Last month, best-selling author Alexandra Robbins shared this conclusion from her book The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession: “The premise of teacher burnout is a convenient fiction that blames teachers for not being able to cope rather than faulting school systems that set both teachers and students up to fail.” Her frank opinion essay, “Teachers Aren’t Burnt Out. They Are Being Set Up to Fail,” resonated with readers in a big way.
Among the hundreds of readers who reacted to the essay on LinkedIn, many commenters tacked their personal experience onto Robbins’ analysis. The comment section buzzed with stories of feeling set up to fail, with readers pointing to unsupportive administrators and unsustainable classroom conditions.
Robbins is not alone in her frustration with how the words “teacher burnout” are bandied about.
Back in 2020, Doris A. Santoro, the author of Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay, offered her own terminology distinction: Burnout happens when teachers are pushed to exhaustion; demoralization happens when teachers can no longer reap the moral rewards of their work. It was demoralization that Santoro saw as the greater threat to the profession during that first year of the pandemic, as teachers struggled to engage students in remote settings, manage their own health risks, and weather misplaced blame from parents who just wanted school buildings to open up faster.
Last month, researchers Kristabel Stark, Kathryn Meyer, and Elizabeth Bettini diagnosed an equally destructive flip side of blaming teachers: lauding them for their sacrifices. When administrators praise teachers for working through lunch, for example, they’re setting teachers up to be Band-Aids for systemic inequalities, rather than fixing those inequalities head on, the special education researchers argue. Drawing on their own research, they identify a “pernicious narrative that assumes good teachers are maternal figures who are always willing to sacrifice their own needs.”
That gendered dynamic of what a good teacher looks like has rankled other educators, too. In a widely circulated (and hotly debated) Opinion essay last year, 8th grade teacher Jherine Wilkerson announced, “I Don’t Have to Love My Students to Be a Good Teacher.”
She supported that provocative statement with a nuanced exploration of the demands placed on teachers that extend far beyond their contractual obligations. In the female-dominated teaching profession, Wilkerson argued, educators are often held to the unreasonable—and uncompensated—expectation to be nurturing and self-sacrificing.
Wilkerson would rather keep a healthy boundary between her personal and professional life without the guilt trip, thanks: “I want to teach my students from 9 to 5 (or 7:40 to 3:40, as the case may be) and then I want to get off work. I want to be able to call my job that—a job—without facing a piercing glare from an administrator for not cheerfully sacrificing my personal time to grade papers.”
Back in 2016, teacher Christopher L. Doyle sounded the alarm on blurring that personal-professional boundary. In his Opinion essay, Doyle laid out some historical background on work-life balance, prescriptions for prioritizing teacher well-being, and a call to action for teachers.
He also offered a blunt assessment of what’s at stake: “I began my career more than 30 years ago and can no longer count the number of talented colleagues I have seen burn out and leave the profession. More insidious and even sadder are those friends and colleagues who lost marriages because of their careers, turned to alcohol or other substance abuse for solace, ruined their health through poor diets and lack of exercise, and needed medication for stress-related ailments.”
But addressing such malignant working conditions will require more than empty calls for self-care, many opinion contributors have warned since. During the first year of the pandemic, Justin Minkel railed against calls for teacher self-care that offered an inadequate solution to teacher burnout even before COVID-19 introduced life-and-death stakes to teachers’ working conditions. “In the face of a mortal threat,” the Arkansas teacher wrote, “tips like ‘laugh and learn from your mistakes’ and ‘find ways to work on and improve your self-image’ seem absurd.”
That same year, special education professor Brandi Ansley tried to set the record straight about the power—and, crucially, the limitations—of that self-care in “3 Misconceptions About Educator Self-Care.” Major misconception #2? Blaming burnout on educators.
More recently, researcher Sarah Caroleo joined the chorus decrying an individual approach to solving collective education problems, in “Teachers Don’t Need More Self-Care. They Need Self-Efficacy.” “School leaders should stop thinking of teacher burnout and demoralization as personal problems,” the doctoral candidate wrote in April. Instead, she identifies three structural ways school and district leaders can better equip teachers to manage the inherent stresses of teaching.
Of course, the conversation about work-life balance in education isn’t over. Do you have a personal story about the emotional highs and lows of the job? Have your own analysis of how to improve teacher working conditions? Consider sharing your experience in an Opinion essay.