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Low teacher morale is nothing new, but teacher burnout which is the extreme version of low morale seems to be on the rise. Teacher morale has been in the tank for years, and the pressures of arbitrary accountability measures and an unfathomable emphasis on testing at the expense of authentic teaching and learning are taking a huge toll on teachers.
Those who are experiencing the symptoms of teacher burnout are also experiencing the dread of having to stay in a profession they no longer love for another 15 or 20 years (or longer).
Some teachers feel stuck because of the promise of their pensions at the end of their career, but even then, it hardly seems worth the sacrifice at times. Teachers who are experiencing burnout are often irritable, sad, or even depressed. They sometimes find themselves taking it out on their kids, which is why I want to counsel them out of the classroom before they do harm to a child’s self-esteem forever. The frustrated roll of a teacher’s eyes, the disdain in a teacher’s voice, a reprimand that is harshly delivered can leave some children with emotional scars that stay with them forever.
Teachers don’t deserve to be stuck in jobs they no longer love, and kids don’t deserve to be stuck with a teacher who doesn’t want to be with them.
If you are a burned out teacher or if you are suffering from rock-bottom morale, then you may be thinking it is time to go. The problem is where can you go? With so many years in the classroom and degrees in education or educational leadership or curriculum and instruction, where does one go to plug in their talents?
The answer is that as the economy is improving, the options for teachers improve every day. Recruiters tell me that they love to help teachers land new jobs because employers love teachers.
Teachers are smart, they have a great work ethic, they are eager to learn, and they want to be successful.
The fact is that you don’t necessarily have to leave teaching if you are just unhappy with your current situation. Perhaps you have a bullying principal…I hear lots of stories about those folks. Because they are under so much pressure themselves, many principals take it out on their teachers the way some bullying teachers take it out on their students. Maybe you don’t have to leave teaching; you just need a new school or a different school district.
I often talk with teachers who are unhappy, but when I ask them what they have done about, the usual response is “Nothing yet.” My question is “What are you waiting for?”
Here is what I think the issue is. Because of the way the school year usually runs, it is easy to get stuck and go from year to year hoping that next year will be better. I always thought that one of the great things about being a teacher was that we could come to the end of a school year and have a summer to recover. If it was a particularly rough school year, you could sigh in relief when it was over and hope that next year would be better. Maybe you would have an easier assignment, or perhaps other factors would weigh in and you would just have an easier year. The truth is that for most of us, the years ebb and flow…some are good, some not so much.
You hang in there because you also get the vacation breaks just when you need them most.
People who don’t teach won’t get this, I suspect, but if you are a teacher, you will. The school year generally starts in August or September, depending on your geographic location. Regardless of the location, however, the back-to-school year excitement is palpable. The first day of a school is the best! Everyone and everything is fresh and new, and students and teachers alike are eager to get a new school year started.
This sense of “newness” wears off pretty quickly, however. Before the month of September is over, depending on what is happening in your classroom, you as a teacher may already be looking forward to Thanksgiving break. Yikes!
Between Thanksgiving and the Winter Break, you think you can probably do just about anything, so you hang in there. With the Winter Break, you get a few days to relax and decompress. You realize that things are tough, but you renew your hope and faith that the rest of the year will go well as you ring in a new year. By mid-February, you may be totally exhausted, though. You haven’t had a decent break since the Winter Break, and no breaks are in sight until Spring Break. You white-knuckle it until then, and then you start to look forward to the end of the year.
The hardest part of the year is ahead of you because after Spring Break is “Testing Season.”
During the spring testing season, everyone must be tested and re-tested and tested again to make sure everyone can pass the BIG test at the end of the year. For your kids and you, the pressure is on. You must get the kids ready for their tests because your job is on the line if they don’t do well. The feeling of stress begins to permeate the entire school. Everyone feels the burden of needing to do well on their tests. There are after school tutoring sessions and even school rallies…anything to motivate the kids to do well on their tests.
The school year finally comes to an end. You take a big sigh of relief. Once the tests are behind you, you can start to anticipate the end of the year and a sense of anticipation returns. You start to look forward to whatever your summer break holds for you. You can do anything to get to the end of the year, after all, and once the last student is gone, and the room has been packed up for the summer.
You can move on to your summer plans.
By July, regardless of the kind of year you had before, you begin to feel a certain anticipation about the new year which is just around the corner. You start scouting out deals on school supplies and cool new things you can use to decorate your room.
