Too much to do and not enough time. Sustained overstimulation and inadequate resources. Chronically stressful classroom dynamics. These are just some of the challenges teachers face. One anonymous teacher says, “I’m always ‘on.’ Students are waiting by my door when I get to school, and the whole day is an onslaught of kids and adults wanting things from me... My mind has no rest. Even my sleep is restless” (Rankin, 2016, p. 34).
As covered in the Part 1 companion to this article, teacher burnout is an international epidemic. This epidemic hurts students, schools, and — of course — teachers. The conditions posed in Part 1 lead to the question of whether the current state of the teaching profession requires teachers to work at an unsustainable pace and/or level of stress.
Is Teaching an Unsustainable Profession?
Too much to do and not enough time. I’ll elaborate on just this one condition mentioned above to demonstrate how challenging each burnout trigger is. Consider the volume of demands with which teachers must contend. Teachers must continually shift directions as new tools and curriculum are adopted, and they continually have to learn and implement new approaches to teaching and classroom management. If you read a book on any aspect of teaching (differentiating instruction, seeing to the needs of non-native English speakers in your class, using data to inform decisions, etc.), the book will often contain overwhelming suggestions for how to do a good job with that particular aspect of teaching. Yet that would be just one aspect of teaching, and there are easily over 100 aspects of the job that teachers must execute well.
To do everything as well as is recommended is overwhelming when placed within the context of all of a teacher’s other responsibilities. A teacher must personalize and perfect instruction for each individual student’s needs, yet a teacher can easily have over 200 students (common at the secondary level). With this comes assessing and grading each student’s work, providing individualized feedback, fostering a collaborative relationship with parents and other caregivers, juggling ancillary job requirements, keeping up-to-date in one’s subject area, and more.
All (100%) of 30,000 teachers surveyed by the American Federation of Teachers (2015) “agreed” or "strongly agreed" they were enthusiastic about the profession when they began their careers, yet only 53% still agreed at whatever point in their careers they took the survey. Those who “strongly agreed” dropped from 89% to just 15%. Teaching is harder than it looks, the schedule is more demanding than it sounds, the number of demands that must be met simultaneously is crushing, and the stakes of having a major impact on so many young lives are sky-high.
Consider the stress teachers are under:
- Teachers have too many things to do in a limited amount of time (Staff and Wire Services Report, 2013).
- When surveyed, 73% of teachers reported they are “often” under stress (American Federation of Teachers, 2015).
- This percentage was higher than found two years earlier by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (2013), when only 48% of teachers reported they were regularly under great stress. Even then, only 39% of U.S. teachers reported they were very satisfied (the lowest in 25 years).
- 55% of U.S. teachers reported their morale is low or very low, and 69% of teachers reported their morale had declined (National Union of Teachers, 2013).
- Even when teachers are passionate, working in a very demanding environment leads to mental and physical fatigue that is hard to fight, affects one’s attitude, and makes it hard to work with students all day (Neufeldnov, 2014).
Now consider the working conditions’ impact on sustainability:
- Teachers who do an excellent job are often working in unsustainable conditions (e.g., 60 hours per week, relentless stress, inadequate resources, lack of support or time, etc.) (Herman, 2014).
- At "no excuses" schools where idealistic, energetic teachers work overtime to help struggling students, teachers typically leave after only a few years on the job (Neufeldnov, 2014).
- In challenging schools, teachers' job requirements and the intensity required to meet them are not realistic to sustain for more than two to three years (Riggs, 2013).
When most teachers report ongoing stress and morale-crushing conditions, and when teachers who do an excellent job are overworked to a degree that cannot be maintained, the teaching profession — as it currently stands — does not offer teachers healthy, sustainable working conditions.
How Does This Impact Students?
Teacher burnout is a problem even when teachers remain on the job. For example, teachers are less likely to be able to deliver high-quality instruction when they are not able to decompress (Neufeldnov, 2014). Stressed, overworked, frustrated teachers are less able to connect in positive ways with students and to offer students the best instruction.
Teacher burnout is also a problem when teachers quit. The loss of teachers — requiring the need to find and prepare replacements — hurts students by costing schools significant funds. For example, losing early-career teachers, alone, costs the U.S. up to $2,200,000,000 every year (Haynes, 2014). High teacher turnover rates can also rob students of stable adult relationships, hurt student achievement, disrupt school culture, and be especially damaging in minority neighborhoods when they erode trust between teachers and students (Neufeldnov, 2014). This attrition is most harmful to poor students. The rate of U.S. teachers leaving the profession every year is 20% at high-poverty schools, which is significantly higher than at schools in financially secure areas (Seidel, 2014).
What Can Be Done?
When writing my recent book on how to avoid and recover from teacher burnout, I identified solutions that teachers and their colleagues can apply to prevent burnout and promote recovery. However, decision-makers who impact our schools, educators, and students can also help make the teaching profession more sustainable. Policymakers and others who are in positions to initiate widespread reform should investigate the challenges teachers face so they can:
- Prioritize, consolidate, and better organize demands so teachers are not pulled in so many different directions.
- Facilitate adoption of well-vetted resources (e.g., comprehensive curriculum thoroughly aligned to standards, adequately-researched educational technology tools shown to be effective, etc.).
- Improve the relevance of teacher preparation programs so today’s teaching needs (e.g., using student data to inform decision-making, selecting and incorporating educational technology to improve student learning but also to make the job more manageable, properly assessing students and applying formative feedback, etc.) are directly covered and practiced before new teachers begin teaching.
When a stakeholder of any role is aware of the prevalence and tenacity of teacher burnout, he or she is better equipped to support the teacher heroes in our schools.
American Federation of Teachers (2015). Quality of worklife survey. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/worklifesurveyresults2015.pdf
Darling-Hammond, L. (2014, June 30). To close the achievement gap, we need to close the teaching gap. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linda-darlinghammond/to-close-the-achievement_b_5542614.html
Haynes, M. (2014, July). On the path to equity: Improving the effectiveness of beginning teachers. Alliance for Excellence. Retrieved from http://all4ed.org/reports-factsheets/path-to-equity/
Herman, E. (2014, July 25). Teachers can’t be effective without professional working conditions. Gatsby in LA. Retrieved from https://gatsbyinla.wordpress.com/2014/07/25/lesson-4-teachers-cant-be-effective-without-professional-working-conditions/
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. (2013). MetLife survey of the American teacher: Challenges for school leadership. New York, NY: Author and Peanuts Worldwide.
National Union of Teachers. (2013, January 2). Teacher survey shows government going in wrong direction. Retrieved from http://www.teachers.org.uk/node/17250
Neufeldnov, S. (2014, November 10). Can a teacher be too dedicated? The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://m.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/11/can-a-teacher-be-too-dedicated/382563/?single_page=true
Rauhala, J. (2015, April 16). Don't quit: 5 strategies for recovering after your worst day teaching. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/strategies-recovering-worst-day-teaching-johanna-rauhala
Rankin, J. G. (2016). First Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success. New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.
Riggs, L. (2013, October 18). Why do teachers quit? And why do they stay? The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/why-do-teachers-quit/280699/
Schaufeli, W. B., Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2009). Burnout: 35 years of research and practice. Career Development International, 14(3), 204-220, doi 10.1108/13620430910966406.
TNTP. (2015, August 4). The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development. Retrieved from http://tntp.org/publications/view/evaluation-and-development/the-mirage-confronting-the-truth-about-our-quest-for-teacher-development?utm_source=EdsurgeTeachers&utm_campaign=af0dda9d1b-Instruct+182&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3d103d3ffb-af0dda9d1b-292335873