My Plan to Combat Teacher Burnout and Stress

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?  download-1.jpgBecause 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 download.jpgstress 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.

THE PLAN

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 if-youre-really-that-important-make-people-feel-valued.jpgto 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 TeacherStress.jpgthat 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.

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Egocentrism — In education and in Life

“Egocentrism, as put forth by Jean Piaget, refers to a young child’s inability to see things from another’s point of view or perspective.  Unfortunately, some adults hang on to the characteristic.”

Many issues facing our school districts, communities, and society in general, are very complex.  Each issue contains various layers, facets, and what seems like tangled webs of information.  What I have noticed is that the lack of one key skill seems to stifle individuals, teams, and groups as they work towards solutions.  That skill is the inability of people to see another’s point of view.  People will view things only through their lens and perspective.  Whether or not people are unable to, don’t want to, or refuse to, is really beside the point.  What becomes very clear in the way they speak and act, is that they don’t.  You have likely spoken with someone in that frame of mind and it’s very obvious they are not considering all the alternatives.  They just continue to state their case, over and over, louder and louder.  Therefore, problems that have been created either continue or worsen.

Empathy

I talk with students about empathy on a daily basis.  Sometimes the discussion is based on a behavior misdirection and other times it is applauding the actions of a student.  Some students seem to naturally understand the concept while others need additional support to grow.   I find it ironic that something I talk with 10 year old’s about on a daily basis is something many of us still struggle with as adults.  It has hit me at times when I’ve been quick to judge.  I haven’t always done a good enough job considering the background of others but judged them based simply on their actions.  I haven’t really worked to understand their point of view, their outlook on the world, or how the hand they have been dealt impacts them on a daily basis.  Did I always ask questions about the background of a person before jumping to conclusions/decisions?  How well did I really seek to listen and understand the other side?  I know that it is something that I can work on and improve.

Seek to Understand

My guess is that you have a personal issue, something happening in your school, or in your community that you have formed a strong opinion on.  My intent is not to dissuade you from forming strong opinions.  Not at all.  Instead, if that opinion has placed you in some type of conflict, I’d encourage you to dig a bit deeper…especially if you want to be part of the solution.  Before you move any further, I’d encourage you to stop and do these 4 things:

  1. Ask yourself if you truly have all of the information.  Not just the information that backs your claim, but all of it.  If you do not, reconsider how strong your position should be until you have gathered more.
  2. LISTEN to 2-3 people who have the exact opposite position that you have.  Don’t talk, don’t share or try to counter each point, just listen.  Your goal is not to debate, it’s to understand.
  3. Reflect on any information you gained from #1 and #2 and see if there are any adjustments you want to make to your position.
  4. Ask yourself if you want to be part of the solution.

Finally, if you want to be part of the solution and not just an egocentric complainer, then you must do something about it.  If you choose to work towards a solution, do so actively.  Engage people on both sides of the issue to go through the process listed above.  Speak with individuals, groups, and with a mindset of working towards a solution.  This will take strength and courage.  Others are probably not going to be taking this path, so you will need to deal with comments and actions that deter you.  If this is the path you do not choose, you will likely find yourself only being happy if decisions are made in your favor and miserable when they aren’t.  And that my friends, is no way to go through life.