives—along with lunch duty and lesson planning, educators are often on the front lines of supporting students with unique educational and emotional needs. They are coaches, encouragers, and mentors—they give math lessons, relationship advice, and snacks— sometimes all at once. It’s a lot to carry.

Deeply relational careers like teaching often draw in passionate people—and yet, passion for the work does not come with a limitless bank account of energy. Along with the usual stressors of teaching, the tremendous demands of the past few years have created the perfect conditions for widespread burnout in teaching. In this blog, we’ll discuss:

What is Teacher Burnout?

Teacher burnout is most commonly defined as a state of stress among educators that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, detachment, and cynicism. This stress can be caused by a number of different workplace factors, such as:

Symptoms of Teacher Burnout

While burnout is a shared experience among thousands of educators, each will express symptoms differently. One teacher may get really behind on grading, while another may seem more irritable or withdrawn. Because burnout can show up in different ways, it’s important to know some common symptoms so you can properly identify burnout. Symptoms of teacher burnout include:

How to Deal with Teacher Burnout

Find Rest in Relationships

We need each other in order to overcome the exhaustion of burnout. For example, some schools implement a “tap out” system — this allows teachers to call on each other to come relieve them from their classroom for a few minutes, giving overwhelmed educators a chance to take a breath and refocus before they continue teaching. The “tap out” system reinforces a feeling of community within the school and encourages the idea that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.

Other forms of “resting in relationships” include:

Reflect on Your Boundaries

In addition to strengthening your relational resources, boundary-setting is key to addressing burnout. These two reflective practices will help you clarify your needs:

  1. Ask yourself, “If I felt safer, seen, and soothed, what would have to be different?” Use your answers to this question to help you define where your boundaries are out of balance. For example, the following list of answers could help you determine your highest priority needs:

Boundaries are the line between what’s okay and what’s not okay for you. A boundary might sound like, “I’m not okay with not having a planning period,” or “Getting 8 hours of sleep is important for me.”

Even with the clarity that a list like this can provide, often educators are powerless to create the exact change they need in a larger system; however, once you are able to name what you need, you can begin to sort through your values and needs with more intention and focus. It can even be helpful to sort your needs into two columns: What I Can Influence and What I Would Need Help With. This distinction can empower you to care for yourself and to also ask for help—this balance is a key component of experiencing secure attachment. Finally, you can use the skills of genuineness to bring larger systemic needs to the right people. Even if immediate change isn’t possible, using your voice creates more agency and can alleviate some aspects of burnout.

  1. Another question is, “What are the different areas of resentment I am experiencing?” These areas can also give you insight about where you need to tighten your boundaries. Here are some examples of some areas where an educator may have unmet needs:

Again, you may feel powerless to create change in all of these areas, but by “naming it to tame it,” you might actually feel more clarity about what you need in order to address your burnout.

Plan Regular “Genuineness” Check-Ins with Administration

Scheduling regular check-ins with your administration is also helpful when trying to address burnout. These meetings allow you to express how you’re feeling about things like:

Sometimes, you just really need to be heard. However, if bigger, actionable steps need to be taken, having proactive teacher-administration meetings is a great way to ensure you are regularly advocating for yourself. This keeps you from being slowly worn down and then “boiling over” when demands pile up over time. As an added bonus, admins who are willing to listen well will use this data to implement meaningful changes.

Honor Your Work

Most teachers are great at celebrating their students’ accomplishments but often neglect their own. However, taking a moment to acknowledge the value of your work as an educator can be helpful when dealing with burnout. The educators who impacted you most as a child probably have no idea how significant their role was—the same is true for you. Reminding yourself of all you do for your students can also remind you that you are valued and appreciated, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

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Dr. Kelley Munger is passionate about spreading love and empowerment to educators. She is a licensed therapist and holds a PhD in Early Intervention and Special Education from the University of Oregon. Dr. Munger loves to translate science into the real world of teaching and building relationships. She currently holds the role of Innovation Manager at FuelEd Schools, a non-profit devoted to supporting the emotional intelligence of educators.