More educators are walking away from the jobs they love. In this Psychiatric Times article, Mindpath Health’s Venkata Jonnalagadda, MD, and Christie Melonson, PhD, discuss how teachers are being pushed to their breaking points.
Teachers often describe being called to their profession. For them, teaching is a way of life that defines who they are. A teacher may teach others how to learn, but their deeper calling is to encourage students to believe in themselves. Through unwavering optimism and hope, teachers have the power to change the world, one student at a time.
Of course, this lofty ideal is tested relentlessly and daily. Unruly students, difficult parents, long hours, low pay, demanding superiors, and test scores are also part of the job. A teacher’s well-being hinges on their ability to balance the demands of their job without feeling overwhelmed. For a profession already prone to burnout, the COVID-19 pandemic and everything in its wake has dramatically tilted the scales against it.
The nation’s public school system is now in a fragile and precarious position. Although every profession suffered during the pandemic, teachers are confronted daily with the threat of school shootings, lagging student performance, political agendas, curriculum wars, book bans, and more. In many ways, these are not new problems, but they do appear to be compounding. Today, many teachers feel overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted—but mostly they are exhausted.
The practice of teaching
Teaching is often described as a labor of love, but it is really a labor of emotion. Every job involves a certain amount of emotional labor—the creation and suppression of emotions and emotional expressions at a level appropriate for one’s occupation. Teachers, however, are unique in that they engage in a lot of emotional labor. In fact, they rely on it to encourage positive learning in others and to reach their own personal goals. Examples of emotional labor among teachers include feigning excitement about an upcoming project, resisting the urge to yell at a student, or refraining from eye rolling when listening to a parent.
Burnout and the role of self-study
A reliance on surface acting requires more emotional labor and is the strongest indicator of burnout among teachers. On the flip side, engaging in deep acting and naturally felt emotions can stave off feelings of burnout.
Burnout is characterized by physical exhaustion, feelings of cynicism or detachment, and a lack of accomplishment. In teachers, burnout is usually spurred by a loss of resources, whether supplies, training, trust, or support. School principals also experience high levels of burnout, especially since they tend to rely on surface acting to hide their emotions. Burnout can make it harder for teachers to implement coping strategies and engage in self-study, one of the most important teaching tools.
To counteract teacher burnout and reduce attrition rates, self-study techniques were introduced in the 1990s. Considered groundbreaking, these gave student teachers an outlet to explore and improve. The mark of a confident teacher was one who could identify challenges, find new approaches, and be willing to make revisions.
Self-study involves a teacher’s “moral commitment” to share what they have learned with others and thus contribute to the greater evolution of the education philosophy. Although this collaboration exposes teachers to a certain level of risk-taking and vulnerability, it also provides them with needed perspective, support, and even comfort.
An example of a teaching tension is the balance between confidence and uncertainty. This was observed in a self-study journal entry of a student teacher grappling with her feelings after the 2017 Parkland, Florida, high school shooting left 17 dead and 17 wounded. Described as the “most difficult week” of her college career, she questioned her ability to protect students and felt uncertain whether her own training would ever prepare her for such an event. As she processed her thoughts, she came to understand that “you do whatever you need to do for your students.”
Since the pandemic began, the number of voices with a say in education in the United States has increased. When you are a teacher, it seems everyone has an opinion on how to do your job. But many say this is hindering teachers from doing their job.
Teaching challenges today
The amount of societal change that has occurred over the past few years has given teachers barely any time to react, much less conduct a thorough self-study to process their thoughts.
First, there was the transition to online learning platforms as COVID-19 shuttered school buildings. Many teachers had to juggle their own children as they led entire classes from behind a screen. Parents were suddenly able to peer into the classroom and observe teachers for the first time. They saw them express frustration over connection and technical issues and noticed that many students had their cameras turned off.
It was not long before online learning’s effect on student mental health and families brought calls to reopen classrooms. Teachers’ unions across the country pushed back and threatened to strike, citing COVID-19 safety concerns for teachers, school staff, and students alike. They drew the ire of parents when, in addition to longer school closures, unions wanted to limit the length of time teachers were required to teach via video.
Incidents of gunfire at school quadrupled during the 2021 to 2022 school year, resulting in 59 deaths and 138 wounded. Although psychologists are quick to point out that there is not one profile that fits all school shooters, studies indicate that 95% of school shooters are male, 61% are white, and they feel marginalized or insignificant.
In the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, there was barely any time to grieve or process what had happened. Finals were approaching, papers needed to be graded, and the demands of life marched on. Yet, with each shooting or major event, teachers relive a “slow-rolling” response to trauma, whether they have experienced the event firsthand, secondhand, or vicariously. It can make teachers feel a loss of control, increased anger or aggression, social withdrawal, and/or physical symptoms such as headache, stomachache, or a loss of sleep or appetite.
Compassion fatigue is closely linked to secondary traumatic stress (STS). This is common among child-serving professions who often hear firsthand accounts of trauma from others. Symptoms of STS can mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), causing those affected to relive the trauma indirectly. Those who survive a school shooting often grapple with symptoms of PTSD and are left to wonder if they can ever return to the classroom.
Finding ways to heal
Teacher burnout is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, a loss of interest, hopelessness, irritability, and social withdrawal. Physical symptoms can include a racing pulse, trouble sleeping, inability to catch one’s breath, headaches, and stomachaches. To get help, teachers can start by confiding in someone they know and trust. They may want to seek professional behavioral health care if they are feeling particularly overwhelmed. Psychotherapy can be a powerful tool in managing stress and supporting one’s personal and professional goals. Teachers can check with their school districts and teachers’ unions for resources, or they can ask their primary care physician for recommendations.
A self-care routine can be used to prioritize a healthy work-life balance. Self-care can include:
- Setting boundaries and holding them. Teachers can protect their time by clearly communicating what they are and are not willing to do.
- Focusing on what they can control. By limiting their exposure to upsetting events, teachers can preserve a sense of security.
- Taking care of themselves. Teachers should prioritize nutrition, exercise, and sleep; practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques; and pursue interests outside of work.
- Staying in touch with friends and family. Teachers can connect with others, which serves as a reminder that others can relate to what they are going through and that they are not alone.
- Maintaining reasonable expectations. Teachers should be nice to themselves and set small, realistic goals to bring about balance.
The pandemic served as a stark reminder of how much we rely on teachers to take care of our children while we work or pursue other activities. Practicing patience and gratitude can go a long way in bolstering a teacher’s confidence. Ways to offer support to a teacher can include:
- Checking in on them. Ask teachers how they are doing, and then give them the space and time to share feelings when they are ready.
- Reminding them to take care of themselves. A thoughtful gift or connection to resources can go a long way.
- Expressing gratitude. Acknowledge the role teachers play in the lives of students. They help generate a more positive outlook for all.
- Taking time to laugh. Humor can help lighten the mood when it is done in a mindful and considerate way.
- Paying attention to nonverbal cues. When an individual avoids eye contact or moves or talks more slowly, it may be an indication that they are dealing with difficult feelings.
Lending support. Sharing experiences has the potential to relieve stress and assure that no one is alone.
Read the full Psychiatric Times article with sources.
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