On Nurturing Burnout

Teacher burnout is something we hear about frequently in the time since the pandemic. The problem appears to be worse than it ever has, and teachers are leaving the profession as a result. Educators are focusing on teacher burnout on social media as well. For example, this tweet:

prompted my reply:

I was challenged to say more about organizations that nurture burnout, so I’ve taken to my blog.

Let’s begin by clarifying what we mean by “burnout,” specifically for teachers. We all became educators because we value some of our skills and we want to help others develop those skills. Even going in, we know education is not a well-paid profession, so we are often motivated by factors other than money (which is true of most people of course). The result is an on-going cost-benefit analysis; teachers compare the benefits of the work to the costs. When costs outweigh the benefits, they “burn out” and adopt a range of strategies to withdrawn from the situation, eventually to the point where they exit it.

In my experience (both as one who has experienced burnout and one who has worked with others who were burned out by the same organizations), there seems to be some characteristics they all share. Because these are sustained through the choices of some leaders and members of the organization, then I suggest burning out some members is beneficial to some, thus it is allowed to continue, and the practices are even nurtured:

  1. A “just wait, it’ll get better” explanation is common: This rationale is used to dismiss many of the growing costs teachers who are becoming burned out identify. It can come in many different flavors. Among those I have seen are toxic culture being dismissed as particularly challenging groups of students. Another is the “you have to pay your dues” rationale for assigning all of the challenging courses to junior faculty members. A third is the focus on self-care, which is ultimately about having folks be distracted from costly circumstances in hopes they remove themselves. These are three examples of how leaders can avoid the hard work (of addressing toxic individuals or situations or of sharing the work of teaching the tough students) and those costs accumulate to the unlucky few.
  2. Autonomy evaporates: When we feel we have the ability, capacity, and authority to resolve problematic situations, then we feel autonomous. When we feel less able to resolve problems, our burin out increases. Especially with the pandemic, teachers are facing problems they were never prepared to (consider the trauma our students have experienced and how it is affecting them in the classroom), but also the “solutions” being imposed on them. Consider as an example, the teachers who are having the titles in classroom libraries being challenged; they are being told they cannot provide the books they know their students need to read.
  3. Contradictory messages: Spin has become a part of life in recent decades in all aspects of life. For educators, the effects of excessive spin can be particularity troubling. We see contradictions all around us as educators: leaders claim to promote participatory decision-making, then dismiss the recommendations of all committees convened to participate; eligibility rules are applied to some students, but not others; new initiatives are begun, but not resources are available to support it; curricula with vastly different theoretical foundations replace each other with no recognition that anything changed. The uncertainty introduced by these situations contributes to burnout for many.
  4. Responses to stress: Change induces stress; some is good and healthy, too much is not. When rapidly changing circumstances lead to increased stress, how the leaders and members of the school respond contributes to how much burn out results. In my experience, the more authoritarian the response, the greater the burn out. In school, authoritarian responses include increasing the number of rules, applying rules to more aspects of schooling, and imposing harsher accountability measures. If the response to stress is to understand it, try to manage it, and mitigate it through our own actions, then we are more autonomous and experience less burn out. Further, the authoritarian response increases the potential for conflict and incivility that is encouraged by rules and consequences judged irrational by someone.
  5. Invisible outcomes: We all want to be productive, and this depends on our ability to perceive changes that we value. Teachers have always faced the problem that we may never know the effects we had on students. As curriculum has been imposed and the products and performances we once observed as validation that students connected with our courses have been replaced with disembodied data (which is always a test), then the benefits that once outweighed some of the costs associated with a career in education.

The tweets that originally motivated this post asked if was impossible to avoid burnout and my response was not in organizations that nurture it. During my career I’ve experienced what I call “leadership-driven” burnout and “institutional” burn-out. These are individual leaders whose actions (I’m convinced both inadvertent and intentional) do increase burnout of teachers. When the leader changes, the conditions changes and burnout decreases–or accurately, perhaps, different individual experience burnout.

I became convinced there is institutions that cause burnout when I observed a school in a professional capacity once, then again almost 30 years later. Obviously, there had been a long series of changing leaders and faculty in the intervening years, and some of the students when I first observed the school were parents of students the second time. Something felt eerily familiar those decades later. Fortunately, I’ve kept journals and other records of my career. Indeed, some of the burnout inducing situations remained.

Thus, I must conclude if you find yourself in a school where you are experiencing burnout, there is not much you can do to avoid it.