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David Maxfield


Speak Up or Burn Out

Five Crucial Conversations that Drive Educational Excellence

A little more than 50 years ago, forest service smoke jumpers learned that in certain crucial circumstances the best way to save their lives was to do something outrageously contrary to their natural tendencies.

In August of 1949, 15 men parachuted into a mountainous area of Montana to put out a growing fire. Within minutes, the fire exploded out of control, spreading at 660 feet-per-minute and threatening to consume the 15 firefighters. Fourteen of the men turned away from the fire and ran for the ridge. One did not. He turned toward the approaching inferno and set the grass in front of him on fire. As the grass finished burning, he yelled for his comrades to drop onto the resulting ashes to save their lives. In the end, he was the only survivor.

Challenges such as overcrowded classrooms, poor administrative and parental support, loss of control in the classroom, and bureaucratic red tape are enough to make any teacher want to abandon the fight for educational excellence and run for the ridge. But we can’t outrun these fires. With research showing that one in three educators report stress-related problems, teachers who run from the flames end up burned out. Additionally, running from the flames not only sacrifices educational excellence, it actually increases our risk of being harmed.

When we retreat, we cross a line between simple stress and more serious burnout. In burnout, our relationships become increasingly depersonalized and we become chronically pessimistic. As we withdraw from our relationships and grow convinced of our own powerlessness, we enter a downward spiral of pessimism that can feel impossible to escape.

Teachers in or approaching burnout suffer depleted energy, lowered resistance to illness, increased absenteeism and decreased effectiveness on the job. Consequently, everyone suffers when teachers are trapped in this cycle of stress, withdrawal, and burnout.

But not all teachers are consumed in this cycle. Some cope well and remain resilient in the same environments that overwhelm others. We surveyed more than 400 educators, and discovered that nearly one in five have figured out how to approach even the toughest fires and quench them.

It turns out that a significant key to coping with stress in the classroom is akin to running toward the fire rather than running away. Specifically, the best way to fight the creeping depersonalization and pessimism that underlie burnout is to take active steps to address and resolve the problems that threaten to consume us.

This path begins with investing time and effort to hold five crucial conversations. In our research, we learned that teachers can master the stressors in their environment by engaging more consistently and effectively in five conversations that are common, impactful, and too often, undiscussable.

The five crucial conversations that drive educational excellence while preventing teacher burnout are:

1. Unsupportive School Leaders. Most school principals and assistant principals are incredibly supportive. They work hard to remove obstacles, cut through red tape, and get teachers the resources they need. However, when one or more of these school leaders is not supportive, they create high levels of stress and prevent teachers from being successful. Below is an example from our interviews:

“One of my assistant principals is very unsupportive. For example, when I send a student to his office due to behavior in class, he sends him back without telling me what action he’s taken. The student often escalates again and spends more time in the hallway by this assistant principal’s office. When I’ve discussed this with the assistant principal, he says, ‘You can assume I did my job.’”

Nearly two thirds of the teachers we surveyed reported having one or more school leaders who are unsupportive. This lack of support creates stress, makes teacher’s jobs more difficult, and threatens the morale of the entire staff.

But the problem isn’t just that teachers encounter unsupportive school leaders. The problem is made worse by how teachers handle the situation. According to the survey results:

• 50 percent of teachers say they discuss unsupportive leaders with friends and family

• More than 66 percent share their concerns with fellow teachers

• Only one in five share their full concerns with the unsupportive leader

Those rare teachers who turn toward the fire and have the crucial conversation with their leader are twice as likely to get the support they need. And not surprisingly, they also end up significantly more satisfied with the work environment in their schools.

2. Teachers who are failing in their classrooms. Teachers are often the first to know when one of their peers is failing in the classroom. They see or hear visible signs of conflict, they hear complaints from students and/or parents, and they often witness poor teaching or classroom management behaviors. For example:

“For a year I worked with a teacher who had retired from another state and had taken a position here to pad her retirement. She had no classroom management, rapport with the students, or direction with curriculum. It was a pretty bleak picture considering this was the career she had just retired from. I think she wanted the cake without having to do any of the cooking!”

