Learn how to identify teacher burnout and what you can do to help.
All teachers have heard of it. Many have experienced it — or observed it in others. And all know how destructive and debilitating it can be.
What Are the Signs of Teacher Burnout?
When asked what it means to be burnt out, responses typically center around the idea of giving up, losing passion, feeling overwhelmed, and being unable to go on.
Common symptoms of burnout in teachers include:
- Exhaustion (inadequate sleep, low energy, lack of desire to do things that make you happy)
- Anxiety (worries about work, panic attacks, fear of going back to work after the weekend)
- Physical symptoms (headaches, heart palpitations, reduced appetite, stomach aches, extreme fatigue)
- Depression (feelings of hopelessness, irritability, angry outbursts, intense sadness, total apathy, or suicide ideation)
Please visit or share resources from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you or someone you know is struggling with depression. Their phone number is 1-800-273-8255.
If what teachers see as the root causes of burnout can be identified, perhaps schools and administrators can use these indicators to identify teachers on the verge — or in the throes — of burnout.
Knowing There’s a Problem
The first step in dealing with burnout is as simple as acknowledging the fact that burnout is actually a thing. Just the acknowledgement that burnout exists is something many teachers find lacking when it comes to their schools and administrators.
Recognizing there’s a problem is the first step in many self-help programs, and it’s for a good reason: if schools don’t acknowledge there’s an issue, how can they support their teachers?
The reasons for schools not opening up the floor to a discussion on teacher burnout can be many and varied, not the least of which is the fact that many schools are ill-equipped to deal with the issue.
Underfunded schools stretching their budgets to the max in an effort to stay afloat are often so focused on their students that the question of extending their limited resources to teachers can get sidelined.
Encourage Productive Conversation
While burnout might be openly discussed among some teachers, conversation may take the tone of complaints rather than productive discussions and finding real solutions. Teachers may also refrain from discussing their own burnout with teachers who haven’t experienced it for fear of rebuke, lack of sympathy, or fear of scaring new teachers.
Teachers may also see no opportunities to discuss burnout at all due to feeling isolated from their peers and the school’s administration.
Understanding Teacher Burnout and Taking Action
The most common reasons for teacher burnout fall into a few categories.
The issues can be as straightforward as sheer overwork and exhaustion — or as complex as an inability to disconnect at the end of the school day, bringing problems home and becoming emotionally drained.
Identifying teachers on the road to burnout can be a tricky task, especially in larger schools, where there may be too many teachers for administrators to develop individual relationships with. Even teachers themselves say they don’t always know when their colleagues are ready to “check out” except in very extreme cases.
Here are a few things to watch for to spot burnout:
- Changes in mood. When it comes to burnout, changes in mood can be indicators of difficulty coping. Many teachers describe getting the “Sunday Blues” along with a reluctance to return to work on Mondays.
- Withdrawal. Burnout can also cause teachers to lose their confidence, which can result in withdrawal not only from school-related activities but also from their own responsibilities.
- Sudden lateness or absenteeism. Keeping an eye out for teachers who suddenly begin taking sick days, or begin arriving late or entirely absenting themselves from school functions, can be an effective way to spot burnout in its early stages.
- Loss of passion. Teachers who used to show a passion for teaching yet suddenly stop being available to students once the final bell has chimed are another example of changes in attitude that can indicate burnout.
- Lack of communication. When a teacher is feeling tapped out, chances are they aren’t going to have the energy or desire to communicate about it with their school leaders or administrators.
If you notice a teacher has suddenly or gradually stopped communicating or sharing with other staff, or no longer makes calls home to parents to discuss student progress and stays quiet in meetings and gatherings, reach out to that teacher and see if they could benefit from some acknowledgment or support.
Another cause of burnout is a lack of resources for teachers to do their job and do it well.
For many teachers, education is a calling. Teachers chose their profession in order to teach students and to positively affect their lives.
Many express feeling overwhelmed with paperwork and data entry, which is not what they had in mind when they signed up to change the world. If your school has outdated systems and your teachers spend hours upon hours entering data that they don’t see any actionable results from, consider updating your systems to platforms that give time back to teachers.
Since spotting teacher burnout can so difficult, the best method to deal with it — as with so many other things — is prevention.
Regularly schedule one-on-ones and check-ins with teachers. Seeing a teacher change (or not change) over a period of time is a way to catch burnout as it occurs, even if the teacher is not aware themselves.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory is a great tool that can help administrators gauge the degree of burnout experienced by educators.
It’s a series of questions in survey form designed to explore three contributing factors to burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Having a negative view of personal accomplishment
Identifying Teacher Burnout in the Classroom
1. Spot check in the classroom.
Talk to students, and observe the classroom. This is where a teacher spends most of their time, and students are the first to notice when a teacher has lost their shine.
2. Pop in for unscheduled visits throughout the year.
See if teachers are actively engaged with their students — as opposed to reading the same old handouts and droning out the same script for every class, day after day, week after week, year after year.
3. Open up a discourse.
Provide a safe space and resources for teachers who are experiencing burnout. Get your staff together for some team-building exercises so that they feel supported, and not isolated.
4. Provide tools and supports for success.
Lastly, to reduce burnout among teachers, give them the tools they need to succeed — whether that tool is additional training on how to handle stress, professional development aimed to teach time management and self-efficacy skills, mental health training and therapy, or classroom management software.
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