Possible Remedies for Teacher Burn Out

For the last couple of days, I have been following a thread of discussion on LinkedIn. The topic is teacher burn out and what might be done about it. Some solutions that were offered in one article were pretty superficial, I thought. The suggestions included offering a social time for teachers, for example, so they could get together and relax every once in a while. The other suggestions  were okay as far as they went, but they didn't go nearly far enough in my opinion.

Teacher burnout is a serious issue and it is one that needs to be treated seriously although I don't think enough people are truly paying attention to it. The fact is, however, that a growing number of teachers are feeling disillusioned about their chosen profession. What I hear on a regular basis from the teachers I work with is that they still love their kids, but they don't feel like they are teaching anymore. They are, instead, delivering a canned curriculum and then administering test after test after blasted test. The fun has been sucked out of teaching and it is a sure bet the children they are teaching aren't having much fun either.

I felt compelled to offer some thoughts on the thread and this is what I said:

“While it is certainly important that teachers be offered times to socialize and de-stress, feeding teachers' souls is a lot more complicated. The teachers I know who are stressed and might be in danger of ‘eating their children' are overburdened by paperwork, impossible demands at every level, lack of support from administrators and parents, debt because of low and stagnant salaries, feeling berated by people in power like the Secretary of Education who misses no opportunity to criticize teachers, and strangled by policies that have sucked absolutely all the fun out of teaching. I am also a life coach and a stress management coach whose niche are teacher leaders, teachers in distress and teachers in transition. When I conduct my workshops I always run into the same overall theme. Teachers feel overwhelmed, under appreciated and generally maligned. A social hour with colleagues will help to bond the colleagues together, but they need a lot more than TLC to help them feel better about themselves and their profession. They need to feel respected, and they need to be paid a professional salary while they are treated like professionals instead of widgets in the larger system that is doing no one any good…least of all the students they teach.”

I really believe that we are in the middle of a serious crisis with regard to public education in our country, and I fear for its future. Just today, I heard a snippet of an interview with Arne Duncan that pertained to what the President might say tonight in his State of the Union speech. One of the things I heard Secretary Duncan say was that we have been making progress…graduation rates are up and drop out rates are down…but he went on to say that the progress we have made isn't enough and we “need to be changing faster.”

The trouble with Mr. Duncan's premise is that he assumes that the changes we are currently making will get us where we need to go…that his policies and those coming out of his Department are actually doing anything other than creating more and more demoralization among teachers and students alike. Mr. Duncan loves to talk about our “failing schools” and how we are lying to our students when we tell them they are doing well. He also loves competition, so all of his major initiatives are based on the false notion that in order to promote public education and equity for all we need to make it about racing to the top and innovating around more and better tests instead of focusing on authentic teaching and learning.

If anyone were really serious about addressing teacher burn out…and I don't think anyone really is serious about it or they would be doing something about it…they would stop telling teachers to “do more with less.” They would lighten up on the testing regimen because there are only so many tests that a child can take that they even have any meaning. They would forget the crazy notion that a child's test score is a measure for whether or not to keep an otherwise effective teacher on the payroll. And they would stop fighting about Common Core and let a few states pilot it without drastic negative consequences for everyone involved in the meantime.

Public education is a value that I grew up believing in. I grew up poor, but because of educational opportunities and my belief that an education would provide me with an opportunity to thrive economically, I have thrived. As public school funding shrinks in favor of ideological arguments for choice, vouchers, and charters, I fear that the poorest children will get left behind and dropped through the cracks. We are at a real crossroads in this country, it seems to me. While the haves continue to thrive, the have nots are struggling. In the past, getting a solid education was the ticket to a better life. That seems to be growing less and less the case these days.

I know that teacher burn out is a real thing. I just don't think that offering a social hour is the answer to it.