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Addressing Teacher Burnout: Causes, Symptoms, and Strategies

A tired teacher holds a hand to their forehead while sitting at a desk.

American teachers have markedly less time to prepare lessons, collaborate with colleagues, and assess student work than educators in other countries. Instead of a balance between time spent with students and preparatory activities, American educators have relatively limited time to engage in work key to successful teaching. Teaching loads can require educators to spend 39 percent more time with students than teachers spend outside of the United States, according to the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). This lopsided distribution of time places extraordinary pressure on American teachers. Insufficient time to complete tasks integral to successful teaching and a host of other stressful conditions often lead to exhaustion. Today, 50 percent of teachers consider quitting, naming stress as one of the primary reasons. To address this crisis, leaders in education must find strategies to combat teacher burnout and build supportive teaching environments.

What Is Teacher Burnout?

Teachers confront significant challenges. They must adapt curricula to a wide range of learning styles, manage shifting education policies, attend to students with special needs, and juggle administrative work. In addition, many of our greatest social ills show up in their classrooms. So, what happens when teachers who already contend with so much also experience unsupportive work environments?

Many experience teacher burnout, hitting their limit in dealing with their work’s daily challenges. It occurs after prolonged exposure to poorly managed emotional and interpersonal job stress.

Consequences of Teacher Burnout

Over time, teacher burnout can lead to a variety of responses. The World Health Organization describes burnout as an occupational phenomenon characterized by three main attributes:

  • Exhaustion. When teachers experience burnout, they can feel depleted of energy and too exhausted to continue with their work.
  • Cynicism. Teachers who have reached a state of burnout can begin to feel mentally detached from their jobs. Their feelings about the profession can turn negative and cynical.
  • Inefficacy. Teacher burnout also leads to feelings of incompetence or ineffectiveness.

Causes of Teacher Burnout

Teachers confront disheartening experiences that can lead to fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Left unmanaged, these symptoms can result in teacher burnout. Some of the causes of teacher burnout include:

Poor Funding

Many districts and schools lack sufficient funding for updated materials, technology, and staff. This places a huge burden on teachers, who must make do with insufficient books and supplies while managing high teacher-to-student ratios. Over time, this burden can leave teachers feeling hopeless and ill-equipped to address achievement gaps and meet students’ needs.

Education leaders must advocate for better school funding and, in the meantime, find ways to cut waste and manage their budgets so schools are as well-stocked and staffed as possible.

High Emotional Demands

In addition to educating students, teachers must care for students’ emotional needs, which can be emotionally demanding. Teachers often feel the very future of a generation rests on their shoulders. If a work environment lacks the support needed to fulfill this responsibility, teachers can understandably feel overwhelmed.

Additionally, teachers frequently find themselves supporting students who have experienced trauma. For example, teachers are likely to be among the first to notice signs of child abuse in a student. As mandated reporters, the law requires teachers to inform authorities.

Such experiences and others in which teachers have no control over the tragic events in their students’ home lives can prove harrowing. Ultimately, teachers can experience secondary trauma when they help students going through difficult times.

Education leaders need to provide teachers with the tools to endure the weight of the emotional demands of their role. For example, they can offer training sessions that give formal instruction on developing emotional skills such as:

  • Accurate emotional recognition
  • Understanding of the causes and consequences of one’s emotions
  • Comfortable expression of emotions
  • Effective regulation of emotions

Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence research has shown that teachers with developed emotional skills experience less burnout.

Inadequate Preparation

All too often, schools put teachers in situations they are adequately prepared to handle. For example, administrators may require educators to teach outside of their subject area, or they may assign students with learning and behavioral challenges to teachers who lack the necessary training to meet their needs. Such scenarios not only prevent students from learning but also prevent teachers from feeling accomplished, which can cause burnout.

Education leaders must ensure teachers get meaningful professional development that prepares them to deal with behavior issues, new education policies, educational technology, and other obstacles. Additionally, administrators must mindfully assign responsibilities that align with a teacher’s preparation and experience.

Challenging Teaching Situations

Educators face increasingly difficult teaching situations that can lead to burnout. These challenges range from policies that tie teacher evaluations to standardized exams that don’t accurately reflect student learning to transitions to distance learning during the pandemic.

For example, with virtual learning, many teachers are bombarded with parent emails while also trying to direct students who can’t navigate online learning platforms. As a result, teachers often feel obligated to work all hours of the day and night, struggling to find a healthy work-life balance. Additionally, challenging student behavior has become more severe and frequent, leaving teachers to manage difficult situations.

