Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
June 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 9

How to Help Teachers Win the Burnout War

author avatar
Five ways school leaders can be powerful allies for overwhelmed teachers.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

School Culture
Grab a pen or pencil and fill in the blanks:
  • Less than 15 percent of ___ would recommend their profession to others (Owens, 2015).
  • 91 percent of ___ suffer from stress (Stanley, 2014).
  • As many as 41 percent of ___ leave their jobs within five years of starting (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2014).
If you stopped people on the street and gave them this quiz, they might guess occupations like police officers, emergency room nurses, attorneys, or war zone doctors. Who else could be shouldering such pressure and fleeing the profession in droves?
However, if you're an educator, you probably know the answer to all these questions: teachers. Teachers are on the often-chaotic and messy frontlines of education. These soldiers weather ever-mounting demands, need to do 100 things simultaneously yet expertly, sacrifice their evenings and weekends to lesson planning and grading, and must nevertheless serve up an endless supply of joy and love.
That's a lot. And those are just a handful of the countless tasks teachers must manage. No wonder teacher burnout is an international pandemic.
There is much teachers can do to fight burnout (I wrote a whole book on it). However, burnout is such a massive, ever-present threat for teachers that it's more of a war than a fight. In the war against burnout, teachers are dropping left and right. As leaders of schools and districts, administrators need to jump in to assist. If you're an administrator reading this article, thank you, as you likely care about doing exactly that.
Now, I know school leaders have tough jobs and experience burnout, too. When I was an assistant principal in a troubled neighborhood, I could barely keep my head above water with the drug busts, gang violence, and daily struggle to help each kid reach his or her potential. It was a tough job. Even when I ended up in a high-income area as a district administrator, a whole new set of struggles emerged (plus some of the same old ones). But despite such pressures, administrators tend to have more control over the conditions and policies that impact teachers than teachers do.
Fortunately, administrators can help teachers win the burnout war in ways that also advance their other goals, like meeting students' needs and improving school culture. The following are five powerful ways to start.

1. Mobilize Parents and the Community

Sometimes, teachers just need an extra set of hands. The director of Brooklyn Ascend Charter School in New York achieved a 91 percent teacher-retention rate by asking teachers what she could do to make their lives easier—and seeking volunteers to meet those needs. She hired a babysitter to watch teachers' kids during back-to-school night, recruited college students to help middle schoolers with homework, and engaged community members and partner organizations to offer after-school enrichment activities (Neufeld, 2014).
Administrators can enlist volunteers to help teachers with too much on their plates. Ask your staff about their specific needs for outside assistance (such as academic support for struggling students; help with classroom group work so teachers are pulled in fewer directions; or assistance with tasks like assembling project packets, translating a flyer to be sent home, or posting student work on the walls) and then run a school- or district-wide campaign to secure that help. Here are some additional ideas to consider:
  • Get creative. Groups like the National Fatherhood Initiative and Watch D.O.G.S. help educators recruit fathers, an often-overlooked source of involvement. Bus drivers, who see families daily, can also help recruit volunteers by handing out flyers to parents at each stop.
  • Save teachers from having to stay late by encouraging parents and community members to run an after-school homework club at a local church or civic center. Volunteers can include college-bound teens (who may want to add service hours to their résumés or college applications); active seniors (try coordinating with a local senior center); and retired teachers.
  • Partner with universities to have aspiring teachers conduct their student-teaching hours at your school. Although some preservice teachers require excessive handholding, others have been teaching for years (on emergency credentials or at private schools) and can be huge assets in the classroom, delivering lessons or assisting with other instructional activities.
Since excessive workload is a prime contributor to teacher burnout, bringing in volunteers to meet teachers' specific (and evolving) needs can gift teachers with more peace and time.

2. Establish Homework Limits

Research indicates there is no correlation between homework and academic achievement for elementary school students. The correlation begins in middle school, but only when homework is limited to 90 minutes per night; and for high school students, the correlation between homework and achievement maxes out at two hours (Pope, Brown, & Miles, 2015). Yet teachers tend to assign more than these limits, particularly when multiple teachers independently assign homework on the same nights. This hurts students and teachers.
Creating, assigning, collecting, grading, and processing scores from homework adds tremendously to teacher workloads. Work collaboratively with your staff to investigate alternatives and establish policies that curtail excessive homework. Share the research with your teachers and come up with a solution that works. Elementary teachers might adopt parameters around homework (limiting it to nightly reading and occasional projects). Secondary teachers might favor picking different nights of the week for each subject to assign homework, or prefer a homework cap per department and possible blackout days on the calendar when one department needs to assign a major project.

3. Invite Honest Feedback

Experts urge teachers to survey their students anonymously for feedback on their teaching ("What do I do that helps you?" and "What do you wish I'd change and why?"). This feedback is often more powerful in improving teachers' performance than student test scores.
It's just as necessary for administrators to anonymously survey their staff, yet few do. Be one of the brave administrators who invites honest feedback. Tools like SurveyMonkey make it easy to get anonymous answers from staff on how you're supporting them and what they need. One principal gives teachers a "reality check" twice a year with five questions: "What's going particularly well for you this year? What concerns/issues do you have at this point? What can I do to best support you right now? If you could get some professional development right now, what would it be? Anything else?"
Likewise, involve teachers in your decision making. Considering a new lunch schedule? Get teachers onto your deciding committee (and rotate which teachers participate). See a major district decision being rolled out that didn't involve teacher feedback? Speak up. You have a moral obligation as a leader to ensure your staff's voice is valued.

