10 Causes of Teacher Burnout in America

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In this day and age, it seems it is common place to hit the proverbial wall in the education career. With the stressors mounting outside the classroom, the stressors inside the classroom are almost never the reason a teacher reaches full teacher burnout. This year, I decided I needed to officially take a break from the education field. I need to take a break to gather my thoughts, remind myself why I am in this profession, and hopefully some of the national cries for help are addressed while I am away. 

It is my hope to one day come back into the classroom, as I feel that is where my heart belongs. I admire each and every teacher in the trenches, fighting the good fight for our youth. It is a career with little respect and an abundance of stress. Although many teachers have a plethora of reasons for burnout based on their location and district, most have commonalities. 

Below are the top 10 reasons my teacher burnout reached peak, and I left teaching early. These 10 reasons are in no particular order, as different states and district have unique needs and circumstances. These are the most commonalities I have seen and heard throughout my decade plus of being in the classroom. With significant work at the local, state and federal level, maybe we can start seeing the teacher retention increase. 

Lack of Respect

It is so disheartening when I hear, “Teachers are just glorified babysitters.” There was once a time teachers held high authority. Getting an education was a privilege, not a right. Students were in classrooms for a purpose, and by all accounts, teachers had their place and were treated accordingly. As time has progressed, education, or lack thereof, has evolved. In America, we are a right to an education country. This means every child has the right to come into a school building, no matter socio-economic or social status. Teachers are required to give each and every one of those children the best education allowable, no matter how that child acts, or if they care to be there. And if I may add, the majority of us do a damn good job with very little resources. 

Source: rightcogency.wordpress.com

Over time, it has been forgotten teachers have chosen to be in the classroom because that is their desired profession. They are not there as some sort of punishment or because they cannot do anything better. Teachers are the best and brightest, for the most part. Somewhere along the way, children, parents and a large portion of society have seemed to have forgotten teachers are service providers. Just because we do not get paid as the very qualified professionals we are, it does not mean we are not professionals molding our future leaders. 

I once heard a keynote speaker at a teaching convention say, “Teachers are led by administrators scared of their superintendent. Superintendents are led by school board members scared of parents. Parents are led their kids. This means kids are out there running the show.” This hit so close to home, as I see it every single day. Kids are smart and pick up on how others are treated. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a student say, “Go ahead and call home. My parents don’t like you anyway.” 

“Teachers are led by administrators scared of their superintendent. Superintendents are led by school board members scared of parents. Parents are led their kids. This means kids are out there running the show.” ​

Teachers are disrespected inside and out of the classroom and are expected to take it because we are “bigger than that.” Teachers are treated poorly by students without discipline and parents who think paying taxes allows them to treat us like dirt. Meanwhile, most teachers I know have Master’s degrees in their field and are more than highly qualified to do a variety of careers. Yet, they choose every day to wake up, go to a career where they are undervalued, spend money they don’t have on supplies for children in need, all because their heart is just a little too big, and they want to make a difference. At some point this becomes too much. Teachers are being forced to leave the classroom because the struggle is too hard. A little bit of respect goes a very long way.

Lack of Support on the National Level

As I write this, it boils my blood the state of our education department at the national level. It is a joke. Our current secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is grossly unqualified to speak on public education, let alone make decisions for our nation in regards to education. DeVos not only has never worked in any capacity in public education, but she has never attended public schools, had her children in public school, or been in public education AT ALL. How is this even possible?

“I have not intentionally visited schools that are under performing.”

DeVos has done many things to derail progress in public education, including, but not limited to: calling for privatizing education, which would actively take away many rights for students under I.D.E.A, revoked the Borrowers Defense Act, which holds for profit schools accountable, and last but certainly not least, supported a budget proposal to slash 13.5% for Department of Education funding. How do we have national leaders that not only disregard public education, but are actively trying to tear it down? If you are still unaware of who Betsy DeVos is, or her qualifications, please watch hearing highlight video below.

