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Why New Teachers are Burning Out Early

More than 44 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Some are working to reverse that trend.

by Gretchen Brown
March 4, 2020 | Living

Anna has five classes of 25 students. She spends 30 hours grading each assignment she gives them in addition to her 50-hour work week.

How long can she keep doing this until she burns out?

A) 40 years

B) 25 years

C) 7 years

The answer is C: seven years.

Anna is a real person — though she asked us to change her name for this article. She resigned from her position as a high school English teacher last week.

“I had no life outside of teaching,” said Anna, 30. “I carried papers with me to family Christmas gatherings. I missed family events because I was working weekends.”

She spent every free moment sleeping, trying to recover. She was a zombie in her off-hours. A year of child care leave helped her realize just how exhausted she had been.

“I already miss the students so much it hurts,” she said. “But for the sake of my own kids at home I knew it was best for me to call it quits on teaching.”

Burnout like this is increasingly common in education. Many don’t even last as long as Anna. More than 44 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years.

“A lot of it boils down to working conditions,” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied teacher retention for decades.

It’s always been a high-burnout gig — in line with work like nursing — but there’s evidence that the problem is getting worse. More teachers are leaving each year, even as the overall teacher force has grown since the 1980s, Ingersoll said.

[ICYMI: Fight Off Burnout and Find Your Spark Again]

While salary is part of that — teachers earn 19 percent less than comparably educated folks — Ingersoll says there are bigger factors.

Many teachers increasingly feel like they don’t have voice or autonomy in their classroom and in their building. That feeling has become more frequent in the past decade and a half, an “era of accountability” in education marked by frequent standardized testing and strict educational benchmarks.

“The pressures and demands on teachers have gone up, but in many cases it’s micromanagement,” he said.

Out of control

That’s one of the reasons Thomas left teaching last year.

He spent two years as a math teacher at two different schools in central Minnesota, hoping he’d be able to help students who were struggling and make connections with kids.

But once he was actually a teacher, he found that to be easier said than done. The number of educational benchmarks his students were expected to hit were unreasonable, he said.

While he wanted to teach kids to actually understand math, the benchmarks didn’t even leave time for shortcuts like formulas and tricks.

Teacher in a classroom. REWIRE PBS Our Future teachers burn out
It’s always been a high-burnout gig— in line with work like nursing— but there’s evidence that the problem is getting worse. More teachers are leaving each year.

“You learn all the ideals of teaching and stuff, and then you walk in and see it’s literally impossible,” said Thomas, 26, who is also using a pseudonym for this article.

When things got tough, Thomas didn’t feel supported by his school’s administration or staff. Discipline was often out of his hands.

Once, when he gave a student a grade of zero for cheating on a test, the student’s parents complained to his principal. The principal allowed the student to transfer to another class.

Another time, a student he had written up several times for misbehavior was assigned only a verbal apology as a consequence from administration.

Then there was the abuse from students, who threw ice at his car and dumped water on his chair. While there were some happy moments, they were few and far between.

Ingersoll says buildings with more discipline issues have higher teacher turnover.

It’s not necessarily that kids are worse behaved than they used to be — that’s hard to measure, and there’s no strong data to back it up, Ingersoll said.

Many districts are struggling with a balance between the extreme “zero-tolerance” discipline of the 1980s and 1990s, and the reactionary, more lax policies with few tough punishments.

Either way, it leaves teachers like Thomas feeling like their classrooms are out of their control.

Unhealthy pressure

And that stress can wear.

“The kind of pressure I put on myself is completely unhealthy, and I know that,” said Megan, a teacher in her fourth year. “But when you rationalize it by saying it's for the kids, it's hard to stop.”

[Read: 5 Ways to Squeeze Self-Care Into your Office Workday]

Megan, who asked that we change her name for her job security, is currently teaching fourth grade, and has also taught 8th grade English. Rationally, she knows that her students are growing and learning.

But when that isn’t reflected in test scores, it’s easy to feel like she’s not good at her job.

The pay — though dismal for the hours she puts in each week — isn’t the main reason she’s considering quitting.

She’s been threatened multiple times. Called vulgar names. Had chairs thrown at her. Been screamed at by parents during a lesson.

“Just the past year, I’ve had to start therapy, up my anxiety medicine dosage, and for a while I was having three to five panic attacks a week,” she said.

“Most were about the fact that I felt like I was failing my kids, despite the fact that I was working from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days.”

Irvin Schonfeld, a professor of Psychology at the City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, studies the impact of job stressors on teachers.

Teachers like Megan, Thomas and Anna might call themselves “burned out.” But Schonfeld’s research indicates that what many of us call “burnout” is actually depression.

“What we find is that whether you treat burnout on a continuum, or whether you treat it categorically, it has substantial overlap with depression,” Schonfeld said.

Changing the environment

Burnout might be a popular explanation because there’s less stigma attached than there is to depression. But that can stop you from seeking help.

“Somebody who’s burned out is likely to say, ‘I need a vacation,’” he said.

“The half-life of a vacation is about two weeks. If it’s depression, there are scientifically validated therapies to help people.”

A vacation won’t cure depression, and it won’t cure the things in your workplace that are causing your depression.

But there are folks who are working to change the environment at schools and help teachers feel like they have control again.

In Minnesota, a free seminar for early career teachers aims to prevent burnout and quell turnover.

The class, a partnership between teacher’s union Education Minnesota and Metropolitan State University, was based off of a survey of the union’s early-career teachers.

The teachers said they wanted help with work-life balance, self-care and classroom management. They wanted mentorship programs and guidance on teaching kids at different learning levels and communicating with parents and administrators.

These aren’t things that are taught in undergrad programs. But Ingersoll said that the amount of pedagogical instruction — learning how to teach — is actually one of the biggest predictors of an educator’s durability in the classroom.

“A lot of these teachers just need their toolbox filled,” said Vicki Turner, an education issues specialist at Education Minnesota who teaches the class.

Teaching resiliency

Much of the class is focused on emotional intelligence, emotional resilience, and social emotional care, things that teachers teach their students, but maybe haven’t learned themselves.

Things like learning to name your emotions, to interrupt your emotional cycle and respond appropriately to a given situation.

“(Teachers are) working with individuals that are struggling emotionally as well,” Turner said.

“If we are solid and have the foundation set ourselves, we can better support the students we’re in front of.”

One of the unintended benefits of the seminar, which is currently in its second cohort, has been a sense of camaraderie and support between the early-career teachers who attend.

As a new teacher years ago, Turner, a black woman, remembers having a mentor who looked like her who she could lean on for support.

But one of the consequences of the high turnover rate has been a “greening” of the teaching force — that is, an overall decline in age and experience of teachers over the last 30 years.

This effect is even more drastic for both teachers of color — who have higher quit rates than white teachers — and urban schools, which have turnover sometimes three times higher than suburban schools.

Mentorship programs like the one Turner had just don’t exist in many schools. But she’s been like a mentor for many of the students in the seminar’s two cohorts.

She’s still in contact with the first cohort of students, some who have said that they were ready to give up, but now feel like they have the skills to carry on.

“We're fighting for more funding so that infrastructures could change as well,” Turner said.

“Districts need to do a better job of supporting new teachers, and teachers as a whole.”

For Megan, the kids are what keeps her coming back each day. Some of the days are tough.

But teaching is the only thing she’s ever really considered doing.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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