Teacher Burnout: Warning Signs, Causes and Tips on How to Avoid

It feels so nice to go home at the end of an eight-hour work day, kick off your shoes, turn on your favorite TV show, and relax. Maybe you take your dog for a walk. Maybe you spend some quality time with your kids.

Or maybe, if you’re a teacher, you pull out your computer and huge folder of grading and get started on another couple hours of work. Or maybe you spend hours traveling to and from an away sporting event as a coach. Or maybe you go to bed at 8 so you can wake up at 5 so you can get to school early enough to set up your lab, before students start pouring in the door. No big deal; you’re getting paid for all the overtime you’re working, right? Not even close.

In all my time teaching, I have never met another teacher who could do their job strictly during work hours. It is almost impossible to be a teacher without taking work home, going to school early, and/or coming home late.

This is a problem. A problem that is causing half a million teachers to leave the profession every year.

When I was working toward my bachelor’s in education, I took all of my core teacher training courses with a group of about 30 other students. I vividly remember one day, we were sitting in class and our professor told us to take a good look around, that half of us wouldn’t be teachers in five years. We refused to believe it. Certainly not us. We were different. We would make it. We would make a difference. But when I looked back five years later, he was right. Almost exactly half of us weren’t teachers.

Here’s what some of my former classmates had to say about leaving the teaching profession (or never entering it in the first place)

“I loved teaching… after a few years of teaching, leading the middle school’s history department, coaching two sports, and leading two clubs, I was asked to take on more responsibility without an increase in pay. [The] rent in NYC is tough enough to pay, and my monthly student loan payments are just about equal. Ultimately, that’s why I switched into a better-paying position elsewhere. The work isn’t necessarily as fulfilling, but I also don’t have to spend my nights and weekends lesson planning or grading…”

“There were days that I loved teaching and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life, and then there were days that I hated teaching and I didn’t know how I was going to muster up the strength and energy to get up the next day and do it again. Unfortunately, the latter far outweighed the former. I just couldn’t rationalize putting so much time and effort into a thankless job, when I could make more money, be less stressed, work fewer hours, and spend more time with my family with a different career.”

“I eventually found other ways to incorporate my teaching skills at a university part-time while still writing full time. I get the satisfaction of teaching, but have more flexibility with my schedule and still get to chase both passions.”

“I was teaching a larger load of classes than was on my contract and while I was compensated for it, I was also my grade team lead, so I ended up having literally no prep time most days. I would teach and be with kids from 7:30-4:30, including over lunch, then go home and grade and plan. I was paid for $40/week, but was working 60. You don’t have a very high quality of life when you’re working that many hours. And it was really sad because I loved my kids but there was no way to have a family and have my own interests when I was spending almost every minute of my free time doing things for work.”

These stories are sad. Every single one of these former teachers has a passion for kids and for helping people, but the demands of the profession drove them away. When my peers and I graduated with our education degrees, the field was saturated and it was hard to find a job. Today in many areas of the country, the opposite is true. Schools are struggling to fill positions, which only exacerbates the teacher burnout problem.

So what can be done? Why is teacher burnout such a big issue, not only in the United States but all over the world? Continue reading to learn causes, warning signs, and tips on how to avoid teacher burnout.

Causes of Teacher Burnout

First, it’s important to understand exactly what teacher burnout is. According to a recent study by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, teacher burnout is defined as “psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.” Maslach and Leiter further explain that there are three main components that contribute to burnout: overwhelming (often emotional) exhaustion, feeling ineffective and lacking accomplishment, and feeling detached and cynical toward the job.

Another study for a Journal for Social and Behavioral Sciences found that causes of teacher burnout can be broken down into two categories: environmental and societal factors.

Environmental factors include:

  • Role conflict and ambiguity: administrators are often vague on what exactly is expected of teachers, and many teachers feel an unspoken duty to do more
  • Work overload: teachers are tasked with doing more than they can possibly do during normal work hours
  • Low salary: teaching continually makes the list of lowest paying jobs that require a college degree
  • Poor classroom climate: every day, teachers face disrespectful students and struggle to balance classroom management with instruction
  • Little support from superiors and peers: this is not the case in every school and for every teacher, but when this is the case, it can lead a teacher to feel burned out and unappreciated very quickly

Societal factors include:

  • Erosion of public respect and support for teachers: teachers often face doing their best to do a very hard job, all the while being told by the public that anybody can do their job, and that most can do it better than them; this is very demoralizing
  • Increased demands with simultaneous decreased funding: as schools face more and more budget cuts, teachers are increasingly asked to do more with less

In addition to these causes on the job, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin identified lack of adequate teacher preparation as another cause of teacher burnout in “The Teacher Burnout Epidemic,” an article for Psychology Today.

The first few years of teaching are extremely difficult as teachers adjust to the demands of the job and in many cases create units, lessons, and resources from scratch. When teachers enter the profession without proper preparation, these tasks become even more difficult and time-consuming.

Warning Signs of Teacher Burnout

With all of these causes, it’s no wonder teacher burnout is so prevalent. What are some of the warning signs that teachers might be starting to burn out?

