For Burned-Out Teachers

Solutions for people in a high-turnover profession.

Posted Feb 16, 2017

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Half of new teachers leave the profession within five years.

And it’s understandable. They’re asked to teach the rigorous often stultifying Common Core curriculum in classes that aren’t ability-grouped. So a teacher may well have developmentally disabled, and gifted, native speakers and new immigrants kids in the same class.

It doesn’t matter if we spend #1 per capita in the world “on education.”  A class of 20 versus 30 doesn’t make the above substantially easier. Spending more “on education" doesn’t matter when so much goes to administering the wildly complicated, sometimes contradictory mountain of local, regional, state, and federal rules and reporting requirements.

What’s a teacher to do? Sure, teachers get summers off, lots of vacation and holidays, and lifetime job security after just two or three years but who wants a secure job that’s untenable but to all but the most hard-working, gifted, and persistent teachers?

Incremental solutions

What do the best teachers do that others don’t? These tactics may help you make teaching acceptable and maybe even wonderful.

Great teachers know how to maintain excellent classroom discipline. Core to that is recognizing that the kids control whether they behave. The more the teacher tries to coerce good behavior through yelling and other meanness, the more that kids are likely to try to foil the teacher. Good teachers realize these keys to a well-behaved class:

1. Show that you’re on kids side while demanding excellent behavior. To make that clear and that your high standards aren't a power trip but a manifestation of caring., from the moment you walk into class on Day One of the school year or of your substitute teaching assignment, you must exude kindness, caring, that you’re glad to be there.

But what if you’re in the middle of the school year? You must make a clean break with your past behavior. You must announce that you’re trying an experiment in becoming a better teacher: “I’m going to expect excellent behavior but only because I care about you and so, when there’s even minor misbehavior, I’ll remind you but not yell at you. But I need your help. If you do your part, not only will you learn more, which is important, we’ll have a good time. I’m also going to try to create more interesting lessons. Can I count on you?”

In any event, next time you walk into your classroom and kids and talking or fooling around, with great posture and a smile on your face, you must establish eye contact with the kids and if one or more is/are misbehaving, immediately quell it but in a way that makes clear that you are not exerting a power play but merely want excellent behavior because you care about the children and want them to learn.

That can be manifested by simply, while continuing to talk to the class, with an impish grin, establishing firm eye contact with the misbehaving child(ren) and maybe shaking your head "no." If that doesn’t work, continue talking to the class while walking to the misbehaving child, standing over him, still wearing a pleasant, not-angry expression. If the child is still misbehaving, put your hand on the kid’s shoulder as you look down on him. If that doesn’t work or the student soon starts up again, whisper in the child’s ear: “One more chance.” That allows the child to save face and the classmates to wonder what you said. If the kid continues to misbehave even once more, you must follow through. For example, quietly point to a chair in the corner and motion the kid to sit there, saying, “You’ll have a fresh start next period” or some such. Nothing works perfectly but that maximizes the chances of your having a well-behaved class without undue stress.

2. Make the lessons as fun as possible. When you were a student, you may have liked school even when it was boring—you probably wouldn’t have chosen to become a teacher if you hated school. But many kids dislike school, for example, they may find sitting for hours at a time intolerable.

So you must, while having high standards, make lessons as interesting as possible. For example, in English, have kids act out scenes. In math, break the class into groups and have them have competitions for who can explain a concept best to the other kids. In science, do experiments and have kids predict the outcomes. In social studies, role play key moments in history or government.

Less sexy but perhaps even more crucial, you must maximize the amount of time on appropriate-leveled tasks. Especially in mixed-ability classes, that unavoidably is time-consuming—creating different lessons and activities for students of similar ability. HERE is a white-board video I created on a related subject.

Of course, individualization is easier when using tablets, phones, or laptops. Much good software tied to the Common Core curriculum is now available. Not only does such software individualize, students are often given choices for how the lessons are presented, the pace, etc. And much of that software is quite entertaining, filled with video, simulations, animations, etc.

3. Change grade or subject matter. Perhaps you simply need to teach older or younger students, a different subject, or at a school with a less challenging student body.

Changing careers

Not every teacher has the wherewithal to do a good enough job at the above. If you decide you need to leave the classroom, here are pros and cons of careers that many teachers transition into:

School administrator. At first blush, that seems a logical choice but it’s often a poor one. A school administrator’s core job is to help others teach. And if you’re not a master teacher, you’ll be an emperor with no clothes. Even if you are a master teacher who’s just burned out, the other skills required to be a school administrator are different from those needed in classroom teaching. Teaching kids requires different skills than to motivate teachers, work with parents, and manage the enormous education bureaucracy and rules that is core to the school administrator’s mandate.

Trainer. Corporations, nonprofits, and government hire people, including many former teachers to train employees on everything from how to be a bank teller to celebrating diversity. A logical first option would be to train teachers and administrators on education’s latest mandates and pedagogical new idea du jour. School districts, counties, the state, and federal government are possible sources of employment. Training can be rewarding but can be a career that's less stable and secure, and with fewer benefits than in the union-controlled public school teaching.

Sales representative. The most rewarding sales jobs for former teachers tend to be of complex products that need excellent explanation. Former teachers have gone on to sell a wide range of products and services but a logical first choice would be educational curriculum, for example, online techbooks. A slight pivot from that would be to sell other school-related products: from desks to attendance management software.

The takeaway

Teacher burnout is common but curable.

That advice is generic. Dr. Nemko helps burned-out educators create and implement a custom-developed plan. He can be reached at