With the arrival of springtime, school leaders are now beginning their annual quest to fill open teaching positions—and many may have a difficult time doing so. Although people point to many factors to explain present staffing issues, most trace back to the same roots: teacher burnout and demoralization. Burnout refers to complete depletion of energy and confidence, while demoralization describes the frustration surrounding lacking autonomy and professionalism that prevent teachers from working successfully.
In response, some organizations andschool districts have encouraged remaining teachers to practice self-care and set firmer work boundaries. This approach perpetuates a troubling message about the teaching profession: Teachers must solve everything on their own. School leaders should stop thinking of teacher burnout and demoralization as personal problems. Instead, they should consider the structural ways that schools can better equip teachers to manage the inherent stresses of their positions.
Research about the psychological concept of self-efficacy provides some solutions. Teacher self-efficacy refers to teachers’ beliefs about their personal abilities to plan and conduct activities needed to achieve their professional goals, such as getting all students to mastery or managing classroom behaviors. Self-efficacy shapes teachers’ behaviors and choices, especially in how they respond to demanding situations. Several structural aspects of American schools—such as siloing teachers in their respective classrooms and overloading them with responsibilities without sufficient planning time and resources—leave many teachers feeling incapable of what is expected of them.
Researchers have found that weaker levels of teacher self-efficacy can relate to intensified feelings of burnout and demoralization. When school leaders implement strategies proved to bolster teachers’ self-efficacy, they better equip them to navigate the current education climate and sustain their work.
Here are three important ways district and school leaders can bolster educator self-efficacy, starting now and continuing into future school years.
1. Replace disjointed PD sessions with communities of practice.
Teachers who engage in communities of practice often feel more capable of addressing challenges that arise in their work. Learning from colleagues ensures that teachers grow in knowledge relevant to their unique contexts and validates the value of teachers’ collective knowledge. For now, district and site leaders should consider replacing mandated professional-development time, often implemented in a top-down manner with little individual meaning for teachers, with time to engage with communities of practice that learn and share evidence-based practices related to teachers’ present needs.
Districts can pursue two options to foster teachers’ communities of practice. The first is through professional learning communities, which are small groups of teachers who select a target area to study for a few months, share and critically reflect upon their attempts, and brainstorm ideas for continuous improvement. PLCs build instructional tool kits and establish practical supports, both of which can enhance self-efficacy. These could be hosted within individual schools or across a district, facilitated over Zoom.
The second option is professional learning networks, which are online communities committed to discussing topics, sharing resources, and providing advice. They often take form in subject- or grade-specific Facebook groups or in regularly engaging with other educators via Twitter or Instagram. Districts can make a webpage of recommended groups or accounts to follow, categorized by specific needs, so teachers can easily locate good-fitting PLNs.
Alternately, districts can host their own PLNs on a district server, where teachers share resources and communicate through wikis (or other collaborative online tools) to discuss challenges related to the PLN topic.
No matter the mode the district chooses, schools should allow teachers to engage with their PLNs of choice during typical PD time.
2. Assign mentors to novice teachers or those who need support.
Novice teachers and those experiencing symptoms of burnout or demoralization can also be assigned a mentor colleague who has proven success at managing the area tied to the other’s present challenges. For example, if parent relations are causing extreme stress for someone, that teacher could seek advice and support from their mentor experienced in handling parent concerns.
Principals can formalize on-site mentoring programs, even this late in the school year; these programs would provide personalized, essential learning for those most vulnerable to burnout and demoralization. Such programs also convey leaders’ confidence in the mentor colleagues—so both teachers experience a boost in self-efficacy.
3. Give teachers protected, collaborative planning time.
Planning with other teachers can improve the quality of lessons and reduce the amount of workload placed on individual teachers. Specifically,it can increase teachers’ beliefs in their ability to plan and implement impactful instruction, which is essential for strong self-efficacy. Districts should consider providing weekly collaborative planning time for grade-level teams/departments during the school day with coverage for their classes (either from substitutes or district or site leadership), so it does not add to teachers’ working hours. School and district leaders should also ensure that time is not co-opted for site leadership’s goals (for example, using that time to run a data meeting) but rather protected solely for planning purposes.
Of course, there remain stressors associated with modern teaching that are out of districts’ control and there are certainly times for educators to practice self-care and set stronger work boundaries. Some teachers may have already decided to leave their posts, and district actions at this point may not change that. However, districts cannot afford to let them go without trying; immediate and targeted action that continues into next school year is essential. Self-efficacy is one psychological lens school leaders might use to support teachers so they are able to effectively accomplish and sustain the work they love.