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?
- Symptoms of teacher burnout
- How to deal with teacher burnout
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:
- Compassion fatigue associated with supporting students with emotional or behavioral needs
- Heavier-than-normal workloads
- Lack of sufficient support from leadership and/or parents
- Toxic relationship dynamics among colleagues
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 One teacher may get really behind on grading, while another may seem more irritable or withdrawn.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:
- Feeling pessimistic about work and detached from students; increased irritability
- This could sound like, “I don’t even care what they turn in. I’m over it.”
- Lack of productivity
- Not being productive at work or performing poorly
- This could sound like, “Every day, I wake up and dread the work ahead of me.”
- Intense trouble concentrating
- Struggling to complete everyday tasks or having issues concentrating on work
- This could sound like, “No matter what I try, I can’t seem to stay focused.”
- Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Always appearing tired and increased forgetfulness
- This could sound like, “I go to bed already dreading waking up and dealing with the day.”
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:
- Developing rhythms of relationship. Develop a weekly check-in or walk with a team member to share and process what’s going on in your lives.
- Metabolizing your feelings. Use apps such as Marco Polo or Voxer to share your experiences with fellow educators or friends.
- Finding safe spaces. Seek professional counseling or participate in free support spaces for educators.
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:
- 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.”
- I would need to have more quiet time in order to feel soothed
- I would need the team gossip to stop in order to feel safe
- I would need to feel like my leaders listen to and take action on my ideas in order to feel seen
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.
- 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:
- “I resent having to help Leaundra with her PLC planning. She should be able to handle this.” Unmet need: time and support
- “I resent how little time I have to focus on my own family right now.” Unmet need: time and energy to spend with family
- “I resent being on lunch duty 2 semesters in a row.” Unmet need: time and space, fairness in distribution of duties
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:
- Issues with students
- New school policies
- New curriculum
- Online learning
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.
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.