More than three quarters of the teachers we surveyed reported having one or more of their peers who are failing in the classroom. These teachers see the impacts of these failures, which include poor student learning, more work for other teachers, and increased stress for all.

But the vast majority of teachers run from this fire, not toward it. Only 13 percent have the crucial conversation and share their full concerns with the failing teacher.

We wondered whether some of the teachers who are not having this crucial conversation might be discussing the problem with a school leader instead. Maybe they are counting on the school leader to correct the situation. We found that 35 percent of the teachers refer the problem to a school leader and ask them to intervene. But only half of these school leaders follow up with the failing teacher.

The teachers who step up to this crucial conversation and resolve the problem with their failing peers are significantly more satisfied with their school, more committed to staying at the school, more engaged as teachers, and less cynical about the education process.

3. Teachers who let down their peers. Teachers don’t just work with students. They work with other teachers both within their department and across the school. They collaborate on curriculum issues, team teaching, and a wide variety of critical issues. And more than two-thirds of teachers feel dissatisfied with the performance of one or more of their peers. For example:

“I'm currently sharing middle school band rehearsals with our 5th and 6th grade director. She is frequently late for rehearsals and not prepared for her rehearsal responsibilities. It is difficult to develop expectations and consistency for the students if the director doesn't demonstrate this herself.”

This kind of poor performance has consequences. And yet fewer than one in five has had the crucial conversation with their peer. But these few teachers who speak up and share their full concerns with a non-performing peer are more than twice as likely to succeed in solving the problem.

4. Parents who fail to support learning. Parents play a large role in the education system by facilitating student learning, encouraging good student behavior, and supporting their children’s teachers. Seventy percent of teachers are currently struggling with parents who are failing to do their part to support their child’s education.

“I recently had a student who found out that his biological father was not the person he knew as dad. It led to an ugly divorce. The student’s mother is an emotional wreck, and she has told her son that neither his “dad” nor his biological father wants anything to do with him. It is no surprise that this student has zero self esteem and is acting out in my class.”

Teachers describe the top three impacts of an unhelpful parent as preventing the student from learning, creating problems and stress for the teacher, and creating problems for school leaders. But only a third of these teachers have had the crucial conversation with the parent. Those who confront and resolve their concerns with unsupportive parents are significantly more satisfied with their school and more confident that they are making a difference.

5. Students who have behavioral problems. Some students are more ready and willing to learn than others. Some are interested, disciplined, and able to follow through. However, 86 percent of the teachers in our study struggle with at least two students who are easily distracted, exhibit behavioral problems, and get in the way of their own learning.

“I see students trying to get other students' attention and thinking it is cool to talk back or act up. I also see students acting up due to situations in their lives, such as family, friends, or medications. I also see students who can’t deal with situations at home before they come to school. They can get so upset that when you simply reminded them to sit up they start screaming.”

Of course these problem students create problems for others. The top consequences teachers cite are:

• The behavior inhibits the student’s own learning

• The behavior makes the teacher’s job more difficult

• The behavior makes it difficult for other students to learn

• The behavior creates stress and tension in the classroom

But, when it comes to problem students, there is good news. Unlike the previous four situations, teachers step up to this crucial conversation. Fully two-thirds of teachers share their full concerns with the problem student, and 71 percent say this discussion drives improvements in the student’s behavior.

If these teachers would take the same initiative to have skillful discussions with unsupportive principals, assistant principals, fellow teachers, and parents, they would improve students’ learning, create a better work environment, and reduce stress.


About the Author

David Maxfield is a behavior change expert, co-author of the New York Times best-sellers Influencer and Change Anything, and vice president of research at VitalSmarts.