teacher burnout is a big issue

Keep the teacher fires burning

Teacher burnout is a huge problem. Fading are the days of veteran teachers staying in the job and sharing the wisdom of their experience with the younger generation of teachers. Many articles tell of teachers leaving the profession after five or fewer years.

Teachers start out with fire in their hearts, with an ambition to change lives and improve outcomes for all the children in their care. Many leave after just a few years when that fire has not only burnt out but has burnt them out too.

For others, who contemplate no alternative, the fire smoulders for years until they become cynical with a system that is ever-changing but rarely improving, and expectations that increase exponentially with little recognition of their efforts or the value they add to lives or society.

I recently listened to a book on the topic written by a passionate educator whose fire was extinguished by overwhelming expectations and an inability to reconcile unrealistic demands with a desire to teach children.

In a job interview, when asked what she taught, it was her response ‘I teach children’ that landed her the position. As the years passed, her employer’s focus turned from teaching children to teaching content and collecting data. As for many, her challenge was to continue educating the whole child while fulfilling the requirements of her employer. It’s a challenge that defeats many.

Teacher: One woman’s struggle to keep the heart in teaching by Gabrielle J. Stroud is a personal record of one’s teacher’s journey and how she faced the challenge. But it is more than that. It is the story of a journey travelled by many teachers. The names and places may change, but the story stays the same.

It is a book I wish I’d written. I laughed with Gabbie and cried with Gabbie. I’d walked in her shoes and she in mine. While our times and schools were different, our responses to the changing education landscape were very similar. She wrote from my heart as much as from hers.

If something doesn’t happen soon to support teachers, there’ll be no heart left in education and it will be a wasteland of useless data, lost potential and unhappy futures. Of course, I’ve written about that before, describing differences between education and schooling in a poem I called Education is.

If you are interested in reading more about teacher burnout and considering how teachers may be better supported, here are some articles to get you started:

The Causes of Teacher Burnout: What Everyone Needs to Know on The Chalk Blog. (US)

Burned out: why are so many teachers quitting or off sick with stress? In The Guardian. (UK)

Stressed-out teacher? Try these self-care tips on ABC Life. (Australia)

The hardest, most underestimated part of a teacher’s job on News.com.au. (Australia)

Heartbreak becomes burnout for teachers when work is turbulent on The Conversation. (Australia)

The Truth About Teacher Burnout: It’s Work Induced Depression on The American Psychology Association’s Psych Learning Curve. (US)

Teacher Workload in the Spotlight from my own Queensland College of Teachers. (Australia)

These are but a few of the many describing conditions that contribute to teacher burnout. However, for a truly entertaining but heartbreaking read that provides an accurate understanding of what happens to the heart of many a passionate teacher, you can’t go past Teacher: One woman’s struggle to keep the heart in teaching by Gabrielle J. Stroud. Gabbie summed it all up sadly by saying that she didn’t leave teaching, teaching left her.

Carrot Ranch flash fiction challenge - fire

It’s about the teacher fire that I’ve decided to respond to the flash fiction prompt set by Charli Mills this week at the Carrot Ranch. Charli challenged writers to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about fire. It can be a flame that burns or a light that inspires. Follow the flames and go where the prompt leads!

99 no more no less fire words

The heart of a teacher

“It’s storytime, children.”

They gathered at her feet, bright-eyed, transfixed.

Jane read, instructed and encouraged. They never tired.

Later, all snuggled up in bed, Mum asked, “What will you be when you grow up?”

“A teacher.”

 

“Storytime, children.”

They gathered at her feet, bright-eyed, hearts open, minds buzzing.

Miss Jane read. They hung on every word, contemplating obstacles and possible resolutions, following the heroes’ journey into the cave and out.

 

“Ple-ease!”

“No time for stories. It’s test time.”

They slumped at desks, eyes glazed, minds dulled, hearts heavy.

The cave was cold and dark. Were they ever coming out?

Thank you blog post

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.

 

