Why teachers are Burnt Out

Since covid, students have been angry. How can teachers help?

By Meghan Leahy  December 2nd 2021 Washington Post 

Q: I’m not a parent, but I am a high school teacher. There is a strong undercurrent of anger among our students. I’m trying to create a safe space in my classroom. I have a good rapport with my students, but when I’m in the hallway or a large study hall with 200-plus children and only four adults, I’m nervous. Some of the students are, too.

Schools are understaffed, children are not okay, and we teachers are not okay (and we’re blamed for everything). Kids came back to school buildings in bodies that are two years bigger but with socialization and maturity levels in the pre-pandemic past. Our administration alternates between telling us to hold a firm line with discipline and to not give consequences unless the violation is extreme.

I’m not a counselor. I’m patient and kind, but I’m also voiceless. I’m exhausted from the public vilification of teachers and the added work from the teacher shortage. How can we call attention to these issues? Politicians aren’t interested, parents are exhausted, unions aren’t believed. We have a huge problem here.

I’m so worried about our students that I’m not sleeping. Anxiety may make me another teacher who leaves the profession (after 33 years). I love my students. I want to help, but we are drowning. And the constant tension is frightening. Thank you.

A: Thank you for writing in. I feel your fatigue through this note. And before we get into what to do about your burnout and fear, I want you to know that, although you are not a parent to these children, you have an important parenting influence. The content of your classes is important, but your compassionate and safe presence is arguably more important, especially now.

As a former teacher and school counselor, I know how frightening it is to feel disempowered, so let’s get you support.

To begin, you are not alone. I recently read a piece from NPR detailing teachers’ exhaustion, the lack of substitutes and the all-around need for rest. Everyone who works in a school seems to be on the edge, including staff members who disinfect the buildings and administrators on the front lines.

You report a lack of sleep, fear for your safety, serious anxiety and a feeling of “drowning,” so we first need to address your most direct needs. Please make an appointment with your doctor and get a thorough checkup. It may sound as if this has nothing to do with your stress at school, but it’s important to have someone look after you in a holistic manner.

I also want you to take a look at your routines at home. Food, sleep, movement, water and alcohol intake: Take a peek at your basic self-care habits. I am not intimating that you are stressed because you may not be taking care of yourself; instead, I want you to focus on what you can control first. Doing everything you can to calm your nervous system will help you respond rather than react to the problems at school.

Back to school has brought guns, fighting and acting out

After you refocus your attention on yourself, find your alliances at school, either with other teachers, administrators, you name it. Then try to create doable solutions together for the unease and anxiety you are feeling. Acknowledge that you are doing the best you can in a very difficult situation, that you have good relationships with the students in your classroom and that everyone is struggling. Ask your peers how they are working to feel safe, in and out of the classroom. My hope is that, in sharing your ideas and support, you will feel buoyed by the ideas and camaraderie.

As a group, go to the administration in the spirit of sharing and working together in a proactive and transparent manner.

Here’s the deal: Every person’s deepest desire is to belong. To do so, we need to feel safe. If you don’t feel safe in your workplace, you cannot do your job well, let alone connect with these children. Your nervous system will be too jumpy, and you will make decisions out of panic rather than ones based on logic and sense.

Approaching the administration with solutions will help jump-start a conversation rather than create a “demand and defense” feeling, because the administration, in many cases, is as underwater as you are. We are also in a rare situation with the pandemic, job losses and teachers leaving the field.

Although I know it would need to be handled carefully, I think the “Dads on Duty” model, which began in a Louisiana high school, is something plenty of schools can look at. After a rash of violence and arrests, volunteers came together to walk the school grounds, and rather than “police” the school, they act in a calming, fatherly and “get your bottom to class” kind of way. They joke, laugh and are generally kind to the children, and with more eyes on the students, violence was curbed.

Of course, protocols must be created and background checks have to be done, but the idea of a community coming together to support its students, teachers and administrators is a common-sense, affordable and clear way to up the adult-to-student ratio when these children need it most.

Solutions such as starting Dads on Duty, partnering with local organizations, uniting teachers and involving parents all need to be harnessed, discussed and put into action.

We are now back to you taking exquisite care of yourself to do this. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so please look after yourself first. There are solutions to be found to ensure everyone feels safer in your school, and we (I am speaking for the collective here) do not want teachers to quit.

Rest, then get to work with your fellow teachers. Good luck.