Burnout is prevalent in the field of education, yet it remains mysterious in many ways. Most educators know what it feels like from personal experience, yet it isn’t well defined, nor are there clear-cut strategies for understanding and alleviating it.
There is a clear link between burnout and attrition, and various studies show new teachers leaving the profession at alarming rates, ranging from 17 percent to 44 percent. Burnout is an ongoing challenge for schools in terms of staffing and quality of instruction, especially in low-socioeconomic-level schools where attrition rates are highest. Along with the myriad of school issues that come with teacher turnover, there’s also the larger danger to the health and wellness of educators: Burnout is a type of stress, which can weaken the immune system, and it can be a deadly risk factor for myocardial infarction and coronary heart disease.
Burnout is a powerful force that rips into the health, safety, and progress of the education profession. To push back against that force, it’s crucial to understand what contributes to it and what strategies can mitigate it.
Teachers do not burn out because of one moment or situation. Most often, a variety of contributors drain their emotional resources over time. These contributors may be different for each person, but generally speaking, there are three categories of stressors that affect the intensity of burnout.
Consistency: Burnout contributors that fall into the category of consistency are those elements that cannot be shaken. Examples include salary and financial hardships, graduate studies and professional development, and testing and accountability measures that haunt educators year-round.
These contributors may not always have a powerful impact on a teacher’s burnout, but the danger lies in their constant presence. Consistent contributors may not be felt strongly and can sneak under the radar, creating an undetected foundation for burnout. They are the equivalent of the straws that broke the camel’s back.
Pervasiveness: While some contributors to burnout are ever-present, others may seemingly come out of the blue. Pervasiveness describes contributors to burnout that may not happen consistently but are so powerful that they shake the educator to their core. These may take the form of moral dilemmas where a teacher could not do what they felt was the right thing, destructive or abusive leadership, or sudden loss of autonomy.
A pervasive contributor is one that may have a massive effect. Imagine a teacher who carries a multitude of consistent contributors to burnout, and it’s easy to see how one pervasive contributor could launch them to a new level of burnout.
Additions: New contributors to burnout do not enter in isolation. They join the existing contributors to burnout, which may be consistent and/or pervasive. Examples of additions include new family responsibilities (marriage, children, etc.); being reassigned to a new subject, course, or grade; and committing to a larger job role.
Anytime a new contributor to burnout emerges, it joins with every existing stressor that a teacher is already experiencing. This explains why some educators may not feel burned out until one new contributor is added to their plate, sending them over an edge they did not know they had reached.
There are three actionable steps that teachers can take to overcome burnout. Each step can diminish the power that burnout holds.
Positive coping mechanisms: When burnout strikes, it brings associated emotions like exhaustion and frustration to the surface and can spawn unhealthy habits and even addiction. These negative coping mechanisms, from staying up too late to unhealthy eating habits to drug and alcohol abuse, can cripple teachers’ chances for beating burnout.
To fend off negative coping mechanisms, teachers need to dedicate time, energy, and practice to positive ones that provide long-term benefits, including activities like exercise, meditation, and counseling.
Self-efficacy: Part of the battle with burnout relates to how educators perceive themselves. Many educators feel that they cannot be enough or do enough for their students. This leads them to work harder and do more, further depleting their time and energy.
Working harder and doing more rarely changes a downtrodden educator’s perception that they aren’t doing enough; they wind up overcommitted in ways that impact their personal lives. Overcoming this challenge begins with a positive view of self-efficacy. Teachers who believe in their ability and take pride in what they bring to their workday suffer less from wishing they were more or could do more.
Mentorship and support: Studies suggest that burnout is contagious. Teachers who surround themselves with burned-out peers are more likely to become burned out. When one person vents their frustrations (usually listing their burnout contributors), it can surface similar feelings in their colleagues, to the point where it can become reciprocal. As both parties reflect on the many factors that bring them down, the feelings of burnout come to the forefront and increase the toll they take on everyone involved.
A positive network of mentors and peers has a converse effect. It fuels positive coping mechanisms, boosts self-efficacy, and provides tools to conquer each contributor to burnout as it comes.