60 thoughts on “Keep the teacher fires burning

  1. Jennie

    You have just hit every nerve, Norah. This is a real problem. First, your introduction was excellent, facts that confirm the what and whys of teaching and teachers. Then, your flash fiction summed it all up. Outstanding! This school year has been particularly difficult for teachers, as we are going through reaccreditation. The unrealistic expectations of a) what we need to be doing at all times, b) what is reflected in our classrooms, and c) the mountains of paperwork to show evidence, has pushed teachers to the brink. “I just want to play with children” is what many are feeling and saying. I am drained, too. So, what do I do? I take “that moment” when something wonderful happened, and I write about it. In that way, I am reaffirming and staying glued to what I know is truly important in teaching. It is my reminder to myself. Find the good and hang on for dear life. I don’t have a solution to the monumental problem, I merely have a needle in a haystack survival method. That usually relates to reading, art, and music – the things children love most. Thank you for this post, Norah.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Jennie, I’m sorry to hear you are doing it tough where you are too. It’s been particularly difficult for teachers in Australia since the introduction of the national curriculum. Before it was introduced, I remember crying when I heard someone saying that a benefit was that everyone would know that at 9 am (for example) all grade one children around the country would be reciting their phonic drills. I thought where does the child belong in that curriculum.
      That scenario didn’t come to be, fortunately, but there are many attempts in many schools and systems to inflict a similar regimentation upon curriculum delivery. It’s so sad. It’s heartbreaking. It reminds me of one of my first years of teaching. I was one of five year two teachers and the principal wanted to walk along the verandah and know that we were all teaching the same thing at the same time. (He was obviously a bit ahead of his time.)
      I think it’s these tight strictures that squeeze the teacher heart even more than the ridiculous need for data collection and paperwork. Without the freedom to create an appropriate learning environment for young children, there’s not much room for a teacher’s creativity and spirit, and that’s where the real value of the teacher is. I must say though, that it is not the curriculum that is at fault, it is the way some view its implementation and impose unreasonable demands upon teachers who are better equipped to make educational decisions.
      I’m so pleased that you have your survival kit intact and seize all those precious moments you have with the children. We need many more Jennie’s in the world. How close are we to cloning? I see we’ve 3D printed a heart – what about a Jennie. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Jennie

        You paint a true picture. Everyone doing the same thing at the same time? I would have cried, too. Curriculum should be a guideline, and teachers should have the flexibility to expand on what they’re teaching. American schools are swamped with paperwork. Children take too many tests, and those tests weigh heavily on grades. If a child has special needs, the paperwork to keep track of what is being done with the child is just too much. What’s the answer? I don’t know. When teachers leave the profession, it’s a red flag. I definitely seize those ‘moments’ in teaching. They are a lifeline to the heart and a trigger for learning. Thank you so much, Norah!

        Liked by 1 person

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thank you for sharing your words and thoughts, Jennie. The moments are the heartline and we all need to keep reminding each other of those so we can keep as much of your recommendations in each day as we can.

          Liked by 1 person

          Reply
  2. Charli Mills

    Yes, Norah, bonus points for the hero’s journey and the cave! Your flash shows how that fire can get doused, and then fail to ignite the next generation. Your post is a powerful statement (and I believe you could write a book of your own on the topic if you felt called to do so).

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. dgkaye

    No doubt teachers have burnout. I think we all need a break at whatever our jobs. And the administrative work seems to pile up for so many of us, hindering the time we spend doing our actual jobs – writing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Jules

    I was only an assistant teacher for a short time I did have preschool groups of my own. It is not easy when the administration and other teachers do not respect your space. And then the law passed that you couldn’t even hug a child. That was part of what ended my own career. How can you not hug a child or help wash a boo-boo.

    You have to have special clearances if you work in a place that has children still in nappies or diapers. And the restrictions on home care day care places…is both good and perhaps overwhelming that I am surprised by how many actually exist.

    My worst nightmare came true when I was working in a mother’s day out program. The children slept for at least half the time they were there. But one new mother complained that her child didn’t eat all of the lunch she provided. The director of my program then told me I had to open every thing the mother sent and then or toss what ever wasn’t used because the mother thought her precious child would get dehydrated. I’m sorry but new parents, not just mothers are the worst to deal with because they have no understanding of how children grow in spurts. A child will not starve. And child needs more than food for nourishment.

    I have other horror stories that I will refrain from. Yes, I got burned out and burnt. My own children and now my grands (and family) are all the little people I will deal with anymore.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Norah Post author

      I’m sorry you got burned and burnt out, Jules. You are such a special person with so much love to offer. It is true that some parents can be the difficult part of the equation. Your grands (and family) are so lucky to have you – all to themselves! How lucky is that!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  5. Jacqui Murray

    Well-penned article, Norah. It is difficult to keep focus as a teacher when the gates are constantly stormed but it can be done.I made a personal choice to teach children, regardless of the outcome, and have never regretted that decision. I’m glad you included resources here.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks, Jacqui. I think that’s what’s important – to keep the focus on the children and what’s best for them. Sometimes the systems add an overload of distractors though so focus requires real determination and single-mindedness.

