Something’s gotta give


Regarding teachers: “Over their first three years on the job, their beliefs about teaching knowledge and its nature, collaborative work, how students learn, their conception of the role of a teacher, and their place in the ecosystem of the school will be formed and solidified through what they see modeled by significant figures around them, by what mentors tell and show them, by what colleagues help them discover, by what message their administrators send to them about openness and seeking help, and by what support they experience for their own learning in college” (TST, 15).

From past experience and the “lab” of North High School, I feel as if I’m relatively aware of the reality of teaching. Yet however prepared I feel now, I realize I’m extremely naïve and have no clue as to what it will feel like to be a teacher next fall. The demands of teachers are endless and if we lack coping mechanisms, dropout is quick to follow.

In this post, I decided to analyze not only the different categories of tasks teachers face on a daily basis but moreover, how teacher workload and subsequent stress can lead to dropout. It is important to recognize the fact that as new teachers we will most likely begin our “careers at hard-to-staff schools where resources may be scarce — in other words, urban schools — simply because there are more jobs available there” (Graziano, 2005). It is in these schools where the teacher attrition rate is especially high. How can we prepare ourselves for such an environment? What tools and skills can we obtain before entering an environment that so many teachers abandon?

Informed by experience, conversations with teachers, North HS, class readings and research, I’ve separated the issue of teacher workload into two main parts: explanation and action. First, it is necessary to define burnout and common causes. Yes, we all get tired but what exactly leads to teacher burnout and attrition?

Next, and more productive, is the discussion of ways to cope with the signs of teacher burnout. Naivety only goes so far. As first year teachers, we must be prepared for every aspect of teaching, including workload and stress. To be truly effective, a teacher needs to know how and when to take a step back.How can teachers find balance? What resources can they seek? How can we thrive in the current system?

So what?

Why should we consider our own well-being? Frankly, the stakes are too high not to. The students we teach deserve idealistic, innovative and effective teachers. But if we fall into the trap of taking on too much, fighting every battle and letting student’s takeover, the depressing cycle continues. Students lose good teachers and we become another statistic. My hope is that by being aware and preparing ourselves for a roller coaster of emotions, we can alleviate some of the stress and seek ways to handle the first few years of teaching.

A glimpse into the classroom:

Teaching is giving. It is inherent with the job description. As teachers, we give, offer, advise, comment on, provide, inform, share, enlighten and update our students, their parents, the administration and state and national governments. Put this way, teaching Spanish through Guatemalan culture, food, and cooking vocabulary seems easy. Herein lies the point: Teaching is more than teaching. Let’s take a look at a couple examples of current teachers:

Example 1: At North, Mr. P writes and responds to emails throughout the day. He makes parents phone calls often and because he speaks Spanish, he interprets or makes phone calls on behalf of other teachers. He also performs specific administrative tasks such as attendance, photocopying and writing passes. There are professional development meetings after school, as well as departmental meetings during lunch. Mr. P also volunteers for extra curricular activities (i.e. homecoming Powderpuff referee, Chili Cook off chef). Lastly, he wants to coach the girl’s soccer team as a source of extra money in the spring. None of this involves teaching, yet it takes up much of his time during the day.

Example 2: I observed an even more intense example of non-instructional tasks last week when I visited another high school. Beyond teaching, this particular teacher sponsors three clubs, mentors numerous students and because he is well known in the district, sits on various committees that meet on evenings and weekends. He barely has time to eat lunch because there are always students in his room. He builds such strong connections to his students, past and present, that they choose to eat in his room, ask questions about college or just hang out. Teachers too, join in the fun and Mr. X never gets a moment alone in his 9+ hour day. On the surface, it seems as if he exemplifies effective teaching: his students learn, he created a safe environment and everyone wants a part of it. As well intended as he is, is Mr. X creating a recipe for burnout? How can he keep it up? Why does he take so much on?

After a bit of basic research I found a few reasons. Lisa Bartlett in the Journal of Educational Policy, discusses an expansion in teacher roles over the past 20 years. “Whereas before teachers had a more individualistic role in the school and a teacher-centered approach, now there is more emphasis on the professional community of the school, student-centered teaching, accountability and leadership” (Bartlett, 2004). No longer are teachers isolated. Collaboration is important and requires extra effort in terms of meetings and shared planning. Compounded with typical in-class duties, this represents a new facet of teaching life. “These new social realities of teaching represent a dramatic shift in the work environment and expectations made on teachers” (2004).

