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Teacher Burnout: Causes, Signs, and Help

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Teacher Burnout title graphic showing an overwhelmed teacher in a classroom full of unruly kids.

Teacher burnout is an overwhelming sense that something has gone wrong in your career. You feel spent, unengaged, and even depressed when you’re at work or think about work. Burnout is the feeling that you just don’t enjoy or connect with your job anymore and you’re not sure how to fix it.

We’ve all been there before: you wake up and a wave of sadness hits you as you remember that you have to go to work today. Except, for teachers, this can be a frustrating and multi-layered experience that can ultimately lead to them leaving their profession.

Teacher burnout is an all-to-common experience in the United States. And it’s unfortunate, since we all hope to have excellent teachers that love their work and can show up for the kids they teach. But, unfortunately, school teachers commonly don’t feel supported at work and, without the proper attention to their situation, this can lead directly to burnout.

So what is burnout exactly, why does it happen, what does it look like, and how do you deal with it? Let’s dive right in to find out.

What is Teacher Burnout?

A burned out teacher rubs her forehead while grading papers in an elementary school classroom.

Teachers have a lot on their plates. Between juggling the demands at work and then heading home to also take care of their lives and families, they do a lot every day for many different people.

When life and work gets stressful, this can make their work experiences even more stressful. When this becomes a chronic experience with no end in sight, teachers are headed straight for burnout.

Burnout is the experience of deeply overwhelming stress, compounded, without an obvious solution. It takes over a person’s experience of life, leading to a constant sense of frustration and apathy.

Burnt out teachers might struggle with depression, anxiety, chronic physical health issues, mental health issues, deteriorating relationships, and an overall sense of despair. Without support, burnout can lead to teachers leaving the profession altogether, even if they really loved it at one point in the past.

Many studies demonstrate high teacher turnover and attrition rates. Current statistics show that approximately 15% (500,000) teachers leave the profession each year. About 41% of teachers in private and public schools leave the field entirely within their first 5 years of teaching.

Unfortunately, an additional study identified that roughly 93% of elementary school teachers experience high levels of stress and 73% have experienced varying levels of burnout. These stats don’t bode well for the teachers who are trying to love their work.

Burnout vs. Demoralization

It’s important to distinguish between job burnout and demoralization. Burnout occurs when a teacher (or nurse, mom, or any other worker) is overwhelmed by the demands of work compounded by behaviors around not prioritizing self care. When a teacher’s wellness is ignored, their job becomes so much harder.

Demoralization is another all too common experience in the teaching profession. However, its cause is due to a teacher’s ethics and values increasingly coming into contradiction with the school’s, school district’s, and national teaching standard’s ethics and values.

When teachers are limited in the way they can teach, are expected to “teach to the test,” or are dealing with unethical games and tactics, they can quickly lose hope that they can be the teacher they truly want to be. This can lead to teachers leaving the profession, due to hopelessness that they can change the situation.

Teacher burnout doesn’t just impact teachers and administration either. Students end up taking the biggest hit when their teachers are too stressed out to give them the attention and focus they need. Students rely on their teachers to watch out for them, care about their needs, and to provide a safe and rich learning environment.

Burnt out teachers end up harming their students, especially in impoverished and low resource communities.

What Causes Teacher Burnout?

There are a vast number of things that can cause teacher stress and burnout. Any external factors that restrict a teacher’s ability to teach well and to also take good care of themselves can stack up until burnout is inevitable.

Here’s a quick list of common reasons why teachers experience burnout throughout any given school year:

Work Pressures

  • High student to teacher ratios in the classroom.
  • Pressure to “teach to the test”.
  • Remote learning and the struggle to engage students online.
  • Difficulties with classroom management.
  • Competitive merit-based hierarchies imposed on teachers from school leaders.
  • Behaviorally toxic co-workers and members of administration.
  • Having to wear too many hats: teacher, social worker, disciplinarian, administrator, and so many others.
  • Lack of autonomy in curriculum design and lesson plans, as pressures from above impose “standardized” curriculums.
  • Not being paid enough for such a demanding job.
  • Restricted budgets, causing teachers to dip into their own salaries to get the supplies they need to teach.

