How to Avoid Teacher Burnout Now

In an unprecedented school year, many educators are feeling stressed, exhausted, and, worst of all, burned out and considering not coming back next school year.

Even before the pandemic, teacher shortages throughout the U.S. were high averaging roughly 110,000 teacher vacancies per year. Now we are beginning to see the impact of the pandemic on teacher attrition. The National Education Association (the largest teachers’ union in the country) reported that 28 percent of U.S. educators said that Covid-19 and its ramifications had made them more likely to leave the profession entirely or retire early. According to the Economic Policy Institute, this increase during the pandemic is related to unhealthy working conditions, lack of support, the many stresses associated with remote education, and burnout. We need our teachers now more than ever but more importantly, we need them feeling strong, supported, and resilient.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations. Herbert Freudenberger, the psychologist who first coined the term, observed burnout to be characterized by feelings of:

  • Emotional exhaustion: the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long and consistently experiencing barriers to your efforts;
  • Depersonalization: experiencing a depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion over time; and
  • Decreased sense of accomplishment: an unconquerable sense of futility and a feeling that nothing you do makes a difference.

When we are experiencing signs of burnout, we feel as if we have exhausted all options. However, if we are able to catch the signs of burnout and identify it early, we can alter its course.

How can we avoid burnout?

First, complete the stress cycle: Authors and twin sisters, Amelia and Emily Nagoski, wrote about the “stress cycle” in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking Stress (one of Circulus’ best resilient resources of 2020). They describe the stress cycle as having a natural life course with a beginning, middle, and end. Given the chaotic nature of our lives, we rarely allow ourselves the time and space to reach the natural end of a stressful emotion. And as a result, we experience chronic stress or constant states of repeated stress.

It’s important to understand that stress is physiological. When we perceive a threat or stress, our bodies replicate the primal need to escape danger. Our adrenaline and cortisol levels rise to help us react quickly and decisively. Once that threat has diminished, our blood pressure and heart rate go back to normal levels and we finish the stress cycle. But when we experience chronic stress, our bodies are in a constant state of fight-or-flight and we don’t come to a natural end of that stress cycle. This can cause serious health concerns.

One of the most important ways you can immediately complete your stress cycle is to literally go for a run. Similar to a wild animal when faced with a predator, we need to run to escape. When we run or engage in any type of aerobic activity, our bodies release endorphins and we feel a sense of calm.

Another way to end the stress cycle, according to the Nagoskis, is to rest. Napping itself can help to finish the stress cycle and allow our bodies to reset physiologically.

What are some ways that you can allow yourself or your colleagues the time and space needed to complete stress cycles?

Create healthy boundaries (compartmentalization): Compartmentalization occurs when we can separate aspects or put boundaries up between parts of our psychological functioning in order to avoid negative emotions. For example, imagine that you are dreading an upcoming meeting and fear you’ll be asked to do something you don’t believe is right for your classroom. Healthy compartmentalization is when we can contain those feelings and not stoke them with more worry or “doomsday scenarios”. When we detach our emotional responses to events out of our control, such as negative beliefs others have or words that others say, we feel less attached to and less likely to worry about a negative outcome. This is not to say we want to disconnect entirely and not address those feelings (remember the stress cycle). However, if we can create healthy boundaries and some distance between our feelings and what we are experiencing, we won’t experience the stress as acutely.

What are some ways that you can create healthy boundaries between you and your work this week?

Rely on social supports: Similar to our primal reactions to a threat, we have a primal need to be safe after a stressful event. We need to surround ourselves with friends, colleagues, and loved ones who offer us refuge. These supports shouldn’t just be within our personal lives but within our school communities as well. Communities that offer support can help teachers to feel understood, valued, and that our concerns matter. It’s very hard to create systems of support on our own, but as school communities we can offer support to our colleagues when we perceive things are particularly challenging. We can reach out, connect, and create trusted relationships that help each other feel resilient and less alone.

How can you create a social support group for yourself and a few of your colleagues throughout the rest of this school year?

While these are not perfect solutions to a challenging school year, these strategies can help us to take care of ourselves and each other. We need to give voice to how difficult this year is and create more time and space for our well-being. Burnout is real but we can work to prevent it collectively and with empathy so that we continue to thrive and be resilient educators.

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