What is burnout?

Authors Alvarez and Grayson discuss school climate in the journal Teaching and Teaching Education. Put simply, we can categorize teacher burnout in three ways: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment (Alvarez, 2008).

Emotional exhaustion is more than just being tired. It is sustained fatigue, “that develops over time as one’s emotional resources are drained (2008).” There is no sense of bouncing back or re-energizing after a long weekend. Though it wasn’t burnout, I vividly remember last year arriving home from school a few Fridays and falling into my bed from exhaustion. I was often left alone to teach with no lesson plan or direction. Interestingly, the lead teacher was pulled to perform administrative tasks, as she was the most experienced of the teachers.

With no explicit plan, I was left with 28 2nd graders expecting to learn language arts, math or science. In Spanish. With instructional strategies set up for two teachers. Needless to say, I can be resourceful and spontaneous but my energy only lasted for so long. I knew I was emotionally exhausted when every little comment or question from the kids drove me crazy. I had no patience. At that point, I knew I needed a break from the constant giving that teaching asks of us.

Then notes like these reminded me why I’m teaching…

It’s the little things in life… but back to burnout. Next is depersonalization. “Depersonalization includes cynical attitudes toward students, parents, and the workplace. In turn, indifferent, cold, or distant attitudes are displayed through generalizing, derogatory labels, or physically distancing actions” (Alvarez, 2005). A word I hear often to describe this is jaded. We’ve all seen or had teachers like this and wonder why they don’t change careers or retire.

At North, though Mr. P is young, I see signs of depersonalization all the time. His comments toward students are often negative and based on generalizations. “You don’t think they are really supposed to learn anything in high school, do you?” was one of the first things he said to me. Just yesterday, when I suggested a “Brain Break,” where students stand and have to do the action learned for each verb he said, “They won’t do that. They won’t stand up. They are lazy.” It is hard to work with someone like this, much less be his student.

Lastly, “diminished feelings of personal accomplishment are found when educators feel as though they are no longer contributing to students’ development” (Alvarez, 2005). I think that the structural implications of education creep into this category. First year teachers in low-performing schools have major challenges in terms of student achievement. While they may put forth their best effort and improve a few students’ test scores, it may not be enough for the state or nation to approve. No Child Left Behind, new teacher accountability programs and state tests loom over teachers that attempt to blend content with higher level thinking, solid testing skills and innovative instruction. I’m not sure many other professions have such high stakes, high publicity or public scrutiny.

Overarching causes of burnout:

-Unmet or unrealistic goals

-Lack of sense of personal accomplishment

-Student behavior/discipline problems

-School context and environment

Administration: power struggles, disagreement with policies, poor admin. decision-making, lack of leadership and support

Something’s gotta give. How can we prepare for and avoid burnout?

“New teachers, however naive and idealistic, often know before they enter the profession that the salaries are paltry, the class sizes large, and the supplies scant. What they don’t know is how little support from parents, school administrators, and colleagues they can expect once the door is closed and the textbooks are opened” (Graziano, 2004).

To be prepared, we must face reality. Because we deal with living, breathing people as opposed to machines, laboratories or computers, our work changes constantly, week to week, class to class. Misbehavior, heartbreaking stories, celebration, and humdrum administrative work can occur within a matter of hours. Though there are many ways to deal with the teacher workload, I believe many of them have to come from within the teacher herself.

Flexibility, pre planning, spontaneity, open-mindedness and patience can help a teacher deal with the constant demands of her job. But what do we do when our students won’t listen, we have yet another Professional Development meeting after school, a parent sends a nasty email about their child’s grade and the principal wants a week’s worth of lesson plans by 5pm?

Honestly, I don’t know. That is what’s scary. Does it just come down to personality? My instinct tells me to pick my battles (save the email for tomorrow), be professional (go to PD with a good attitude) and work hard (lesson plans at home). I also don’t want to underestimate the power of positivity. Befriending generally positive people can go a long way in a stressful work environment.

