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Teachers and Burnout: What to Do When You Can’t Change the World

By: Megan Campion on December 15th, 2020

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Teachers and Burnout: What to Do When You Can’t Change the World

Teachers  |  Remote Work  |  School Leadership

It’s December. We made it to the end of 2020 – a spectacularly stressful year, no matter who you are, what you do, or where you live. As the months ticked by, though, it became clear that the chaos of the year placed almost unbearable levels of stress on some professions, educators among them. As schools wind down for winter break in the midst of a national spike in COVID-19 numbers, it may be a good time to deconstruct and consider burnout, what it looks like, what causes it, and what we can do about it.

An online search of teacher burnout will yield you lots of hits – from blogs to scholarly articles, the relationship between teacher burnout and teacher attrition is well documented. In their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski cite a statistic that 20-30% of teachers had moderately high to high levels of burnout, and that was before COVID-19 upended all that was familiar in the life of a teacher. Since March, teachers have taught in-person from behind masks and face-shields to masked, shielded, distanced students in classrooms arranged for minimal interaction and contact. Or they’ve spoken to Brady Bunch faces or blank boxes on their computer screens, trying to create a sense of community and connection with their students through the imperfect medium of Zoom or Google Meet. Some teachers have had to learn how to do both – teach to those students in the room with them, while engaging and supporting students following along with a live-streamed lesson from home. And they’ve done this while facing all the challenges the rest of us have been navigating – managing their own families’ disrupted schedules, their own children’s online learning, their own concerns about their health and the health of their loved ones.

Preliminary numbers on the impact of COVID-19 on teacher retention are inconclusive. Though there have been upticks in teacher retirement in some areas, that is potentially attributable to the age of the teacher population, and the recession has led some teachers who considered retiring or leaving the profession in the spring to stay on because they are concerned about finding another position with benefits. The impact on teacher morale, however, is easier to glean. If you have a professional learning network on Twitter, you have seen the despairing tweets from teachers unable to find their footing. In a survey of teachers in November, Ed Week found that teacher morale and applications to teach are down. 

What does burnout look like?

So, we know burnout is happening with our teachers in our schools, but how does it present in an individual? According to the Nagoski sisters, when someone is experiencing burnout, they will experience the following three components comprised in the technical term:

  • Emotional exhaustion – this is common among caregivers and those in caring professions, especially when things are difficult and chronic. Caring too much for too long leads to exhaustion.

  • Depersonalization – when people become detached from others, and can not access empathy, compassion, or caring.

  • Decreased sense of accomplishment – that feeling that no matter what you do, you are not doing it well, and if you are, it won’t make a difference anyway.

Teacher burnout is detectable to students. They will notice that their teachers are absent more frequently, and when they are there they are less prepared, less tolerant of class disruptions, and less empathetic to the challenges faced by students. 

What causes burnout?

Many articles on burnout discuss the stressful conditions of teaching or the myriad challenges of managing life through a pandemic as the cause of burnout. The revelation from the work of the Nagoskis is that burnout is caused by the mismanagement of stress, not by the stressors. This means that each of us can address burnout in our lives without leaving or changing our jobs, our relationships, or our communities (depending on your stressor). Ultimately, it may be a good idea to leave or change one or more of those, but managing burnout does not require it. 

This is good news for teachers who love the transcendent moments in teaching, and believe in the value of what they are offering their students, but feel they cannot endure another year the way they have lived this one. This also presents a challenge to administrators to create space and provide support for teachers to manage their stress. The answer for anyone experiencing burnout is to take some time in the coming weeks, and to find their way to manage themselves through the stress cycle. Burnout is caused when one’s brain reacts to stress, triggering all of the physical responses that are triggered when the brain registers that it is in danger, and there is no completion of the cycle, restoring the state of mind back to a less reactive state. 

What can we do about burnout?

