Preventing Teacher Burnout — Part 1: Why Teachers Fail To Protect Themselves

Teacher Burnout

Teacher burnout is a problem, and not just in the United States. Nearly half of teachers in India suffer from burnout (Shukla and Trivedi, 2008). In the U.K., 77% of teachers who are considering leaving the profession cite the volume of work as the reason (Source). Here in the U.S., teachers report symptoms of burnout at very high levels.

61% of teachers in a 2017 AFT survey said their jobs are “always” or “often” stressful, a rate twice as high as workers report in the general population.

All 30,000 teachers surveyed by the American Federation of Teachers in 2015 “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they were enthusiastic about teaching when they began their careers. Only 53% still agreed at the point they took the survey. Those who “strongly agreed” dropped from 89% to just 15%.

Gallup found that only 30% of teachers are “engaged” at work. 57% aren’t and 13% are “actively disengaged,” which describes teachers who express unhappiness at work in ways that undermine their colleagues’ accomplishments.

Perhaps most alarming, teachers’ mental health is at risk. In 2015, 34% of surveyed teachers said their mental health was poor for seven or more days in the last month. In 2017, that number climbed to 58% (Source). In the U.K., 10% of teachers use antidepressants to get through the day, and the suicide rate among primary school teachers there is twice the national average.

You Are At Risk

All of this means that if you stay in the classroom, you have a good chance of burning out. But in spite of these cold, hard numbers, many teachers do nothing to protect themselves. They keep plowing ahead, working too many hours, stretching themselves too thin, stressing themselves out, steadily trudging down the path to either an early exit from the classroom or a long, slow slog of uninspired teaching until they’re old enough to retire. That’s sad for their students. And it’s sad for the teachers. What a waste of the best years of their lives.

So why don’t teachers take what should be clear warning signs seriously? Why don’t they take steps early in their careers to prevent burning out later on?

A survey out of Clark University asked young people an interesting question that may help explain. Researchers asked 1,029 people, aged 18 to 29, both single and married, whether or not they expected their marriage to last their whole lives. 86% said they did. Researchers concluded that the other 14% didn’t anticipate ever tying the knot in the first place. Which means that, even though the U.S. has a divorce rate of about 50%, almost every single young person believes it won’t happen to them.

One of the researchers, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, explains why:

“We still have a very romantic view of marriage as a society. Other surveys have shown that close to 90 percent of emerging adults say that they expect to find their soul mate as a marriage partner. That’s a very romantic ideal.”

The Downside  of Idealism

A new teacher is no less idealistic than a new bride or groom. Like marriage, they go into teaching with romanticized notions. They’re going to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Jaime Escalante teaching kids calculus, Rafe Esquith turning kids on to Shakespeare, or Michelle Pfieffer saving teens from the mean streets. They’re going to get in there and make a difference.

I’m all for youthful exuberance, but lying to ourselves hasn’t helped us avoid burnout (or divorce). A better approach would be to look at the statistics with clear eyes and actually believe them. Returning to the marriage analogy, wouldn’t it be better for young people to view the divorce rate as a warning sign for their own marriage? Shouldn’t the new bride and groom figure out what causes people to split up and then take proactive steps to avoid repeating those couples’ mistakes?

Shouldn’t teachers learn from those who came before them?

Perhaps we refuse to learn from other people because we believe they have nothing to teach us. In his fascinating book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes:

“We tend to think we’re unique, and that just because someone else feels a certain way about a set of circumstances does not mean that we will.”

But we’re wrong.

Illusory Superiority

While we spend more time noticing the differences among individuals, the reality is that humans are far more alike than different, and not only biologically. Research has shown that people’s emotional responses are far less varied than we assume. So while the best way to predict our futures is to ask someone who has done the thing we’re considering doing, we won’t, because, as Gilbert writes, “We don’t realize just how similar we all are, [so] we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations.”

And our imaginations stink. Because we don’t stop at thinking we’re different from others. We think we’re better.

  • In a 1977 study, 94% of professors rated themselves as having above average intelligence relative to their peers.
  • 32% of employees at a software company rated themselves better than 19 of 20 coworkers.
  • 90% of drivers think they’re better than the average driver.
  • Most people, when asked to rate themselves from 1-10 on any positive trait, will give themselves a 7. (Source)

None of us like thinking we’re just like everybody else. From childhood, we’re told that we’re special, unique, an exceptional snowflake. It might help protect our delicate egos, but it does nothing to impel us to take action so that we can avoid ending up just like everyone else.

