Is Teaching an Unsustainable Profession? To outsiders, teaching seems like a dream profession. The hours are reasonable, the pay is decent and there are plenty of holidays and days off.
In reality, few professions create the levels of burnout and stress that teaching does. According to the National Education Association, 20% of all new teachers quit in the first three years. In urban schools, the rate is 50% in the first five years.
I detailed some of the reasons for this high turnover in an earlier post. In this one, I take a closer look at burnout.
What Causes Teacher Burnout?
According to the American Federation of Teachers, almost all teachers say that they started their careers with high levels of enthusiasm. Several years after they start, that enthusiasm level drops markedly. Here are some reasons for that drop.
1. Teachers Have Too Much Work
Most teachers are now expected to attend development classes, provide specialized training for standardized tests, grading papers and parent-teacher meetings. At many schools, they’re also expected to add coaching, club supervision, individual tutoring and many other responsibilities to an already-packed schedule. Teachers regularly work overtime and bring work home, but they aren’t paid for this extra work.
In addition to the high workload at school, many teachers also have to contend with a second job. While it’s common for teachers to get a part-time job during summers, it’s now increasingly common for them to work during the school year as well.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 17.9% of teachers now work a second part-time job. Teachers are also five times more likely to work a second job than any other full-time workers.
It’s clear that teacher salaries are not keeping up with the cost of living in most areas. In fact, adjusted for inflation, teacher salaries have remained flat for the past 10 years.
That said, some school districts have found that raising pay may not be enough. Most teachers would accept their salaries if they worked in more supportive environments, which brings us to the next reason.
3. Teachers Work In Stressful Environments
According to an in-depth article in Psychology Today by Jenny Grant Rankin, burnout among teachers has reached epidemic levels. Rankin cites a number of authoritative studies which came to the following conclusions:
- “Teachers who do an excellent job are often working in unsustainable conditions (e.g., 60 hours per week, relentless stress, inadequate resources, lack of support or time.)
- At “no excuses” schools where idealistic, energetic teachers work overtime to help struggling students, teachers typically leave after only a few years on the job.
- In challenging schools, teachers’ job requirements and the intensity required to meet them are not realistic to sustain for more than two to three years.”
Burnout or Demoralization?
One educator thinks that “burnout” is an imprecise term. It implies that the problem is simply an excess of work, whereas what’s really happening goes beyond that.
Doris Santoro, author of the 2018 book Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and Why They Can Stay, says that teachers feel demoralized because they feel cut off from levels of emotional and support.
The Bowdoin College news site recently featured an interview with Santoro, who explained that she preferred this term because it explained the feeling of letdown that many teachers describe.
“Teachers are leaving the profession because they’re demoralized,” Santoro said. “They find their work frequently under political attack, which causes increasing anxiety and depression among them. This is often compounded by the demands made by standardized testing and rigid curriculum mandates. So, I’m finding that people who chose a career because they care about young people and want to help them have found themselves working under increasingly difficult and straightened conditions.”
Teacher Burnout Can Be Deadly
Teachers experience and express burnout in particularly debilitating ways. At the Guardian newspaper in England, an anonymous writer who goes by the byline Secret Teacher wrote a series of articles detailing her struggles with an overwhelming, suicidal depression.
In one article, she relates that she realized that she didn’t really want to die. She just didn’t want to be a teacher anymore.
“Too many good teachers are off work due to stress,” she wrote. “Too many are just surviving thanks to antidepressants, too many are self-medicating with alcohol and too many have succumbed to the illness and just killed themselves.”
Many educators and education professionals have proposed several steps to mitigate the problem. Typically, these include:
- Mentoring partnerships with experienced teachers who have successfully navigated the difficult first years.
- Peer support groups with other teachers.
- Better recognition of mental health struggles among teachers.
- Resources that help teachers do their jobs better, from school supplies to lighter workloads.
- Compassionate interventions for teachers who are self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. In the end, nobody can predict when the levels of burnout will become unsustainable for each teacher. As the problem continues to attract attention, it’s possible that new solutions will emerge.
If you’re struggling to keep your head above water, it may be helpful to know that you’re not alone and you’re not crazy. You’re probably having a normal reaction to circumstances that have become unsustainable.
If you want to continue teaching, it’s all right to ask for help.
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Ready to Escape Your Classroom?