In the past, I’ve dealt with stress by escaping. Get out of the school environment, exercise, talk with someone who isn’t a teacher, read a book, spend time with friends and family, watch a movie, catch up on sleep. Mentally and emotionally, I can generally bounce back over the weekend and be ready for Monday. Reading this blog in a year will prove quite interesting…

The research I found presents more structural suggestions for reducing attrition and workload. “Less students!” cries one article, stating that class sizes are too large and it leads to teachers feeling defeated before they start (Klemm, 2011). Indeed, it is hard to learn names, make connections and effectively teach large groups of adolescents. A defeatist attitude is hard to overcome.

Lisa Bartlett discusses the need for a strong sense of support from administration is important. “A good fit between teachers’ work expectations and the material supports of the organization enables teachers to complete their work with-out overworking, to minimize stress and to help sustain work commitment” (Barlett, 2005). If teachers feel supported instead of isolated, they are more likely to reciprocate commitment back to the school. It seems to me that a sense of community with fellow teachers and administrators is important, especially since education is leaning more toward collaboration. Being a part of a positive, committed community of teachers is crucial.

Saphier et al. in The Skillful Teacher, go further on the idea of staff community and explain, “collegiality and interdependence need to be built into the fabric of their working relationships. Interdependence requires that they function as both leaders and team players and that they support a balance of autonomy and cohesion in curriculum and teaching practices” (TST, 14).

Related to a sense of support and community within the school, Grayson and Alvarez suggest, “an acknowledgement of problems with school climate may prompt the implementing of behavior management strategies to support teachers, developing staff leadership teams, and developing teacher in-service programs” (Alvarez, 2008). Silent suffering benefits no one. Teachers need to be their own advocates and respectfully voice opinions. While the result may not be ideal, acknowledgement helps bring perspective and shared experiences.

“Ultimately, emotionally and physically healthy teachers exist in environments where the school system and middle management work diligently to enhance self-actualization and esteem in their teachers” (Alvarez, 2008). Though it is easy to forget, we must be emotionally and physically healthy in order to serve as the most effective teachers possible. Sometimes that means we need to be selfish and draw the line in terms of how much we will say yes to.

Issues of equity:

Unequal teacher expectations: In every other post, I’ve focused on what teachers do for their students, not what they do for themselves. From what I can tell, teachers in schools or districts under intense scrutiny or who teach students with large achievement gaps are at a distinct disadvantage compared to those who teach at high-achieving schools with less administrative scrutiny. Inequity also arises if, due to a lack of funds or resources, a teacher needs to perform extra duties that take away from planning time.

Lack of consistency: There have been four principals in four years at North. Most teachers are very young and many are in their first year at North. The attrition rate is high and from what I can tell, burnout is too. Who loses out in the end? The students. Just this week, I was walking with our class to the computer lab discussing our “difficult” project. The student said, “this isn’t East, this is North.” I responded by asking her what she meant and she replied, “East is a good school. North isn’t.” She equated difficult projects to good schools. Her comment stuck with me and makes me more determined to change that mentality.


To me, teachers need to have a good sense of balance and awareness. Looking back on my two teacher examples, Mr. P and Mr. Z are both at risk for burnout but for very different reasons: Mr. P because he lacks a true connection with students and teaching and Mr. Z because he is too connected to students and teaching. How will I fit in? How will I strike a balance?

I already catch myself thinking about how my room will be, that I’ll coach the girls soccer team and start a running program. That I’ll sponsor trips to Costa Rica or Ecuador and get to know parents. My daydream lasts about two seconds until I remember that I will no longer be the TA or teaching part-time. It’s the real deal. And my students need to learn first. If I’m lucky, the rest will follow.

Below are the articles I read and used to inform my thinking around teacher burnout:

Alvarez, Heather K., & Grayson, Jessica L. (July 2008). School climate factors relating to teacher burnout: A mediator model. Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 24, No. 5. Retrieved from

Bartlett, Lora. (September 2004). Expanding teacher work roles: a resource for retention or a recipe for overwork? Journal of Education Policy, Volume 19, No. 5. Retrieved from

Graziano, Claudia. (February 2005). Public Education Faces a Crisis in Teacher Retention. Retrieved from


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