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Alice Keeler

Teacher Burnout is Real (and It’s Okay to Not Be Okay)

Teacher burnout is real, and it's perfectly okay to feel overwhelmed. You are not alone in facing these challenges.
Teacher Burnout is Real (and It’s Okay to Not Be Okay)
AI generated image that has a chalk board that it's okay to not be okay for teacher burnout

As the end-of-year bell tolls, many educators feel not relief, but a familiar wave of exhaustion. This sensation is well-known within the tech-savvy educational community—where mounting expectations, lingering effects of pandemic disruptions, and the omnipresent specter of teacher burnout converge. It’s time to address the elephant in the (virtual) room: burnout is not only real, it’s prevalent across all spectrums of education, including among those who champion innovation and student-centered learning.

Why It's Okay to Feel Overwhelmed

The teaching profession is uniquely demanding. Teachers are expected to act not only as educators but as mentors, counselors, and sometimes even surrogate parental figures, adding significant emotional and psychological weight to their roles. This multidimensional responsibility means that teachers face a wide range of demands each day, from managing classroom behavior and ensuring academic progress to addressing their students’ emotional issues and adapting to ever-changing technology and teaching methods.

Moreover, the societal pressures on education have grown, with teachers at the front lines addressing issues of economic disparity, social justice, and significant shifts in family dynamics. The cumulative effect of these pressures, alongside the high expectations set by both society and the educational system itself, naturally leads to overwhelm. It’s a condition not of failing but of the high-stakes environment in which educators operate.

Ever-Increasing Expectations

The bar for what constitutes a successful teacher seems to keep rising. Educators are expected to continuously improve test scores, integrate new teaching technologies, participate in professional development, and innovate their teaching methods. Simultaneously, many face increasing class sizes and diminishing resources. The pressure to meet these high standards, often with fewer supports, can make feeling overwhelmed a natural state of affairs.

The Impact of Societal Changes

Educators today are also dealing with the fallout from broader societal issues—economic disparities, social justice issues, and family dynamics—that significantly impact the classroom environment. The pandemic added another layer, with the shift to remote learning and the subsequent return to in-person classes, which has left lasting effects on both students and teachers. Navigating these waters requires a level of adaptability and resilience that can be taxing.

Breaking the Cycle of Sacrifice

It’s essential to shift the narrative and practices surrounding the teaching profession to ensure that educators have the support and resources they need to thrive. Here are practical ways to address burnout without compromising the quality of education for students.

Understanding and Accepting Overwhelm

In a profession where the expectation is often to continually give more, acknowledging when you’re feeling overwhelmed is not only necessary—it’s healthy. Recognizing and validating your feelings of exhaustion or stress is the first step towards managing teacher burnout effectively. It is essential for teachers to understand that experiencing overwhelm is a common reaction to the high demands and pressures of the teaching profession, and not a sign of weakness or incompetence.

Communicating Your Reality

Teachers should feel empowered to communicate their feelings honestly, whether it’s with colleagues, friends, family, or even in professional settings where it might help foster a greater understanding of the daily challenges educators face. Open discussions about the realities of teaching can help create a supportive community that recognizes and addresses burnout. Here’s how teachers can start to manage their feelings of overwhelm within the scope of what they can control:

Personal Reflection

Regularly take stock of your emotional and mental state through journaling or meditation. This practice can help you identify specific stressors and begin to formulate strategies for addressing them. It also serves as a personal acknowledgment that your feelings are valid and important.

Peer Support

Lean on your colleagues who may be experiencing similar feelings. Sometimes, just knowing you’re not alone in your struggles can provide a significant emotional lift. Peer groups or professional learning communities can be excellent platforms for sharing coping strategies and providing mutual support.

Professional Help

If feelings of overwhelm are persistent and significantly impacting your life, seeking help from a mental health professional might be necessary. This step is about taking control of your well-being and ensuring you have the tools to manage stress in healthy ways.

Setting Realistic Expectations

It’s important for teachers to set realistic expectations for themselves. The desire to meet every demand and exceed every expectation is a common trait among educators, but it can often lead to feelings of inadequacy and burnout. Recognize what is feasibly within your control and try to let go of the guilt associated with not being able to do it all.

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Advocating for Yourself

While systemic changes are often beyond an individual teacher’s control, advocating for your needs within your school can lead to small but significant improvements. This could involve requesting specific resources that help manage workload better, suggesting changes to scheduling that allow for more prep time, or setting boundaries around availability to students and parents outside of school hours.

The Paradox of Loyalty

It’s crucial to draw upon broader workplace insights when discussing how teachers can navigate feelings of overwhelm and prevent burnout. A pertinent study highlighted in a recent Forbes article sheds light on the potential pitfalls of excessive loyalty in the workplace. The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, finds that the more loyal an employee is, the more likely they are to be targeted for exploitative practices by their manager. This occurs because managers might assume that loyal employees are more willing to make personal sacrifices for their job.

While loyalty is often seen as a virtue in education, this study’s findings suggest that being overly committed can inadvertently lead to being taken advantage of. In the teaching context, this might manifest as:

  • Being asked to take on additional classes or extracurricular activities without extra support or compensation.
  • Facing expectations to remain available for student and parent queries well beyond school hours.
  • Handling more significant portions of administrative tasks or covering for absent colleagues regularly.

Strategies for Setting Boundaries

Given this dynamic, it’s vital for teachers to establish and communicate clear boundaries to prevent exploitation and manage overwhelm effectively:

  1. Define Your Limits: Consider what you are realistically willing to take on beyond your contracted duties, and be clear about your availability. This involves making decisions about how often and under what circumstances you are prepared to work late, step beyond the scope of your typical responsibilities, or handle additional emotional labor.

  2. Communicate Boundaries Clearly: Once you decide on your limits, communicate them clearly and consistently, from day one with a new team or a new school year. Establishing these boundaries early on can help set expectations and reduce the likelihood of being asked to make one-sided sacrifices.

  3. Physically Disconnect: To reinforce these boundaries, physically separate yourself from workspaces and work devices during your downtime. Turn off work-related notifications outside of designated working hours and leave work devices behind during vacations or days off.

  4. Saying “No”: Develop comfort with saying “no” when requests fall outside your established boundaries or when you feel you’re being unfairly leveraged. Saying no is not a sign of non-cooperation but a necessary assertion of your professional limits and a critical step in safeguarding your well-being.

Reclaiming Well-being in the Teaching Profession

Recognizing and validating feelings of overwhelm is crucial in taking the first steps toward addressing teacher burnout. By understanding that these feelings are a normal reaction to the demands placed on educators, we can begin to foster a more supportive environment. Teachers must feel empowered to set realistic expectations for themselves and to communicate their limits clearly, without fear of retribution.

Strategically, teachers can manage burnout by advocating for themselves within the scope of their roles, setting clear professional boundaries, and seeking support from peers and mental health professionals. Additionally, understanding the risks of excessive loyalty, as highlighted in the Forbes article, can help educators recognize when they may be exploited and encourage them to assert their needs more effectively.

Ultimately, what benefits students most is having teachers who are not just competent but also happy and healthy. By addressing teacher burnout openly and proactively, we not only enhance the well-being of our educators but also enrich the learning environments for our students, creating a more sustainable and effective educational ecosystem.

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