4. Respect Teachers' Time

Like items tossed "temporarily" into the trunk or back seat of a car, small things added to a teacher's workload can quickly become a burdensome mess. By watching the "little things" they do, administrators can shape their actions to communicate how much they value teachers. For instance, your actions should signal that you respect teachers' time. Some examples:
  • Don't hold meetings or trainings out of habit; be sure gatherings fill a need and allow teachers who don't have to attend (they already understand what will be communicated) to opt out.
  • Start necessary meetings promptly, keep the agenda moving quickly and on-task, and end meetings on time.
  • Enlist feedback to determine teachers' professional development needs and differentiate training (some teachers may struggle with classroom management, while others need assistance with technology).
Also, whenever you ask teachers to do something, make the added work as easy as possible on them. This may require 10 extra minutes on your end but could save each of your teachers 10 minutes. For example, let's say there's a district form that all teachers must complete. One administrator might send an email reading, "Everyone has to sign Form A by the end of the week." A better administrator will attach Form A to the email, include directions for filling it out, explain clearly how the form has to be submitted (Can it be emailed? Must a hard copy be handed in?), and include the deadline in the subject line so it can't be missed.

5. Support Their Professional Growth

When conducting research for my book First Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success (Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2017), I was shocked by all the data indicating that tedium is a major cause of teacher burnout. Though the idea of busy teachers struggling with monotony might sound incongruous, tedium is highly common for veteran teachers who find themselves doing the same thing year after year. These experienced educators aren't typically scrambling to create as many new lessons, and they've had years to perfect classroom management and weed out processes and assignments that are too taxing.
When boredom or stagnancy is an issue (and only in those cases), administrators can ask veterans if they would appreciate new challenges, like teaching a new grade level, mentoring first-year teachers, or becoming an Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) or National Board-certified teacher. As these teachers learn new things, they can share their knowledge with colleagues.
Most teachers go their entire career without participating in the kinds of conferences and events administrators frequent. Yet teachers have rich voices to contribute to such gatherings. Encourage your teachers to share their professional expertise outside of the classroom by writing articles (even a short op-ed for the local newspaper); giving a TEDx Talk at a local TEDx event; serving on research panels; or speaking at conferences (it's easy to present at online education conferences from the comfort of one's home). These professional victories can breathe new life into a teacher's practice and foster a sense of accomplishment.

A Path to Victory

By anticipating and responding authentically to teachers' needs, administrators can be powerful allies in the war on burnout. When we consider how much heart, knowledge, and grit school leaders have, combined with their influence to set policies (and the tone), there's no group more qualified to go to battle on behalf of teachers and the students they serve.
References

Ingersoll, R., Merrill, L., & Stuckey, D. (2014). Seven trends: The transformation of the teaching force, updated April 2014. CPRE Report (#RR-80). Philadelphia, PA: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.

Neufeld, S. (2014, November 10). Can a teacher be too dedicated? The Atlantic. Retrieved from www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/11/can-a-teacher-be-too-dedicated/382563

Owens, S. J. (2015, December). Georgia's teacher dropout crisis: A look at why nearly half of Georgia public school teachers are leaving the profession. Georgia Department of Education. Retrieved from www.gadoe.org/External-Affairs-and-Policy/communications/Documents/Teacher%20Survey%20Results.pdf

Pope, D., Brown, M., & Miles, S. (2015). Overloaded and underprepared: Strategies for stronger schools and healthy, successful kids. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rankin, J. G. (2017). First aid for teacher burnout: How you can find peace and success. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.

Stanley, J. (2014, October 13). How unsustainable workloads are destroying the quality of teaching. Schools Week. Retrieved from http://schoolsweek.co.uk/how-unsustainable-workloads-are-destroying-the-quality-of-teaching

Jenny Grant Rankin, PhD, teaches the Post Doc Masterclass at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Rankin, who resides in California most of the year, earned a PhD in Education, with a specialization in School Improvement Leadership. She is an award-winning former junior high school teacher who earned such honors as being named Teacher of the Year and having the American flag flown over the US Capitol building in honor of her dedication to her students. As the majority of her students were socio-economically disadvantaged English learners, she specialized in using data, differentiation, and creative instruction (e.g., gamification, project-based learning, global learning) to ensure that her exceptional students were being challenged and engaged even as they learned alongside struggling and grade-level learners. Dr. Rankin, a Mensan who grew up in GT/GATE/TAG, is the assistant coordinator of her county's Mensa Gifted Youth Program and the author of numerous books and journal articles.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
School Culture
Juliana Urtubey on Seeing Families Through a Lens of Gratitude
Naomi Thiers
4 weeks ago

undefined
Clearing "Waste" from Classrooms
Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman & C. Y. Arnold
2 months ago

undefined
The Right Mindset for Responding to Student Trauma
Pete Hall & Kristin Van Marter Souers
2 months ago

undefined
When It Comes to School Culture, Words Aren’t Enough
Alden Blodget
2 months ago

undefined
How to Make Your School Psychologically Safe
Nita Creekmore & Michael Creekmore
2 months ago
Related Articles
Juliana Urtubey on Seeing Families Through a Lens of Gratitude
Naomi Thiers
4 weeks ago

Clearing "Waste" from Classrooms
Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman & C. Y. Arnold
2 months ago

The Right Mindset for Responding to Student Trauma
Pete Hall & Kristin Van Marter Souers
2 months ago

When It Comes to School Culture, Words Aren’t Enough
Alden Blodget
2 months ago

How to Make Your School Psychologically Safe
Nita Creekmore & Michael Creekmore
2 months ago
From our issue
Product cover image 118071b.jpg
Fighting Educator Burnout
Go To Publication