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Key Signs of Teacher Burnout (and How To Prevent It)

May 20, 2024

A teacher walking with their briefcase

According to the National Education Association, 90% of teachers say that burnout is a serious problem. It’s a factor behind many of the problems that plague school districts, from teacher shortages to retention, diversity, and a loss of institutional knowledge. 

Burnout is hard to tackle because it develops slowly over time. It can be difficult to pinpoint the difference between someone who’s having a tough week versus someone who’s burnt out and on the verge of resigning. 

But school administrators and leaders can learn to spot burnout before it becomes an urgent problem. Read on to learn the tell-tale signs — plus five actionable strategies to combat burnout. 

What Is Teacher Burnout?

Burnout is a state of total exhaustion. It happens when someone is under too much pressure for too long, and it can take physical, mental, and emotional forms. Sometimes burnout looks like a desperate physical craving for sleep. In other people, emotional exhaustion might manifest as anger, sadness, or demoralization.

Burnout is increasingly common among America’s educators. The National Education Association’s poll also revealed that 80% of teachers feel that the problem is growing worse. More burnout leads to more teacher turnover and pressure on the remaining staff. 

In other words, burnout is both a consequence and a cause of the teacher shortage. It affects people at every stage of their teaching careers, meaning that schools are losing both experienced educators and new teachers.

Some subjects and specialties, such as special education, are at higher risk, and burnout can even magnify social inequalities. More Black and Hispanic educators report that they plan to leave the teaching profession due to burnout. When those inequalities take hold among teachers, they can also widen opportunity gaps for students. 

Key Indicators of Teacher Burnout

Burnout can feel incredibly lonely. While there are tools out there for individual teachers, like this burnout assessment scale, many American teachers struggle to admit that they need help. They may feel under pressure to keep up with high workloads or appear strong in front of their students.

You can foster a healthy work environment by spotting these signs of burnout early. Offering timely support can make all the difference for teachers who are living with unbearable levels of stress.

Chronic Fatigue

In the context of burnout, chronic fatigue means persistent tiredness that doesn’t improve after rest. (It’s not the same thing as chronic fatigue syndrome, which is a medical condition in its own right.)

If teachers return from weekends and vacations without any change in their tiredness levels, then something’s not right. 

Decreased Productivity

Burnout generally makes people less productive. That might seem counterintuitive since burnout is often caused by working exceptionally hard. But when teachers work past a healthy point, their productivity suffers, even if they’re still putting in the same hours. 

Decreased productivity can look like missing deadlines, poorer-quality work, or even procrastination. You might also notice teachers working past their normal hours but still struggling to keep up. 

Forgetfulness

High stress levels, pressure, and chronic fatigue can cause problems with concentration and short-term memory. In many cases, that makes people want to work even harder — but they’re only exacerbating the problem of burnout.

Signs to look out for include problems with lesson planning, submitting records, and classroom management. This kind of forgetfulness can be very upsetting for teachers who are normally effective and conscientious.

Social Withdrawal

When someone feels overwhelmed and burned out, they may start to avoid situations that they used to enjoy.

Without help, social withdrawal can become a negative feedback loop where teachers feel even more overwhelmed and lonely so they withdraw even further. So watch out for teachers who suddenly begin to avoid interactions with colleagues or students. 

Irritability

Another classic sign of burnout is sudden irritability. When someone’s struggling with exhaustion, they can become easily frustrated by small problems that wouldn’t usually bother them. 

Irritability can have a negative effect on everyone around the teacher, from colleagues to parents to students. However, if it’s linked to burnout, that irritability should be addressed with kindness and patience. It’s not an attitude problem but a symptom of deeper issues.

Why Does Teacher Burnout Matter?

Teacher burnout doesn’t just affect individual staff — it also impacts their colleagues through increased absenteeism and higher rates of teacher turnover. And it affects students as well, as decreased teacher performance influences student behavior and attainment.

Burnout can even change the overall school environment as the strain spreads to support staff and an atmosphere of lower job satisfaction builds up. 

Many schools battle with a lack of substitute teachers, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers on top of existing teacher shortages. The pressure creates a vicious cycle where more staff are likely to burn out, putting ever more pressure on those who remain. 

How To Prevent Teacher Burnout Before It Happens

It’s high time for school districts to get serious about teacher burnout. However, evidence shows that teachers and administrators often have different views about the root causes of burnout — and how to resolve them. 

