Teachers on Edge

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Here’s why educators are walking away from the profession they love.

Teachers often describe being called to their profession. For them, teaching is a way of life that defines who they are. A teacher may teach others how to learn, but their deeper calling is to encourage students to believe in themselves. Through unwavering optimism and hope, teachers have the power to change the world, 1 student at a time.

Of course, this lofty ideal is tested relentlessly and daily. Unruly students, difficult parents, long hours, low pay, demanding superiors, and test scores are also part of the job. A teacher’s well-being hinges on their ability to balance the demands of their job without feeling overwhelmed. For a profession already prone to burnout, the COVID-19 pandemic and everything in its wake has dramatically tilted the scales against it.

At 44%, K-12 teachers have the highest levels of burnout compared to any other profession in the United States, according to a June 2022 Gallup poll. College and university teachers came in second at 35%, while health care and law enforcement each reported burnout rates of 31%. The burnout gap between teachers and other professions has only widened since 2020, an indication that their problems may be escalating.1

Between February 2020 and May 2022, 300,000 teachers and staff at public schools left their posts, representing about 3% of the workforce.2 When classes resumed this fall, schools scrambled to fill vacancies with office staff, retired teachers, and bus drivers.2 In a survey released in February 2022, 55% of teachers indicated that they would likely leave their jobs earlier than planned—up from 37% the previous year.3

There is already a downward trend in enrollment for teacher training programs. In 2018, more than one-third fewer student teachers were enrolled in schools, compared to 2010. They cited difficult working conditions, a lack of career opportunities, and low salaries as top reasons not to pursue a teaching career.4 The low pay associated with teachers may be connected to the fact that 77% of teachers are female. Pay declines tend to occur in professions where women represent the majority.4 In addition to gender, teaching also suffers from a lack of racial diversity when compared to other professions. One report found that 7% of teachers were Black and 9% were Hispanic, compared to 13% Black and 17% Asian among the overall labor force in the United States.4

The nation’s public school system is now in a fragile and precarious position. Although every profession suffered during the pandemic, teachers are confronted daily with the threat of school shootings, lagging student performance, political agendas, curriculum wars, book bans, and more. In many ways, these are not new problems, but they do appear to be compounding. Today, many teachers feel overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted—but mostly they are exhausted.

The Practice of Teaching

Teaching is often described as a labor of love, but it is really a labor of emotion. Every job involves a certain amount of emotional labor—the creation and suppression of emotions and emotional expressions at a level appropriate for one’s occupation. Teachers, however, are unique in that they engage in a lot of emotional labor. In fact, they rely on it to encourage positive learning in others and to reach their own personal goals. Examples of emotional labor among teachers include feigning excitement about an upcoming project, resisting the urge to yell at a student, or refraining from eye rolling when listening to a parent.

Emotional labor involves surface acting, deep acting, and naturally felt emotions. Surface acting involves faking false feelings. Deep acting involves actively trying to express and also to feel that emotion. Naturally felt emotions involve genuinely expressing the feelings one truly feels.5 Like actors onstage, teachers engage in some measure of all 3.

A teacher’s emotional labor can be influenced by several factors. Teachers at private schools, for example, tend to engage in more deep acting or naturally felt emotions than teachers at public schools. Other factors include size of the school, whether it is public or private, the location, the subject emphasis (like music or sports), the funding sources, and the infrastructure.5

One systemic review of data collected between 2006 and 2021 suggests a link between emotional labor and school rankings and test scores, which are becoming a popular metric of a teacher’s abilities. The review noted that this approach shifts the role of students and parents to that of consumers, which may cause teachers to be even more guarded with their emotions.5

Burnout and the Role of Self-Study

A reliance on surface acting requires more emotional labor and is the strongest indicator of burnout among teachers. On the flip side, engaging in deep acting and naturally felt emotions can stave off feelings of burnout.5

Burnout is characterized by physical exhaustion, feelings of cynicism or detachment, and a lack of accomplishment. In teachers, burnout is usually spurred by a loss of resources, whether supplies, training, trust, or support. School principals also experience high levels of burnout, especially since they tend to rely on surface acting to hide their emotions.5 Burnout can make it harder for teachers to implement coping strategies and engage in self-study, 1 of the most important teaching tools.

To counteract teacher burnout and reduce attrition rates, self-study techniques were introduced in the 1990s. Considered groundbreaking, these gave student teachers an outlet to explore and improve.6 The mark of a confident teacher was one who could identify challenges, find new approaches, and be willing to make revisions.