Okay. Okay. Maybe you are reading this and are a DeVos supporter and do not agree. I can understand we have differences of opinion, that is what makes us individuals. What is fact, though, is our nation spends 4x as much on prisoners each year than they do on students in schools. Some of our schools are in dismal states with bare bone resources, yet teachers are evaluated on the level of education provided to students. Luckily, you have very highly qualified, passionate individuals in most classrooms rising to the occasion and providing stellar instruction with very little resources and/or pay. Until national funding meets the needs inside the classroom, teacher burnout rates will rise. We cannot keep being asked to do more with so much less than needed when it comes to training, support and resources at the national level. If we want to be a competing nation in education, we have to treat our teachers like the rock stars they are every single day.

Source: Dr. Sandra Trappen

Lack of Administration Support

It is unfortunate teachers are the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to school business. Even though our daily actions dictate the successes and/or failures at the school, our hands remain tied in many instances. We are dictated by a group of individuals that have often times been out of the classroom for many years, or worse, never been in a classroom at all. Now, I know administrators are all very well trained in the ins and outs of running a school, and many have their heart in the right place. Also, some schools are far more advanced when it comes to administrator support. Unfortunately, not all school systems work in the best interest of the teachers.

Education changes rapidly. As technology increases, the way children learn changes. Even over the last decade, I have seen tremendous changes in the way authentic learning happens and have had to change my practices many times to best suit the needs of the children I teach. It is hard for administrators to understand the daily interactions in the classroom, and what it takes to effectively teach 30+ students in a room at any given time. 

Why then, do so many administrators make decisions about our classrooms without our input? It is difficult to give full support to an entity you truly do not understand. Why don’t we have administrators in the classroom more often, spending quality time with students? Why don’t they substitute or volunteer in the classroom? We need administrators to truly understand our daily struggles, not to just pop in and tell us what we are doing wrong from time to time.

"You can have great teachers, but if you don't have a good principal, you won't have a good school."
Eli Broad

Pressure to Teach to a Standardized Test

In my experience, using the phrase, “teaching to the test” brings up many feelings. Mostly, teachers get very frustrated and/or defensive. We don’t want to be seen as devaluing the process of learning by simply teaching a test, but we are also evaluated on our students scores. If they never learn how to take the test, how will they know to be successful? With this being said, most teachers I know LOATHE state testing.

We are told over and over we need to differentiate our instruction and meet all learning styles. In fact, during classroom observations, we are marked on the use of different learning strategies used. Why then, do we give a one size fits all kind of test to evaluate the learning over the course of a year? It’s impractical. 

In fact, the countries consistently surpassing us with public education rankings, such as Finland, do not have standardized testing. These countries trust the professionals they hire to teach the next generation will do their job and provide growth for their students. Maybe if we took the pressure off a test with little value, our teachers could focus on best instruction practices for growth for all children. 

Time Suck Meetings

Having pointless meetings seems like such a trivial reason for teacher burnout; however, it is one of the number one complaints from teachers. We have so many responsibilities inside and outside of the classroom, any time we have is precious. It is beyond maddening to sit in pointless meetings when you know there are lesson plans to write, emails/calls to parents, grading, and supplies to be purchased. There is an infinite to-do list for educators. 

We all understand the importance of disseminating information, or teaching new skills. Just like teaching students, some teaching teams are far more advanced than others. If we need to differentiate in the classroom, why don’t administrators differentiate for teachers? Find out our strengths and weaknesses and provide information to teams as needed. This would be far more productive, as teachers are usually more receptive to meeting times when we feel it is valuable and not just minutes to fill some sort of quota for meetings. 

Lack of Student Discipline

Lack of discipline for students is a two fold issue: in home discipline and in school discipline. Before I start on this issue, I want to clarify, I do believe in the value of relationships. Discipline for a child is infinitely smoother when a child respects you. This is true for parents, teachers and any other adults dealing with students. There are some instances, though, when students need discipline and if not handled properly, can escalate very quickly.

Source: Pixabay User: geralt

Of course, the demeanor of a child is molded at home. Children learn values, morals and respect at home, either consciously or subconsciously. If children do not learn to respect their parents, there is little hope they will respect other adults in their lives. It is incredibly difficult to discipline a child inside the classroom if the actions are not supported at home.

