Talk of burnout has returned to school staff rooms around Aotearoa, and now is the perfect time for some honest conversations about how things are really going.
I experienced burnout last year. I had been teaching at secondary schools for 11 years and was leading a large learning area. Things were not great but I wrote it off as a “pinch point” in the school year, stiffened my resolve and found new reserves of capacity to cope with the workload. It wasn’t until a termly check in with my line manager that I really stopped. He began the meeting by simply asking, “how are you?” Determined to suck it up and get on with how the department was progressing toward the annual goals, I instead burst into tears and told him how I really was.
I hated going to work. I felt sick arriving at the building and wanted to cry when I checked my emails. I was putting off important jobs. I couldn’t prioritise the many things I had to do, and it was starting to affect other people. So I went to see my GP who explained what was happening and signed me off work for four weeks.
The World Health Organisation’s definition of burnout: “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
In 2019, WHO redefined the term burnout as referring “specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life”.
So I was feeling like this because of my job, and the inability to manage the associated stress. And I quickly found out that I wasn’t the only one. Lots of colleagues – many of them experienced, high-performing teachers – approached me to share their own stories.
Burnout and workload-related stress is more common than we like to admit. Teachers tend to give more of ourselves than we have in reserve – let’s be honest, there’s a bit of a martyr complex going on for many of us too – and I don’t think we’re very good at talking about it.
Suzi McAlpine’s Beyond Burnout: How to Spot It, Stop It and Stamp It is the first book I read to help understand what was happening last year (classic teacher move) and I highly recommend it for middle and senior leaders. It refers often to the 2020 Cogo Workplace Wellbeing Survey (NZ) which showed that education professionals were the most likely to show signs of exhaustion (86%), a lack of engagement (71%) and depersonalisation (35%) all of which are red flags for burnout. I wonder how those stats might read now, after three years of illness, masks, rostering home, student absences and all the accommodations for NCEA?
Teaching is an intensely human profession. We’re not alone — GPs, nurses, lawyers and other people-centric professions also feel the pressure to put their own stuff aside to focus on the people in front of them. We spend our days talking, listening, reacting, pre-empting, reassuring, decoding and defusing – often all at once and with a target audience of erratic “emerging adults”. That’s part of what makes the job varied and, most of the time, a lot of fun. But it has also been documented that a teacher must make tens of thousands of micro-decisions each day. This constant decision-making takes a toll on our mental load, and means that many aspects of the job follow us home. A colleague describes it as letting students “live rent-free in our heads”. As a curriculum leader I often let colleagues or senior leaders take out a lease too.
The beginning of the school year, marked by fresh stationery and crisp new uniforms, is a time of hope and possibility. With it always came a touch of idealism for me as I planned cutting-edge units of work that surely, this time, would tap into the zeitgeist and transform my students into avid readers and writers. But reflecting now, what I really needed to plan was how to manage the stress when the inevitable pinch points of the secondary school year took hold.
Weirdly, I’m glad this happened to me. I now know that keeping our performance up in spite of low wellbeing is a precursor to burnout. Better yet, it forced me to find practical ways to manage the stress of teaching and share them with my colleagues.
How secondary teachers can avoid burnout
There are six main causes of burnout and ways to alleviate all of them.
As a job, teaching can be emotionally exhausting and overstimulating. There’s a sense that we’re “always on”.
- Find a sanctuary within the school where you can escape for five minutes and think your thoughts uninterrupted.
- Don’t overpromise — to students or colleagues.
- Leverage support staff, like counsellors and pastoral staff.
Lack of control
Teachers deal with “emerging adults” (to put it politely) and this means that things feel slightly out of control at times.
- Accept that students’ missteps are part of their overall development.
- Disrupt the saviour/martyr self-talk.
- Pick your battles with tricky students, and make them learning-focused battles.
Sense of isolation
Teaching can be a really lonely job and it sometimes feels like a long time between conversations with other adults.
- Take moments to check in with a colleague during a lesson — even if it’s a just a smile, thumbs up or eye roll across the room.
- Do the staff things when you can.
- Invite someone for a walk around the grounds at break time.
- Collaborate with someone to work smarter (and have more fun).
There’s no denying that teachers in most countries tend to be underpaid in comparison to other professions, and when confronted by stacks of marking, behavioural issues and report writing in the depths of term-time, it can be hard to remember why it’s all worth it.
- Celebrate the small wins — it could be as small as a student arriving with the correct equipment or a shift from one sub-level to the next. Enjoy it!
- Avoid comparing your students’ results to others.
- Use the flexibility built into our jobs and try to get out of the building by a certain time each day.
- Make plans to look forward to in the holidays.
- Share the lols — there are so many funny moments that happen in teaching. Share them with people!
Absence of fairness
When things get hard, it can be easy to enviously look at other departments or roles in the school and think about how unfair your workload is.
- Consider the wider picture — yes, you might have a ton of exam marking right now, but later in the year those who seem to be cruising now might be planning camps or writing graduation citations.
- Celebrate the small wins (yes, again).
- If you’re a subject specialist teacher, remember that we get to read, discuss and write about the things we love every day.
This one can be hard to manage. If there’s an approach or a set of values and beliefs that you don’t agree with in the school, it can lead to frustration and that lack of engagement mentioned above.
- Explicitly tell students what matters most to you of your school values.
- Pick your battles. Whether it’s as small as uniform or as large as pedagogical approaches, explain to students why it matters to you that it’s done a certain way in your class.
- Find areas where you can display your personal philosophy, like extra and co-curricular activities.
Every day we have to put on our teacher-faces, keep calm and carry on — even when things aren’t 100%. We also know that keeping our performance up, in spite of low wellbeing, is a precursor to burnout. Hopefully these suggestions might present some food for thought during those times when it all feels a bit much.