This is the tricky part – as an individual, there are things a person can do to get their brain through the stress cycle, and feeling proactive and peaceful. That said, one of the trends in discussions about teacher burnout is the extent to which addressing wellness is often turned back on the teachers, who, as they are burned out, often react with cries that self-care won’t solve these larger problems. And they are right, sort of. Self-care won’t solve the larger problems, but it will get everyone who loves teaching in a much better spot to solve those larger problems. As a school or district leader, you can support your teams in recognizing what burnout is, what causes it, and finding ways to complete the stress cycle while you work on the larger systemic stressors that could improve the learning experience for all.

So, how does one complete the stress cycle? Again, Emily and Amelia Nagoski have several tips and ideas on how to start, with the caveat that each person will have to arrive at the method that suits them best. The critical part of completing the stress cycle is the communication to the brain and the body that the acute danger is over, and it is okay to return to a more relaxed, less vigilant state. Once the body knows that, the stress cycle is complete. Burnout happens when people get stuck in the stress cycle. Completing the stress cycle is a physical activity – here are some of the ways the stress cycle can be intentionally completed, and how school leaders can facilitate those practices. 

Tactic

How It Helps

How to Facilitate

Sweat

The most efficient and reliable way to complete the cycle is to engage in some challenging physical activity. Getting your heart rate up and letting it return to normal is the clearest way to communicate to your brain that the danger has passed. 

Organize an online exercise class. You can find free workouts to do from home with no equipment on YouTube.

 

 

Breathe

Deep, slow breaths will calm your brain down, and counting down while you breathe will focus your attention on your breath, and take it away from whatever anxiety loop it was in while your brain thought you were in acute danger.

Incorporate a minute for deep breathing at the start and end of a regular meeting, or organize a group meditation session online. 

 

 

Smile

A positive social interaction (smile over Zoom, say something friendly through your mask in person) will cue your brain that you and it have returned to a safe environment. It doesn’t need to be an extended conversation, just a friendly exchange.

Check in at the start of a regular meeting. Use this check-in generator, and filter for creative questions to foster a friendly, upbeat interaction within your team.

 

Laugh

An authentic belly laugh really is cathartic. It is a physical response that releases tension and cues to your brain that all is well.

 

 

Use apps like Quiplash or House Party to open or close a meeting, or share (clean, appropriate for work) jokes and memes. Even if you don’t hit the belly laugh nerve for all of your team, you will at least get to a positive social interaction (see above). 

Hug

Physical affection – hugs, holding hands, or even petting a beloved dog, cat, or other pet – will signal to your brain that you are back with your clan and you are safe.

Given the nature of our health crisis, the best thing you can do to facilitate this practice to be sure people are aware of the benefits. You could also end a meeting by asking people to bring their pet into the frame on a conference call.

Cry

The flip side of the belly laugh. The ugly cry will also lead your body and brain through to the end of the stress cycle. Once the sobbing stops and you get to the last jagged sigh, your brain will know that you are safe.

 

Provide a space for your teachers and administrators to talk through their frustrations, and let them know they can cry it out with you if it helps. As with hugs, it may be the best way to support this practice is to make sure people are aware of the benefits, and hold some space for those who need it.

Create

Sing, dance, draw, paint, write, cook, bake, crochet – any creative expression that appeals to you. Jump in and flow with it. Creating allows you to process emotions more indirectly, but you are still processing, and that processing is what will return your brain to a calmer, more productive, less reactive state.

Consider incorporating sketchnotes into a meeting, leading your team in practicing how to represent ideas visually. Ask about creative hobbies and incorporate some time to share and discuss them. Or, just be sure that your team understands that creating is a healthy and beneficial way to restore emotional equilibrium.

 

However you plan to spend your time away from school these last few weeks of 2020, incorporating some consideration of stress management practices, regardless of the stressors, might bring some well-deserved peace as we all transition into 2021. 

About Megan Campion

Megan Campion is an Associate Partner on the Design and Implementation Team. Megan came to Education Elements with extensive experience working in schools as a teacher and administrator, and with schools as a program manager and consultant. Megan began her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher at an independent school in McLean, Virginia. She transitioned into teaching middle school history in her second year of teaching, and spent her time as a teacher creating student-centered, inquiry-based learning experiences for students. Megan’s career in education has been centered around the question of what is effective, scalable, and measurable in education, and supporting the development and engagement of all stakeholders in a school community.

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