The significant negative impact of the pandemic on educators is no secret. Teacher burnout is at an all-time high, self-care techniques are feeling futile, violence against teachers is on the rise and verbal abuse by parents is increasing. Fears about lost learning and teacher resignation continue to dominate the news.
During a recent meeting with a group of educators, I recalled the stress from the last two years accompanied by decades of pressure our systems have placed on an already weary profession. “Teachers need to give themselves some grace,” said Tamara Cervantes, a principal/director. “We are all under pressure to perform under all the administrative demands, and we underestimate our limitations. We forget we are human.”
Burnout is a buzzword that fails to carry the significance of the issue. We are great at raising the red flag, but solutions that help educators make significant changes are slow to come. Unfortunately, the pandemic compounded stress with the addition of compassion fatigue. While burnout occurs over time and is usually the result of work stressors like staff shortages or inadequate resources, compassion fatigue occurs when we exhaust our ability to empathize. The pandemic amplified these stressors and flipped the world upside down for educators.
“The real fear of Covid-19 (to our teachers, students, and parents) cannot be dismissed. We tend to forget that our teachers went through Covid just like our students did,” said Cervantes. “We tend to forget that they lost loved ones, their families went through struggles, their children were going through learning loss. We expect them to walk back in as though they are superheroes with capes–as if the last two years didn’t happen.”
When combined, burnout and compassion fatigue place teachers in a more exacerbated position. Solutions to these feelings imply that teachers need to just “figure it out” or “take a breather.” While self-care is a critical resilience strategy for teachers, it leaves the profession exposed to increased resignation, high turnover and teacher shortages. Too often, schools place all the emphasis on the individual and fail to recognize other elements of the teaching environment that influence teacher burnout and compassion fatigue.
Our consultants realized that the opposite of this combination of burnout and compassion fatigue is not rest, but rather re-discovering and reconnecting to purpose. If we want to address this compounding problem, school administrations should consider the following strategies at a systematic level.
1. Assess and determine the contributing factors.
We might think we have all the answers to combat burnout, but this unrelenting stressor is complex. We use the Maslach’s Burnout Inventory to measure burnout in three domains:
- Emotional exhaustion: The feeling of being emotionally overwhelmed, extended and exhausted by your work.
- Depersonalization: Measures an impersonal response.
- Personal accomplishment: Recognize feelings of competence and successful achievement in our work.
The assessment also looks at various aspects of work and personal life that can aid district leadership teams or school principals and identifies specific strategies to address burnout. Based on the results, strategies in these two areas could look very different. If you are focused on taking the weight off your teaching staff’s workload, but your teachers lack the feeling of being rewarded for their work, you might need to rethink how you praise them for their achievements.