Skip to main content

The Current State of Teacher Burnout in America

March 10, 2019

Teaching is one of the most difficult yet most rewarding career paths a professional can take. Across the country, teachers are helping to shape the way future generations think, question, grow, and learn. Not only do teachers educate, but they are role models and supporting figures in the lives of those they teach.

Despite a growing need for teachers, there is a global teacher shortage. Unfortunately, compounding that shortage is the fact that teachers have an extremely high rate of burnout—meaning even fewer qualified professionals are retained.

But hope is not lost. Burnout prevention tips—such as preparation, skill set development, and in-classroom experience through advanced education degrees—may go a long way in preparing new teachers for future enduring success.

A Snapshot of Teaching in America

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the employment of teachers at all levels will grow between 2016 and 2026. BLS expects the number of teaching jobs for kindergarten and elementary school to rise 7 percent, introducing around 116,300 new jobs, and the number of middle school and high school teaching jobs to rise 8 percent, equating to a combined 124,100 new teaching jobs. That’s almost a quarter of a million new teaching jobs opening up before 2026.

The demand for teachers is rising fast, widening the gap between need in the classroom and available professionals. The rise in demand is a “function of changes in student enrollment, shifts in pupil-teacher ratios, and most significantly, high levels of teacher attrition,” according to a report by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI).

Teacher Burnout Basics

The term “burnout,” in a professional sense, refers to the “consequences of severe stress and high ideals in ‘helping’ professions,” where people end up “exhausted, listless, and unable to cope,” according to a report from the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Teacher burnout can occur slowly, over many years of teaching, or quickly, such as during the overwhelming learning curve period when teachers first start to teach. Unfortunately, burnout of this type is quite common in new teachers, which, in turn, leads to higher attrition rates.

According to the LPI report, new teachers leave at greater rates than others leaving before retirement. Not only that, but the report also notes that “new teachers leave at rates of somewhere between 19 percent and 30 percent over their first five years of teaching.”

Burnout doesn’t impact only new teachers. As further noted in the LPI report, overall teacher attrition rates are quite high in the United States, around 8 percent, compared with high-retention countries averaging 3 percent to 4 percent attrition, including Finland, Canada, and Singapore. Furthermore, the US percentage jumps much higher in many states and districts where newer teachers receive little support after they have started teaching.

Why Teachers Are Leaving

A 2018 Gallup report explored the primary reasons teachers chose to leave their jobs. According to the report, 29 percent left because of personal reasons, such as relocation or health motivators. Of the remaining 71 percent who left for job-related reasons, 16 percent were involuntarily let go, while 84 percent left voluntarily.

Those who left voluntarily had the following two main reasons:

  • To seek career development or advancement (60 percent)
  • To seek improved pay or benefits (13 percent)

The Gallup report notes that despite prevailing coverage on low teacher pay, teachers who left blamed poor pay as their reason for leaving less often than people in other professions did. For example, 24 percent of non-teachers voluntarily left their last jobs because of unsatisfactory pay.

According to an NPR Ed article, there are many specific reasons driving different teachers from the classroom, including the following:

  • Lack of resources
  • Low pay
  • Nasty political environment
  • Not allowed to fail students
  • Poor preparation
  • Too much emphasis on testing
  • Too much teaching to the test

When a teacher chooses to leave his or her school, it is rarely for just one reason. Often, some, if not many, of the aforementioned reasons combine to burn out a teacher’s enthusiasm and motivation.

Burnout Prevention Tips

Because of burnout’s serious ramifications for not only the teacher but also for the teacher’s school and the students within it, knowing a few burnout prevention tips is extremely beneficial.

Mindfulness Interventions. Mindfulness, also called “present-moment awareness,” was initially a Buddhist practice. Today, in the context of education, mindfulness interventions enhance a teacher’s emotional work by developing a wide variety of emotion regulation strategies. According to a recent study published in Educational Psychology Review, mindfulness interventions that lasted more than one month had significant effects on personal accomplishment and exhaustion levels within teachers.

Preparation. Not only does preparation impact the quality of a teacher’s lesson, but it also impacts the way teachers feel about themselves within their careers. Those with poor preparation may not be able to effectively meet classroom demands and, as a result, ultimately leave.

According to an NPR Ed interview article, the LPI president noted that “teachers who are well-prepared leave at more than two times lower rates than teachers who are not fully prepared.” Preparation comes in many forms, ranging from gaining extensive classroom experience to acquiring elevated skill sets to meet different classroom needs.

A report from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education found that teacher education and preparation play an important role in attrition rates, particularly among new teachers who may be experiencing burnout:

  • Strategy and Methods Courses. New teachers who had taken more teaching strategy and methods courses were less likely to leave. For example, those who had completed three to four methods courses were 36 percent less likely to leave than peers who hadn’t completed any teaching methods coursework.
  • Teaching Experience. Prior teaching practice heavily impacts attrition. New teachers with a semester of practice were thrice less likely to leave than those who had little to no experience.
  • Pedagogical Preparation. Those with preparation in the four pedagogical types were more likely to stay. For example, teachers who had observed others in the classroom were 65 percent less likely to leave than those who did not have that kind of experience.

In order to prevent burnout and pave the clearest way to teaching success, many professionals choose to gain further knowledge. For instance, American University’s Master of Arts in Teaching program offers all three of the aforementioned forms of preparation: strategy and methods, pedagogical approaches, and extensive classroom experience. As more professionals enter the workforce, teachers with elevated levels of education and experience in real classroom settings will help assuage the teacher shortage by cutting attrition. Their presence and skills will help impact the future of America’s children for the better—not only in their first few years of teaching but for many years to come.