How to Cope When Teacher Burnout Rates are Sky High

Across the United States, the self-reported burnout rates are very high for the kindergarten through 12th-grade educational workforce. Within this sector, teachers are being hit especially hard as just over 50% of them report feelings of burnout either “always” or “very often”.

Burnout for teachers working isn’t just high, though: it’s on the rise. Since March 2020, burnout in K-12 educational workers has not only maintained the lead but pulled away from the pack by comparison to other industries. Considering the pandemic-fueled challenges of the last two years, it’s not surprising that teacher burnout rates have increased.

COVID-19 made an already challenging role even more complicated for educators. The rapid transition to teaching in the virtual environment, the slow re-acclimation back to the classroom with precautions like distancing and wearing masks, topped off with students experiencing stress and anxiety, are just a few of the many things taking a toll on our teachers. 

Additionally, many teachers find that their work-life balance has gotten out of whack as they juggle their work duties with caring for children or other relatives who might be home sick with the flu, COVID, or require other support. In this post, we discuss signs of teacher burnout and what educators can do to feel better.

What Are Symptoms of Teacher Burnout?

The first step in coping with burnout is to know the signs and symptoms. As a teacher, knowing the signs and picking up on them either in yourself or your colleagues can help identify those who need help and slow the growth of teacher burnout rates.

Fatigue

It is not uncommon for someone to feel tired or exhausted after a full day of teaching. It becomes concerning when people wake up in the morning still very tired, possibly having not slept well through the night.

Physical Symptoms

Burnout can manifest itself physically beyond just fatigue through symptoms that may include headaches, nausea, abdominal discomfort, and loss of appetite. Teachers might also find themselves feeling anxious—anxiety among educators has risen dramatically in recent years, particularly regarding situations related to the ongoing pandemic. Persistent symptoms like these should be evaluated by a medical professional.

Loss of Interest or Cynicism

If you find yourself or your colleagues seeming disinterested in their roles and responsibilities as a teacher it may be a sign of burnout. This may even develop into new or surprising feelings of negativity or cynicism towards the job. 

Here’s the thing: it’s okay and even healthy to admit that it’s exhausting to constantly worry and care for others while sidelining your own needs, which is why compassion fatigue is a very real problem among teachers. The important thing is to acknowledge it for what it is so that it can be treated before it develops into full-on depression or more severe stress.

Increased Sick Days

Teachers experiencing burnout may start to use more of their sick time, avoiding coming to work in an attempt to avoid stress. Some teachers are even asking themselves and one another what to do if they’ve used up their sick time but still feel unwell or overwhelmed. 

5 Ways to Overcome Burnout Among Teachers

It’s not sustainable for more than 50% of our K-12 teachers to continue to experience feelings of burnout of this magnitude. Without proper awareness and intervention, teacher burnout rates may continue to climb. Here’s how to cope.

1. Recognize It

The first step to improving teacher burnout rates is recognition, especially since there’s often a very strong fear among teachers that expressing their anxiety, stress, or feelings of overwhelm might lead to the loss of their contract. Being open and transparent about the symptoms of burnout will help communicate these signs as well as the importance of this issue to others. 

Creating a culture of open dialogue can help people feel less alone in dealing with burnout, and possibly help reduce any stigma or shame they may be experiencing. After all, educators who are worn thin to the point of burnout are not only suffering themselves, but are incapable of being fully available for their students, their colleagues, or their loved ones at home. Predictably, this leads to increased turnover at schools, which translates to fewer veteran educators for newer teachers to learn from and emulate. 

Each individual may present with signs and symptoms of burnout uniquely. Learning how that variability may manifest itself in you or your colleagues may be helpful, and the Teachers Burnout and Chronic Stress course developed by the education pros at #1 Premiere Continuing Education is a great start. This course is intended for teachers and administrators as a way to explore the causes of burnout and stress, as well as ways to manage it.

2. Prioritize Self-Care

Self-care is unique to each person as an individual and is seldom prioritized by teachers who are driven by service to others. As a concept, self-care is a method to support our health and wellness through a combination of multiple things that may include:

  • Setting boundaries in your professional role 
  • Practicing meditation and mindfulness
  • Making time for activities you enjoy
  • Exercising
  • Setting boundaries in your professional role

When setting boundaries, consider this: not every single assignment that lands on your desk needs to be graded. Certain assignments are stepping stones that can be measured in learning outcomes, so as long as students complete them, they don’t need a grade attached.

By emphasizing self-care, teachers can enjoy improved sleep quality, which is one of the most significant factors that helps avoid burnout-related symptoms. It should go without saying, but the more sleep you get, the more energized you’ll be to instruct and care for students.

Of course, taking concrete steps to reduce teacher burnout rates is not something that will happen without deliberate effort and support from school administration, especially when there are so many pressures on teachers to keep going and going until they drop. Focusing on your own needs can at times require a perspective and culture shift, when educators realize that prioritizing their own health and well-being makes them better teachers and colleagues.

3. Find Moments to Celebrate the Small Things

Apart from taking some time for yourself outside of work, there may be opportunities to hit the brakes a little while on the job. In addition to actively teaching students, teachers are responsible for completing a lot of work between classes. Trying to get all that done within a normal workday may at times feel impossible. 

While it’s hard to find the time in a packed day, it’s critical for teachers to take breaks. Incorporating a brief 5-10 minutes between classes, for example, to take a quick walk or just zone out and gaze out of the window can make a perceptible difference. 

Research shows that a 10-minute micro-break after about one hour of continuous work-related activity can support effectiveness in your role and reduce burnout. Of course, this isn’t always possible, which is why some teachers might consider leading a 5-minute class meditation at the conclusion of a lecture. 

Additionally, we all spend way too much time thinking about what could have gone better or where our opportunities for improvement are. What about focusing more on what we do well? Reducing teacher burnout rates could possibly be helped by us learning how to celebrate the small things.

Even small accomplishments are worth celebrating in support of your own personal job satisfaction. Learn how to reward yourself for doing something well, or for a good outcome from something you worked on. For example, grab that snack you reserve only for special occasions or use that 10-minute micro-break to call a pal and have a quick catch-up. Other teachers might find comfort in reflecting on how they make a lasting contribution to the emotional and intellectual lives of their students every single day.

5. Enjoy the Weekend

If you’re one of those teachers that tends to bring their work home with them, this one is for you. Teacher burnout rates are never going to improve without a little emphasis on the work-life balance. Without a break from our professional role, burnout for some may be inevitable.

Pressing issues aside, most work can be left in the workplace. Whatever work you leave on Friday will likely be there waiting for you on Monday. The weekends should be for you to do the things you enjoy, whether it’s spending time with family or finally going on that hike with your dog.

Learning to recognize and manage teacher burnout and stress, as well as finding school-wide solutions to anticipate and address the symptoms of burnout, is a critical first step in improving the lives of teachers and school administrators. 

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