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.
2. Support educators to build personal resilience.
You can never go wrong by focusing on wellness. Unfortunately, teachers who set boundaries, such as leaving or coming in at the contract times, or those who forgo prep outside of contract hours are, at best, viewed as lacking dedication. They often find themselves simply unprepared for teaching due to the increased demands and scope of the work.
Self-care strategies in other professions, such as walking during a lunch break or other stress-busting activities, are unavailable to teachers and other staff members. Teachers struggle to prepare sub plans that take hours of uncompensated personal time. They have no choice but to go to work at the expense of doctor appointments, mental health check-ins, and unforeseen care for a sick family member.
Despite these barriers, leadership can model, encourage, and generate support for a wellness approach. Little tactics such as breathing exercises in a staff meeting or offering a Zoom teacher connection meeting once a month at a reasonable time can be critical small steps to support resilience.
3. Understand that resilience just scratches the surface.
A recent article by Harvard Business Review, suggests that “burnout is really an organizational issue and is not simply the result of a deficiency in self-care, the interventions to address it are more complex and require strategies beyond get more exercise and better sleep.”
We place a great deal of importance on increasing resilience to manage burnout and compassion fatigue. For example, offering teachers mental health support or counseling resources or suggestions for meditation and stress management apps. These are excellent approaches to build self-resilience in an increasingly complex world. While these tactics allow us to focus on what is in our control, they fail to address the underlying variables that lead to teacher burnout and resignation.
4. Emphasize the value of teamwork.
Resilience increases when we support each other. In lieu of the pandemic we discovered a trend from working with schools. School administrations that encouraged a team-oriented environment for their teachers and faculty created an increased sense of belonging and connection. Therefore, the very nature of teamwork is critical to combatting burnout and compassion fatigue.
5. Break down barriers that restrict change beyond the classroom.
Small changes can have a big impact. One school we worked with asked teachers what everyday activities caused additional stress. Surprise classroom visits from the school’s principal surfaced as a primary stressor. To relieve some of this pressure the school changed the policy to allow teachers to schedule visits with the principal. Here are some additional strategies that surfaced:
- Using support resources differently and at different times to better aid in small group instruction
- Generate discussion groups to identify learning that is occurring beyond the academic loss. Cervantes added, “Learning loss is hard to systematically make up. It will take time,” but learning has occurred nevertheless. Placing an emphasis on the aspects of growth that surfaced is important.
- Asking principals and administrators to take on teacher duties occasionally, such as recess duty, or picking up a class from specials class and then doing a read-aloud to give a teacher more prep time. They might cover a class so the teacher can leave in time to make it to an appointment. This provides a feeling that they have a safety net.
- Giving staff members the option to attend a staff meeting virtually or in person as needed for work/life balance (many teachers have small children at home they have to find care for when they go in to work early for these meetings).
- Principals who let their teachers know they support them.
- Positive, meaningful feedback, frequently!
6. Embrace systematic change in our existing structures.
The National Education Association just published data about what would support members with burnout and found that increasing teacher salaries, hiring more teachers and support resources, changing paperwork requirements, and adjusting the school hours/breaks would systematically alter this issue.
“Teachers cannot meet the standards that existed before COVID-19,” adds Cervantes. “Redefining the goal and ensuring district support for new mandates, when possible, can be a critical step that upper levels of leadership and state leaders need to adjust.”
Organizations are never off the hook for burnout and compassion fatigue. But school administrations who invest in these strategies guarantee that both student and teacher can succeed.
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