More educators are walking away from the job they love. For a profession already prone to burnout, the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges are pushing teachers to their breaking points. See highlights below or read the full article in Psychiatric Times here.

Teachers on Edge_Venkata R. Jonnalagadda, MD, DFAPA, DFAACAP, Christie Melonson, PhD, MA, LPC-S_mindpath health

Teachers often describe being called to their profession. For them, teaching is a way of life that defines who they are. A teacher may teach others how to learn, but their deeper calling is to encourage students to believe in themselves. Through unwavering optimism and hope, teachers have the power to change the world, 1 student at a time.

Of course, this lofty ideal is tested relentlessly and daily. Unruly students, difficult parents, long hours, low pay, demanding superiors, and test scores are also part of the job. A teacher’s well-being hinges on their ability to balance the demands of their job without feeling overwhelmed. For a profession already prone to burnout, the COVID-19 pandemic and everything in its wake has dramatically tilted the scales against it.

At 44%, K-12 teachers have the highest levels of burnout compared to any other profession in the United States, according to a June 2022 Gallup poll. College and university teachers came in second at 35%, while health care and law enforcement each reported burnout rates of 31%. The burnout gap between teachers and other professions has only widened since 2020, an indication that their problems may be escalating.

Between February 2020 and May 2022, 300,000 teachers and staff at public schools left their posts, representing about 3% of the workforce. When classes resumed this fall, schools scrambled to fill vacancies with office staff, retired teachers, and bus drivers. In a survey released in February 2022, 55% of teachers indicated that they would likely leave their jobs earlier than planned—up from 37% the previous year.

There is already a downward trend in enrollment for teacher training programs. In 2018, more than one-third fewer student teachers were enrolled in schools, compared to 2010. They cited difficult working conditions, a lack of career opportunities, and low salaries as top reasons not to pursue a teaching career.

The low pay associated with teachers may be connected to the fact that 77% of teachers are female. Pay declines tend to occur in professions where women represent

the majority. In addition to gender, teaching also suffers from a lack of racial diversity when compared to other professions. One report found that 7% of teachers were Black and 9% were Hispanic, compared to 13% Black and 17% Asian among the overall labor force in the United States.

The nation’s public school system is now in a fragile and precarious position. Although every profession suffered during the pandemic, teachers are confronted daily with the threat of school shootings, lagging student performance, political agendas, curriculum wars, book bans, and more. In many ways, these are not new problems, but they do appear to be compounding. Today, many teachers feel overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted—but mostly they are exhausted.

The Practice of Teaching

Teaching is often described as a labor of love, but it is really a labor of emotion. Every job involves a certain amount of emotional labor—the creation and suppression of emotions and emotional expressions at a level appropriate for one’s occupation.

Teachers, however, are unique in that they engage in a lot of emotional labor. In fact, they rely on it to encourage positive learning in others and to reach their own personal goals. Examples of emotional labor among teachers include feigning excitement about an upcoming project, resisting the urge to yell at a student, or refraining from eye rolling when listening to a parent.

Emotional labor involves surface acting, deep acting, and naturally felt emotions. Surface acting involves faking false feelings. Deep acting involves actively trying to express and also to feel that emotion. Naturally felt emotions involve genuinely expressing the feelings one truly feels. Like actors onstage, teachers engage in some measure of all 3.

A teacher’s emotional labor can be influenced by several factors. Teachers at private schools, for example, tend to engage in more deep acting or naturally felt emotions than teachers at public schools. Other factors include size of the school, whether it is public or private, the location, the subject emphasis (like music or sports), the funding sources, and the infrastructure.

Burnout and the Role of Self-Study

A reliance on surface acting requires more emotional labor and is the strongest indicator of burnout among teachers. On the flip side, engaging in deep acting and naturally felt emotions can stave off feelings of burnout.

Burnout is characterized by physical exhaustion, feelings of cynicism or detachment, and a lack of accomplishment. In teachers, burnout is usually spurred by a loss of resources, whether supplies, training, trust, or support. School principals also experience high levels of burnout, especially since they tend to rely on surface acting to hide their emotions. Burnout can make it harder for teachers to implement coping strategies and engage in self-study, 1 of the most important teaching tools.

To counteract teacher burnout and reduce attrition rates, self-study techniques were introduced in the 1990s. Considered groundbreaking, these gave student teachers an outlet to explore and improve. The mark of a confident teacher was one who could identify challenges, find new approaches, and be willing to make revisions.

Self-study involves a teacher’s “moral commitment” to share what they have learned with others and thus contribute to the greater evolution of the education philosophy. Although this collaboration exposes teachers to a certain level of risk-taking and vulnerability, it also provides them with needed perspective, support, and even comfort.

In 2008, biology teacher Amanda Berry used a self-study process to recast teaching as identifying and managing a series of tensions. Signs of an imbalance of tensions within teachers can include deliberating over choices rather than making decisions. They may question which voice to listen to, struggle with disappointments and dilemmas, or find themselves sifting through a soup of conflicting stories.

The process of self-identity and the role(s) a teacher plays in a student’s life are integral to the self-study process. Roles typically include advisor or confidante, but in today’s era of school shootings, they are expanding to include protector—someone willing to lay down their life for students.

After a gunman killed 19 children and 2 teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, some legislators called for teachers to be armed at school. Teachers pushed back on this expectation. A survey by the Texas American Federation of Teachers found that 77% of teachers did not want to be armed, nor did they want to be expected to intercept a gunman. Additionally, 90% of respondents said they worried about a shooting happening at their school.

