Preventing Teacher Burnout

teacher burnoutBy Shira Heller

We’ve all known that teacher. He may be young or old, but his best teaching days are behind him. And that’s because he’s burnt out. Maybe he’s just lost his spark, and is going through his teaching days giving the same tired lessons in the same tired way. Or worse, maybe he’s become cynical – ready with a sarcastic comment to a student, and a stream of complaints in the teacher’s lounge. It’s no fun to be his student or his colleague because he sucks the life out of any room. He radiates negative energy, and it’s contagious. He might get fired, but he might stick around for years, making the days drag for the rest of us.

I have sympathy for everyone who has to interact with Mr. Burnout, and I have even more sympathy for Mr. Burnout himself. Odds are he didn’t start out that way. When he decided to become a teacher, he probably had the same excitement, idealism, and dedication as the rest of us. Over the years, time pressures, workload, unmotivated or poorly behaved students, low salary, and/or professional isolation wore him down and wore him out.

It didn’t have to be that way.

Research on burnout began in the 1970’s. We know what causes it, and we’ve learned a lot about how to prevent it. Three protective factors are especially important:

Making Meaning

There are few jobs as impactful, important, and inspirational as teaching. A teacher has the power and ability to create and destroy worlds for our children. What a child knows or doesn’t know, how a child feels about himself, and where a child sees himself going are all critically influenced by his teacher. Our teachers are our supermen and women.

Unfortunately, the day to day pressures of teaching often disconnect teachers from that vision of themselves. In the rush to lesson plan, differentiate, manage student behavior, communicate with parents, and grade papers, teachers can forget how important – vital – their contribution is. They can forget the very things that inspired them to become educators in the first place.

Schools need to take care to create opportunities for teachers to reconnect with their passion and recognize (again) how meaningful their work is. That might mean taking the time to notice and comment when teachers go above and beyond, it might mean creating opportunities for teachers to share successes with one another to build excitement, and it might mean setting aside significant time for ongoing teacher learning so teachers can keep their practice and perspective fresh.

Cultivating Connections

Teachers’ daily work often includes a great deal of isolation. Despite the fact that they spend the overwhelming majority of their work day in a room full of people, the majority of their interactions are with students, not professional peers. Often, when teachers DO get to talk to their colleagues, the interactions are brief, and do not allow for meaningful partnerships or collaborative work.

Teachers need professional connections. They need to be buffeted by colleagues they can talk to and connect with about the content of their teaching. Opportunities to share successes and challenges, examine choices, ask questions, and provide support are crucial to reducing teacher burnout. Being part of a team of teachers reduces feelings of isolation and increases job satisfaction and performance.

Teacher teams can be internal to a school, or schools can help teachers connect to a national or international cohort through online communities and teacher learning cohorts like YUTeach.

Ongoing Learning

One reason that Mr. Burnout gives the same tired lessons in the same tired way is that he lacks different tools and techniques. Teachers want to serve their students well, and welcome tips and techniques that are relevant, practical, and timely. It is almost impossible for schools to provide school-wide, one-size-fits-all PD that meets those criteria.

Rather than isolated “PD days,” schools can work to cultivate a culture of ongoing learning for their whole faculty (leaders, too!). We should differentiate learning for teachers just as we do for students – targeting their interests, abilities, and learning styles. Some teachers thrive on collaborative learning, and would love to meet regularly with their in-school peers or connect with an out-of-school network. Others want to hear from experts – live at conferences or online through webinars and videos. Some teachers would like to dig deep by exploring a concept in depth through reading and research, while still others want to connect to daily bites of learning like one can get through Twitter or an RSS Feed. We are fortunate to live in a time when learning opportunities are so diverse and readily available. Think about how we can take advantage of that to make the question on every teacher and leader’s mind: What have I/you learned lately?

Mr. Burnout deserves the opportunity for renewal, and all Jewish day school educators deserve the opportunity to avoid Mr. Burnout’s fate. Through meaning making, cultivating connections, and ongoing learning, we can help ensure that our schools are filled with passion and productivity.

Resources for further reading:

Campbell, Lloyd P. (1983). Teacher Burnout: Description and Prescription. The Clearing House, 57:3, 111-113.

Chris Kyriacou. (2001). Teacher Stress: Directions for future research. Educational Review, 53:1, 27-35, DOI: 10.1080/00131910120033628

Wood, Teri. & McCarthy, Chris. & ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education. (2002). Understanding and preventing teacher burnout. Washington, DC. ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education

Shira Heller is a Project Administrator at the YU School Partnership, which means that she designs learning opportunities for Jewish day school teachers, connecting them to valuable resources and to each other. Shira manages the Legacy Heritage YUTeach Fellowships and collaborates with the YUSP team to maximize the impact of all of our professional development programming. Shira can be contacted at or @shiraheller on Twitter.

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