The concept of ‘teacher burnout’ needs reframing.
So argued investigative journalist Alexandra Robbins in an opinion essay published in Education Week earlier this month. The article yielded an overwhelming response from readers.
Robbins’ provocative ideas on teacher burnout grow out of her research experiences for her book, The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession, published this year by Dutton. For the book, she followed three classroom teachers for a year, interviewed hundreds of other teachers, and did her own stint as a long-term substitute teacher in an elementary school. In an interview this week with Education Week, Robbins elaborated on what she learned and shared thoughts on the current state of the teaching profession, what teachers need to remain committed to it, and why she remains hopeful for the future of teachers.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In the book, you suggest that “teacher burnout” is a myth, and the term should be ditched. Why?
The phrase “teacher burnout” perpetuates an all too common educational narrative of teacher blaming. What does it [teacher burnout] really mean? Studies show that the term is used to indicate that a teacher is stressed and/or exhausted because of overwork, and that it’s caused by unmanageable workloads, high-stakes testing, time pressure, and insufficient workplace support and resources. None of those things are caused by the teacher. None of that is a teacher’s fault. But when a teacher protests or struggles or can’t cope because of those elements, rather than fix the problems, many schools and school systems say the teacher is “burned out.” That’s why I think the entire concept needs to be reframed.
Instead of saying “Teachers have high burnout levels,” we should be saying, “school systems generally do a terrible job at providing employees with necessary supports and resources.”
You shared so many disheartening aspects of the teaching profession. Which came as the biggest surprise to you, and why?
Yes, I shared the truth—both the deep, unforgettable joys and the hardships—because teachers want the public to understand it, and because to motivate readers to fight for change, they need to know why change is urgently necessary. The aspect that most surprised me was the outrageous level of disrespect with which some parents now feel they can treat teachers. Some parents have always been that way, sure. But the wild things parents say to, email, and unrealistically expect from teachers these days are astonishing; for instance, “My children like it when their teachers attend their sports events. Your attendance at all of the attached games would be appreciated” and “Did you get the homework out of Brentley’s locker?” I would never have imagined anything close to those quotes if I’d written The Teachers as a work of fiction.
What one thing do you think could most improve teachers’ work life, and why?
If I were to choose one thing that would be a game changer for all teachers everywhere, it would be to give them time, by which I mean a realistic job description that they can complete within their paid contractual hours during the school day. Teachers need more and longer planning periods during the school day, and districts need to stop piling extra responsibilities on teachers that administrators and other school staff should be handling.
One teacher in the book said that teaching isn’t a career, but a way of living. Do you think most teachers still share that sentiment?
The teaching lifestyle has changed a lot over the last 30 years. In the 20th century, teaching could fit into an educator’s life relatively neatly. But in the 21st century, teaching easily can swallow it. Schools and districts are saddling teachers with more non-teaching responsibilities and more unpaid hours. Parents’ and students’ online access and social media have had a major impact on the profession. Parents’ and students’ disrespect both for and within the classroom has increased. So it’s natural that there has been a mindset shift among teachers; they still love teaching but the job of being a teacher has changed.
After writing this book and serving as a substitute teacher, what’s your message to parents of school-age children?
I’ll stick with this: Your children’s teachers deserve your respect, appreciation, and trust. They are trained and certified to develop and deliver age-appropriate educational content. Please not only let them do that without second-guessing them, but also be vocal about your support for them, at home in front of your kids, in public, on social media, and at school board meetings. We need more and louder pro-teacher voices, urgently.
You also wrote a book about the nursing profession. Any parallels that could be applied to helping “fix” the teaching profession?
Nursing and teaching are both female-dominated, historically male-supervised, under-appreciated helping professions. Just as nurses are the soul of the hospital, teachers are the soul of the schools. Just as nurses’ working conditions are patients’ healing conditions, teachers’ working conditions are children’s learning conditions. When nurses are treated and compensated well, when they have the time and support staff to conduct their jobs in a healthy way, patient outcomes improve. The same goes for teachers and students.
Challenges of the teaching profession notwithstanding, your book also details teachers’ unyielding commitment. Is it sustainable?
I think the unprecedented exodus of great teachers from the field has been a wakeup call to communities, politicians, and district officials, who now understand that they must eradicate those obstacles so that teachers can focus on the meaningful work they signed up for—teaching children—and be treated and compensated properly for it. If working conditions improve, teachers are likely to remain committed to the profession.
Is there a message of hope you can share?
It’s important to know that in the currently startlingly politicized educational landscape, the negativity we hear about teachers, schools, and students is coming from a small, albeit loud and aggressive, fringe. Surveys show that the people complaining most about public schools don’t even have school-age children. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the parents who are actually relevant stakeholders are happy with their local schools. We’re also seeing students fighting for their teachers and against book bans, and today’s students are tomorrow’s voters and eventual policymakers. Plus, educators are being elected to public office.
With all that in mind, I believe there is a major shift in the national dialogue coming that will favor teachers and, therefore, schools and students. At my speaking engagements, when I explain why we need to stand up for educators, audience members are coming forward and contacting me afterward. People are ready and willing to fight for you, teachers. They just need to know how best they can help.