For example, teachers often point to reducing the stress of meetings and paperwork as one way of lowering turnover, even if administrators don’t see it as an issue. The evidence shows that when educators have more autonomy and support from the education system, it’s easier for them to stay on top of their workloads. 

Here are five strategies to prevent teacher burnout that you can implement right away. From extra support to professional development initiatives, they’re designed to solve problems for teachers and keep teaching jobs filled. 

Offer Time-Management Strategies

Teachers juggle an intensive, mixed workload of classroom time, planning, grading, supervising students, and keeping records. Giving them tools to manage their time can make a big difference. 

School leaders can support their staff in several ways:

  • Choose which tasks or duties take priority. If teachers are pushed for time, they should focus on the essentials. 
  • Set realistic goals and expectations. When you assign duties to teachers, think about their total workload rather than viewing tasks in isolation.
  • Use digital planning tools so that teachers can see, share, and manage tasks efficiently. Administrators can check in on progress and spot when someone is struggling to keep up.

Administrators should also encourage teachers to set boundaries that protect their work-life balance. Teachers often report feeling like they have to “choose” between work and family, instead of having time for both. 

Help Teachers Learn About Self-Care

There’s a popular misconception that self-care means self-indulgence. But — especially in intense professions like teaching — it’s actually essential. Self-care doesn’t mean a day at the spa. For educators who are burnt out, self-care might start with remembering to eat lunch or finding time for eight hours of sleep at night.

You can support teacher well-being by creating an environment that promotes mental and physical health. 

  • A healthy diet gives people more energy. Make it easy for teachers to access healthy meals, snacks, and drinks.
  • Exercise can reduce stress and energy levels, so encourage regular movement during the school day and look at opportunities for active travel to and from school.
  • Look out for teachers who are regularly working later than others, working through breaks, or missing meals.
  • Consider offering mindfulness sessions, a guided meditation subscription, or simply a quiet space on the school campus for teachers to catch their breath and relax.
  • Offer guidance on grounding techniques for teachers to use when they feel stressed or overwhelmed. These can also be valuable for students to learn.

Create Professional Development Opportunities

Many teachers become frustrated because they want more autonomy and recognition of their efforts. By improving professional development opportunities in your school district, you can reduce turnover and improve morale.

  • Ask teachers what they’d like to learn, from classroom strategies to management skills and curriculum planning.
  • Encourage them to make suggestions on how to improve the school’s performance or efficiency.
  • Use instructor evaluations to help individual educators identify areas for improvement. 
  • Create clear paths for promotion or career advancement, and reward teachers for their experience and time spent in a role. 

Build a Support Network for Teachers

They say it takes a village to raise a child — it takes a village to run a school too. Building a strong support network can take the pressure off teachers and give them the resources they need to thrive in the job. 

  • Encourage teachers to share knowledge and support with each other.
  • School leaders and administrators can facilitate connections by making time for peer support and networking.
  • Foster an open work environment where staff feel comfortable speaking up about problems, stressors, and systems that don’t work for them. 

Advise Teachers on What To Do If They Start To Feel Burnt Out

You can reduce the risk of burnout by following the strategies above. But, while retention rates might improve, you’re still likely to see some cases of burnout among teachers.

Set up a system for when that happens:

  • Most importantly, make it clear that teachers won’t face any disciplinary actions or retaliation for self-reporting burnout.
  • Make sure teachers know who to contact if they start to feel exhausted or overwhelmed. 
  • Encourage teachers to speak up early on, rather than waiting until the problem is out of control.
  • Educate school leaders and teachers on when they need to seek professional help.
  • Make sure your benefits include affordable, comprehensive mental and physical healthcare coverage — your teachers should never go without help because they can’t afford it.
  • Have a cover plan in place for teachers who need emergency breaks or support.

Take Action Against Teacher Burnout

Teacher burnout is increasing across the United States. It’s both a cause and a consequence of teacher shortages and an under-resourced education system, and it can even worsen social inequalities in schools.

Teachers are clear on what they need: more autonomy, more support, and a better work-life balance. Administrators and school leaders can take action on those issues right away. They can reduce the rates of burnout by creating a healthy school environment, building support networks, and offering professional development opportunities so that teachers feel fulfilled. And when burnout does happen, they can act fast to get teachers the help they need.


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