You may notice some of the following signs in yourself or your colleagues:

  • No longer caring about student discipline and classroom management
  • Lowering standards for students and self
  • Failing to properly plan or prepare lessons
  • Increasingly having a negative attitude toward school and students
  • Not having any close colleagues to vent or confide in
  • Becoming bored with the job*
  • Lack of physical or emotional energy
  • Not being understanding of students and their situations
  • Feeling anxiety about going to work
  • Consistently feeling overwhelmed by workload

*While burnout more commonly affects newer teachers who become overwhelmed and stressed with the demands of the job, veteran teachers can suffer from burnout when they get bored with the job. They find themselves teaching the same things and dealing with the same issues year after year after year and it wears them down.

How to Avoid Teacher Burnout

Clearly, teacher burnout is a multifaceted problem, and there is no one single solution. Following are some ways to attack the problem from multiple angles.

What Administrators and Other School Employees Can Do

Celebrate Teacher Accomplishments

A lot of focus is placed on the students, rightfully so, but teachers often feel slighted because they are the reason students have accomplished what they have. Even a simple gesture like a quick email to tell a teacher what a great job he did yesterday can go a long way in helping teachers feel appreciated.

Lighten the Load

So many teachers burn out because they’ve been spread so thin for so long, and they just can’t do it anymore. Administrators can work to decrease the amount of time teachers spend teaching, decrease the number of students teachers are responsible for, increase planning time, give teachers more breaks, and be flexible with schedules.

Plan Community Activities

Teacher burnout can be alleviated when teachers feel like they belong, but this is difficult for first or second year teachers to do. Even though teachers are with students every day, it can be a lonely profession.

When teachers take the time to get together and vent, bond, and just talk, they often realize that they aren’t the only one struggling with a particular student or group of students. This alone can make the job much less isolating, and it can give newer teachers confidence when they realize that even tenured teachers struggle.

Community building activities can be just for faculty, but they can also be for the entire school. Shared experiences make people feel connected. Activities such as assemblies, pep rallies, spirit days, talent shows, etc. can help build morale and community that lifts up the overall climate of the school.

Create a Positive Environment

Administrators should work to make themselves approachable and available to teachers. According to a study titled “How School Climate Influences Teachers’ Emotional Exhaustion: The Mediating Role of Emotional Labor” from International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “First, principals should make an effort to foster a high quality working environment in which teachers will feel a strong sense of duty to devote themselves to their work.” Workplace climate is sometimes undervalued, but it is a huge aspect of helping teachers cope with the demands and stress of the job.

Improve Professional Development

Ideally, teacher preparation programs would get better, but if that is not the case, then administrators can do their best to plan meaningful and purposeful professional development opportunities. Every teacher has sat through meetings and training feeling extremely frustrated that their time could be better spent grading or planning in their classroom. Administrators can seek to provide truly meaningful professional development by doing research on options and getting teacher input.

What Teachers Can Do For Themselves

Take a Mental Health Day

I have long held the belief that mental health days are just as, if not more, important than true sick days. Sometimes you just need a break, and often when teachers take a mental health day, they come back better and more productive than they would have been otherwise.

The important thing here is to take a true mental health day. Completely detach yourself—don’t worry about who your sub is or how many things you have to get done for work; let the day in your classroom unfold as it does and worry about it when you get back.

Almost every teacher I know takes a sick day occasionally to catch up on grading or planning. That alone should be enough to tell you that there is too much on teachers’ plates; they literally have to take a day off to do their job. Sometimes this can help with burnout too, but taking care of your mental health is essential.

Learn to Say No

You need to recognize (and so do your administrators) that you can’t do it all. The more you put on your plate, the more you are spreading yourself thin, and the less effectively you will do each job. When schools are low on personnel, teachers are usually great about picking up the slack, but at some point it just gets to be too much. If you already feel as though you have too much on your plate, be okay with saying no to taking on a new responsibility.

Leave School at School

This one is really hard to do for most teachers, but it can be extremely helpful with emotional exhaustion. If at all possible, aim to get all of your school work done at school, which may mean going in a little earlier and staying a little later. The benefit of this is that you can completely detach yourself once you are home.

Many teachers also think and worry about their students when school isn’t in session, which is a natural consequence of how much teachers care. To the best of your ability, aim to leave your worries about your students at school, knowing that you’ve done the best you could to help them and you will do the same tomorrow.

Take Time for Yourself

Don’t lose yourself in a devotion to your career. Whatever this means for you, take time for yourself: exercising, going to the movies, spending time with your family, playing with your dog, doing yoga, hiking, reading, etc. It’s cliché but true: you can’t pour from an empty cup.

The Implications of Teacher Burnout

When a teacher experiences burnout, the effects directly impact students and the school as a whole. Burnout causes great teachers to leave the profession. When this happens, not only do students lose a great teacher, but the rest of the teachers in the district are often left to pick up the slack, as many schools are not replacing teachers due to budget cuts.

If a burned out teacher chooses to stay in the profession, they are still negatively impacting students because most likely, they are not doing their job to the best of their ability. They also tend to have a negative attitude, which is contagious.

The problem of teacher burnout likely won’t be fixed unless there is a culture change surrounding education. If, however, all school employees work together to take care of each other by following some of the above strategies, many teachers will find themselves much happier in their careers.

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