As a teacher, you have one of the most important jobs in the world. You shape young minds and help prepare them for their future. It is a calling that so many readily embraced. However, the job can be stressful and demanding, leading to burnout.
I am no stranger to teacher burnout, having experienced several bouts of it throughout my teaching career and especially in the recent COVID years. I struggle with the seemingly insurmountable problem: how could I be burned out in a job I deem to be my calling? Am I mistaken about my calling? Is there something wrong with me?
To understand my condition better, I read up on burnout literature and listened to podcasts. I then realized that people with a strong sense of calling and mission are more prone to burnout than people without!
It’s essential to recognize the signs of teacher burnout before it’s too late. These include feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or even cynical about your work. If you’re experiencing any of these burnout symptoms, take action to avoid further damage to your health and career.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are my own and do not in any way represent the organizations I am associated with. The situations I describe below are also generalized from my research and most definitely do not represent the wonderful school environment I am blessed to work in.
- Introduction: What is Teacher Burnout
- Why Teachers are Prone to Burn Out
- Working in a high-stress environment
- Having a heavy workload
- Inadequate support from administrators
- Lack of appreciation from students and parents
- What about the pay?
- Why Self-Care is Not Enough to Stop Teacher Burnout
- 5 Ways Teachers can Prevent Burnout and Find Renewal
- 1. Develop a support network
- 2. Build a positive school culture
- 3. Set realistic expectations
- 4. Take time to pursue your ‘avocation’
- 5. Practice spiritual disciplines
- Conclusion: Teacher Burnout is not Final
Introduction: What is Teacher Burnout
Teacher burnout is a term used to describe a condition in which a teacher experiences physical or emotional exhaustion, a lack of accomplishment, and a negative attitude toward teaching. The symptoms of burnout can include depression, anxiety, irritability, and physical illness.
American psychologist, Dr. Christina Maslach identifies the three universal symptoms of burnout in her book, “Burnout: The Cost of Caring”:
- Exhaustion—feeling constantly drained of energy (“I have problems that I’m too tired to solve”)
- Ineffectiveness—feeling like your work doesn’t accomplish anything, no matter how hard you try (“I have problems that I can’t solve”)
- Cynicism—seeing the people you are trying to help as the source of your problems (“I have problems that people won’t help me solve”)
If you are a teacher and you resonate with one or more of these 3 symptoms, you might be on the verge of burnout. Read on!
Why Teachers are Prone to Burn Out
Is teacher burnout a thing in Singapore?
Certainly! I would argue that teacher burnout is a very real phenomenon in Singapore, and one that can have a profound impact on both the individual teacher and the students they are trying to help.
The causes of teacher burnout are many and varied. Some of the more common causes include working in a high-stress environment, having a heavy workload, insufficient resources, inadequate support from administrators, and a lack of appreciation from students and parents.
Working in a high-stress environment
Imagine a lawyer having to talk to 40 clients at the same time. Or a doctor attending to the needs of 40 patients at one go. No other professional I know of can multitask as well as a classroom teacher!
Teaching in a classroom is stressful because you have so many variables. It is easier if the students are motivated and self-disciplined, so you can focus on probing the depths of your subject matter.
But most of the time, we need to plan ahead on how to engage them, what resources to use, which related YouTube videos to play when they get bored, and what to do when they acted up or plain walk out of class. We give assignments knowing that we have to grade every single one of them when they turn in, and chase after them as though they owed us big money.
Outside the classroom, we have to plan for and run CCAs, sit on committees (or chair one), organize events, carry out departmental duties, and to set and vet exam papers.
This is NOT a rant (I know, it sounds like one), but I am trying to highlight how challenging it is to meet every demand of the job AND expect oneself to be a highly effective classroom teacher.
The demands of the job can thus be incredibly stressful, with teachers often feeling like they are not doing enough to help their students succeed.
Having a heavy workload
Teachers are under an immense amount of pressure to succeed. They are constantly being asked to do more with less, and the workload can be very demanding. This is especially so since the pandemic.
According to this Straits Times article (“More than 80% of S’pore teachers say Covid-19 pandemic has hurt their mental health: Survey“, Sep 2021), more than 80 percent of teachers said their mental health has been negatively impacted by their work amid the Covid-19 pandemic in a nationwide survey. They cited long hours as one reason, with 80.6 percent indicating they worked more than 45 hours a week. This is above the average for the working population in Singapore.
The complexity of work has also increased, especially since the onset of the pandemic. Online learning, hybrid learning, safety management measures, and other new administrative tasks complicate what was already on the teacher’s plate.
A heavy workload can lead to teacher burnout in a number of ways. First, it can increase the amount of time spent on paperwork and administration which can take away from time spent actually teaching and planning lessons.