With that being said, it is within our duty to make sure all children have equal opportunity to learn. This means if a child is disrupting a class, taking away from the learning experience of others, we have a duty to provide discipline. Unfortunately, many teachers have very little backing from administration with said discipline. We are told we need to handle discipline on our own. It is very difficult to manage some behavioral situations when there are 30+ other students in the room trying to learn. We do not have to punish students, but we must show proper discipline. 

Limited Resources

We are living in a time where resources at both the federal and state level are dismal. The average school is severely lacking in the everyday necessities teachers need to teach. I have had to work in school at the highest of the high and the lowest of the low in my career. No matter where you teach, though, you are likely to find teachers not getting everything they need to reach the ever increasing demands on teachers. 

Every teacher I know has a personal budget to supplement the lack of supplies needed by students, or to conduct class. Since I have been a science teacher most of my career, I have spent hundreds, possibly thousands, of dollars over the last decade to hold the type of class I feel best for my students. Of course, I don’t HAVE to spend anything; however, the most effective teachers usually spend their own money, or spend hours searching for donations and grants because they know what is provided just doesn’t cut it. 

Source: Pixabay User: Wokandapix

It isn’t just the supplies either. Some teachers are teaching in buildings that do not get cleaned, or are unsafe. I have taught in classrooms where the rain came through the roof, rooms with black mold, rooms with zero outside light, rooms with floors so dirty the once white tiles were permanently stained brown, rooms without air conditioning with 95 degree weather. Now, this is not the worst it could possibly be, but if we want to be competitive in education, we need classrooms not making the human inhabitants sick and supplies to create the environment necessary to cultivate learning. Teacher burnout is far less when we love the place we spend more waking hours than our own homes.

Class Size

Class size is a topic debatable when it comes to teacher stress. I know teachers who love very large class sizes and have had great results with 30+ students in a room. I tend to feel much less strongly about this topic myself, but only when we are talking about having students that fall within the “average” range of proficiency, had equal educational opportunities and/or motivation, who also do not have any learning obstacles, such as language acquisition. This is about 80%-85% of your students. However, the other 15%-20% of students just do not learn well in this environment. What happens to these students in these environments?

When students are not being taught at their level of comprehension, either at the high or low level, there is a recipe for disaster. When students are not engaged, they tend to start getting antsy. With that being said, it is very difficult to reach every level of comprehension when you have 30-40 students in one classroom. I have had much practice and pride myself on being able to handle larger class sizes, but it is not without extreme effort. I am exhausted by the end of the teaching day because the amount of physical and mental work it takes to keep that many students engaged and learning for 7 hours a day. So, even though I feel large classes are doable, it is not ideal, by any means. 

Lack of Accountability Between Teachers

Have you ever put your whole heart and soul into what you do, while your coworker does the very minimum to get by, but you are still both compensated in the same way? Welcome to teaching! As I have stated many times, I feel most professionals in education are there for the right reasons and work far beyond what they are compensated. However, there are always the “bad apples” in any school. These are the teachers coming in with the students, using worksheets and free days to get by, and leave when the bell rings. They put on a show for evaluation, but EVERYONE knows what happens inside the classroom. Unfortunately, there is such a shortage in teaching, these people are allowed to continue on without reprimand. 

This is very disheartening for the teachers putting their heart and soul into what they do. They are the first to get to the school and the last to leave. They spend hours at home searching for ways to reach even the toughest students. They spend hours giving feedback to help the students grow, even in areas outside of the subject they teach. They are the ones attending student sporting or extracurricular events because those things make a difference in the lives of students.

"Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school."
Bill Gates

The days are long and the job is rough. These teachers work themselves to exhaustion and tears at times because they understand the importance of their career choice. It is very hard on those days, though, knowing the teacher next door is not even doing their job, let alone going above and beyond. This leads to frustration and anger. Why are these people not only allowed to teach, but get the same benefits and pay, when there are others working themselves to exhaustion? Of course the top teachers realize the impact they make is more than any paycheck will ever be; however in the moment it is disheartening. 

The lack of accountability within our school walls is beyond belief. Until we have systems in place, and can bring accountable teachers into our classroom, we will continue to fall far behind our competitors. All we are doing is putting more work on the teachers who actually do their job when we allow others to do below acceptable work in the classroom. Most administrators I have ever known just does not give the incapable teacher responsibilities and puts it on the ones that get work done because it is just so difficult to fire incapable teachers within our current system. This leads to high levels of teacher burnout over time. Even though we want to do it all, we just hit our limit at some point.

