Could Teacher Burnout Be the Next Global Pandemic?

By Adam Smith, Securly Marketing Manager, EMEA & APAC

Teacher Burnout

In early 2020, the world was plunged into the global COVID pandemic. As people around the world sheltered in place, essential workers continued on the front lines to ensure that life as we knew it wasn’t completely upended. Alongside healthcare and other essential workers, teachers were lauded and applauded for their extraordinary dedication. 

But more than two years later, it’s become painfully apparent that teachers need more than just outpourings of gratitude. 

K-12 Educators

Across the globe, teachers’ mental wellbeing appears to be in a worse state today than during the peak of the COVID pandemic. A recent Gallup study found that the rate of burnout among K-12 educators in the U.S. is higher than professionals in any other industry. Similarly, an Education Support study found that more than 70% of UK educators report declining mental health and feelings of heightened stress due to their work. 

No matter which way you look at it, the writing is on the whiteboard.

Teachers Are Leaving Education at an Alarming Rate

Teaching is often perceived as a comfortable career path, boasting shorter work days and summers off. Yet, as a former teacher myself and the husband of a current primary school teacher, I can attest that the reality of teaching looks more like sleepless nights and narrowly avoided nervous breakdowns. 

The stress of teaching eventually caught up to me seven years ago. I decided to put my mental health first and walk away from the classroom. It wasn’t a decision made lightly. But my love for education felt constantly at odds with my own wellbeing. In the end, something had to give. 

As news reports abound about the shortage of teachers, it’s evident that I’m not alone in making the decision to leave the profession. In the U.S, the teacher shortage has reached crisis levels. The number of teachers seeking greener pastures shows no signs of slowing down either. More than half (55%) of U.S. teachers plan to leave their careers earlier than originally intended. It’s no different in the UK, with almost half of teachers saying they plan to leave education in the next five years.

Though some may try to lump teachers in as part of the Great Resignation, a decline in the number of people interested in teaching careers dates back at least a decade. Pandemic or not, the teaching profession seems to be going the way of the dinosaurs, and we can’t continue to bury our heads in the sand. 

What’s Fanning the Flames of Teacher Burnout?

Like many educators, my teaching career began as a passion project. I’d been lucky to be taught by many exceptional teachers who instilled in me a lasting love of language, literature and creative writing. And, as such, I wanted to pay it forward as a teacher myself without ever really considering what awaited me behind the curtain.

Before I assumed my position at the head of the classroom, reality started rearing its ugly head. I was told to expect long days, longer nights and an outright lack of appreciation—and certainly no sympathy—from those in charge. Sadly, the forewarnings soon became stark everyday occurrences. While the joy of seeing my students learn and progress produced a great deal of job satisfaction, ultimately it wasn’t enough to tip the scale when the negatives of the job were so crushingly stacked against me. 

Further to my own choice to leave, several of my former classmates also made the same decision I did. I reached out to 15 of them and was shocked to learn that 11 have now left education. While their rationale for leaving differed slightly from person to person, each mentioned one or more all-too-familiar complaints as part of their decision-making process:

  • Excessive and unmanageable workloads
  • Large classroom sizes
  • Lack of support, resources and funding
  • Unrealistic academic targets
  • Insufficient time for preparation, paperwork and one-to-one student support

It’s worth noting that all of these issues pre-date COVID-19. In fact, only one of the 11 former teachers I spoke with referenced the pandemic as part of their decision to leave the profession.

But the challenges the pandemic posed have had a lasting impact on teachers nonetheless. As learning was forced online and had to be conducted in a way many schools weren’t prepared for, teachers were also pushed to quickly adapt to remote learning and rely on technology in ways many hadn’t had to previously. 

Even now with the pandemic largely behind us, teachers are yet to find relief. Arguably, they’re expected to do more now than ever – and with fewer resources. As a result, I suspect many educators are struggling with the same dilemma I did. And perhaps this is the saddest and most unfortunate part of teacher burnout. 

Obviously, those who are drawn to education certainly aren’t in it for the salary or accolades; they’re doing it because they love to teach. But even the brightest burning passion can quickly fizzle out in the face of poor working conditions and insurmountable expectations. 

It’s Time to Add Teacher Wellness to the Curriculum

There’s a growing understanding of the need to support student mental health and wellness. This has led to the addition of social emotional learning (SEL) to many schools’ curricula. But as we acknowledge the need to teach our children to develop self-awareness, emotional regulation and interpersonal skills, we can’t overlook the need to support our teachers as well.

social emotional learning (SEL)

Teacher wellbeing is intrinsically linked to student wellbeing. Research shows that the higher the level of stress exhibited by the teacher, the greater the frequency of mental health problems exhibited by the students. In other words, if we hope to achieve the desired outcomes of SEL for students, we must acknowledge the need for SEL for teachers too.

As both a teacher and an instructional coach, Sarah Milianta-Laffin provided her unique perspective on ways schools can better care for and retain teachers on the Voices in Education podcast – a worthwhile and thought-provoking listen.

Want to Help Improve Teacher Mental Health? Talking is a Good Start

Thankfully, we live in an era where talking about the challenges we face as educators is no longer taboo. If you want to join the conversation, I encourage you to check out the Voices in Education podcast – specifically the episode shared above and episode 6 with Kat Goyette who digs deeper into the importance of SEL for both students and their teachers. In fact, this episode inspired me to write this article and shine a light on this critical issue in education. Why not give it a listen? Perhaps you’ll be inspired to take action, too.

Listen to the episode now.

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