Lifestyle Pressures

  • Working around the clock with little time for self care.
  • Bringing work worries home, so never getting a mental break.
  • Having to care for family at home, after caretaking students all day.
  • Being too “tapped out” from being around people all day, so not wanting to work on developing personal relationships.
  • No time for eating well or exercise.
  • Lack of time for hobbies and personal passions.
  • Not enough time for relaxation, rest, or downtime.
  • Personal or family member illnesses or disabilities.
  • Other personal or professional stressors that build up or become chronic.

As you can see, being a teacher in the United States comes with hefty burdens and responsibilities. As restrictions on teachers increase, more and more teachers report dissatisfaction with their careers. Pile on top of that personal struggle, low pay, and a difficult work-life balance, and you have a recipe straight toward burnout.

How to Identify the Signs of Teacher Burnout

A burned out teacher lies awake in his bed with a depressed look on his face in the morning before going to work.

There are a number of clues and warning signs new teachers and veteran teachers alike can look for when trying to decide if you’re experiencing teacher burnout. It’s important to keep an eye on these symptoms, as it can help you to prevent chronic burnout which can lead to seriously debilitating life effects.

Emotional Signs

  • A sense of depression creeping into your daily experience.
  • Your desire to connect with others disappears.
  • Avoiding activities you used to like doing.
  • Emotional exhaustion.
  • Snapping at family and friends.
  • Your ability to engage with others is severely limited.
  • Feeling nothing or felling numb and disconnected from your emotions.

Physical Signs

  • Chronic exhaustion.
  • Changes in your eating patterns, either overeating or undereating.
  • Struggling with insomnia or unusually interrupted sleep.
  • A sudden increase in headaches or migraines.
  • Tension and pain in your body.
  • Turning to caffeine and/or alcohol to cope.

Behavioral Signs

  • Feeling exhausted by the idea of leaving your home for social outings.
  • Avoiding engaging with family and friends.
  • Engaging in escapist activities and behaviors.
  • Snapping at the people you live with and/or co-workers/students.
  • Increased fantasizing about just running away from it all.

How to Deal with Teacher Burnout

Infographic showing 5 steps for dealing with teacher burnout.

There are many ways to deal with teacher burnout and each person’s experience requires a mix of approaches. The first step is to recognize and acknowledge that you’re experiencing burnout. Only after you’ve done that can you begin to accept what you need to do to get better again and back to feeling engaged and happy with life.

Here are a few things you can work on to reduce your sense of burnout.

1. Set Firm Boundaries in Your Life

Step 1 for dealing with teacher burnout is to set firm boundaries in your life.

It can be easy to let work life blur into your personal life, but it’s a recipe for disaster. Over time this lack of work-life balance can be a surefire path toward burnout. It’s important to have clear and distinct boundaries between your work day and your home life.

Develop friendships and relationships that don’t have anything to do with work. Focus on your family and prioritize your life outside of work. Setting clear boundaries between work and life can help your nervous system calm down after work so you can focus on your own life.

2. Prioritize Yourself and Your Well-Being

Step 2 for dealing with teacher burnout is to prioritize your self and your well-being.

It’s important to prioritize your own life, your family, and your self care. Without a good self care routine, your sense of well-being decreases and you’ll start to feel off balance. A good teacher can’t care for others if they don’t feel cared for first.

Stressful jobs can lead to chronic illnesses and diseases if other aspects of a person’s life isn’t healthy and in balance. By taking good care of your body and practicing mindfulness, you’re filling your own cup. Only then will you be able to keep your stress levels in check and prevent or decrease your sense of burnout.

3. Learn to Say No

Step 3 for dealing with teacher burnout is to learning to say no.

A good work and life balance is all about learning how to say no. It’s easy to want to say yes to every request that passes across your desk. As a teacher, you’re a giving person and you want to help when people request it.

But as someone who needs to focus on well-being, it’s important to recognize when your plate is already full enough. It’s okay to trust that other people will also step up to help and you don’t always need to be the one to do everything.