Self-study involves a teacher’s “moral commitment” to share what they have learned with others and thus contribute to the greater evolution of the education philosophy.6 Although this collaboration exposes teachers to a certain level of risk-taking and vulnerability, it also provides them with needed perspective, support, and even comfort.7

In 2008, biology teacher Amanda Berry used a self-study process to recast teaching as identifying and managing a series of tensions.8 Signs of an imbalance of tensions within teachers can include deliberating over choices rather than making decisions. They may question which voice to listen to, struggle with disappointments and dilemmas, or find themselves sifting through a soup of conflicting stories.8

An example of a teaching tension is the balance between confidence and uncertainty. This was observed in a self-study journal entry of a student teacher grappling with her feelings after the 2017 Parkland, Florida, high school shooting left 17 dead and 17 wounded. Described as the “most difficult week” of her college career, she questioned her ability to protect students and felt uncertain whether her own training would ever prepare her for such an event. As she processed her thoughts, she came to understand that “you do whatever you need to do for your students.”9

This process of self-identity and the role(s) a teacher plays in a student’s life are integral to the self-study process. Roles typically include advisor or confidante, but in today’s era of school shootings, they are expanding to include protector—someone willing to lay down their life for students.

After a gunman killed 19 children and 2 teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, some legislators called for teachers to be armed at school. Teachers pushed back on this expectation. A survey by the Texas American Federation of Teachers found that 77% of teachers did not want to be armed, nor did they want to be expected to intercept a gunman. Additionally, 90% of respondents said they worried about a shooting happening at their school.10

Since the pandemic began, the number of voices with a say in education in the United States has increased. When you are a teacher, it seems everyone has an opinion on how to do your job. But many say this is hindering teachers from doing their job.

“The reason I stayed in teaching was for the actual teaching and for the kids, which is really what you think it should be all about,” said a teacher who quit her job earlier this year in a Wall Street Journal article. “Unfortunately, it’s turned into a very small percentage of the job.”2


Teaching Challenges Today

The amount of societal change that has occurred over the past few years has given teachers barely any time to react, much less conduct a thorough self-study to process their thoughts.

First, there was the transition to online learning platforms as COVID-19 shuttered school buildings. Many teachers had to juggle their own children as they led entire classes from behind a screen. Parents were suddenly able to peer into the classroom and observe teachers for the first time. They saw them express frustration over connection and technical issues and noticed that many students had their cameras turned off.

It was not long before online learning’s effect on student mental health and families brought calls to reopen classrooms. Teachers’ unions across the country pushed back and threatened to strike, citing COVID-19 safety concerns for teachers, school staff, and students alike. They drew the ire of parents when, in addition to longer school closures, unions wanted to limit the length of time teachers were required to teach via video.11

According to 1 study, school districts with strong teachers’ unions were less likely to start the fall 2020 school year with in-person learning, and they were unlikely to start anytime that semester. Rather than COVID-19 infection rates, political factors and union strength were the strongest predictors for the reopening of schools.12

As the months progressed, police shootings, racial violence, the storming of the US Capitol, and the overturning of abortion rights set the nation on edge. These events also brought cultural discussions into the classroom. It was not long before curriculum wars ignited debates on how to teach about gender identity, sexual orientation, race, contraception, and more.

To keep teachers in check, Indiana passed a bill requiring teachers to submit curriculum and lesson plans to parents so they could opt out of lessons, similar to an “a la carte menu.” Iowa legislators called for cameras to be installed inside classrooms to keep an eye on teachers. This bill eventually died due to a lack of support. The cumulative result of these actions left many teachers feeling isolated, constrained, blamed, and treated like criminals.13

As school drew to a close in 2021, states reported a slip in scholastic achievement among students. Students, it seemed, were suffering on multiple fronts. A US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in March found that 37% of high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% reported being sad or hopeless in the past year. More than half said they experienced emotional abuse at home, and 11% said they were physically abused.14 School closures during COVID-19 also meant that many students had to endure environments they wanted to escape at home.

For years, schools were a safe place for students to find shelter, a hot meal, and an education. Every time one of these students returned to shoot up a school, teachers reacted with horror, sadness, and shock. What did they miss? What could they have done differently? Did they fail these students?

Incidents of gunfire at school quadrupled during the 2021 to 2022 school year, resulting in 59 deaths and 138 wounded.15 Although psychologists are quick to point out that there is not 1 profile that fits all school shooters, studies indicate that 95% of school shooters are male, 61% are white, and they feel marginalized or insignificant.16

“I feel rejected, rejected, not so much alone, but rejected,” one 16-year-old shooter wrote. “I feel this way because the day-to-day treatment I get, usually it’s positive, but the negative is like a cut. It doesn’t go away really fast.” Others wrote, “I had enough of [people] telling me that I’m an idiot and a dumbass” and “I felt like I wasn’t wanted by anyone, especially my mom.”16

In the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, there was barely any time to grieve or process what had happened. Finals were approaching, papers needed to be graded, and the demands of life marched on. Yet, with each shooting or major event, teachers relive a “slow-rolling” response to trauma, whether they have experienced the event firsthand, secondhand, or vicariously. It can make teachers feel a loss of control, increased anger or aggression, social withdrawal, and/or physical symptoms such as headache, stomachache, or a loss of sleep or appetite.17

Other teachers may experience compassion fatigue, which is often linked to burnout. Because teaching already involves a high degree of emotional labor, they run the risk of “empathy overload,” where it is hard to feel compassion for others.18

Compassion fatigue is closely linked to secondary traumatic stress (STS). This is common among child-serving professions who often hear firsthand accounts of trauma from others. Symptoms of STS can mimic those of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), causing those affected to relive the trauma indirectly.19 Those who survive a school shooting often grapple with symptoms of PTSD and are left to wonder if they can ever return to the classroom. But some of them do.