Second, it can cause stress and anxiety, leading to physical and emotional exhaustion.
Third, it can make it difficult to keep up with the latest research and developments in education, which can make teaching feel like a constant struggle.
Lastly, it can lead to a feeling of isolation from other teachers, who may be able to offer support and advice.
Inadequate support from administrators
The demands of teaching can often lead to burnout if teachers don’t have enough resources or support from administrators. When teachers are overloaded with work and don’t have enough time to recover, they can start to feel overwhelmed and stressed. This can lead to problems like anxiety, depression, and even physical health problems.
An article by ChannelNewsAsia (CNA) (“‘My mental health is at an all-time low’: Teachers talk of burnout, MOE aware that ‘gaps’ need plugging”), reported how teachers received inadequate support as they struggled with a heavier workload due to the pandemic.
Burnout can be prevented by making sure that teachers have enough resources and support to do their jobs effectively.
Lack of appreciation from students and parents
In another article by CNA (“The Big Read: What can make our teachers happier and less overworked? Here’s looking at you, parents“), the message was clear: parents play a big role in teachers feeling overworked and burnt out— be it in terms of disciplining their child, intervening with how teachers carry out their lessons, or expecting teachers to be “surrogate parents” or “babysitters”.
While most teachers approach their work without asking for anything in return, taking their sacrifice for granted and unnecessarily burdening them after work hours can be detrimental to their mental health.
What about the pay?
Some would also cite low pay as a cause for burnout. In Singapore where I work, teaching is actually one of the better-paid jobs around. In fact, at the time of writing, we are about to receive a salary revision some time next month. Thus, low pay should not be one of the key factors (unless, of course, one compares with the more lucrative private tuition industry. But I digressed).
Even after the recent pay increment, some teachers said that although it may go some way towards keeping teachers in the profession, work-life balance is still an issue.
“More could be done at the ground level because that’s the feedback we’re getting. [Given] the stress levels in the school, because of the complexity of the teaching profession, more should be looked at in terms of providing support for teachers to facilitate a greater harmony (in their) work life.”– a Singaporean teacher
You get the idea – teacher burnout is a thing in Singapore. So, how do we prevent it from derailing us from our calling and sabotaging our career?
Let’s talk about what does not work (by itself) – ‘self-care’.
Why Self-Care is Not Enough to Stop Teacher Burnout
At this point, the most common response teachers often hear when they express their exhaustion is, “Practice self-care and put yourself first.” And when teachers feel ineffective, they are encouraged to “work smarter, not harder.”
In an EdSurge article, the authors Tim Klein and Belle Liang claimed that this kind of advice, while well-intentioned, ultimately fails.
First, it puts the onus of responsibility on teachers themselves. This implies that teachers themselves are to blame for their burnout.
Second, it is difficult to implement. A “self-care” practice can feel counter to the ethos of the teaching profession. Education is a human service: it’s about putting others first. Advice encouraging teachers to “work smarter” than they already are isn’t actionable for many teachers because they have no additional bandwidth. No amount of effort can solve the morass of challenges facing teachers and students.
Finally, this advice only targets the symptoms of burnout. Not the root cause. Remember – physical and emotional exhaustion is the symptom of burnout, just as feeling of ineffectiveness and detachment from the work. Very few teachers signed up for the job with the intent to become disgruntled and cynical after 5 years. It is seldom a choice, but something that happens to them.
I have to agree with them. In fact, last year I wrote a blog post about the inadequacy of self-care as a solution to burnout. Here, the burnout experts are proposing that something more structural and systemic is needed to overhaul the burnout culture.
We can go into that in a future post. For now, we come back to the question: what can the individual do to prevent burnout?
5 Ways Teachers can Prevent Burnout and Find Renewal
Burnout can lead to low morale, absenteeism, and even quitting the profession altogether. Many of my close friends who used to teach have left the service due to burnout. After some reflection, I found that there are 5 key ways that teachers can prevent burnout and find renewal:
- Developing a support network
- Building a positive school culture
- Setting realistic expectations
- Taking time to pursue one’s ‘avocation’
- Practicing spiritual disciplines
1. Develop a support network
Find a support system. Whether it’s your colleagues, friends, or family, it’s crucial to have people you can rely on for support. Talking to someone who understands what you’re going through can be very helpful in managing stress and avoiding burnout.
Personally, I am grateful for my support network. My work colleagues are very understanding and a fun lot to be with.
Being surrounded by like-minded colleagues-and-friends can really boost our morale at work.
I am comfortable to be open and vulnerable with them. They all know that I have bipolar disorder and they trust that I will still give my best despite my challenges.