Teaching Challenges Today

The amount of societal change that has occurred over the past few years has given teachers barely any time to react, much less conduct a thorough self-study to process their thoughts.

First, there was the transition to online learning platforms as COVID-19 shuttered school buildings. Many teachers had to juggle their own children as they led entire classes from behind a screen. Parents were suddenly able to peer into the classroom and observe teachers for the first time. They saw them express frustration over connection and technical issues and noticed that many students had their cameras turned off. As the months progressed, police shootings, racial violence, the storming of the US Capitol, and the overturning of abortion rights set the nation on edge. These events also brought cultural discussions into the classroom. It was not long before curriculum wars ignited debates on how to teach about gender identity, sexual orientation, race, contraception, and more.

To keep teachers in check, Indiana passed a bill requiring teachers to submit curriculum and lesson plans to parents so they could opt out of lessons, similar to an “a la carte menu.” Iowa legislators called for cameras to be installed inside classrooms to keep an eye on teachers. This bill eventually died due to a lack of support. The cumulative result of these actions left many teachers feeling isolated, constrained, blamed, and treated like criminals.

As school drew to a close in 2021, states reported a slip in scholastic achievement among students. Students, it seemed, were suffering on multiple fronts. A US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in March found that 37% of high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% reported being sad or hopeless in the past year. More than half said they experienced emotional abuse at home, and 11% said they were physically abused. School closures during COVID-19 also meant that many students had to endure environments they wanted to escape at home.

In the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, there was barely any time to grieve or process what had happened. Finals were approaching, papers needed to be graded, and the demands of life marched on. Yet, with each shooting or major event, teachers relive a “slow-rolling” response to trauma, whether they have experienced the event firsthand, secondhand, or vicariously. It can make teachers feel a loss of control, increased anger or aggression, social withdrawal, and/or physical symptoms such as headache, stomachache, or a loss of sleep or appetite.

Finding Ways to Heal

Supporting the mental health needs of teachers is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach. It can be tempting for teachers to normalize the stress and burnout they feel as simply part of being a teacher. This, and knowing that other teachers are experiencing the same thing, may discourage them from seeking help when they need it most.

Teacher burnout is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, a loss of interest, hopelessness, irritability, and social withdrawal. Physical symptoms can include a racing pulse, trouble sleeping, inability to catch one’s breath, headaches, and stomachaches.

To get help, teachers can start by confiding in someone they know and trust. They may want to seek professional behavioral health care if they are feeling particularly overwhelmed. Psychotherapy can be a powerful tool in managing stress and supporting one’s personal and professional goals. Teachers can check with their school districts and teachers’ unions for resources, or they can ask their primary care physician for recommendations.

A self-care routine can be used to prioritize a healthy work-life balance. Self-care has expanded beyond taking a bath or going on a walk. For many, it represents an opportunity to define how they want to be treated. For teachers, self-care can include:

Setting boundaries and holding them. Teachers can protect their time by clearly communicating what they are and are not willing to do.

Focusing on what they can control. By limiting their exposure to upsetting events, teachers can preserve a sense of security.

Taking care of themselves. Teachers should prioritize nutrition, exercise, and sleep; practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques; and pursue interests outside of work.

Staying in touch with friends and family. Teachers can connect with others, which serves as a reminder that others can relate to what they are going through and that they are not alone.

Maintaining reasonable expectations. Teachers should be nice to themselves and set small, realistic goals to bring about balance.

The pandemic served as a stark reminder of how much we rely on teachers to take care of our children while we work or pursue other activities. Practicing patience and gratitude can go a long way in bolstering a teacher’s confidence.

Ways to offer support to a teacher can include:

  • Checking in on them. Ask teachers how they are doing, and then give them the space and time to share feelings when they are ready.
  • Reminding them to take care of themselves. A thoughtful gift or connection to resources can go a long way.
  • Expressing gratitude. Acknowledge the role teachers play in the lives of students. They help generate a more positive outlook for all.
  • Taking time to laugh. Humor can help lighten the mood when it is done in a mindful and considerate way.
  • Paying attention to nonverbal cues. When an individual avoids eye contact or moves or talks more slowly, it may be an indication that they are dealing with difficult feelings.
  • Lending support. Sharing experiences has the potential to relieve stress and assure that no one is alone.

Concluding Thoughts

Teaching is not just a job—it is a noble profession that calls on individuals to support children in their overall growth and development. It takes courage, grit, and resilience to juggle the multiple demands of an educational environment.

Today, teachers face more challenges than ever. In addition to feeling burned out, many are feeling mistreated, disrespected, and second-guessed. They are giving up and leaving the profession. As students scramble to catch up from the distractions of COVID-19, we simply cannot afford to lose any more good teachers. Only by giving them space to grow and opportunities to succeed will we get them back. Teachers are the key to the success of our future. Dr Jonnalagadda is a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. Dr Melonson is a licensed professional counselor and regional psychotherapy director with Mindpath Health.

Venkata Jonnalagadda, M.D.

Greenville, NC

Dr. Jonnalagadda is a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. Dr. Jonnalagadda is certified with the American Psychiatric Association (in association with the AIMS Center) training for Applying the Integrated Care Approach. Dr. Jonnalagadda is a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. She is an adjunct teaching faculty with the ... Read Full Bio »

Christie Melonson, LPC

Houston, TX

Christie has provided therapy services to children and adults in both health care and educational settings. She has a research background in multicultural issues in behavioral health and significant experience leading clinics and providing consultation. Christie is a holistic therapist who draws from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) approaches, culturally appropriate interventions, trauma focused interventions, personality ... Read Full Bio »

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