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  6. Anne Goodwin (Annecdotist)

    Burnout is a real problem in all the helping professions – and I’m envious I didn’t think about it for this flash fiction prompt! It’s so sad that our societies treat human beings – both teachers and children – as machines, and glad you found solidarity in this book. I’m unlikely to read it – too like memoir – but you do make it sound appealing.
    And you encapsulate those ideas so well in your flash – and bonus points I’m sure for the hero’s journey and the cave

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. Norah Post author

      Burnout is a real issue, as you say, in all the caring professions. I’m pleased you’re envious.
      What does that mean about me? Hehe.
      The book is memoir, so it’s probably not for you.
      Thank you for noticing the hero’s journey and the cave – their use was intentional. 🙂

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thanks, Anne. I’m happy to take any congratulations I can get. 🙂 Seriously, though, that is an excellent point you make about the danger of buried envy leaking out. Thank you.

          Liked by 1 person

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  7. robertawrites235681907

    I don’t know that much about the lives of the ladies and gents who teach my sons, Norah, but on the whole, they do seem to have a passion for teaching. I can’t believe the wonderful things my boys do in comparison to the way I was taught and the analytical and thinking skills they gain. I am sure it is as you describe in some circumstances but not in all.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Norah Post author

      That’s great, Robbie. I’m so pleased your sons have wonderful teachers. I hope you let them know, frequently, that their work is appreciated. I guarantee that those passions that burn are also accompanied by a burden of other expectations. A small gesture of appreciation at any time, helps to keep those flames burning bright. Most teachers, especially the most passionate, put in a lot of extra hours, effort, and heart into everything they do. They go above and beyond what should be reasonably expected of any mere mortal. Just a kind word of acknowledgment is all it takes.

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    1. Norah Post author

      I’m sorry to depress you, Mary. It is a very sad situation for many. Hopefully your son will be one to carry the torch and keep the fires burning for many. It is possible. It can be the most rewarding and joyful career. I always loved working with young children and still miss them greatly. What age group will your son work with?

      Liked by 1 person

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  8. Smorgasbord - Variety is the Spice of Life.

    Reblogged this on Smorgasbord Blog Magazine and commented:
    Norah Colvin with a post that all parents and aspiring teachers should read. As Norah points out, teaching used to be a job for life, but more and more younger teachers are leaving after only a few short years, suffering from burn out.. not from teaching the children the ever changing expectations for data and unrealistic demands made of the children. You are also treated to a piece of Norah’s flash fiction.

    Liked by 3 people

    Reply
  9. TanGental

    I have often wondered about the changing face of teaching and this emphasis on recurrent testing and with it the obsession with collecting and collating data. It is ostensibly a tool for ensuring quality of outcomes but has become, in and of itself the sole determinant of quality. Thus a teacher is judged not by how better his children are at learning and life skills but by a performance on a day, a one size fits all race. The unique knowledge of that child, what that individual’s learning journey has been that year is lost.
    Which to me leads to one conclusion: you take the concept of trust and respect – in and for the teacher – and reduce it to a set of results of others. When I was an adolescent, a young man, teachers were professionals and accorded the same respect as the lawyer and the doctor by society. The pay between the state funded sectors of those professions was comparable. Now? No not even close. And that’s driven by this results fetish. No doctor is monitored and paid and has his quality assessed by the outcomes of his patients. Yes he is reviewed, similarly the lawyer but holistically by his colleagues and peers and by a continuum of assessment. All professions moan about the way in which IT systems generate the need for form based inputting but that is as a tool for managing the patient/client outcome, not for judging the lawyer/doctor. We’ve managed to skew expectations to the detriment of the individual. Societal respect drops, pay drops, less and less focused assessment results and a perfect storm.

    Liked by 3 people

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  10. thecontentedcrafter

    Oh very good Norah. Very good! (said in my deep and serious voice) Both your article and flash – it makes me want to weep. Today I read that teachers may yet go on strike here, for better pay. They were due to a couple or so weeks back, but didn’t when the Christchurch event occurred. They say teachers are leaving after two years in the job, less are training for more positions, larger pay packets will fix the problem.
    Personally I think the problem is nothing to do with pay – it’s all the other things. I spent most of my teaching life earning less than a solo parent – we were in those years unintegrated ‘private’ schools’ who never turned away a child just because their parents couldn’t pay – We were dedicated and inspired and determined and idealistic. I don’t think that particular fire burns any more.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. Norah Post author

      It makes me want to weep too, Pauline. I felt bad writing a flash with such a sad ending, but it is the reality for so many and I wanted to show the progression from fire to burn out.
      I agree with you about the pay not being the whole problem, but it’s part of it. I heard (but haven’t verified) that teachers in Germany are the highest paid profession. According to what I heard, Angela Merkel said that teachers couldn’t be paid less than any other professions they train or teach people for (something like that). Wise woman, I thought. But I think that what is at the basis of it is respect for teachers individually and for the profession as a whole. Low pay equates with a role that isn’t valued. The saying ‘those that can do and those that can’t teach’ doesn’t help either.
      ‘Dedicated, inspired, determined and idealistic’ – that’s the fire that burns. It’s a shame for all of us that it has been extinguished for many.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  11. Miriam Hurdle

    It’s so true, Norah. We have the same problem here. It’s the assessment and test result that generate fundings for the school districts.

