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I was almost a burnout statistic: a taboo topic in public education

           

I almost burned out.  I was almost a turnover statistic. With one of my favorite things in the world…teaching.  And the scariest thing: I didn’t even realize that it was happening.

Last year was my ninth year as a professional educator.  I taught at an urban, high poverty elementary school in Tampa, FL.  I had amazing students, ones that changed my life, but students who carried a lot of emotional weight. Just to paint a picture of what that means, here are some of my fifth grade class statistics:

  • Almost every one of my students was economically disadvantaged.
  • Two of my students were rape victims.
  • Two of my students (that I know of) had arrest records.
  • Mobility rates were through the roof. Many apartments fed into our school, so there was a high turnover rate as students came and left our classroom. As a teacher, it breaks your heart to have a member of your classroom family disappear.
  • One of my favorite students (yes, I know we are not supposed to have favorites) was taken away from our campus by ambulance twice for threatening her own life.
  • Many of my students were struggling with serious family issues at home.
  • Many of my students had special needs such as specific learning disabilities, bipolar disorder, emotional behavioral disorder.

            Raw moment coming below.

            My heart hurt. And I felt isolated. I found myself getting uncharacteristically mopey and polishing off a little bit more red wine that usual on Sunday nights. I was tearing up when thinking about how K. was afraid of getting kicked out of her house. I was up late worrying about how the police had come for J during school. I was torn about how S. had been caught stealing from my colleague’s desk (again).  And I am a proud Pollyanna, a self-proclaimed (and sometimes over-the-top) optimist. But I can see now as I look back that I was spiraling down a hole towards something that looks like burnout.

            We spend so much time and energy discussing recruitment in education, with programs with Teach.org launching campaigns to attract the next generation of strong teachers. Do we give retention that same attention?  How do we support teachers, grow them, and keep them once they are in front of students? According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, we lose 56% of teachers in the first five years, with the turnover rate close to 20% at our urban schools.  And that scares the willies out of me, especially when I was almost included in that 20% and I didn’t see it coming.

            So some questions to let simmer…do we address the issues of burnout and retention enough? And how do we think in more preventative measures instead of reactive ones? I’ve been digging through the research and learning from the best teachers across the nation. Solutions to come later this week…so make sure to take a break from your turkey and add to the conversation.

9 Comments

Angie Miller commented on November 25, 2013 at 7:25pm:

Time is huge--having 100+

Time is huge--having 100+ students a day with only 40 minutes a day to plan for 5 preps and grade papers means you have to sacrifice time from your health, your family, and anything that you might do outside of school. When your job consumes most of your day and then you are emotionally involved with the stories of the students you are committed to, it is easy to see where we burn out. 

On top of everything that is expected, layers and layers of new administrative, state, and federal expectations greet teachers at the door each year, yet time to reflect on our practice, talk to colleagues in and outside of the building, and determine how to weave these expectations into our practice, leave us feeling like it is an impossible job.

When people feel overwhelmed, they often become negative and the culture and moral in many schools is currently negative and toxic. 

And there you have it--inevitable burnout. 

Megan Allen Megan Allen commented on November 26, 2013 at 10:58am:

Peeling back the layers

Angie:

Thanks for your comments! I think the key to your thinking is the layers. How do we peel these back so teachers can focus on the core (pun intended!) of their job? How can we refocus our attention on what matters...our students?

I loved hearing Chris Lehman speak this week at NCTE about curriculum. He said our curriculum is not a textbook, it is not a set of standards, the curriculum is not the curriculum. Our curriculum is the students.

Thanks, Angie!

Anne Jolly commented on November 25, 2013 at 10:03pm:

Teacher Burnout

Wow - powerful story, Megan.  It is indeed amazing what goes on in the lives of students who enter our classes every day.  I never taught a single year of 8th grade (16 years) without at least one of my students having a baby. One of the students I'd worked with the hardest learned and enjoyed science, and won the regional science fair (flunked almost everything but science). Then he went on to high school where he committed suicide.  Marcus - a perpetually happy 14-year old who sat second row, third seat - was found shot dead behind some bushes another year. One student confessed to me that she was being abused by her father and another told me she was having to go to the crack house down the street and buy drugs for her mother every night. 

But there were those who were happy, well-adjusted, and had nothing worse to deal with than forgetting their homework that day.  And there were those with problems who I was able to help.  That was the best cure I found for preventing burnout. 

So I guess my first suggestion for helping to prevent teacher burnout is this: Lower the teacher class loads.  I taught from 150 to 180 students per day, depending on the year and how many teachers we got.  Finding time for individual students was difficult in those circumstances.  If I'd had just 70 or 80 per day it would have been so much more manageable. One thing that prevents burnout is to know that you're making a difference in the lives of your students, and that you're able to make time for them. So help teachers make time for students.  

Brad Clark commented on November 26, 2013 at 9:00am:

It is a very powerful

It is a very powerful narrative. Megan's story speaks for many teachers who are unable to articulate their reasons for feelings of burnout.

Anne, I do not hink that smaller class sizes are the answer.  My 'best' years have been years when I have been overloaded with students.  

