Combating Teacher Burnout
Research shows the teaching profession has the highest burnout rate of any public service job. What can we do to keep the best and the brightest teachers in the classroom?
- By Cheryl Scott Williams
Some years ago, before personal computers and broadband telecommunications were ubiquitous in homes and the workplace, I left my high school classroom teaching job to take a mid-level management position at a women’s nonprofit professional association. While my reasons for leaving the profession weren’t burnout related, my experiences in the new position provided me reasons that made it unlikely I would want to return to the classroom.
As I was learning the requirements of my new position, I met with colleagues throughout the organization to get background and request assistance. The organization regularly held staff meetings organized by responsibility, special projects, or for all staff to share new information that supported all our work. In addition, I had secretarial support, an office with a door, a telephone on my desk, and an hour for lunch. In short, I was part of a professional organization that had developed structures to share information, provide support, and establish teams to accomplish our collective and organizational goals.
I had entered a work culture that respected my knowledge and skills as a professional and provided me opportunities to collaborate with colleagues both within and outside the organization. In contrast, teachers faced working conditions that didn’t allow them to perform as professionals, to collaborate with their colleagues within and outside the school, or to have the opportunity to continue to learn in a supportive environment.
That’s what I believed back then. Research has now proven this to be the case. Though we focus on ensuring that every student has a top-notch teacher who commits long-term to his or her profession (rather than the three- to five-year tenure most common), we have the evidence to show that this kind of professional longevity won’t happen unless we are intentional about improving working conditions for these valuable public servants.
In April, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) released the report, “Workplaces That Support High-Performing Teaching and Learning: Insights From Generation Y Teachers.”Gen Y teachers—that is, those under 30 years of age—account for at least one in five teachers in US classrooms today. They start out intending to make teaching a lifelong profession. However, according to the report, young teachers leave the profession at a rate 51 percent higher than older teachers and transfer to a different school at a rate 91 percent higher than their older colleagues. Studies also show that the national teacher-turnover rate costs school districts approximately $7 billion annually.
In the AFT/AIR report, young teachers say they want:
- Feedback on their performance and to be evaluated in a fair way
- Time to collaborate with their colleagues
- Differentiated pay for high performance
- Technology to provide engaging and effective lessons, as well as to support collaboration with other teachers through, for instance, videos and conferencing technology.
Gen Y Expectations
Gen Y teachers have higher expectations for technology than do their colleagues from earlier generations—for good reason. Improved instructional and networking technology is one important aspect of a modern high-performing workplace. This generational difference is important, since a majority of seasoned classroom teachers will be retiring in the next decade.
Newer teachers believe technology can be used to enhance not only teachers’ ability to implement engaging and effective lessons, it can also enhance school leaders’ ability to provide meaningful data-based feedback; support collaboration (through conferencing technology) and shared practice (through video); and enhance teacher evaluation through improved analysis and communication tools.
The National Education Association (NEA) has also invested in significant research to pinpoint strategies for retaining the most talented classroom practitioners. In July 2006, the NEA research paper, “The Workplace Matters—Teacher Quality, Retention, and Effectiveness,” authored by Susan Moore Johnson from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, detailed nearly a dozen benchmarks for creating working conditions that teachers reported as essential for their committing to the profession.
These benchmarks included working collaboratively with colleagues; providing support for new teachers that included ongoing observation of, interaction with, and advice from experienced colleagues; collective teacher responsibility for student achievement; and increasing opportunities for professional growth. It’s clear that today’s technology can help support the establishment and maintenance of these working conditions that teachers themselves say are important to providing the supportive culture essential to their and their students’ success.
Finally, Wharton School Professor Adam Grant offers another approach to address teacher dropout that moves beyond the physical and cultural working conditions. In his study of teacher burnout, he uncovered that teachers who felt they were making a significant difference in the lives of their students were better able to deal with job stressors. In other words, the teachers’ belief that they were making a lasting contribution to the lives of students mitigated their professional burnout.
Grant’s new vision for K-12 education is an approach he’s calling “No alumni left behind,” in which alumni of inspiring teachers give time back to the classroom and act as mentors to current students. This give-back approach has the potential to expand exponentially with the support of new media, social networks, and available technology.
The research is clear: Great teachers need supportive workplaces and feedback to both make them better teachers and to honor their influence and contributions to the students they serve. Increased turnover of young teachers is especially disturbing since they, like their students, are our future. Building a better workplace, with robust technology support and strong reciprocal relationships among professionals and students, is key to having the public schools we want and need. It’s too important to settle for anything less.
Adam Grant, Wharton School, TEDxPhiladelphiaED, “Always Wear Dark Suits”
AFT/AIR Report, “Workplaces That Support High-Performing Teaching and Learning,” April 2011
Susan Moore Johnson, Harvard Graduate School of Education, NEA Research Paper, “The Workplace Matters—Teacher Quality, Retention, and Effectiveness,”July 2006