OK, I get it. July is an odd time for a blog post on teacher burnout and stress. However, the summer months are a great time for thinking, reflection, and planning for the upcoming year. As someone who has maintained for 20 years that education is the best profession in the world, I’m troubled by much of what I’ve seen recently regarding teacher burnout and stress. In the past month, I have read 8-10 articles or papers on the increase of teacher burnout and reasons for those leaving the profession. In addition, some educators made the choice to post their resignation letter online, allowing me to get a deeper look into the sources of their frustration.
Why is this so important to me? Because I NEED our team. If we are going to become the best school in the world (which should be the goal of every school) they are going to take us there. The students and parents at our school NEED this team. It’s important to me because I care about them as people. As the leader of our school, how the job impacts their life and emotional well-being matters to me. It matters a lot.
Michigan State University education expert Alyssa Hadley Dunn recently led a trio of studies looking into teacher burnout and stress. In an article by the MSU School of Education Dunn states, “The reasons teachers are leaving the profession has little to do with the reasons most frequently touted by education reformers, such as pay or student behavior. Rather, teachers are leaving largely because oppressive policies and practices are affecting their working conditions and beliefs about themselves and education.”
As I read through those resignation letters recently, a handful of issues stood out. Those were a negative school climate, loss of autonomy, a focus on standardized test scores, punitive teacher evaluation systems, and a lack of teacher’s voice during the implementation of policies.
What I haven’t read very much are plans to combat these issues. Sure, I did a google search and found an article here and there. But that’s not enough. I take a great deal of pride in the relationships I develop with my staff and ensuring that I care about them as people first, employees second. Because of that, I felt the need to develop a road map, a game plan, to at least feel like I have a structured and cohesive plan to limit burnout and stress at OUR school. I looked at the release of the MSU data, other articles on burnout and stress, and several resignation letters. While I have done some of these things in the past, a systematic plan on paper will allow it to not fall off my radar or come and go.
1. I need to survey the staff. Instead of guessing on their levels of stress and burnout, I need to compile personalized data. Each state, district, building, grade level, and individual teacher is different. When I’ve done that in the past, it’s provided me with important information. I will share the survey data back with staff, share my plans to counteract the challenges, solicit advice from my building management team, and then check back in at least twice during the year. Combining this survey with the one our staff does of my work twice a year will give me important feedback.
2. Make people feel valued each and every day, not just during “teacher appreciation week” or on their birthday. Do all the little things day in and day out to make sure they feel valued. It starts with developing the personal relationship with teachers and getting to know them personally and professionally. That promotes an open line of communication which improves culture and trust. Helping staff feel valued includes small things like writing a handwritten letter to each of them during the summer, doing something kind just because, stopping in for regular gratitude walks with feedback, highlighting their work on social media and with key stakeholders, and consistently telling them they are a valued and important member of the staff. Maybe most important is knowing when adversity has struck and then reaching out to see how I can help.
3. Use the structures we have in place to make sure teacher’s voice is important in school decision-making. I need to collaborate with our building management team, grade level reps, and school improvement teams on major initiatives which teachers need to have a voice in. We have developed a shared vision as a staff. I need to consistently make sure staff feels like our work is aligned with the vision and they have a substantial voice. Professional development plans need to be individualized and our staff needs to feel that time is valuable. Teacher observations, their purpose, and how the staff feels they are going must be discussed. When I have ideas, those groups will be brought to the table so I can get teacher thinking, ideas, and feedback. While every decision is not meant to be collaborative, teacher perspective must be considered in each instance.
4. Compile a list of 10 activities/strategies that will reinforce the “person first, employee second” message that staff gets from me. I need to emphasize what Debbie McFalone told me about education, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Putting in place those activities will ensure that action follows words and does so consistently. Here is a couple from my list.
- Each time a staff member has something come up with their family, I will respond with an understanding message and the #FamilyFirst hashtag. That branding will reinforce a belief of mine and remind staff of the value we place on family
- Putting the “life balance” quote on the door of each staff member during the year
- Periodically in my weekly update sharing the ideas, I incorporate to reduce stress and maintain the balance between work and family
- Reminding staff, especially in the spring, that our #1 goal isn’t test scores. It is and will always be supporting students to become better people
I’m not reinventing the wheel here. Nor am I calling others to action. It has always been a passion of mine to help teachers be the absolute best they can be, but I can do better. I know that following this plan can be my small part of helping with teacher burnout and stress in OUR school and allowing our teachers to do what they do best…to teach.