I left teaching roughly three years ago. I was burned out, bored, and had pretty much every other feeling that former teachers cite as the reasons they leave the profession. I sometimes miss having strong relationships with students and making a difference in lives, but at the time that wasn’t enough to make me stay. And it should have been.
As I’ve gained some distance from those feelings and been able to cover the goings-on in education as a writer, I’ve been able to think about what ideas and initiatives would have provided enough to keep me in the classroom. Believe it or not, for me it wouldn’t have been more money, recognition, or even autonomy (although I completely understand when teachers and ex-teachers cite a lack of independence as an annoyance); I just felt like I had had enough.
The goal of this essay isn’t to complain about what’s wrong with education. I truly believe that my colleagues and administration did the best work they could.
Instead, I want to talk about ideas that might help educational leaders keep their teachers in schools. They should be easy to put in place. If just one teacher turns his or her exiting car around in the parking lot because of the implementation of one of these ideas, this will have been more than worth writing.
I have five suggestions for school leaders:
1. Encourage Staff Bonding and Collaboration.
Better efforts need to be made to connect teachers with more of their colleagues, personally and professionally. Instead of moving in cliques, which are subject to change and cause stress, teachers should have a much deeper reservoir of collegial support around campus.
Subject-area and professional-learning-community meetings are a start, but only if they bond teachers together in a collaborative and relevant fashion, rather than just disperse administrative information, mandates, and general announcements. PLCs—professional learning communities—should be cross-curricular and make an effort to include teachers outside the core subjects. Not only are all teachers capable of providing support to each other, but they also can all serve as sources of deep professional learning.
Consider “flipping” your meetings, dispersing the minutiae through email or other avenues and leaving meeting time for what it should be used for: collaboration and connection. In these collaborative tasks, which can be anything from data study to the sharing of ed-tech best practices, stack the deck. Make sure each group is made up of people who might not come into contact otherwise.
2. Provide Relevant Professional Development.
People are always decrying “sit and get” professional development, and yet it’s just as prevalent as ever. Rah-rah speeches and deep dives into neurological research might be entertaining or even engaging, but they rarely translate into a difference in the classroom.
I don’t remember ever being asked what I would like to see out of my professional development. I knew best what went on in my classroom. I had a good idea about what my shortcomings were and the skill areas in which I would have liked to improve. If I wanted to improve as an educator, it often meant studying on my own time with my own resources.
Taking teacher input into professional development doesn’t have to cost anything. Whether developers are from without or within, online or in person, teachers who feel they have a voice in their training are going to be more engaged. Knowing everyone is working on the same thing helps build a collegial culture and a stronger support structure.
[T]eachers who feel they have a voice in their training are going to be more engaged.
3. Give Staff Members a Voice in Schoolwide Affairs.
At most schools, the teachers are represented on PTA or PTO committees with a single member. The only standing meeting between administration and teachers is a gathering of department heads. Faculty meetings are for disseminating information. Although administrators probably have an open-door policy, everyone is usually too busy to make productive use of that time.
Set aside some time, either during a faculty meeting or at a separate gathering, to have a constructive conversation about how the school is working for everyone. Yes, there will always be a person there to complain about something that isn’t related to education. That’s why the administration sets up a survey with potential questions for the meeting. Then everyone votes on what they would like to talk about. The constructive ideas will always float to the top, unless you have a faculty of cynics. That’s a different problem entirely.
4. Propose Challenges Within Strengths.
Successful teachers can sometimes get bored with being successful. They seek another challenge outside their comfort zones. The problem is that the solution is often seen as a change in schedule, such as working with more struggling students or at an unfamiliar grade level. Even though that schedule would be challenging, sometimes the teacher knows that his or her strengths do not lie in certain areas.
Instead, challenges can still be found within the “success zone.” Teachers should feel as if they can avail themselves of any opportunities they find that can better their craft and broaden their horizons. This might be piloting a new curriculum or pedagogical idea. It can be going to a conference to bring back ideas that can be taught to their colleagues. Stagnation leads to burnout. Burnout leads to teachers leaving.
5. Suggest Opportunities for Districtwide Impact.
In a similar vein, perhaps the growth of a teacher can be found outside the school but within the district. Sometimes these new opportunities are in the form of permanent positions. But it can also be true that a teacher doesn’t want to leave the classroom, yet still wants to be recognized for his or her success and to have an impact throughout the district. It’s in the best interest of the district to find ways for these educators to have a broader impact.
Some ideas might include leading video-based districtwide webinars on any shortcomings the district might be seeing in classroom instruction. Another could be temporary stints on coaching duty, or having classroom substitutes for a few days so that an accomplished teacher can help other teachers at other schools. Coaching from district personnel is one thing. Coaching from a mentor-teacher who is still in the classroom every day is quite another.
All of these problems and potential solutions constitute what we call the “little things.” They aren’t petitioning the district for a raise or an extra planning period. But if a teacher can fall back in love with the job again, those big things shouldn’t matter as much.
A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2015 edition of Education Week as Extinguishing a Burnout: Actionable Ideas to Keep Teachers Engaged in Their Careers