The burnout is real.
On Monday, I attended one full day of teacher in-service. As at most of our in-services, it was a lot of sitting, a lot of being told information we’d received at least three times already, and more fluff and bullshit.
We even had an opportunity to get to know some of our colleagues more and were encouraged to take pictures of them and post those pictures on our personal social media accounts with a branded hashtag.
I sat in the very back, like the jaded ten-year veteran I’ve now become, and was grateful someone’s head blocked anyone from seeing my massive eye-roll.
The next day when I woke up, even though I’d gone to bed at a reasonable time, I felt like I had a massive hangover. I took a look at the in-service schedule for the day, saw there wasn’t anything that would hurt me missing, and I crawled back into bed and googled “job burnout.”
I’d literally only spent one day on the job, but the emotional exhaustion I’d felt at the end of last year had arisen full force and had been probably worsened by the lingering cold my children had given me. I felt emotionally just like that burned-out plane in the featured image for this article.
I didn’t get out of bed except to eat and go to the bathroom all day. I slept. I watched TV. I read. I slept.
When I awoke this morning, I felt better, but not great. I needed that rest. I needed more too.
Since becoming a teacher, July has always filled me with dread. Not only is it mercilessly hot, but I know what’s coming: the adjusting back to a routine, the long hours on my feet teaching and pacing and managing a classroom, and the long hours sitting in a chair grading, lesson-planning, answering student and parent emails and participating in professional development.
The summer always go by too quickly. I spend June luxuriating in all of my free time, enjoying whatever things I want to do whenever I want to do them, and then July comes with a quickening queasiness, not unlike that feeling when you drop too suddenly on an amusement park ride.
I like teaching most days. I like my students most days.
My dread comes entirely from the long hours and juggling that with the rest of my life.
Nearly every teacher I know has a side hustle. I write. Some of my fellow teachers teach kickboxing classes or yoga. Another coaches basketball. Another is a musician. Another conducts the choir at her church. Another sings at weddings. We all have these other jobs to help make ends meet or because we enjoy them. These we have to somehow fit around our 50+hour a week job.
On top of that, I’m a mom of toddler twins. I share 50% custody with my ex-husband, but adding in all of the hours I spend driving my kids to and from school, packing lunches and backpacks, feeding and bathing and brushing teeth and keeping them on a schedule, I am basically working enough for two full-time jobs.
The term “burnout” was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. He originally defined burnout as, “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”
Burnout is a reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress and is characterized by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism (less identification with the job), and feelings of reduced professional ability.
According to a 2018 report by Gallup, employee burnout has five main causes:
1. Unreasonable time pressure
I laughed when I first read this cause. What teacher does not have an unreasonable time pressure?
At my school, we are expected to turn around grades within a week. Students and parents will begin hassling to know a grade, even on a very large project, by the next class period. It happens every time.
Employees who say they have enough time to do their work are 70 percent less likely to experience high burnout.
2. Lack of communication and support from a manager
Employees who feel strongly supported by their manager are 70 percent less likely to experience burnout on a regular basis.
Teachers are not likely to receive support from the administrators. In the era of students/parents being customers and “the customers are always right,” it’s not often that I or my colleagues have received support.
I have a terrible boss, which also means I’ve dealt with communication issues. In the spring of this year, I had a phone call with a parent. She was extremely angry at me and accused me of being hostile and targeting her child. Her claims were completely outlandish.
It turned out that she’d been having an ongoing conversation about me with my boss. My boss didn’t agree with her claims, so she’d never passed the information onto me, but then I was left in the weird predicament of feeling like I’d entered a conversation halfway through with no context.
3. Lack of role clarity
Only 60 percent of workers know what is expected of them. When employees are unsure about expectations, they may become exhausted simply by trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing.
4. Unmanageable workload
When a workload feels unmanageable, even the most optimistic employees will feel hopeless. Feeling overwhelmed can quickly lead to burnout.
Last year and this year, I have taught and will teach five different classes. I can do nothing very well. The amount of brainpower it takes to switch between different classes is exhausting in and of itself.
On top of that, preparing five different lessons, five different class exercises, five different sets of homework, and five different sets of quizzes and tests is mind-breaking. It was so difficult for me last year that I told them in October that I’d be quitting at the end of the year.
Since I’d just moved, gotten divorced, and was becoming used to being a single parent, I quickly regretted that decision. I had already had so much change that I needed something to stay the same — even an awful something, so I told them I’d give them another year, which is why I showed back up.
5. Unfair treatment
Few teachers, I imagine, are treated well or at least fairly. Few of us are compensated well. Few of us work for supportive administrators and with parents who support and value what we do. We are often instead blamed and/or held accountable for the decisions of our students. The blowback can be considerable.
Employees who feel they are treated unfairly at work are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout. Unfair treatment may include things such as favoritism, unfair compensation, and mistreatment from a co-worker.
I’m not sure what my plans will be for my future. I have a meeting with my boss on Friday, and I’m journaling, talking to others, writing this, breathing, and drawing my tarot cards (because why the hell not.) to get a sense of what exactly I should tell her.
There’s not much I can cut back. I’ve asked for and gotten, I know, as much as I can while still remaining full-time. Part-time wouldn’t be much better since it’d still be all the teaching hassle and less of the pay.
What I’ve read about burnout is that stress management doesn’t work.
If you’re in a burning building, get out, not try to manage it yourself.
Eventually, I’ll need to quit, but now may not be the time. I need to make choices about it and take care of myself as well as I can in the meantime.
Here’s to surviving.