Education leaders need to consider how policies regarding teacher evaluations and standardized exams affect teachers and also mindfully advocate for programs that boost teacher morale. They can support teachers by setting boundaries on their behalf, such as by communicating clearly to parents what teacher work hours are and putting limits on teachers’ obligations.

Finally, leaders can continue to deliver specific training that prepares teachers to respond to individual challenges as they arise.

Teacher Burnout Statistics

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that more than 270,000 teachers have left the profession each year since 2016 and projects this rate of departure to continue through 2026.

While the BLS attributes some of the departures to retirement, it classifies more than half of them—in every category of teacher, from kindergarten to special education—as “occupational transfers.” That percentage equates to hundreds of thousands of teachers leaving their careers in education for work in another field each year. One must wonder why, considering all the preparation required to become a teacher in the first place.

With 90 percent of the demand for teachers coming from teachers exiting the profession for reasons unrelated to retirement, leaders must look more closely at teacher burnout and how to keep teachers in the classroom.

Teacher Burnout’s Disproportionate Impact on High-Poverty Schools

The National Center for Education Statistics projects school enrollment will grow 2 percent by 2028. The combination of growing student populations and significant numbers of departing teachers has set off alarm bells for education leaders, who are now searching for ways to curb the attrition. Even more distressing, this attrition disproportionately affects disadvantaged or marginalized students.

Research has consistently shown that the highest teacher attrition rates occur in high-poverty schools and schools made up largely of students of color. For example, as of 2016, Title I schools (schools where at least 35 percent of students are low-income) had turnover rates 50 percent higher than non-Title I schools. The churn and instability that teacher burnout causes intensifies the challenges marginalized students experience and can contribute to a widening achievement gap.

Signs of Teacher Burnout

Teachers often don’t recognize they’re on the road to burning out before they hit a threshold of no return. However, early identification of the following symptoms, which teachers may experience to varying degrees, can help education leaders implement intervention strategies at a point when they will be most effective.

Constant Fatigue

Excessive workloads and emotional strain can lead to fatigue. However, in a manageable situation, this fatigue should ebb and flow. Three-day weekends and seasonal vacations can go a long way in renewing energy. Unfortunately, for overburdened teachers, fatigue can remain a constant. It can interrupt sleep, cause irritability, and even affect eating habits.

Self-Doubt

Teachers may wonder about the effectiveness of a lesson or self-critique their work. This is part of the growing process and key to development. However, teachers heading for burnout may begin to question whether they are cut out for teaching altogether. They may not only doubt the strength of an individual lesson or unit but also wonder if anything they do has value.

Withdrawal

When teachers feel overwhelmed by their work, they may withdraw in several ways. For example, they may pass on social gatherings with colleagues or stop joining other teachers for lunch. They may also take mental health days more often. They may participate less in faculty and department meetings and cut back on attending optional school events after hours, such as athletic competitions and school plays.

Burnout can lead teachers to stop collaborating with their peers. Burned-out teachers often feel little inspiration to share lessons, visit their peers’ classrooms, or engage in email correspondence. When they do communicate with their peers, the purpose is usually to complain about students, parents, school policies, and administration. They often struggle to see anything positive about their surroundings.

A Loss of Inspiration

Most teachers start their careers full of inspiration. Driven to make a difference, they believe in their ability to effect change and feel motivated to dive in. Teacher burnout quashes this inspiration and drive. Rather than feeling excited to meet new students at the beginning of the year, burned-out teachers feel dread about the things that might go wrong. Instead of feeling confident in their ability to make a difference in students’ lives, they may feel like they are fighting a hopeless battle.

How to Prevent Teacher Burnout

Solving teacher burnout cannot be reduced to calls for teacher resilience or encouraging self-care. Such responses seem to suggest teachers experiencing burnout lack the grit to persevere. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth for the vast majority of teachers.

Stripping teachers of their autonomy, as well as imposing standardization and high-stakes exams, can eat away at the rewards and gratification of teaching. Education leaders must examine such trends and find ways to fortify the rewards of teaching if they hope to prevent teacher burnout.

Instead of looking at teacher burnout as an individual problem, leaders in education must shift their focus to assess the problem as a systemic, institutional, or policy-based issue.

Though teachers from high-poverty schools disproportionately make up burned-out teachers, educators from high-performing schools can also feel demoralized. They report serious frustration and confusion dealing with administrative work that often gobbles up unreasonable amounts of time that could be better spent.