    We have three areas of fundings, general funding, special education, and integrated programs funding. Integrated program includes funds for students of low-income families and English learners. I worked in the Integrated program’s office and collected test results.

    Students take the State test and local school district tests from the textbooks. The technology department analyzes the results down to the individual student’s performance level. Teachers use the data to plan for their teaching.

    It’s the data that drives the funding. That’s why there are so many tests. As a teacher, I said, “We have no time to teach.”

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. Norah Post author

      Many teachers share your lament, Miriam. There’s no time to teach, only to test, and the tests don’t inform their teaching as well as their own less formal assessment of student progress. It’s tough when a teacher’s professional judgement isn’t respected but so much is expected.
      Thanks for sharing your experiences.

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Miriam Hurdle

        There’s something wrong with the education system. We now have Charter Schools. If individual school gets 50% of the teachers and 50% parents sign up, the school could apply to be a Charter School, gets the same kind of funding, operates under the school district but has it’s own government. The down side of it is that the Charter Schools won’t get the benefit of district wide staff development and can’t afford to provide on their own.

        By the way, Norah. It has been a little while since I received your questions for the interview. Now my quiet email address is also flooded. Unless I click mark as unread after I read the emails, it’s hard for me to find them after even just one week.

        Please kindly email me the questions again.

        Thank you, Norah.

        Liked by 1 person

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        1. petespringerauthor

          I’ve been traveling and didn’t see this post until now, but I appreciate you writing about this topic. I am a retired elementary teacher with thirty-one years in the game. I did it until I couldn’t do it anymore. I absolutely loved everything about my career, (You have to love kids first, and I am a big kid myself) but I finally realized that I was going to have to look after myself or I wasn’t going to be around to enjoy my grandchildren. You can only put in so many 60-70 hour weeks. I was passionate about what I did, and I felt like I was given the amazing opportunity to reach kids who needed a role model. Since I retired three years ago, I’ve lost seventy-five pounds and I’m finally looking out for myself. I was a good teacher, husband, and father, but the one person I didn’t take care of was me. In fact, I wrote an advice book for future teachers (They Call Me Mom) so that I could pass on what I’ve learned to the next generation of teachers. Thank you, Nora, for writing about a topic that often goes unrecognized.

          Liked by 2 people

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          1. Miriam Hurdle

            Yes, I understand what you’re saying, Pete. When we’re in the classroom with the kids, we give them more than 100% attention, teach them, love them. But we have to do preparation so we could give the best to the kids. So we stay after school, go shopping for teaching materials paid from our own pockets. I don’t know about other states, in California, teachers get a little break in tax return, but it’s almost nothing.
            At the school where I taught before became an administrator, some grade level teachers plan together and team teach. I think it’s a great way to share the responsibilities.
            I’m glad to hear that you finally can take care of yourself.
            Wishing you the best and enjoy your family.

            Liked by 1 person

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          2. Norah Post author

            Thank you, Peter, for the amazing contribution you made to the education of so many of our young people over the years and for the benefits of that contribution to society for all of us.
            I agree with you about having to like kids first and am pleased to hear that you’re still a big kid. I always say that I’m a six-year-old at heart (year one was my favourite year). I love having time with young children.
            I am even more pleased to know that you are now looking after yourself. We spend so much time looking after others that we are usually last on a long list.
            Your book sounds interesting. One of the other commenters on this post, Mary, said that her son is just starting out as a teacher in high school. She may be interested in hearing about it for him. She found my post depressing. Maybe she’d find your book more hopeful.

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            1. petespringerauthor

              Thank you, Norah, for your kind words. I enjoy reading about the educational systems in other countries. I think some of the things we do in America are great; it isn’t a completely broken system. On the other hand, the emphasis that our country/government puts on standardized test scores is crazy. We teach kids who have to worry about just having their basic needs met (food, shelter, clothing) and yet we want them to care about some test that has no meaning in their life.

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        2. Norah Post author

          Hi Miriam, I think Charter schools are unique to the US and I’m not sure exactly how they work or compare to what we have here in Australia.
          I’ve sent the questions through again, Miriam. Apologies for the delay in responding. I haven’t been well.

          Liked by 1 person

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