I think that the majority of teacher burnout's causes are more clearly linked to value and incentives.  Although we have all dealt with situations that are heinous (we really have no idea what our students experience away from school), many of those instances cause us to further advocate for our students (and I suggest, cause us to see value in staying in the profession). The heart of burnout has to do with incentives.  I am underpaid; there are times when I can handle that, there are times when I cannot.  Financial outlook is like a pendulum.

The real issue that drives teachers out of our profession is that they lack agency in making decisions that guide classrooms, buildings and districts.  This issue is an issue of vlaue (undervaluing) teacher expertise.  If I were an economist, I would create some sort of line graph that shows the relationship between my ideas being valued and my feelings of financial woe (or indifference) What we would be able to see is that when I am both undervalued financially and undervalued intellectually, I want out. It happens EVERY year.  

Rather than complain without solution, I posit a couple of points that I think help to alleviate this desire to flee:

1.  My ideas are valued in two virtual spaces: the CTQ's platform and the Hope Street Group's virtual platform.  The first allows me to explore teaching as a craft/art and the second allows me to explore how teacher voice can impact state education policy and regulation.

2.  There is a growing trend across the nation (that CTQ is helping to drive:) to compensate teachers commisserate with mastery and merit.  This glimmer of hope (and something to fight for) will keep a lot of teachers in the field; but there is a catch: we have to build momentum for this movement by involving more teachers.

I realize that every teacher and every situation is different, but I think that a lot of master teachers feel this way. 

Megan Allen Megan Allen commented on November 26, 2013 at 11:06am:

Solutions

Brad:

I love your solutions-oriented focus here! 

I  agree with the power to turn those struggles into a foundation for advocacy. This is fuel to our conversations, our emails, our slow nudges for policy-change. And collaboration with colleagues in and outside my building...especially virtually...was my lifeboat. When I was feeling beat up by the waves, my colleagues in CTQ, NNSTOY, and NBPTS were my lifesavers. :)

I wonder if your graph exists out there? Or if we could research and make it come to life?

Best,

Megan

Megan Allen Megan Allen commented on November 26, 2013 at 11:00am:

Class size

Anne:

I love your thinking here. I think the more we can help individual students on every level, the more effective we are. How do we make this a reality? I think it is especially important to do this at our high needs schools. I am a true believer that class size DOES matter.

Thanks, Anne!

Megan

Ariel Sacks commented on November 25, 2013 at 10:18pm:

Retention issues

Megan, your post really resonates with me.  We really need to deal with teacher retention.  Even though you were close to burn out, it is your strength that students need most. You and all of the teachers who serve as rocks help students feel like they are somewhere that matters, like there are some constants and some spots of sunshine in their lives.  And when teachers are leaving too, it adds to the loss the same children have to deal with.  I teach 8t grade and I remember one 7th grade student asking me in the hallway, "Are you going to be here next year?"  She asked the question, because she knows she cannot count on teachers staying and she didn't want to get to know me and get her hopes up with that possibility...

I have to say, I taught for six years in schools where 100% of my students were economically disadvantaged and I became accustomed to a lot of heart break. Now I teach 107 students, but only about 50% are living in poverty. All students have issues and need attention, but it IS different. There are fewer students in dire situations like the ones you describe, and therefore I have more emotional space and time for them. 

I agree with Anne--lower class size. Even if research shows class size may not be directly linked to "student achievement" on standardized tests, I'm SURE it links to teacher retention, along with the social-emotional learning of students.  I would add that we could also think about ways to integrate our schools so poor students and middle class students are not so separate. 

Megan Allen Megan Allen commented on November 26, 2013 at 11:13am:

Being the rock

It is so funny that you mentioned the rock... I talk all the time about being the rock for our students!  Click here for a sample...

I think that even though I regularly speak to teachers about being the rock, I lost sight of it myself. It is easy to do at times...guilty! I think also that it helps to remember that we must be the rock for each other. It is one of the beautiful things about our profession.

And I do think that lower class sizes would make me feel more effective. I would feel like I could do more, listen more, be there more. Read more, write more, work in small groups more. 

I do think there is so much segregation of SES within our schools...what is the answer? I like that you mentioned this and would love to peel back the layers here. Thoughts?

Sandy Merz commented on November 30, 2013 at 5:30pm:

What can they do so that I love my job?

No, retention is not meaningfully addressed.  My scary statistic is the that the greatest percentage of teachers are in their 1st year of teaching. When I started - in 1987 - the greatest percentage hand more than 10 years experience - which mean I had lots of models to learn from. 

I think I've avoided burnout by having teacher oriented administrations, a lot of autonomy, an ability to compartamentalize my emotional involvement, and colleauges I absolutely consider my brothers and sisters.  Apart from that, I've been lucky that even though I've stayed at the same school for my whole career, every 5 or 6 years something's come along to re-engergize my passion and committment - most currently the teacher leader movement and my teacherpreneurship.

I have a friend who teaches at a Catholic school.  He says his principal, or whoever decides his contract, has told him, "I can't pay you more, so what can I so that you love your job?" 

Maybe that would be a starting point.  I bet there are tons of things teachers could name, that require approval, but that don't cost a dime, don't get in the way of anyone's agenda, are not political, and yet would make their jobs so much more enjoyable.  (And you think you're a Polyanna, Megan.) 

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