For example, many teachers find themselves forced to use proprietary software bought by a district when creating lesson plans or keeping records. While sometimes helpful, such district decisions often prove burdensome, creating excessive data entry tasks and diverting teachers’ attention away from more meaningful and pressing work. Such a frustration, piled on top of others, can contribute to teachers’ sense of defeat.

Increase Teacher Autonomy

Giving teachers more autonomy can improve job satisfaction and retention. The United Kingdom’s National Foundation for Educational Research recently identified strong links between teacher autonomy and retention. Its findings suggest that involving teachers in activities that honor their independence and bolster their sense of feeling respected can significantly affect their morale and motivate them to stay.

For example, rather than imposing goals on teachers, school leaders can involve teachers in goal setting. Additionally, education leaders can consider how to give teachers more control over the curricula they select and the content they teach.

Engage Teachers in the Right Conversations

While policy shifts can improve the climate teachers work in, schools can make important moves to address and prevent teacher burnout. Author of Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay, Doris Santoro explains the value of certain types of conversations between school leaders and teachers. Santoro recommends school leaders initiate conversations about good work, including:

  • What good work looks like
  • Obstacles to achieving good work
  • What’s needed for good work
  • Immediate shifts to removing obstacles to good work

Santoro recommends school leaders get past simply following policy. Rather, she encourages district and school administrators to respond with flexibility and commit to deep engagement with teachers about the issues preventing them from achieving their teaching goals and feeling rewarded.

Build Teachers’ Coping Skills

Education leaders can help teachers manage their stress. With the right support and guidance, teachers can avoid the hopelessness and emotional drain that often leads to teacher burnout.

School leaders can guide teachers to modify their responses to the challenges they confront. Often, teachers enter the field full of anticipation and hope. When confronted by some of the harsh realities of teaching, they can easily fall into despair. However, with the right coping mechanisms, teachers can adjust the responses that fuel negative feelings.

Workshops, counseling, and training sessions can direct teachers to adopt strategies that allow them to reframe issues and compartmentalize difficulties. This approach can make a big difference in avoiding teacher burnout.

Address Symptoms of Teacher Burnout

Teacher burnout does not appear overnight. This means education leaders can institute programs that address the symptoms that lead to it and hopefully prevent teachers from reaching a breaking point.

First, teachers need to trust that school administration will take steps to address their symptoms. However, if teachers see no evidence that they can expect help—or even worse, if they suspect reporting their symptoms will result in less autonomy or diminished faith in their abilities—they will have no reason to share their struggles.

Ways to successfully address symptoms that lead to burnout include:

Implementing Responsive Policies to Teacher Burnout

Schools can offer clear policies and procedures about reporting teacher burnout. They should also provide information about the care available to teachers who are struggling with it.

Keeping Open Lines of Communication

Teachers experiencing symptoms that lead to burnout should receive attention from administrators or people in a position to take direct action in response.

Giving Teachers Choices About Teacher Burnout Care

Teachers know their circumstances best. School leaders should give them choices with regard to the care they receive.

Staying Vigilant

School leaders should be on the lookout for symptoms that lead to burnout among their faculty. This awareness can allow them to intervene while there is still time to make a difference.

The Effect of teacher Burnout on Students

When teachers lose their sense of purpose, feel burdened by fatigue, and withdraw from their work, students will likely feel the effect. Not surprisingly, research indicates teacher burnout negatively impacts students.

First, teacher burnout and attrition go hand in hand. According to the National Education Association, the loss of a teacher during the school year is like losing up to 72 instructional days—almost half the school year. This experience causes students to fall behind and significantly disrupts learning.

Several studies have found that teacher turnover does not solely impact the individual students who lose their teachers. Research has repeatedly shown that high turnover affects the achievement of all students in a school.

Even when teachers experiencing burnout stay on, students pay a price. Teachers overwhelmed by stress use less effective teacher strategies. This affects the clarity of their instruction and classroom management. It also results in less stimulating classroom environments.

A study in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that teachers experiencing burnout at the beginning of the school year had notably worse classroom management by the spring than other teachers. Their classrooms also suffered from significant student disruptions.

A study from the University of British Columbia also found that the students of teachers reporting burnout had elevated levels of stress hormones, suggesting that teachers inadvertently pass their stress on to students.

Learn How to Become an Education Leader and Tackle Teacher Burnout

Addressing teacher burnout means more than responding to it after the fact. Education leaders must prioritize eliminating the causes of teacher burnout and implement solutions that help teachers cope with stress and build supportive work environments that boost morale.

Explore how American University’s Online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership and Online Doctor of Education in Education Policy and Leadership programs equip educators with the skills needed to tackle teacher burnout.

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