Susan Riley | January 2019

Teacher Burnout: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

There’s a great song from The Clash that came out the year I was born. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” has become the anthem for many educators who are facing the big dilemma of teacher burnout.

We’ve all been there.  We get into teaching to make a difference, to share our knowledge and to have an impact. We enter our classrooms with the intense visions of possibility. But after a while, we have to face an uncomfortable reality: teaching rarely matches our original vision.

Where we once saw curriculum as fun and enjoyable, we now see an unrealistic timeline of items students need to know for “the test”.  Helping students has now turned into an evaluative measure of our capabilities – identified on our yearly teacher evaluations.  And anything creative or outside the prescribed scope and sequence feels like an extravagant use of our oh-so-little-time.

Leaving the Profession

Is it any wonder we’re seeing a teacher shortage? Many teachers have listened to that Clash song and decided that staying would be more detrimental to their well-being than leaving.  The old idea that most teachers leave the profession at the 5-year mark is shifting rapidly.  Yes – 41% of teachers leave by year 5.  But 15% (about 1 million) leave just after year one!

As teacher Dwayne Reed points out:

Causes of Teacher Burnout

Teacher burnout is not new. But the rapid rate of teacher burnout and the increasing burdens placed on teachers are new.  Here are just a few reasons teachers have shared that they consider leaving the profession:

  • Inadequate Preparation – Colleges are not spending enough time on the elements that effect the realities of a teacher’s job. Many new teachers come out feeling lost and overwhelmed within their first year.  Veteran teachers don’t receive consistent or relevant professional development.
  • Volume – There’s simply too much to do and not enough time to cover it all.
  • Lack of Support – This includes not having access to appropriate mentoring, supportive coaching, poor working conditions and ineffective resources.
  • Tedium – Generally this applies to seasoned educators who feel like they are in a rut, doing the same thing year after year.
  • Student Behavior – This includes classroom management, home concerns, lack of social/emotional support, and an increasing population of ELL and special needs students who are not provided with appropriate resources or support.
  • Better Career Opportunities – Many teachers can find opportunities outside of the schoolhouse that compensate at a much higher level and require less demanding working conditions.
  • Administration – Specifically, administration who is antagonistic, non-responsive to teacher needs or who are ineffective leaders.
  • Community Relations – The increasing sentiment from community members, media, and parents that teachers are at fault. This causes teachers to feel disrespected and less valued.

Add to these common causes the recent spike in school shootings, violence and lack of a living wage, it’s no wonder we’re seeing a rise in teacher burnout.

causes of teacher burnout

Beyond the Burnout

But all is not lost. The teachers who stay have found ways to move beyond the burnout and actually find joy again in the profession.  Turns out for many, the key is in finding a new passion that they can bring into their classrooms.

Those teachers who are determined to stay make a choice to seek out alternatives to the status quo, often on their own. Here’s a few ways other teachers have turned the ship around:

1. Seeking out Mentors

These can be in-person or online. You might be able to find a mentor in your district – someone who you admire. This doesn’t have to be in the same content area you teach. In fact, the opposite may actually be more helpful. But it should be someone who you find a connection with in their style and their work with students.

If going for the online model, you might find online Facebook groups, Twitter chats and even membership groups to be effective. Many times, teachers in these groups say they don’t know what they’d do without their online community for support.

2. Stay Away from Comparison

While the internet can be great for connecting with others when you feel isolated, it can also be a huge comparison trap. Research has shown that spending your time scrolling perfectly-crafted Instagram feeds or beautiful Pinterest boards can make you feel even more inadequate. It’s okay to look for ideas, but it’s not okay to translate that into what you “should” be doing. There’s a fine line between inspiration and comparison.

Can’t control your need to scroll?  Try a social media timeout.  Use an app like Offtime on your computer or your phone to help you limit the time you spend in these traps.

3. Journal

Yes, it sounds new-agey and woo-woo.  But studies have shown that journaling for just a few minutes a day can have an incredible impact on your attitude and mental health.

