For a decade, I taught these fascinating creatures called “Teenagers.” A never-ending well of oddities, eccentricities, and unusual social behaviors, these little fellas continued to perplex and excite me with each passing day. Among the more unusual behaviors prevalent in the lifecycle of the American teen was an evolving linguistic device … like coded speech or a spy game cypher … called a “meme.” The memes seemed to be at once completely vapid and powerfully meaningful; ironic and on-the-nose. I couldn’t figure it out.
They’d birth entirely new language from the meme-culture. For a while it was “salty.” They were salty about everything. Then it was “triggered.” Then “shook.” Got a bad test score? Shook. Heard a mind-blowing fact? Shook. Hilarious joke? Shook.
As soon as I came to understand something, it would vanish. Gone with the advent of a new meme. A completely transitive language.
Transitive, temporary, ironic, and without substance. That’s how I think about teacher burnout.
Let’s take a long look in the mirror. Are we so different from those creatures we teach? Rather than calling something “sus” we use terms like “stressed.” “Burned out.” “Over it.” Our slang has gotten more boring, but it’s still there.
Between 19-30% of teachers quit within their first five years, according to a report by the Learning Policy Institute. Overall teacher attrition rates in the United States are at 8%, which is high when compared with other countries such as Finland, Canada, and Singapore, where the rate is closer to 3%.
I don’t question that teachers feel burned out — I’ve been studying burnout for years. Instead, I question what exactly do we mean when we say “burned out”? What are the symptoms? What are the causes, beyond just saying “work”? Is it a permanent condition that deserves a permanent solution? Or is it “distracted boyfriend,” a sliver of the zeitgeist, gone when we’re ready to grapple with the next thing?
The truth is, it’s the latter. But to move beyond burnout, we have to own it, appreciate it, maybe even laugh at it, then set it aside and move forward. We have to move it from “meme” to “meaningful” to “memory.”
Let’s start by exploring the symptoms and the causes. Then, we can find the remedies of burnout (and yes, there are remedies).
In service-based occupations, there are three main symptoms of burnout, what I refer to as the Three Horsemen of the Burnout Apocalypse. Consider if you’ve felt any of these recently:
Emotional Exhaustion: The “stress” element of burnout — feeling fatigued, overextended by work, and drained of physical and emotional resources.
Depersonalization: Cynicism, negativity, and disconnection with others, especially students. This can also include feeling demoralized toward the profession as a whole.
(Reduced) Self-Efficacy: Often referred to as “reduced personal accomplishment,” reduced self-efficacy is a more accurate way to describe burnout among teachers. We can still objectively be successful, but if we don’t feel efficacious in our current and future abilities to achieve goals, it contributes to burnout.
Now let’s explore what’s likely causing those burnout symptoms. There are plenty of factors, especially this year.
New roles and new processes for virtual and hybrid learning mean new work loads. Higher workload plus reduced resources equals higher exhaustion. Vicarious stressors (like trying to parent or just exist in a pandemic) increase emotional exhaustion. And, importantly, we’re facing some real cognitive dissonance between what we think our purpose is as teachers and what the job actually entails.
Not being face-to-face with the students we serve reduces our sense of personalization. Teaching to a Zoom room of blank cameras doesn’t lend itself to deep human connection.
And then there’s doom scrolling social media, which exposes us to anti-teacher tirades. Even if the “teachers are the enemy” viewpoints are the minority, our brains latch onto these demoralizing sentiments.
Perhaps the most important driver of “burnout” is a feeling of helplessness and purpose that rise from a combination of institutional challenges, current realities, and a career that doesn’t always have the freedom and flexibility we believe (rightly) we deserve.
It’s totally possible to conquer this feeling. We have a few suggestions.
Notice the good stuff
Our brains are wired to notice and remember bad more than good, so we need to work harder to feed our minds positive experiences. Positivity accounts for 44% of the variance on resilience and 52% of the variance on burnout. So make a move from hoarding every emotion to curating the good ones. Have a victory session rather than a vent session, and start a gratitude journal.
Limit the Bad
Facebook secretly manipulated new feeds in 2014, and experimented by changing the positive and negative posts users saw: they wanted to see how emotions on social media spread. The result? Emotions are contagious, especially negative ones. See too many negative posts, you’ll feel depressed. Consider resisting the urge to vent, as it doesn’t increase well-being and often diminishes it. You can also try taking a social media break.
Live in the Present
Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction has been found to significantly reduce burnout. Here’s how it’s done:
- Pause to breathe and note your surroundings, especially when you feel tension, stress or anxious thinking.
- Check the chatter in your head surrounding adversity. Stress isn’t what happens to us. It’s how we feel about what happens to us.
- Stop striving for 2019 goals in 2021. Students need connection more than content. They need hope rather than homework. And, stop “should’ing” on yourself for not being a master teacher during the biggest shift in education we’ve seen in our lives.
Burnout is not a nebulous malaise. It has specific symptoms, specific causes, and specific remedies. We have to know our ills before we can grow our skills.
Give yourself the permission to self-reflect. Get specific about how you’re feeling, then take aggressive action in caring for yourself using real research-based, teacher-tested practices. But remember, burnout is just a meme. It’s a language with tremendous power. It drives overwhelming emotion. But it’s impermanent; transitive. Face it. Take the time to understand it. Laugh at it. Then, poof — push beyond it.
Burnout is not your fault. But well-being is your right and responsibility.