I worked with teachers who would start to come back to school two weeks before the first work day to start getting their room set up.
They came in on their vacation days to put up all their bulletin boards, get the textbooks ready, put names on all of the cubbies, and just generally “nest” before the work week officially started. There are too many meetings to attend and too many interruptions to get that work done once their contract kicked in. As a result, who knows about many hours of free work the district benefits from because teachers are so dedicated? That is the cycle I observed in my 33 years in the K-12 sector, however,and regardless of the school that I served, I saw the same thing time after time, year after year.
Have I described the typical school year for you?
There may be some variations, but the fact is that for many teachers, what I have just described is their life, and I happen to believe it helps to contribute to teachers feeling stuck. They are caught in a perpetual cycle of anticipation…either anticipation of a new year or anticipation of it all being over.
The pain of their current situation gets muddled with their hope that things will be better next year. And truthfully, if next year is better, it is easy to get lulled into thinking that this isn’t so bad after all. The pay is not great, but at least it provides a steady income. The benefits could be better, but at least you have benefits. Your principal may be awful, but the fact is that principals come and go. Maybe you can outlast this one if he or she is terrible.
As a result of all of this going on in the background—some of which you may have been unaware of, frankly—you get lulled into sticking it out year after year. It isn’t until the pain gets too great that you begin to think, “There must be something better for me to do than this.” And the good news there is.
Any teacher can change career direction by using knowledge of the job search process. Understanding the job search process leads to a successful job or career change.
In fact, teachers have may options that don’t include teaching, but most teachers don’t know what their options are, and even if they did, they don’t know how to position themselves to make the change they desire. They haven’t ever managed a traditional job search before, and job hunting for teaching positions is a very different proposition from job hunting in the corporate or nonprofit world.
If you don’t know how to market your transferable skills, you may be in trouble before you even begin your job search.
So, what is a teacher who is suffering from low morale turned to teacher burnout to do? How do you begin to make a transition from a teaching career into another career path? Well, the answer is simple even though the process isn’t necessarily easy. The first thing you have to do is make a decision. Is it time to stay or go? Only you can make that decision for yourself. No one can gauge your level of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with your current circumstances but you. I believe that also means, however, that you can’t blame anyone else for what you decide to do. If you succumb to the pressure of family and friends who tell you how easy you have it because you “only work 9 months a year” (Ha!) and you convince yourself that you have it okay even though you are miserable 90% of the time, you only have yourself to thank or to blame as the case may be.
If you decide to tackle your burnout in a proactive manner, however, a number of different outcomes could come from it.
First, you may decide after looking at your options that maybe you are more satisfied than you thought. That happened for me around year nine. I was unhappy. I was working a second job to make ends meet, and I thought there must be a better way. I went to a career counselor and after learning that one of the things I could do would be to stock grocery stores with paper items for a third less than what I was making as a teacher, I decided to reassess. I now don’t believe that that would have been my only option, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. So, I decided to stay where I was and go for my first Master’s degree. If I was going to stay, I decided to maximize my earnings, and at the time, not only did my district pay for my graduate courses, but there was a significant bump in salary once I finished my degree.
At another point in my career, I realized I was unhappy in my building. My principal was only a so-so leader, and there were other members of the staff who were so negative and disparaging of one another and their students that I realized my morale was suffering. I asked for a transfer and was lucky enough to get it. I say I was lucky because I know that for some, getting transferred from one building to another is sometimes problematic. But is an option, nevertheless, and one that might warrant investigating. Additionally, transferring from one district to another might make a difference. I had one client who did that, and it makes a huge difference in her attitude about teaching. She is much happier today than she was when I first met her.
If staying indefinitely is just not an option. However, it is incumbent upon you to explore your options which are more than you might think. I won’t kid you, though. Depending on what you decide you want to do, there may be a need to go back to school to get additional training.
The good news is that you will have a feeling of renewed energy as you undertake meaningful steps to get you out of your current state of misery and toward a new career that is full of possibility.
Many teachers make the transition from teaching into other fields of endeavor. From sales to marketing, technical writing to human resources. In my case, I became an entrepreneur. I took my skills and combined them with my passions, and I reinvented and retooled myself completely inside of 3 years. If I can do it, you can do.
