Putting Out Teacher Burnout

It’s that time of year again — we are all back in school! Districts across the country are hiring teams to serve our nation’s children.

As a former superintendent of public school districts in St. Paul, Minnesota; Austin, Texas; and Atlanta, Georgia, I know how demanding these critical first weeks of school are to get off to great start. It would be particularly hard to achieve for any system if you can’t find teachers to work in classrooms and stay in the profession.

In my role as senior scientist for Gallup, I get to work with some of our nation’s experts on studies and research in education. One of our more recent studies raised concerns for the future of the field related to teacher burnout. Gallup research identified a staggering statistic: Workers in K-12 education, including teachers, report significantly higher rates of burnout than full-time workers in any other industry.

Burnout rates among K-12 workers exceed those for healthcare and law enforcement workers, whose burnout rates have been featured prominently on newscasts since the pandemic began.

More than four in 10 teachers recently reported that they are “always” or “very often” burned out at work. That outpaces the average burnout rate among all other full-time U.S. workers by a full 14 percentage points. It also exceeds burnout among front-line COVID-19 workers such as those in healthcare as well as retail employees, manufacturing employees and professional service workers. Worse still, rather than narrowing since the start of the pandemic, the burnout gap between K-12 teachers and others has only widened, with burnout increasing eight points since 2020 among K-12 workers but only two points among all other workers.

The Impact of Teacher Burnout on Quality of Education

It’s not surprising to learn that burnout translates directly into job performance, which in turn directly and negatively impacts the quality of education that K-12 students are receiving.

For teachers, the high burnout rate manifests as an increasing lack of confidence in their own job performance, making them more likely to feel exhausted, if not completely depleted. Burned-out teachers are, therefore, 63% more likely than the average full-time U.S. worker to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be seeking a new job.

In education, teacher burnout can be reflected in the unmet needs of students and accelerated learning gaps. In short, even in the highest-ranking school districts, students may not be getting the education they were promised and deserve.

In education, teacher burnout can be reflected in the unmet needs of students and accelerated learning gaps. In short, even in the highest-ranking school districts, students may not be getting the education they were promised and deserve.

Root Causes of Burnout and Solutions

It is important that we do not blame our teachers. Leaders in our schools and districts can be more strategic, thoughtful and purposeful about workplace conditions and culture for teacher success. Gallup research shows five root causes of worker burnout: unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from managers, and unreasonable expectations/time pressure. These findings are consistent with a June 2022 Georgia Department of Education study that found similar concerns among its K-12 teachers, including the inability to protect their time, having unrealistic expectations placed upon them, and a lack of recognition.

Even more recently, new reports of teacher fill rates and lagging student performance have illustrated the effects of burnout in the field. For example, The New York Times raised sobering findings that filling teacher vacancies is a “complicated interplay of demand and supply in a tight job market.” In short, they found a district’s ability to fill teacher vacancies depends on location and the demographics of the student population a teacher would serve. For example, poorer districts in rural and urban areas, already burdened with challenges prior to the pandemic, are less likely to have positions filled compared with their suburban counterparts.

Stress on teachers may only intensify this school year. A recent study of student performance data on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showing a sharp decline in 9-year-olds’ math and reading scores could put pressure on schools to reverse the troubling trend. Added to this, many more students than usual may be harboring fear for their physical safety in school, with 20% of parents saying their children have expressed worry about this issue as they return to school, up from 12% in 2019. It would come as no surprise that, regardless of why students have escalating physical safety fears, teachers will be expected to manage these additional stressors as part of their role. All of this makes addressing teacher burnout a more pressing issue.

The solutions to teacher burnout, if we are to employ them, will be multifaceted. They begin with culture transformation, starting with meeting the expectations workers have of their leaders: building trust, expressing compassion, demonstrating stability and creating hope. This may sound unattainable, but I can tell you from my experience as a superintendent of three capital cities that it can be done!

The benefits begin to be seen when teachers feel heard, respected and trusted. Listening to and providing targeted support to teachers in the trenches in and of itself acts as an antidote to lost confidence and learned helplessness. It’s about putting teachers in a position to do what they do best, without sacrificing quality of work, in a stable environment where someone cares about them. And that translates to empowerment, retention, and a better education and school climate for students.

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