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By: Geena Bergen
Geena is a teacher and advocate for teachers' health and wellbeing. After completing her degree in Elementary Education & Psychology with a concentration in Early Childhood Education from Rider University, Geena taught 2nd grade in public school for 7 years. This summer, she transitioned to virtual teaching to have more time to dedicate to diving into the world of teacher health.
Geena's teaching philosophy is 'do what's best for kids and she believes that healthy teachers are the foundation for doing what's best for kids. When she isn't teaching, Geena is an avid reader and can often be found locating and adopting rescue animals, snacking on french fries, or drinking tea. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and their rescue dog and kittens, Molly, Santino, and Sammy.
“Well, when I was in school…” We’ve all heard these words. We’ve all cringed at these words. We’ve internally (or externally) rolled our eyes at these words. Everyone thinks of themselves as experts in the field of education because they went to school before. By that logic, we’re all medical experts as well since we’ve been to a doctor’s office at some point in our lives. Of course, anyone with sense would find that decree outlandish and laughable. So why is it that when teachers claim their expertise in education, we’re constantly spoken over and spoken “for”? The fallout from the pandemic has only exacerbated this phenomenon.
Suddenly everyone is an expert on what’s best for kids and their education in the middle of this crisis. They make baseless claims then write policies and executive orders with little to no input from teachers. Of course, those at the top won’t have to implement these policies…so at the end of the day, it doesn’t much matter to them.
No wonder teacher burnout is on the rise. Let’s talk about it.
Tale as Old as Time
The World Health Organization classifies burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” Teacher burnout is a tale as old as time. We’ve heard the statistics and seen the infographics plastered all over social media. Teachers are tired. While this is nothing new, teaching during the pandemic has brought new challenges and has dramatically redefined what it means to be ‘teacher tired’.
While there are many descriptions and definitions of burnout floating around the internet, there are many common threads. Here are the big ideas I’ve come in my research:
• Unmanageable chronic stress
• Physical and emotional exhaustion
• Negativity and cynicism
• Feelings of hopelessness
• Feelings of infectiveness
Left unchecked, burnout can cause a spiral of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. As if those aren’t harrowing enough, these mental & emotional stressors can manifest physical symptoms as well.
“Everyone Works Hard” How to Combat Gaslighting 101
We, teachers, are the experts in the field of education. Read that again. We, teachers, are the experts in the field of education.
So when your neighbor, friend, or family member gaslights you into feeling like you’re unreasonable or complaining too much…you’re not. Teachers have been overworked, underpaid and burnout for decades.
In 2016 The Economic Policy Institute conducted an analysis using the Current Population Survey (CPS) and the Employer Costs for Employee Compensation from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Authors Sylvia A. Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel reported “the teacher pay penalty is bigger than ever. In 2015, public school teachers’ weekly wages were 17.0 percent lower than those of comparable workers compared with just 1.8 percent lower in 1994.”
The pandemic has multiplied and magnified these inequities. Teacher burnout is now on the fast track and many experts are predicting a debilitating teacher shortage on the horizon. The Economic Policy Institute is forecasting a national teacher shortage of about 200,000 by 2025.
In June of 2021, the National Education Association published results from two surveys regarding teacher turnover during the pandemic. The NEA survey of over 2,500 members, found that 32 percent of respondents said: “the pandemic has led them to plan to leave the profession earlier than anticipated.” Those numbers were higher among teachers of color and teachers with 20+ years of experience. The second survey painted a similar picture of the state of educators. A survey conducted by the RAND Corporation showed similar results citing “nearly one in four teachers reported they may leave their job by the end of the 2020-21 school year, compared with one in six who were likely to leave prior to the pandemic.”
This is heartbreaking.
So, what can we do? Honestly, none of us have all of the answers. An unsatisfying collective “I don’t know.” And truly,
I don’t. I’m just a teacher fumbling through this, too. However, I’ve always said and thoroughly believe that most of the world’s major problems could be solved by assembling a think tank of highly effective teachers. We’re creative, persistent, resilient, and proactive. (If only teachers were in charge of the world around us)
Here are some of my thoughts…
Living In the World of ‘And’ Not ‘Or’
You can still have passion for and love what you do while being critical and demanding positive change. It does not have to be one or the other.
You can love your students and want to see them succeed while taking care of yourself. These are not mutually exclusive. You can do both! Spectators of education seem to think that if we voice a concern or provide data-driven constructive feedback for changes that we are ungrateful, uncaring, and just in it for summers off.
Here is a personal example of how two statements can seemingly combat one another while still being true.
I love teaching. Doing what’s best for kids fulfills me. Teaching has negatively affected my emotional and physical health. I need a break from classroom teaching to regroup.
Both of these statements are facts. They may seem contradictory however being a teacher does not mean you must be sunshine and rainbows all day, every day. Especially when we are constantly fighting and scraping by just to do what’s best for kids.