At home, I share the ups and downs in my work with my spouse, as I listen to hers.
We also meet our close friends on a regular basis so as to keep one another updated. I also meet my spiritual director monthly to stay on track.
All these relationships form a support network, without which I have no safeguard against a burnout meltdown. And I know I can count on them to lift me up when I do.
2. Build a positive school culture
“The more you know about your colleagues and the more you feel like they know about you, the more likely you are to trust them, and the more likely to be able to work together in a productive way.”Amanda Ripley
Having a positive school culture can help reduce teacher burnout. It is important for teachers to feel that they are in a safe, supportive environment. Teachers will also be more engaged with their work and less likely to burnout if they know that their colleagues care about them.
In order to build a positive school culture, schools need to provide teachers with an understanding of what being a teacher entails and how it might be difficult for them. They should also have a clear understanding of the importance of trust in the workplace and how it is important for everyone’s well-being.
As an individual teacher, you can contribute to building a positive school culture through whatever area of influence you have. Lend a listening ear to your colleagues, share stories and good food, writing appreciation notes – all these go a long way!
3. Set realistic expectations
Too many teachers (including myself) are over-idealistic. We need to learn to set realistic goals and expectations for ourselves (and our team, if we are leading one). When you set goals that are too high, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged. Make sure your goals are motivating but also realistic.
Avoid the “all-or-nothing” mentality. It’s important to remember that even a small step in the right direction can be helpful — even if it’s not perfect. Learn to be patient with yourself and accept that you may not be able to always achieve your high expectations.
Learn to say no to unreasonable requests. When you’re feeling overworked and stressed, it can be easy to say yes to every request that comes your way. The more you do, the more stressed you will become. Learn to say no when you need to and let others pitch in.
Sometimes it is difficult to say no, depending on the boss we work for and the environment we are in. Personally, I find it helpful to always have honest conversations with my supervisors, and negotiate work arrangements that benefit the school and meet my needs. Doing so prevents me from bottling up any resentment I might have, and lead to a healthier working relationship.
4. Take time to pursue your ‘avocation’
An avocation is a hobby or any other activity taken up that is different from one’s regular work. A vocation is one’s principal occupation, often used in the context of a calling to a particular way of life or course of action.
As a teacher, despite the perennial busyness, it’s important to have hobbies and interests outside of your vocation (calling) in order to maintain a healthy balance. When you’re solely focused on work, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and stressed out.
Now, this advice may seem to run contrary to a blog like, ‘Embrace Our Calling’. But it is not.
You see, work is important to our flourishing. As a Christian, I believe that God created work for our good (see Genesis 1:26,28; 2:15). But we are not created for work – we are created for God. If we derive our identity and meaning from our work, we are making work our idol.
You are not your calling. Yes, God gives us different callings, in different seasons of our lives. But that calling does not define our worth in His eyes.
When we spend time in our leisure, we are taking care of ourselves both physically and emotionally. This means getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly. It means spending time enjoying God’s gifts, His beautiful creation, and the people made in His image.
So, before the burnout alarm blasts off, take good care of your health. Maintaining a healthy diet and exercising will help you manage stress, ward off depression, and stay focused.
5. Practice spiritual disciplines
Finally, never let go of your spiritual disciplines. Prayer, worship, scripture study, service, and meditation are all important spiritual disciplines that can help you to prevent teacher burnout.
Depending on your faith tradition, your spiritual practices may look different from mine. But whatever form they take, they will be a vital source of strength, renewal, and hope. They’re essential for maintaining your own well-being, as well as your ability to be present for your students.
Some spiritual disciplines that can help prevent teacher burnout include:
- Spiritual retreat
- Participating in small groups or Bible study
- Spending time in nature
- Keeping the Sabbath
Make sure to keep up with them on a regular basis. The idea is to build a consistent rhythm in your life. Whether it’s attending church, going on a retreat, praying, or meditating, these spiritual disciplines will help to keep you centered and prevent burnout.
Conclusion: Teacher Burnout is not Final
When you love your job, it can be easy to get burned out. Teaching is a high-stress profession that often requires long hours and little downtime. With so much responsibility, it’s no wonder that teachers are prone to burnout.
If you’ve been teaching for a while, you know that burnout is real. It’s not just “in your head” or some gimmick to get out of work. It’s real and it can happen to anyone. Teaching can be extremely rewarding, but it does not come without stress.
As educators, we have the training and capabilities to meet our students’ learning needs. If we’re feeling burned out, it’s important we evaluate our lives, take action to change unhealthy patterns, and find ways to reduce stress. By following these 5 tips, teachers can prevent burnout and find renewed energy in their career and calling.
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Feel free to check out the other posts related to burnout as well!