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November 21, 2023
ASCD Blog

Leaders: It's Time to Rethink Teacher Burnout

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Today’s educational landscape may require unlearning some conventional leadership techniques.
Leadership
Leaders: It's Time to Rethink Teacher Burnout Image
Credit: fizkes / Shutterstock
The research on teacher burnout is abundant and appalling. In a statistical summary from 2022, 44 percent of teachers reported being burned out, 35 percent planned to leave the profession within the next two years, and 42 percent said their teaching suffered as a result of their mental health. You’ve undoubtedly seen these figures play out in your schools in the form of low morale and high turnover.
Much of the conversation around burnout has focused on what teachers should do to manage their mindset, stress, and emotions. Suggestions that they find work-life balance or practice mindfulness exercises are not necessarily wrong, but they do place the responsibility for burnout on teachers’ shoulders, which are already straining under a pile of other tasks. Additionally, these “solutions” only address symptoms of burnout.
To address the root cause, it’s essential to acknowledge that burnout is not an issue with the employee but with the organization. Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, authors of The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs (Harvard UP, 2022), found that the top causes of burnout are an unreasonable workload, little control over work, poor rewards, toxic community, unfair environment, and ethical conflicts with the work. These are workplace issues, not worker issues. Or, as workplace expert Jennifer Moss writes in the Harvard Business Review:
We tend to think of burnout as an individual problem, solvable by “learning to say no,” more yoga, better breathing techniques, practicing resilience—the self-help list goes on. But evidence is mounting that applying personal, band-aid solutions to an epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon may be harming, not helping, the battle…. Leaders take note: It’s now on you to build a burnout strategy.
If education leaders shoulder responsibility for teacher burnout and commit to confronting it, there is a chance they can stop the mass exodus from the profession. The first—and easiest—step is to stop pushing facile cures, such as “self-care,” “resilience,” or “rekindling your passion,” as viable solutions to turnover. Moss reports that passion-driven, service-oriented professions (of which teachers are the ultimate example) are more susceptible to burnout specifically because they are surrounded by pressure to love the job. I experienced this firsthand, wondering for years if I was a monster for refusing to give all of my time and energy to a job I struggled to love. It was precisely the pressure to love the job that drove me out of the classroom once I realized that I couldn’t be the "martyr" society wanted and once I accepted that no amount of self-care would compensate for the shocking reality I faced at work.

If leaders shoulder responsibility for teacher burnout and commit to confronting it, there is a chance they can stop the mass exodus from the profession.

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School leaders must also stop the insultingly superficial parade of morale boosters. If, like me, you binged the Apple TV series Severance, you may have felt a mix of recognition and guilt at the many trifling rewards the fictional company Lumon presents to employees when they perform well: desk trinkets, melon buffets, and even a comically horrific dance party in which employees are forced to display joy upon command. 
The worst thing about these rewards is the company’s attitude toward them; management treats these petty measures as a sign of their own benevolence, expecting nothing less than gratitude and subservience from their employees. Unfortunately, school leaders often have this attitude toward teachers, expecting to inspire harder work by dangling trivial rewards in front of their staff. While there is nothing inherently wrong with potlucks, T-shirts, and desk trinkets, they become offensive and degrading when leaders act as though they’re enough to radically improve morale. 

Rethinking What Effective Leadership Means

Instead, school leaders should talk to as many teachers as possible about how to improve the school environment. This might mean setting up formal committees and focus groups devoted to addressing burnout, or it might simply mean taking teachers’ concerns about everything—even seemingly trivial things—seriously. A broken printer, for instance, may not seem like a crucial issue to an exhausted principal, but it can impact a teacher’s ability to get their job done. 
If we accept that burnout reveals problems with an organization, not with employees, the solution lies in fixing that organization. The experts on how to improve the workplace are, of course, workers. Maslach and Leiter write
Leaders should not act unilaterally on their own conclusions about what would help. Instead, they should ask employees to be a part of making things better. Solicit ideas and feedback on various alternatives, and then listen to what people contribute.
This sounds relatively painless, but it’s not. What you hear from teachers may radically disrupt your plans. For example, teachers may ask you to reduce their workload in ways you might have thought impossible; they may ask for less paperwork, fewer meetings, or more lenient deadlines. They may ask for you to hold off on implementing changes that you had been excitedly planning. They may even ask you to set up additional structures to solve classroom problems—for instance, student discipline structures to supplement their own classroom management.

If you’re serious about addressing burnout, you may need to change your priorities, abandon your plans, and unlearn what you thought it meant to be a school leader.

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If you’re serious about addressing burnout, you may need to change your priorities, abandon your plans, and unlearn what you thought it meant to be a school leader. You’ll need to put competing interests on a scale and figure out what weighs more; for example, is it worth implementing that new curriculum right now, or should you back off and focus on teacher morale? Is it worth monitoring teachers’ lesson planning, or should you loosen up so they regain a sense of autonomy? Maybe next year, your only goal for building climate and culture is to address staff who make the workplace toxic for each other, even though you were really hoping to finally dig into PLC work. 

Maybe Change Can Wait

While these are difficult choices to make—because we want to do everything to improve schools, and we want to do it immediately—it’s important to avoid the false assumption that student achievement will automatically plummet the moment we shift our attention to teacher satisfaction. Again, 42 percent of teachers reported that their mental health hurt their teaching, which suggests that an improvement in mental health would result in improved teaching. Then, too, we know that teacher turnover harms student achievement, so it’s essential to create schools where teachers want to remain. 
Making these decisions might involve unlearning leadership techniques you’ve embraced for decades. Chances are your administrative program focused extensively on change leadership, inspiring you to be an innovator and agent of educational reform. To be blunt: that’s not what’s needed in today’s educational landscape. 
If you thought it was hard to lead change before the COVID-19 pandemic, consider how daunting the task is in these times of tension and turnover. Ask yourself, yet again: Is this worth it right now? Can I still be a good leader, even if I don’t foist radical innovations upon my staff? Then, too, ask yourself: how should I redirect the energy I was going to spend on leading change? All those hours I would have spent concocting plans and selling them to my staff… What’s the best use of that time, now that my primary goal is to address burnout on an organizational level? There is no one right answer to this question; that will depend on what you’re hearing from your staff and what issues they cite.
Though seemingly counter-intuitive, this may be what effective leadership looks like for the next several years: listening to staff and responding, day by day, month by month. I myself have had to forget much of what I studied in my leadership program and embrace the idea that I can be a good leader even if I’m not constantly enacting ever-changing innovations. If, like me, you’re willing to change your own practices and expectations to confront teacher burnout, start by accepting that it is an organizational problem, not an employee problem; then, bring in the real experts: teachers.

Elizabeth Dampf is the director of professional learning at a large unit district in the Chicagoland area. She holds masters degrees in educational leadership and English Literature, and she has authored several print and online articles in Educational Leadership and The Learning Professional.

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