David Palank

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Teaching has the highest rate of burnout of any profession.  40 to 50 percent of teachers will leave the classroom in their first five years teaching.[ii] That doesn’t even take into account the 9.5 percent of teachers who leave the profession before their first year is finished!

It was December 14th and about a week before Winter Break, when the first year science teacher with a degree in Biochemistry walked into my office and sat down. “I have something that I need to tell you,” he said in a detached tone of voice. His shoulders were drooped and his face was pale. His face lacked the spark and positivity it had in September.

My first thought was that he had to go home sick. He didn’t look great and I had noticed he had been rather sluggish that week at school. “My last day here will be December 20th,” he said in defeated fashion.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I can no longer teach. I am not cut out for this job.”

He had been having issues for a couple of months and I had been personally working with him on a variety of suggestions to make his classroom instruction and classroom management more successful, but apparently I had not done enough.

“I mean I can’t take it anymore. I have been breaking out in hives and the doctor said it is from stress from the students,” his voice trailed off as he looked away, failing to meet my eyes.

“I understand that you have a had a rough few months, but that is completely normal for a first year teacher. Everyday my first year I went home and didn’t think I would be able to go in the next day. It happens. Ask any teacher, the first year is tough.”

I began to remember my first year and my lack of support from my administration and then I began to wonder to myself if I was the cause of this resignation.

“What could we have done better to support you? Could I have done more to help you?” I asked him.

“Short of being in my class every period, which I know is impossible, there was not much more you could have done for me,” he replied.

“The semester ends on January 15th, can you at least stick it until then so that I have enough time to find a suitable replacement?”

“No. I can’t make it that far,” he replied.

“Are you sure? I can be in your class a lot more the last few weeks to make sure everything is a little calmer.” I asked once more hoping that he would save me a few weeks of job recruiting during winter break.

“Nope. I can’t do it,” his last response.

This was the first time in my 8 years that I actually witnessed a teacher quit before the first semester was finished. That was something that I considered a fairly selfish move considering the circumstances. Teacher burnout has always been in my mind, but I always thought that this usually occurred during the stretch from spring break to June. When there was not much to look forward to in terms of breaks from the students. Then I dug a little deeper and came to find out that teachers have the highest rate of burnout of any profession.[i]

The Highest Rate of Burnout of Any Profession

       This is partly due to improper training and unrealistic expectations that teaching is “easy”. Teaching, as you know, is far from easy. In fact, 40 to 50 percent of teachers will leave the classroom in their first five years teaching.[ii] That doesn’t even take into account the 9.5 percent of teachers who leave the profession before their first year is finished! Teachers have annual turnover rate of 15.7%, which comparatively, is much higher than the average industry turnover rate of11.9%.

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Years ago this statistic would have shocked me, but the teacher who I previously mentioned looked burned out. He had been breaking out in hives from the stress of the classroom. Classroom behavior issues were his cause of his resignation. The first year of teaching is difficult, but there are ways to prevent burnout.

Christina Maslach, one of the world’s foremost experts on burnout, defines job burnout as “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.”[iii]

Burnout may be closely attributed to the fact that when people believe that they are unable to help effectively, they lose hope, and lose their self-efficacy.[iv] Self-efficacy, the belief that you have the ability to make a difference, has been highly correlated to effective teaching in many studies.

Teachers rarely see the fruits of their efforts, except maybe for high school teachers or college professors who teach students close to graduation. For the rest of us, we kind of just have to have faith that we did a good job. Losing this faith will increase burnout rates.

In fact, research suggests that a lasting impact of what teachers do for students will help protect against stress.[v] The best way for teachers to experience is through return visits of students who come and thank the teachers for all they did for them. This is what really drives successful teachers, the knowledge that you made a difference. Unfortunately, first year teachers do not get to experience these uplifting events. We will explore ways that will allow all teachers to see their success on a daily basis.

Students of today are living in the same technological revolution as us. We are all more distracted then ever. This leads to behaviors that will weigh on a teacher if they are not addressed. The worst thing a teacher can do is believe that they can teach they way they were taught in school. It simply will not be effective in the 21st Century. If you teach the way that you were taught when you were in K-12 schools, student behaviors will become an issue and lead to stress.

The behavior factors leading to teacher stress from the most stressful to the least stressful (but still statistically significant) are:

  1. Hostility towards the teacher
  2. Not paying attention during class
  3. Noisiness
  4. Lack of effort in class
  5. Coming to class unprepared
  6. Hyperactivity
  7. Breaking school rules
  8. Harming school property
  9. Hostility toward other students
  10. Lack of interest in learning. [vi]

All of these issues will be discussed in my upcoming book Class Hacker: Using Brain Science to Master the Art of Teaching

Graduate Support

Our school has a position called graduate support director.  His job is to make sure that students who graduate from San Miguel do not “fall through the cracks” in high school.  This means that we have alumni come back all the time.  This may have helped our teachers protect against burnout.  My suggestion is that all schools form some type of alumni network that continually visits the school.  This will help the teachers see that they have succeeded in forming successful students.

[i] Grant, A. (2013). The Art of Motivation Maintenance. In Give and take: Why helping others drives our success (p. 161). Viking.

[ii] Riggs, L. (2013, October 18). Why Do Teachers Quit? Retrieved December 29, 2014, from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/why-do-teachers-quit/280699/

[iii] Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W., & Leiter, M. (2001). Job Burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422.

[iv] Grant, A. (2013). The Art of Motivation Maintenance. In Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success (p. 165). New York, N.Y.: Viking.

[v] Grant, A., & Sonnentag, S. (2010). Doing good buffers against feeling bad: Prosocial impact compensates for negative task and self-evaluations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 13-22.

[vi] Fisher, M. H. (2011). Factors Influencing Stress, Burnout, and Retention of Secondary Teachers. Current Issues in Education, 14(1). Retrieved from http://cie.asu.edu

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