This is the first part of a series of blog posts I am writing as I interview teachers. Having dealt with teacher burnout myself, I wanted 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 in person.
Amy, an elementary teacher with 12 years experience, is currently teaching at an international school in Africa. Most of her 12 years have been spent in Grade 1. She does not intend to leave the classroom anytime soon, since every year is different and changing grades and/or schools helps maintain her motivation. As she gets older she knows her energy level, responsibilities and commitments may change and that may change the direction of her career.
When asked what word or phrase comes to mind when thinking of her teaching career as a whole, Amy responds “Oh!... Exploration, maybe?” (Isn’t that a great answer?!)
She defines teacher burnout as continued stress from teaching. She has not experienced it herself but knows from colleagues that “difficult parents” and “challenging children” along with lack of time to get things done are major causes.
I asked about preventing and overcoming burnout. Amy believes this is possible “if systems are in place and if support and time are given to do the things you have to do.” At the private school at which she works, Amy has more time and support than she would be given in the public system. She feels concerned that, should she move home to North America and return to the public system, she will feel very stressed, having to stay late, receive less support, and may “start to feel resentful of the time spent outside of school hours” doing classroom-related work.
Resentment is something I have definitely experienced but didn’t necessarily recognize at the time. I sometimes feel resentful towards others but I would guess it is really myself I am unhappy with: I don’t want to acknowledge my weaknesses, ask for help, or consider quitting. I appreciate Amy’s insight into this and her ability to recognize it’s possibility ahead of time.
Amy shared the following ways to improve…
“More feedback from my administration in terms of evaluation and support. It’s nice to hear back. In my first year at my current school I had lots of feedback but since then have not heard much. I would really like to visit other classrooms and other schools.”
“More 1 on 1 individual attention for students. Normally it’s just the kids who are behind who have individualized plans and support but those at grade level and above get less attention.”
Relationship With Administrators
“Having them in the classroom more often. Also, they are willing to listen but always have their own plan in mind. There is the perception they are open to listening but they usually go ahead with what they want to do.”
Relationship With the Parents
“We already have a good relationship with parents because of having open lines of communication. The more information parents have, the happier they are. Weekly communications, a calendar for the month, anything that can help parents support their children. I don’t think it’s possible to overload parents with information. The more they have, the more comfortable they feel.”
To lessen her own level of work-related stress, Amy likes to stay very organized from the beginning of the school year. She will typically go back to school earlier than required, to take time to plan out the school year. Her hard copy agenda/planner shows her what is happening weekly and daily. She meets regularly with her teaching team.
In a moment of stress, Amy tries to take a deep breath and recognize that “no matter what happens, every day will end...it can’t be THAT bad”. She does find she takes work home, both physically and mentally. Often, however, work gets brought home but not even looked at.
That seems to be a common teacher thing to do! Do we feel guilty if we go home without some way to contribute to the next day of teaching? The reason I usually don’t even take the work out of my bag is that I completely forget (which often leads to scrambling the next day) or I just don’t have the energy or motivation to deal with it (I’ve gotten pretty good at last-minute scrambling.)
More questions for Amy:
What aspect of your job would you like to NEVER have to do again?
“Attend staff meetings. I just feel like oftentimes they’re a waste of time. A lot of the information we are given could be communicated in an email. I understand it’s good to get together but often discussions are a waste of time. Decisions have been made but they want you to feel like you’re part of the process. On every staff, there are always a few talkers who just need to continue talking. In my head, I am always thinking ‘What else could I be doing right now?’.”
What aspect of your job do you LOVE? (Not just ‘like’.)
“I love working with students, especially kids who have a lightbulb moment or who have low self-esteem or think they’re not good at something, then accomplish something.”
I asked Amy for any final thoughts on the subject of burnout.
“The number one thing is time, resources and support that teachers need. In general, the contrast of those 3 things at a private school and at a public school are incredible. That’s one of the things that worries me if I return to a public school.”