Entrepreneurship is not a route I would recommend to everyone, but the fact is that if you have an idea, and you are willing to work it, with the online possibilities that are available to you, you could offer your products or programs through the Internet to a market that encompasses the world. I have coached individuals from Egypt, Nigeria, Ireland, Spain, and France as well as Canada and most of the 50 states. If you are willing to think big, big things can happen.
Changing career direction isn’t easy, and it isn’t for wimps.
You have to be committed to it, and you have to be willing to make some initial sacrifices to experience the long term pay off. You may need help to get your job search off the ground. Would you know where to start a job search? Do you know about the need for a new type of resume that is sleeker and more concise than the resume you probably already have? Do you know about the Applicant Tracking System (ATS)? Do you know the number one mistake people make when writing a cover letter? Do you have a LinkedIn profile of which you are proud, or are you embarrassed about the fact that you haven’t got a profile yet? Do you know what to do to prepare for an interview that will result in a job offer? All of these are the moving parts of a traditional job search, and I haven’t even mentioned the need to be aware of your personal and online brand.
The question is should you stay or should you go?
Photo by Shutterstock
If you are ready to make a change but don’t know where to start, you are not alone. Many of my clients came to me not knowing where to begin, and in some instances, they weren’t sure what it was that they wanted in the first place. They just knew they weren’t happy with their current circumstances.
You don’t know what you don’t know right now. Is it time to stay or go? Only you can answer that question, but if you are entertaining the question at all, it is time for you to take charge of your life and your career and do something proactive to change your current status. Every day spent in a job that you no longer love is another day wasted.
I decided to move my blog from this site to a standalone site entitled “Teachers in Distress.” You can find it at http://teachersindistress.wordpress.com.
Here is one response to Anthony Cody’s call to action to which I referred earlier today in another post. Peter Greene is a high school teacher who maintains a blog entitled “Curmudgeon–A grumpy old teacher trying to keep up with the good classroom fight in the new age of reformy stuff.”
He has responded (as I have) with thoughts on Anthony’s call to reluctant warriors. You can see his response here.
He recognizes that he has been a reluctant warrior…but he agrees with Anthony that the time has come to speak up.
I agree. It’s not only time, it is past time, but it is always better late than never.
Another teacher–this time a National Board Certified Teacher with 13 years of experience–resigns because she can’t pay her bills on the low salary she was earning in North Carolina. She is tired of trying to make ends meet, and she is really tired of the disrespect being offered to teachers in NC, not to mention the fact that teaching is no longer fun, given the over-emphasis on testing and reliance on data. See the interview and read her letter of resignation which she addressed to the Governor of North Carolina along with others here.
On March 23, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post offered another article that caught my attention and then ignited my interest and finally touched my heart on a deep level. She offered the perspective of a Massachusetts kindergarten teacher who is, in my opinion, both a “teacher in distress” and a “teacher in transition.” After 25 years of teaching kindergarten, Susan Sluyter has decided she has had enough. She knows in her heart and soul that the obsession with data that is driving our school systems of today, thanks to wrong headed initiatives and generally bad education policy, is not serving children, and she just can’t participate in the farce any longer. Below you can see her letter of resignation. We have clearly lost another dedicated teacher because of these poorly thought through initiatives. When will the administrators and policy makers hear us? When more teachers like Suzi Sluyter make their voices heard. At least, that is what I believe. I don’t want to believe that it is too late…but I do fear that time is running out. More teachers need to find their voices and speak up…not just for themselves and the damage that has been done to our profession but for the children who are not being served by this current data obsessed system.
My favorite line from Ms. Sluyter’s letter is here:
“The overall effect of these federal and state sponsored programs is the corrosion of teacher moral, the demeaning of teacher authority, a move away from collaborating with teachers, and the creation of an overwhelming and developmentally inappropriate burden imposed on our children.”
The entire letter is worth reading, however as is the entire article.
Please feel free to share widely. I know that this letter will resonate with every teacher (especially the ones who remember what it was like to teach before No Child Left Behind).
Here is Ms. Sluyter’s letter in its entirety.
February 12, 2014
I am writing today to let you know that I am resigning my position as PreK and Kindergarten teacher in the Cambridge Public Schools. It is with deep sadness that I have reached this decision, as I have loved my job, my school community, and the families and amazing and dedicated faculty I have been connected with throughout the district for the past eighteen years. I have always seen myself as a public school teacher, and fully intended to work until retirement in the public school system. Further, I am the product of public schools, and my son attended Cambridge Public Schools from PreK through Grade 12. I am and always have been a firm believer in quality public education.
