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What’s the Difference Between Burnout and Demoralization, and What Can Teachers Do About It?

By Matthew Lynch — September 27, 2018 4 min read
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By Wayne D’Orio

Teaching can be an overwhelming job where the pressure doesn’t let up when the bell rings. Many teachers dive into their work, staying late with students and lesson-planning past their bedtime, only to start the cycle again the next morning.

So it’s no surprise that one in 10 teachers leave the profession after their first year, many because they are overwhelmed by the workload, tired of constant pressure to integrate new material, and frazzled by trying to meet the needs of a wide-ranging group of students every period.

But calling this problem burnout puts the blame on teachers, instead of the system they must operate within. Doris Santoro is an associate professor of education at Bowdoin College, and through 10 years of work she has developed a slightly different theory about why so many teachers feel overwhelmed. Talking with a group of teachers who had at least five years’ experience, Santoro realized that many in the profession were not burned out, but demoralized.

Burnout vs. Demoralization

If that sounds like trading one problem for another, it can be. But during in-depth conversations with teachers, Santoro discovered that the difference could be a big one. Teachers who are burned out need to manage their time better (which is possible) to alleviate their problem. Teachers who are demoralized need to gain more control over their profession, engaging in conversations with peers and bosses, to start to change what their job looks like. The key difference here is that demoralized teachers, while busy, can do more work if it is the right kind of work, Santoro says.

“I’ve seen teachers ‘remoralized’ for a host of reasons,” she says. It could be as simple as having a principal listen seriously to their concerns, even if big changes can’t be made. It can be from engaging in activism, as teachers throughout the country have done in the last few months, striking and marching on state capitols in five separate states. Teachers from West Virginia to Arizona are collectively arguing for not just better salaries but also better resources. “I’m really thrilled to see teachers access and mobilizing their power,” Santoro says.

Teachers can also reengage with their profession if they find an authentic professional community, even if that means connecting with local professors and taking on more work. While the immediate remedy for stressed teachers would seem to be having them do less, Santoro posits that sometimes “it is about doing more.”

Self-Care for Teachers

Amy Garner fights teacher stress in a different way. “Teachers make more decisions in a day than brain surgeons,” says the special education teacher in the West Lake district near Austin, Texas. “Stress is at an all-time high.”

Garner, who has studied learning and the brain, says while many people recognize that students can’t learn if they are stressed, not nearly enough people make the same correlation with teachers. “When stressed, they can’t teach, and students can’t learn.”

Garner, who is also a certified yoga teacher, recommends that building in mini-breaks in the classroom can relieve a lot of the stress both teachers and students feel. She counsels teachers to use their breathing like a remote control, slowing it down to calm down. Because research shows that it can take the brain up to 10 minutes to learn after a transition, she recommends starting students slowly and allowing brain breaks with stretching to keep students and teachers focused.

So many teachers are focused on putting students first that they forget their own needs, she adds, skipping lunch and staying after school frequently, which squeezes the time they have to address their own needs. She suggests teachers ask themselves what activities keep them going and make sure to build time into their week for these tasks, whether that means exercising, shopping, or reading non-school related books. “Put yourself first and set boundaries,” she advises.

Automating Repetitive Tasks

Some teachers have found that technology can save them time and make their days more productive. For example, using Bloomz, an application that helps teachers communicate with parents, has helped teacher Jodee Lamari avoid repetitive tasks. “It has streamlined so many responsibilities that used to take hours to complete, but now they can be done within minutes,” she says.

Kindergarten teacher Angel Herring of Houston’s Normandy Crossing Elementary School uses the app to schedule messages in advance, while Kristen Nunez says Bloomz isn’t just about saving time. “Families are virtually invited in their child’s classroom with every post, and even if we don’t want to admit it, seeing how many families viewed, liked, and commented on a post makes us feel appreciated.”

Gartner also recommends that teachers keep the big picture in view, reminding themselves why they got into teaching in the first place and making sure to carve out time to nourish those feelings.

Santoro says the onslaught of initiatives, from more standardized testing to professional learning that doesn’t value the teachers’ knowledge, can sap a teacher’s spirit. But when teachers stand up for their profession and argue passionately for the work they should be doing, whether through public activism at the state capitol or blogging anonymously, they can reframe their work and regain control, she says.

“It takes a shift,” she admits, “but it can be incredibly remoralizing.”

Wayne D’Orio is an award-winning education journalist whose work has appeared recently in Wired, The Atlantic, and The Hechinger Report.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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