To encourage yourself to keep up a journaling practice, go out and get a journal you like. Look for something that reflects your taste. Maybe it has an inspirational saying on the cover, or maybe it’s a nice plain leather cover.  Whatever grabs your attention.

Start by giving yourself a topic. Maybe it’s vacation spots you’d like to go.  Or maybe it’s a list of things you’re grateful for today.  Then set a timer for just 1 minute and start writing.  Keep going until the timer goes off.  Each day, increase the timer by 30 seconds.  This helps make journaling a practice over time that is easy to do.

Eventually, when you free-write like this, you’ll begin to see some surprising things come out on the paper. Don’t judge them. Just notice what’s there and think about how it makes you feel.  This can be a good way to start working through some of the complex feelings that are associated with teacher burnout.

4. Get Yourself Some Relevant PD

It sounds cliche, but it’s true: teachers who actively engage in selecting their own professional development are happier than those who don’t. It’s easy to identify all the things that make teacher burnout possible.  But the only way to change that reality is to take control of your own situation. That’s where teacher-selected PD comes in.

Rather than wait for your school to provide you with the required PD for the year, try approaching them with your own professional development selections first.  Think about what you’d like to try but need some support in putting into practice.  Maybe that’s arts integration or STEAM.  Perhaps it’s project-based learning or a new classroom management technique. Look around for offerings that work into your schedule and then share that with an administrator.

Teachers who take control of their professional development take control of their teaching practice.  And that always impacts how you feel about teaching in general.

Stay or Go: How to Know if You Should Leave Teaching

So how do you know whether your should stay or go? It’s a professional and personal choice that’s influenced by a lot of factors.  Here’s some things that helped me as a teacher and that you might want to consider:

  1. Do you need to leave or do you need a shift?  Sometimes, instead of a whole new job, you just need a new experience. That’s why many people join our arts integration certification program.  They still love teaching – they just want to do it in a new way.
  2. Is the stress of teaching taking a toll on your physical well-being? Look at this from the long-term perspective. Over the last 6-12 months, how many times were you physically ill or couldn’t report to work? If you find yourself physically unable to teach, it’s probably time to look at other options.
  3. Do you need a mental health day or a mental health month? If it’s a day, take it. We all need a day where we can leave the stress of school behind and reconnect with ourselves.  But if you find that you need a week or a month of time away (outside of summer) without any kind of connection back to school, you should take a look at some alternatives.  One word of note: if you take a mental health day, really take one. Don’t take one to catch up on grading or check email throughout the day. Leave school at school and take the day to give yourself some space.  You might find this is all you need to come back refreshed and ready to get back to teaching.
  4. Does your why outweigh the frustrations? We all get frustrated with how systems are set up. Think back to why you got into teaching in the first place. Does that still make you excited to go to work?  Forget all the other stuff.  Does your why still light you up? If so, try using the ideas above for curbing your burnout and starting fresh.
  5. Identify your core values. Here’s a list of core values – try picking your top 3.  Then, look at the totality of teaching in your life. Does it allow – or even support – your 3 selected values? Not all professions support the values you choose. So consider whether teaching helps you maintain or meet those core values.

This is not an exhaustive list and it’s not a quiz that gives you a score.  There’s no right or wrong choice here. But I have found that these 5 considerations have helped me and many of my teacher friends decide on our next steps in this profession.

Remember – teaching has a lot of different iterations.  I used to teach in a classroom and now I teach through consulting and online courses.  Many friends I know have gone from teacher to administrator and have loved the jump.  Still others have been teaching 30 years and don’t plan to retire anytime soon.  And yes, I have friends who have left teaching altogether and are happy in their new careers.

The point is that being a teacher isn’t just a job for many of us. It’s a part of who we are. Which is what makes this consideration so difficult. While you’re working through it for yourself, know that your choice must be for you.  But no matter what you choose – you’ll be okay.

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of EducationCloset.com. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, Common Core State Standards, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education.Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter.Email Susan
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