You can feel this way, too. Lean into it and let yourself exist in your truth. You are not a bad teacher for doing so. In fact, sitting with these feelings may actually help alleviate stress from the expectation that teachers have to be bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and positive 24/7. More on that later.
“I love what I do and I am tired of being treated unfairly.” Valid.
“I want to be the best teacher for my students and I am fed up with the state of education.”
Acknowledging our feelings (even our stormy feelings) can help us cope.
How You Can Support Teachers, Tips for School Administrators
• Giving your teachers ideas for self-care or tips and tricks to lessen the workload doesn’t actually do anything. Take something off of their plate. Cover a recess or lunch duty, send them a pre-made choice menu for a Friday afternoon so they can take a breather while keeping kids engaged, have regularly scheduled ‘offline’ time (and don’t schedule meetings during that time. It is time for your teachers to do what they need. It is not for you)
• Make sure your teachers are fairly represented in decision-making. Emma Garcia, an economist for the Economic Policy Institute found that 71 percent of teachers reported not having “control or influence on selecting the content, topics, and skills they will be teaching in their classrooms.” That was pre-pandemic. That minimal input and control are dwindling by the day. Listen to your teachers. Show them you value their input by taking action where you can.
• Bring in some snacks for them (everything is easier with snacks).
• Stop promoting a culture of toxic positivity. No, we cannot just ‘think happy thoughts and get over it. Expecting your teachers to exhibit a happy-go-lucky demeanor all of the time while ignoring the reality of the current state of the world is not only unrealistic but ridiculous. It only serves as a facade that is simply not true. A 2019 report from EPI Economist Emma Garcia revealed that 50 percent of teachers reported “not feeling a great deal of support or encouragement” from their administrators.
We understand your job is demanding, too. However, without highly qualified and healthy teachers, your students are not getting the best possible education. Aren’t we all here to do what’s best for kids? Healthy teachers are what’s best for kids.
Support each other! Give each other compliments, share resources readily, give socially distanced air hugs and high fives. Sometimes the difference between a hard day and a hard week is one bit of kindness from a friend. Make a standing lunch plan to get out of your classroom at least once a week and stick to it! Nothing is as important as your health.
How You Can Take Care of Yourself
Give yourself grace. You are one person who is in an impossible situation. Make room for all of your feelings.
Set your boundaries, drink your water, make sure you eat, and put on SPF every day. These small things can help manage the stress that comes with the job.
When you can, leave work at work. I know this sounds impossible. I once was guilty of 12-hour workdays, too! I quickly realized that putting in fewer hours was making my work better quality and what didn’t get done, didn’t get done. And the kids were just fine. In fact, they continued to flourish!
Ask for help. This is a tricky one. Not only are teachers often reluctant to ask for help, when we do finally ask, but we also don’t get it. Don’t let this discourage you. Keep asking. Advocate for yourself and your kids.
Use your days! I know in some places, using your allotted days off is frowned upon. Okay. Then let it be frowned upon. You cannot control other people’s thoughts, feelings, or opinions about you. Take your days.
Whatever your solution to combat burnout is, you’re doing amazing. You deserve a healthy mind and body. Rest is not something you have to earn.
Some resources to help burnout and mental health
• Meditate or practice mindfulness. Sounds cliche, I know. However, research has shown that practicing mindfulness thickens areas of the brain that control executive functioning and can decrease anxiety, depression, and negativity when practiced consistently. A 2019 article published by Behavioral Brain Research reports that participants who completed a 13 minute daily guided meditation for 8 weeks showed decreased mood disturbances, anxiety, and fatigue while increasing attention and working memory. You can also implement regular mindfulness and meditation into your classroom (a win-win for you and your students!) You can use apps like Calm or Headspace (usually they require some sort of subscription fee) or just YouTube some guided meditation and mindfulness, there are thousands of videos up for free! Here are some of my favorites from YouTube.
• Find out if your employer has an Employee Assistance Program. Contact your personnel coordinator or Human Resources for information about seeking support for personal or work stressors and difficulties.
• Don’t reinvent the wheel. Use what’s around you. Teachers are wonderful, creative, and magical beings. Chances are what you need has already been made. Before you make 15 worksheets or games for your upcoming unit, see if you can find some resources from colleagues or online.
• Take your work email off of your phone. Seriously. Do it. There is nothing so pressing that you need to check your work email at midnight. Whatever it is can wait until morning.
Above all else know that you are doing the best you can. Let that surround you and help keep you afloat when you feel like you’re drowning. Your burnout is not your fault. It is not your problem to solve on your own. To combat teacher burnout the system must change…but until it does I hope this gave you some peace of mind and a big, long-distance virtual hug from a stranger on the internet. Hang in there, you’re doing great.