It’s Not Just the Pandemic, My Cautionary Tale of Educator Burnout

Victoria Lynn Rodrigue
August, 2023

Originally published in the CEE Blog this article targets burnout and mental health – and considers what schools can do to help educators.

Has educator burnout become a crisis? Recent headlines paint a grim picture of a profession at a breaking point. In Colorado, a 2021 report by the Colorado Education Association warns of an unsustainable situation as burnt-out educators flee the profession, leaving the state’s public schools dangerously understaffed. A January 2022 poll by the National Education Foundation found that 55% of educators are thinking of leaving the profession, with 90% citing burnout as a serious problem. Principals are struggling too; according to a recent survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 4 in 10 plan to leave the profession in the next three years.

As those of us in education know, a crisis was already brewing prior to the pandemic. Nationwide, total enrollment in teacher preparation programs has declined by more than a third since 2010. A 2016 report by the Learning Policy Institute projected that annual teacher shortage would reach 110,000 by the 2017-18 academic year, while a 2019 study of principal turnover by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Learning Policy Institute cited an annual turnover rate for principals of 18%. Both studies identified low pay, a lack of autonomy, support, and professional development as factors contributing to dissatisfaction within the profession. It’s clear that the current crisis in the nation’s schools won’t end once the pandemic is over unless we acknowledge and address the factors contributing to educator burnout.

“Burnout” has long been used colloquially to refer to feelings of mental exhaustion and disengagement. Its modern association with a specific type of work environment dates from the 1970s and the work of Herbert Freudenberger and Christina Maslach. Through their research, both Freudenberger and Maslach captured a particular shift in service-oriented occupations in the late-20th century, which caused these jobs to become less rewarding, both monetarily and professionally, and less respected. Early studies on educator burnout capture this shift as well, citing challenges that would be recognizable to today’s educators. “Educators today are expected to cure society’s ills, prepare young adults for life in a complex, technological society and accomplish both of these for salaries not commensurate with their education,” states a 1986 article in Educational Research Quarterly, “Educator Burnout: Sources and Consequences,” by Richard L. Schwab, Susan E. Jackson and Randall S. Schuler. Thirty-five years later, the consequences of educator burnout have become clear.

Like most educators, I began my career to change young people’s lives. I expected low pay and long hours but weighed those downsides against the fulfillment I would get from doing important work. As an idealistic young person, I worked in a variety of educational settings, in both public and private schools. I came up against the same challenges in all of them: resource and staffing shortages coupled with increased expectations and top-down decision making that left me unable to perform my job in the manner I thought best. At 30, I became principal of a small, private high school in the Bay Area. Although it was private, our school served students regardless of their ability to pay and, as a result, lacked many of the resources of better-funded public schools in the area. My first week on the job I learned that the school lacked a functioning printer, had unreliable internet and Wi-Fi, classrooms filled with broken furniture, and no full-time support staff to help. With the lack of resources, I was a captain without a crew; I filled in to teach classes, served as an instructional coach and guidance counselor, handled maintenance, oversaw accreditation and hiring, and whatever else came up. The board that had hired me provided minimal guidance. In five years, I never received an evaluation.

Studies (Maslach, Leiter, 2005) have identified several factors leading to burnout: lack of support, lack of clarity about roles and duties, a lack of feedback, and unrealistic performance expectations. Looking back, I recognize these factors were present in my job from the beginning. As Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North outline in their 12 Stages of Burnout, burnout happens in phases. At first, it was easy to convince myself that I was managing. I liked my job, grew fond of the students, enjoyed my colleagues, and felt blessed. The process of burnout can last months or years. In the early stages, people can push themselves, but as time goes on, these efforts fail. Symptoms accumulate.

But after five years, my job was no longer sustainable. Signs of illness appeared. Weight loss, nausea, dizziness and fainting. Unable to support my students and teachers while maintaining my health I gave notice in the fall of 2019 and left in June 2020 during the pandemic. BTS Spark, a not-for-profit practice focused on building capacity in education leaders through coaching, is my new employer. At first, I felt adrift and guilty as I watched educators struggle during the pandemic. My life until that point had revolved around the rhythms of the academic year. Despite the challenges, that structure kept me anchored. The past two years, working in this new role have given me time to reflect and to develop a broader perspective on the systemic issues educators face. I received coaching as part of my onboarding, which helped me to understand the factors in my job that had led to burnout. Studies suggest that coaching can help new principals manage the emotional and professional demands of the job (Celoria, Roberson, 2015; Silver, Lochmiller, Copland, and Tripp, 2009). I now recognize that my experience was not unique and while recovery from burnout takes time, I can still effect change by working to support educators so that they don’t burn out as well. Prioritizing support and a healthy work environment is crucial if we want to prevent young educators from leaving the profession entirely. Schools, not educators, will have to adapt to ensure that the profession remains viable. The situation is critical. Educators need help now to prevent the system from collapsing.