In this disturbing era of testing and data collection in the public schools, I have seen my career transformed into a job that no longer fits my understanding of how children learn and what a teacher ought to do in the classroom to build a healthy, safe, developmentally appropriate environment for learning for each of our children. I have experienced, over the past few years, the same mandates that all teachers in the district have experienced. I have watched as my job requirements swung away from a focus on the children, their individual learning styles, emotional needs, and their individual families, interests and strengths to a focus on testing, assessing, and scoring young children, thereby ramping up the academic demands and pressures on them. Each year, I have been required to spend more time attending classes and workshops to learn about new academic demands that smack of 1st and 2nd grade, instead of Kindergarten and PreK. I have needed to schedule and attend more and more meetings about increasingly extreme behaviors and emotional needs of children in my classroom; I recognize many of these behaviors as children shouting out to the adults in their world, “I can’t do this! Look at me! Know me! Help me! See me!” I have changed my practice over the years to allow the necessary time and focus for all the demands coming down from above. Each year there are more. Each year I have had less and less time to teach the children I love in the way I know best—and in the way child development experts recommend. I reached the place last year where I began to feel I was part of a broken system that was causing damage to those very children I was there to serve.
I was trying to survive in a community of colleagues who were struggling to do the same: to adapt and survive, to continue to hold onto what we could, and to affirm what we believe to be quality teaching for an early childhood classroom. I began to feel a deep sense of loss of integrity. I felt my spirit, my passion as a teacher, slip away. I felt anger rise inside me. I felt I needed to survive by looking elsewhere and leaving the community I love so dearly. I did not feel I was leaving my job. I felt then and feel now that my job left me.
It is with deep love and a broken heart that I write this letter.
Teachers in Transition–Retiring and Re-Tooling
According to a report released by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the nation stands to “lose half of its teachers to retirement over the next decade.” Indeed, 50% of the nation’s teachers and principals are members of the Baby Boomer generation, so they are rapidly approaching retirement age. According to the NCTAF report, “during the next four years, our nation’s schools could lose a third of their most accomplished educators to retirement.”
In spite of this rather alarming fact, it is no secret that incentives for those approaching retirement age to stay in their chosen career are missing. The teacher bashing rhetoric that comes out of a lot of state legislatures these days has done nothing but further erode an already rock bottom-level of teacher morale. Over the course of my 30 plus year career as a public school educator, I experienced the sense of decreasing public support and respect, I suffered from the flat salaries that went on year after year, and I finally left because I could. My colleagues who continue to work share stories of issues with classroom discipline, lack of parental support and mixed reviews regarding the level of administrative support they get. That varies wildly from school to school and school district to school district.
While many of my colleagues are looking to retire, then, like me, they are not going to be ready to leave the world of work altogether. Our retirement plans (assuming we still have one) don’t adequately cover all of the financial needs that we have, and we can reasonably assume that most of us are going to live long and relatively healthy lives for another 20, 30 or more years after retiring from a “lifetime of teaching”.
So the question is what to do after retirement? Many of us are extremely talented and have skills and abilities that may or may not have anything to do with what we have been doing on our day jobs for 30 plus years. This may be a chance to finally do what we have always dreamed of doing when we had enough time. The trick is to find a way to make a living–or at least to supplement our retirement savings–so that we can enjoy our post-teaching years.
The problem is that I find that many of my teacher colleagues think they can’t do anything but teach. They have become used to thinking of themselves as “just a teacher,” and they don’t recognize that a “lifetime” of teaching has given them many skills that easily translate to other careers and endeavors.
As one who just went through the retirement/re-tooling transition myself, I am in a position to help those coming along behind me. I have developed a practice that is based on my desire to help those of my colleagues who are struggling with the questions of “What next?” or “What now?”
If you need help sifting through the various ideas and options that you may have before you but you cannot see clearly, give me a call at 804-404-5475 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am here and ready to help you. Together, we can embark upon your next exciting chapter!
I wrote an article for J.T. O’Donnell at Careerealism. It is about how I was “stuck” but a coach helped me in the same way I want to help others who may be feeling stuck in their jobs or their lives.
I can help you get unstuck. Call today.