Salary

I cannot believe I actually still hear people say, “But you only work 8-3, and get summers off.” HA! This is not only laughable, but asinine. Even the worst teachers, with the worst work ethic are required to work more than 7 hours a day and have mandatory trainings during summer time. We only get paid for the 7 hours and school days. The other stuff is just extra things worked into the salary. If we take the average teaching salary of $58,353, according to the National Education Association, and only accounted for the 7 hours a day for the mandatory 187 days, that would be a great salary with $44.57 an hour. The bad news is 36 states fall well below that average and many teachers put in more than 10 hours a day, for well over the 187 day minimum. 

Source: WalletHub

Unfortunately many people do not understand teachers do not get paid to take summers off. Teachers are paid a 10 month salary, they just have to take the payment over 12 months. It is like an interest free loan we are forced to give to our employers. That sounds like a pretty sweet deal, if you are an educational entity benefiting. 

Depending on the state in which a teacher lives, the salary can be considered a handsome compensation, but more often than not, teachers fall below the low income level in the states they live. Pile on the lack of benefits and the out of pocket money spent on supplies, many teachers are barely getting by on their salary. Why stay in a career where you are grossly underpaid for the skill set you have cultivated?

What Can You Do About It: 15 Steps to Reduce Teacher Stress

  • Find a Work Life Balance
  • Have an Accountability Buddy on Campus
  • Plan with Team Mates to Take Stress off of You
  • Don't be Afraid to Take Mental Health Days
  • Ask for Help When You Need It
  • Stay Away from the Negative Nancys on Campus
  • Speak to Students Outside of the Classroom to Remind You How Awesome They Are
  • Find a Stress Relieving Activity You Enjoy (And Make Time for It)
  • Don't Try to Do Everything: Realize it's Okay to Say No
  • Forgive Yourself for Making Mistakes: Correct and Move On
  • Ask for What You Need to be Successful: The Worst They Can Do is Say No
  • Find a Positive Mantra to Replace Negative Thoughts
  • Don't Take Things Home: Create a Clear Home Life
  • Create Specific Time Just for You Each Day
  • Don't Allow Yourself to Bottle Up Emotions: Squash Issues While They are Still Small

Just a Few Stories Why Teachers Stay in Education

"My life's work has been teaching; it's who I am. Even if I wasn't in the classroom, I would be teaching just by the nature of my life. As the oldest of five girls, I was born to lead, to teach, to nurture and to embrace kids of all ages. There are many rewards to what I do day after day, even though we are often not recognized for the job. Just connecting with a former student 20 years after I taught them is pure magic. We make connections and impact lives, or at least that is what we strive to do on a daily basis. Teaching can be brutally challenging, taking on the worries and concerns that these kids are going through. I do feel compelled to teach my subject, and I have a great passion for writing and expression that has driven me through the years in my classroom. It is my hope that my students leave my class with an understanding of themselves and a love for creative expression."
Sandi
21 Year in Education
"I am a servant leader."
Sonia
18 Years in Education
"I stay in this profession because most days I genuinely like going to work and I'm not sure most people can say that. I also think I am good at teaching and this is what I was meant to do with my life. I have spent so much money and time in higher education to become a better teacher that I would feel as though I would be letting myself and my loved ones down if I quit now. I am in a substantial amount of student loan debt and if I wasn't a teacher that would be a reminder every month of the fact that I quit. Now more than ever though, I think of making more money and being able to save with a different career."
Sarah
9 Years in Education

Final Thoughts on the State of Education in America

We are in an unfortunate situation with education in our country. We are constantly compared to other developed countries and the question always arises, “Why do we consistently fall under others in achievement?” The question can keep being asked, but it will not change until major, large systematic changes begin. We cannot expect to magically fix the broken system without putting in the work. It doesn’t work that way. Unfortunately, I feel it will get a bit worse before it gets better. We, as a society, need to hold those at the top accountable. Change is coming, hopefully, but it has to come from the top. Us at the bottom are tired. For those staying in the fight, I admire you. I hope to rejoin you after I get some rest and clarification.