Learn how to say no so you can more enthusiastically say yes to the things that truly matter to you, your life, and your work.

4. Reinvent Your Teaching Career

Step 4 for dealing with teacher burnout is to reinvent your teaching career.

If you’ve got your well-being prioritized and your wellness practice in place, but you’re still not connecting with your job anymore, perhaps it’s time to reinvent your teaching career.

It might be time to change jobs or move to a new city. Maybe you could go back to school to concentrate in a new area or get certified in a new field in teaching. You could move to working in administration and make changes for the teaching profession.

There are lots of ways to stay a teacher but shift your energy in a new direction. Find the next new exciting challenge and focus on being the best you can be.

5. Work Toward a New, Healthier Career Choice

Step 5 for dealing with teacher burnout is to work toward a new, healthier career choice.

If you’re truly hit a wall with teaching, it might just be time for a whole new career path. It might be time for a career that feels healthy and lifegiving in ways that teaching just wasn’t for you.

You can still help families and children to become healthier and happier people as a Holistic Wellness Coach. You can use your teaching skills to be an incredible educator for those who are ready to take their own wellbeing to the next level.

The IAWP offers a well-rounded training program for career changers who are ready for work that feels like passion and nourishment. In only 6 months, you could be making a huge difference in the lives of clients who need your expert teaching skills to transform their lives.

Thoughts from IAWP Graduates

“Being in the IAWP Community has been amazing—to be with like-minded people who are so passionate, supportive and inspiring. My biggest successes are launching my website and wellness blog, sharing my story, working with clients both online and locally and leaving my teaching job to go full time with wellness coaching!”

Alie Harwood, Class of 2018 Listen to Alie’s Story →

“I was a 5th grade teacher who loved my students but was miserable. I felt trapped and I knew it was time to look for something different. When I found the IAWP, I felt like I was home.

I’m now working in my sweet spot and I feel that joy coming out as I coach clients, lead workshops and earn an income doing something I really love.”

Melanie Halter, Class of 2019 Read Melanie’s Story →

“I am a kindergarten teacher. Before the IAWP, I felt disconnected with myself and my life purpose. I was unhappy with my career, my relationships and my health.

Today I can say—I did it! I am now an IAWP Certified Holistic Wellness Coach! I am feeling so grateful for this journey and don’t have enough words to describe the joy, appreciation, and growth in my heart right now. This is a new beginning, and I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.

For anyone who feels self-doubts, feeling lost, feeling stuck, unsure, or any of these emotions that hold us back, I want to tell you I felt all of those too and more, I just didn’t let them stop me.”

Corinne Fabre, Class of 2020 Read Corinne’s Story →

Summary

A happy former teacher tells her friend about her new found career in wellness coaching.

Dealing with burnout as a teacher can feel overwhelming and even sometimes hopeless. But it’s not impossible to prevent or reroute. You deserve to feel better and to enjoy your work. The people you work with deserve to have a healthy and happy person as their teacher.

If it’s time for a career shift into a new fulfilling profession, becoming a Holistic Wellness Coach with the IAWP might be the right path for you. We offer a comprehensive, accredited training program that will ensure you have the holistic health education you need to truly help clients. We also partner you with a wellness coach so you can transform your own wellness and well-being.

Our program is unique in that we also teach you innovative systems for effective coaching and for building your own business. You won’t have to reinvent the wheel or create things from scratch. We’re invested in your success and our program shows that commitment every step of the way.

If you are ready to learn more, click here for more information about becoming a Certified Holistic Wellness Coach and to schedule a complimentary Wellness Coach Career session.

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About the Author

Suzanne Monroe

Suzanne Monroe is the author of Live Well Dream Big: The Ultimate Guide to Becoming Your Best Self and Living Life on Your Own Terms. She has also written and published The Holistic Cookbook & Lifestyle Guide: 12 Weeks to a Healthier, Happier You, the co-author of 101 Ways to Improve Your Health and the host of the Live Well Dream Big Podcast. Suzanne was inspired to create the IAWP Wellness Coach Training & Certification Program in collaboration with other leading health experts in order to inspire people to create meaningful careers and spread the message of wellness.

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