Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.
Teachers are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. They’re tasked with an ever-growing number of responsibilities, which places huge demands on their time. Simultaneously, many teachers report that their professionalism is being challenged and their classroom autonomy is slipping away.
These problems have existed for years, but the pandemic has made them even worse. According to a recent Gallup poll, the burnout rates among K-12 employees are greater than those for health care and law enforcement workers, with 44% of teachers saying they’re “always” or “very often” stressed out at work. In fact, the burnout gap between K-12 teachers and other professionals has only widened since the start of the pandemic, with burnout increasing eight percentage points among K-12 employees since 2020 but only two points among all other workers.
This stress is causing many teachers to leave the profession, a trend that has led to teacher shortages in many districts. These shortages, in turn, are causing further burnout for the teachers who remain, as teachers are being asked to give up their planning periods to cover for missing colleagues — creating a vicious cycle that threatens the quality of instruction students receive.
The stress that teachers are feeling is real and deep-rooted, and there is no easy solution to this challenge. Many factors contribute to the problem, but the Gallup poll identified a few key factors in particular, including unfair treatment, unmanageable workloads, a lack of clarity about teachers’ roles, a lack of communication and support from managers, and unreasonable expectations/time pressures.
With these factors in mind, here are five critical strategies that can help K-12 leaders reduce teacher burnout, retain employees and help bring back the joy of teaching.
1. Listen to teachers
As the staff members who have the most interaction with students, teachers know best. They’re on the front lines of education and are often the first to see problems, identify solutions and meet the needs of students. Yet, teachers frequently feel like their input is ignored or they’re not part of the decision-making process in their school or district — which can be incredibly deflating to staff morale.
In product development, we often use the phrase: “Nothing interesting happens in the office,” or NIHITO. It’s a reminder to go and talk to users to see how our products are working in the real world so we can create solutions that meet users’ needs. K-12 leaders need to prioritize NIHITO by spending time in classrooms and collaborating with teachers in developing solutions to the problems they see.
Listening to teachers not only helps them feel appreciated and results in better classroom practices; it also ensures that K-12 leaders are taking care of faculty needs. In the same way we ensure that the basic needs of students are met before learning occurs, educators must have their own needs met before they can effectively tend to their students.
2. Make sure they feel respected and empowered
Teaching is a complex practice that rightfully requires specialized training. All too often, however, teachers are treated as implementers rather than the professional designers of instruction they have been trained to be. This is demoralizing, of course, but more importantly, it means schools are missing out on the main value teachers bring to the classroom: the ability to figure out what is right for the students they’re serving in the moment.
Respect is often synonymous with agency, and it is this agency that is needed to meet the needs of students. K-12 leaders should focus on enablement strategies rather than micromanaging their staff.
3. Provide targeted support
Educators must have the resources they need to do their work, including high-quality teaching materials as well as the time and space to learn and implement new techniques in their classrooms.
As every classroom is different and benefits from different solutions, teachers need targeted support to address these nuances. Teachers may have to tackle dozens of problems at any given moment. Providing targeted support means helping them prioritize which problems to solve and then giving them the resources they need to address these problems effectively.
We often talk about differentiating instruction for students, and the same principle applies for our teachers. Focus on delivering meaningful professional development that increases teachers’ ability to ideate solutions. Structure this professional learning in a way that allows for choice and self-differentiation.
4. Make their jobs easier
The biggest gift that K-12 leaders can give to their staff is to make their jobs easier by simplifying key tasks.
For instance, teachers spend so much of their limited time searching for lesson ideas and engaging, thought-provoking classroom materials. Every online search requires a careful evaluation process in which teachers ask themselves: “Can I use this material or is it outdated? Did it come from a credible source? Will my students be able to understand it?”
Providing a curated library of curriculum-aligned lessons and activities that teachers can search for by subject, standard and grade level, then adapt them for their own purposes and use them directly in their own classrooms is a huge time-saver. It eliminates the need for teachers to spend time searching for content online and verifying the authenticity of this information for themselves.
5. Understand that new teachers need even more support
Teaching can be stressful even for veteran teachers, but for those who are new to the profession, it’s exponentially harder. New teachers need even more support to make sure they’re successful.
For instance, new teachers don’t have the benefit of having developed a personal collection of teaching practices, lessons and materials that they can draw from in a pinch. They typically must create everything from scratch or else spend time searching for proven ideas that others have created.
A resource (such as the one in the author bio below) that is shared across an entire school or district makes this process much easier for new teachers. It allows veteran instructors to share their ideas with new ones and lends the type of support that new teachers require for success.
Solving the problem of burnout
Reducing teacher burnout starts with listening to teachers, empowering them to develop the solutions to the problems they see, and providing resources to support new and veteran teachers alike. It is a multifaceted problem that requires many strategies to accomplish. But by focusing on teachers as the solution, we can start to create meaningful change for our educators and, in turn, the students they serve.
A former classroom teacher, Gintas Bradunas is now a K-12 product manager at Gale, part of Cengage Group, which offers a shared resource for teachers called “Gale in Context: For Educators.”
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.
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