This is the 2nd in a series of blog posts I am writing as a result of interviewing teachers. Having dealt with teacher burnout myself, I want to determine what factors educators consistently experience that lead them to struggle with and/or leave the profession as well as the positive aspects that keep them in the classroom. This interview was done via email.
This September will mark the start of Rebecca’s 28th year as an educator in Ontario. She has taught upper elementary grades for most of her time in the classroom.
“Rewarding” and “purpose-filled” are how she describes her career. She is content as a teacher, enjoying the children and the challenges of the profession. She recognizes the stresses of “being asked to do more with less…needing to meet the students where they are...to best meet the needs of a variety of learners.” These are demands that can lead to exhaustion and frustration.
Rebecca has had a few occasions on which she considered leaving the classroom. Several classes have been extremely challenging and she felt she wanted to quit teaching. “Knowing that not every class is full of behaviours and special needs made me stay. I learned from those difficult classes how to be creative, discipline with love, find positivity in every experience. I also learned how exhausting teaching can be. I believe that those experiences made me a better teacher. I have learned that I need to find a way to connect to each student and that each student, no matter how difficult the behaviour, is worthy of respect and understanding.”
To Rebecca, the definition of teacher burnout is a lack of excitement for the work that needs to be done as well as the “realization of overwhelming physical and mental exhaustion”. Factors that lead to it include student behaviours, a lack of support from administrators, and difficulties with parents. Teachers feel “stretched too thin, trying to meet all the expectations”.
These are constant themes that come up as I continue to interview teachers. It is understandable that students and parents are a variable but it seems that the administration should not be. Ideally, teachers should know the principals, superintendents, directors, etc., have their backs.
Expressing frustrations to colleagues and stepping back to recharge are ways Rebecca overcomes feelings of burnout. She believes teachers need to be kinder to themselves. Being prepared and having plans in order are important and the support of administration “is key”: “Principals need to be less demanding and more observant of what opportunities are priority. School boards pile on ideas and some principals expect their teachers to jump on board and commit even more time to more and more demanding initiatives. Principals need to...evaluate which initiatives are important and which are not...and be highly aware of what each teacher is going through.”
She believes principals need to look at their staff the same way teachers are expected to view their students: with different skills, at different levels, in need of different strategies. “All teachers have needs that should be met by their administrator.”
Rebecca shared her successful experiences in...
“I am using current curriculum and learning technologies. I plan appropriately for the needs in my class, while at the same time getting to know my students. There is nothing more important than the relationship between teacher and students. Respect must be nurtured and students must feel that the teacher cares enough about them to get to know them and once you know your students you can understand them.”
“One of my best moments this year came from a student reflecting on the year as a whole: ‘What I learned most this year is how I learn. You always asked me what I thought I needed. If I needed more practice with you, you gave it to me. If I needed more practice by myself you gave me the time to do that. I know that I am a visual learner and I know that I can write notes while you are teaching. That works for me.’ What thrilled me, even more, was that other students agreed. I don't put a lot of value into EQAO (Ontario’s standardized testing) scores. What counts the most, in my opinion, is the day to day personal reflection of my students and analyzing what went well and what next steps need to be planned for each student.”
Relationship With Administrators
“The best administrators value you as a person - that you have a family outside of school and that teaching cannot be the only thing you do. The worst ones are unrelenting, demanding and, in one case for me, disinterested. As a teacher, I cannot control the choice of administrator for my school. In some cases, one has to figure out how to survive and play the game. I think that principals need to be closely monitored by their superintendent. I think that teachers should be able to evaluate their principal. Principals should have to go through the same review process that teachers do.”
Relationship With the Parents
“I try to be prepared and organized in my classroom to avoid the possibility of parental complaint. However, sometimes, parents are parents, looking to blame their child's teacher for their child’s lack of success. I try to steer the parent back to themselves and reflect on the questions and responses that they give me. I communicate with parents regularly through personal phone calls, Twitter and a website. Some parents of high-needs children email me or text me and we communicate immediately in that format.”
Rebecca is not the only teacher I have interviewed who finds it difficult when parents don’t take responsibility and/or don’t let their children take responsibility. This is something that gets traced back to millennials in general, a lack of ability to see one’s own actions as a potential problem. In my experience with millennials, I wouldn’t say that is always the case. People of all ages and backgrounds can be victim to this unhelpful mentality.
To lessen her own level of work-related stress, Rebecca stays organized and finds moments during the day to be on her own. On the other hand, she sometimes feels she wants to spend time with colleagues in order to talk and laugh together.
A few more questions for Rebecca:
What aspect of your job would you like to NEVER have to do again?
“Open house. Report cards. Parent-teacher interviews. Piles of marking. Work with people who are in teaching for the paycheque.”
What aspect of your job do you LOVE? (Not just ‘like’.)
“I have loved my students - even the difficult ones. I love the companionship with most of my close colleagues. I love going to school in the morning. When you are excited for a mini-lesson, or that moment when the student you have been working with finally gets it, or when something has happened in the news and you are interested to hear what opinions your students have.”
Rebecca plans to stay in the classroom until retirement.