Teacher Burnout In An Age of COVID
As a teacher, I feel unmotivated to do anything. I still force myself to plan every lesson, write every IEP, contact parents multiple times per day, and above all, actually teach. But during virtual learning, myself and many of my co-workers have been suffering burnout, mainly because of the overcorrection we faced from how lackluster virtual learning was in the spring. No matter how hard we work, it’s never enough.
I feel burnt out, and it’s only November. Of course, it’s better than my first year of teaching last year, but it’s a different kind of struggle at the moment. I don’t plan on quitting, and neither do many teachers I interact with. It’s a burnout where I don’t feel like doing anything, and interactions with my students and relationships just aren’t the same during virtual learning since I don’t see them face to face. Also, my staff and colleagues have made me feel supported in times of struggle, but during COVID, I feel like I barely interact with or know my colleagues. Since my school closed last year, I’m at a new school this year, and I barely know my new co-workers.
According to Kognito, a health simulation company, teacher burnout is at an all time high during COVID. Data shows that 14% of teachers are leaving their school or the profession of teaching altogether, and for people who don’t think it’s a big deal, 14% of teachers is a lot of teachers. 14% of a staff of 100 teachers means losing 14 teachers, and as a student and teacher with personal experience, I know that very few school districts can afford replacements or substitutes for that many teachers at once. And I know the drill — that means co-workers have to combine classes or cover the school’s empty classes during their free periods. Other teachers start to grow more disgruntled, and burnout and low retention results in more and more low morale.
Not only is turnover bad in education in general, but according to Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss in the Economic Policy Institute, these challenges are even worse in high-poverty schools. According to Sherrie Bourg Carter in Psychology Today, burnout is defined as:
“A state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”
Dian Schaffhauser in The Journal found in a survey that 81 percent of teachers felt uncertain, 77 percent of teachers feel stressed, 75 percent of teachers feel anxious, 74 percent of teachers feel overwhelmed, 60 percent feel sad, and 54 percent are feeling lonely. With many teachers in charge of child care while working from home, it’s not hard to see how many of these challenges are compounded. And it’s not unnatural to feel more stressed these days either, because the lack of certainty over the future is at an all-time-high for teachers.
For me, a large part of what’s making COVID stressful for teachers is a lack of consistency. Some stakeholders want to go back to in-person school, and others do not in a game of political football. With the rise in cases across the country, it seems like the political tide is moving towards the latter. District officials change grading policies seemingly every other day. Some students, especially in high poverty districts like my own in Baltimore City, are especially difficult to reach, and that makes us feel like we have a lack of ability to truly help our students during this time.
Actionable ways school leaders can help teachers during a time of burnout include acknowledging and supporting the mental health of school staff. Not only are students struggling at this time, but we are all in this together — parents, students, support staff, administrators, and teachers. While students may have had traumatic experiences during COVID, teachers may have had traumatic experiences too. And teachers are expected to be attentive to all their students’ mental health, but not attend to their own, which isn’t a sustainable during this time.
One author I follow exclusively is Dr. Brad Johnson, who advocates for teachers. Johnson tweeted in September:
For people who don’t know, professional development is exactly what it sounds like — designated days and time for teachers to develop as teachers. Some are useful, and others are not, and professional development often results in many teachers feeling disengaged from people who are out of touch with the daily reality teachers are facing they need a break from. Managing your time feels like a slap in the face when you’re drowning in work.
So right now, we teachers need more free time, breaks, and time to themselves more than anything. The list of checklist items simply to show an appearance that we’re doing our jobs is not helpful. We need community and awareness to look out for ourselves more than trying to meet rapidly changing demands and being pawns in a game of political football. Stakes are high for everyone right now, but teachers, like anyone else, are human beings, and according to Renee Ryberg at Child Trends, nearly one-third of teachers are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID due to age.
Teachers need TLC as much as anyone else right now, and it’s important not to forget that. Teachers are feeling burnt out right now for a reason, and it’s important not to forget that. We’re not political pawns, but professionals who know what we need to do our jobs, and it’s about time we were listened to more.