One teacher who helped funnel Robb Elementary students out a window the day of the Uvalde shooting returned to the school’s new campus 3 months later to welcome her fourth-grade class. This time, she is better prepared with door jams and blackout curtains. She and other teachers are being treated for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Yet, despite the constant emotional triggers, she chose to return and teach students how to heal.20

“I thought, I gotta go back and show them, first of all, we can’t live in fear,” she said. “I have to go forward and show these kids, OK, Ms. Ogburn can go back to school. Then so can I.”20

Finding Ways to Heal

Supporting the mental health needs of teachers is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach. It can be tempting for teachers to normalize the stress and burnout they feel as simply part of being a teacher. This, and knowing that other teachers are experiencing the same thing, may discourage them from seeking help when they need it most.

Teacher burnout is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, a loss of interest, hopelessness, irritability, and social withdrawal. Physical symptoms can include a racing pulse, trouble sleeping, inability to catch one’s breath, headaches, and stomachaches.21 To get help, teachers can start by confiding in someone they know and trust. They may want to seek professional behavioral health care if they are feeling particularly overwhelmed. Psychotherapy can be a powerful tool in managing stress and supporting one’s personal and professional goals. Teachers can check with their school districts and teachers’ unions for resources, or they can ask their primary care physician for recommendations.

A self-care routine can be used to prioritize a healthy work-life balance. Self-care has expanded beyond taking a bath or going on a walk. For many, it represents an opportunity to define how they want to be treated. For teachers, self-care can include:

Setting boundaries and holding them. Teachers can protect their time by clearly communicating what they are and are not willing to do.

Focusing on what they can control. By limiting their exposure to upsetting events, teachers can preserve a sense of security.

Taking care of themselves. Teachers should prioritize nutrition, exercise, and sleep; practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques; and pursue interests outside of work.

Staying in touch with friends and family. Teachers can connect with others, which serves as a reminder that others can relate to what they are going through and that they are not alone.

Maintaining reasonable expectations. Teachers should be nice to themselves and set small, realistic goals to bring about balance.

The pandemic served as a stark reminder of how much we rely on teachers to take care of our children while we work or pursue other activities. Practicing patience and gratitude can go a long way in bolstering a teacher’s confidence. Ways to offer support to a teacher can include22:

Checking in on them. Ask teachers how they are doing, and then give them the space and time to share feelings when they are ready.

Reminding them to take care of themselves. A thoughtful gift or connection to resources can go a long way.

Expressing gratitude. Acknowledge the role teachers play in the lives of students. They help generate a more positive outlook for all.

Taking time to laugh. Humor can help lighten the mood when it is done in a mindful and considerate way.

Paying attention to nonverbal cues. When an individual avoids eye contact or moves or talks more slowly, it may be an indication that they are dealing with difficult feelings.

Lending support. Sharing experiences has the potential to relieve stress and assure that no one is alone.

Concluding Thoughts

Teaching is not just a job—it is a noble profession that calls on individuals to support children in their overall growth and development. It takes courage, grit, and resilience to juggle the multiple demands of an educational environment.

Today, teachers face more challenges than ever. In addition to feeling burned out, many are feeling mistreated, disrespected, and second-guessed. They are giving up and leaving the profession. As students scramble to catch up from the distractions of COVID-19, we simply cannot afford to lose any more good teachers. Only by giving them space to grow and opportunities to succeed will we get them back. Teachers are the key to the success of our future.

Dr Jonnalagadda is a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. Dr Melonson is a licensed professional counselor and regional psychotherapy director with Mindpath Health.

References

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2. Dill K. School’s out for summer and many teachers are calling it quits. Wall Street Journal. June 20, 2022. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/schools-out-for-summer-and-many-teachers-are-calling-it-quits-11655732689

3. Jotkoff E. NEA survey: massive staff shortages in schools leading to educator burnout; alarming number of educators indicating they plan to leave profession.National Education Association. February 1, 2022. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://www.nea.org/about-nea/media-center/press-releases/nea-survey-massive-staff-shortages-schools-leading-educator

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15. New Everytown report finds average number of gunfire on school grounds incidents nearly quadrupled during last school year. Everytown for Gun Safety. August 19, 2022. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://everytownsupportfund.org/press/new-everytown-report-finds-average-number-of-gunfire-on-school-grounds-incidents-nearly-quadrupled-during-last-school-year/

16. Kowalski RM. School shootings: what we know about them, and what we can do to prevent them. The Brookings Institution. January 26, 2022. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2022/01/26/school-shootings-what-we-know-about-them-and-what-we-can-do-to-prevent-them

17. Modan N. “Waiting for the next thing”: what it’s like teaching after a mass shooting.Industry Dive. May 26, 2022. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://www.k12dive.com/news/waiting-for-the-next-thing-what-its-like-teaching-after-a-mass-shooting/624473/

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