Believe the Data

The numbers don’t lie. None of today’s burned out teachers expected to be so when they started their teaching careers. They looked around and said, “Nope. That won’t happen to me.” They said:

  • Others might get stressed, but I won’t.
  • Others might not be able to juggle all of these responsibilities, but I can.
  • Other teachers aren’t as good as me.
  • I don’t need as much sleep as others.
  • I don’t need to decompress after work.
  • I’m more capable than others.
  • I’m more selfless than others.

Today’s stressed out teachers failed to learn from the stressed-out teachers who came before them and therefore repeat the selfsame mistakes.

So what can young teachers do to avoid the pitfalls laid before them?

Some things are difficult to control. You have little say over your boss or how the community perceives teachers. You can extend your career by becoming an expert classroom manager so that student misbehavior doesn’t drive you from the field. Likewise, there are proactive steps you can take to alter the environment in which you teach. But the elephant in the room, the one thing many teachers could exercise more control over but don’t, is their volume of work.

Teachers have too much to do and not enough time to do it. But there are things every teacher can do to cut back on the hours they commit to the job without sacrificing effectiveness. In fact, as I’ve written in the past, I believe that trimming hours off each workweek will make you a better teacher.

I intend to teach for 30 productive years. To do that, I started taking steps a few years ago that limit the number of hours I dedicate to the job each week. Most weeks, I work 40 hours or less.

In the rest of this series, I share the strategies that have worked for me. Circumstances differ, and I have some built-in advantages that you may not, but I’m confident that while you may not get all the way down to a 40-hour week, you will be able to reclaim precious hours for yourself.

Read the rest of this series:

Part 2: Make a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

Part 10: Use Class Time

Links to the 40 Hour Workweek Club are affiliate links. I will earn a commission should you sign up for the club via those links but you won’t pay a dime more. So thanks!



7 Replies to “Preventing Teacher Burnout — Part 1: Why Teachers Fail To Protect Themselves”

  1. So strange. After 25 years working in high tech, I was truly burnt out. Finally made the switch to teaching HS English in a public school district. For the most part, I am energized every day by the interaction with young minds and attitudes. I think the key is working a few years in the private sector, and all of the stress that comes with that nonsense. It makes one appreciate the opportunities to dream, hope, and teach children to think critically and open their minds to new ideas for the future by analyzing the classics of the past.

    1. I agree completely! It seems that all careers have stress and nonsense and that having experienced it in another field gives fresh eyes and energy to teaching as a career. If I hadn’t worked other jobs before coming into teaching I would likely get more fed up with some of the things I/we have to do. However, having experienced the ups and downs of other positions I continue to believe that the pros of spending my days teaching and learning from young people strongly outweigh any negatives! It is all about perspective.

  2. I also taught in public schools for 12 years after training and writing in tech businesses for 22 years. Now, after happily retiring this summer, I tutor full-time….. I agree that keeping work hours manageable is key. But that was only a quarter of my stress. Another quarter is what you cannot change and accepting it — making 3000 decision a day, so excellent health habits for your brain (like regular vacations and exercise and sleep and nutrition) are key. Another quarter is coming prepared each day but also to each job, which may be hard since good training is hard to find in education. The last quarter is eschewing toxic principals and superintendents who create hostile work environments. This is totally key to your students as well as you.

  3. Extremely toxic principals are a huge problem everywhere it seems. A good or great principal is like gold! Why can’t districts find and/or train people in the art of leadership? Stressed out teachers are not good for kids or themselves!

    1. I totally agree with this statement. Moral is big! Moral starts at the top. If your principal can’t even send condolences when people on his staff loses a loved one, he sure doesn’t have his employees in his best interest any other times. I am looking at leaving my current position because of our administration.

  4. Paul Murphy, I would be interested to hear what you think about the issue of respect for teachers and for the profession. I think our jobs would be easier if we got more respect …

  5. I agree that working in a different profession first, would probably highlight all the “positives “ of teaching. I’m going on year 20 in elementary and still LOVE it, but I’m fortunate to work in a school where I’m not micromanaged to the point of not feeling valued. I agree that a teacher’s enjoyment stems from the top! It’s ALL about school morale, and feeling respected and appreciated for a job well done! Of course, this is true of ANY job.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *