Reversing Teacher Burnout is a Possibility Within Reach
We welcome today's guest blogger, Jennifer Cleary*, a former teacher who now works as a content developer and faculty consultant.
Like many new teachers, my first year in the classroom was filled with grand visions of saving the world, one kindergartener at a time. That first year started well - I was assigned an amazing mentor who was there when I couldn't find little Dennis, or when little Julia appeared in my class and had never been there before. I spent two full days in my mentor's classroom watching her teach, which was an incredible experience, if not a little overwhelming.
The sense of being overwhelmed grew when the professional development kicked in. At least once a month, I was in full-day training - classroom management, standards, homework, manipulatives, assessment, reading and math centers.
For each of these trainings, I spent hours creating precise sub plans, special notes to the sub, and transportation lists; not to mention the cleanup the following day. On weeks without formal training, my school required all newly-hired teachers to participate in two-hour book studies that included outside assignments. Between all this work, I still had to teach, and plan, and assess, and grade papers.
One day I asked a small group of veteran peers, "When does this get easier?" Their response was a surprise and a shock - "It doesn't get easier." "There is never enough time, no matter how good you get."
Burnout Among New Teachers
My experience is not a unique experience. Across the industry, educators are concerned about teacher burnout, especially among first-year teachers. Contributing factors to this growing sentiment include a lack of appropriate teaching materials, professional development, and preparation time. Compounding these perceptions are policies like evaluation of teachers based on student test scores and merit pay.
For many, the mental image of teacher burnout is a teacher who has spent 30 years in a classroom, working tirelessly to make the most out of every student. The less common image is the new teacher.
According to the NEA, 20 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first three years. In urban settings, 50 percent leave within their first five years. When surveyed, these new teachers cited lack of support as the number one reason for their decisions.
Burnout Can Be Contagious
The simple solution to new teacher burnout is to provide mentors. But, according to Harry Wong, this is not enough, especially if mentors experience their own burnout. Teacher burnout among mentors can be easily transmitted to the very teachers they are seeking to support.
A new study from Michigan State University (MSU) discovered a remarkable link between burnout of new teachers and a school-wide culture of burnout coupled with burnout among their closest circle of colleagues. "If you are surrounded by people who are downcast or walk around under a pall of burnout, then it has a high chance of spilling over, even if you don't have direct contact with these folks," said the study.
With our newest teachers lacking support while working in a contagious environment, our treatment must be two-fold. New teachers should be treated with an immunization of support, and the whole school should receive an antidote.
New Teacher Immunization
New teachers face their own unique challenges as they adjust to working full-time and meeting new teacher expectations. To accommodate these challenges, a comprehensive, coherent, and sustained induction program will have a far greater impact on new teachers.
An induction program should focus on differentiated research-based instructional strategies to provide focus for both the new teacher and the mentor. As they navigate that challenging first-year, both should work together toward common, defined outcomes. Increased focus is often an antidote to chaos. Personally, I would have welcomed a less chaotic and overwhelming first-year experience.
A vital factor for new teacher induction is balancing the cognitive load. An induction program should be planned with strong consideration given to the everyday challenges new teachers face. Doing so will produce an effective induction program that becomes the best immunization for early burnout, no matter how close the contact with burnout carriers.
Instructional strategies are also an ideal place to treat teacher burnout. By adopting instructional strategies that grant students ownership of their own learning, teachers will become facilitators of complex tasks instead of distributors of content. This tactic reduces the overload and provides an initial antidote for burnout. Student achievement will organically improve as teachers apply the strategies and techniques to implement this shift, providing the booster shot to further alleviate the burnout.
Burnout is a real issue, for both first-year teachers and thirty-year veterans. Schools are losing valuable educators, and student achievement is suffering. That's the bad news. The good news is that there are treatments available to immunize new teachers from experiencing the detrimental side effects of burnout, and there are treatments to provide school-wide antidotes.
Wong, H. K. (2003). Developing and designing mentoring and induction programs. In A. L. Breaux & H. K. Wong (Authors), New teacher induction: how to train, support, and retain new teachers. Retrieved from http://www.newteacher.com/pdf/CorwinGalley.pdf
Kim, J., Youngs, P., & Frank, K. (2017). Burnout contagion: Is it due to early career teachers' social networks or organizational exposure? Teaching and Teacher Education, 66, 250-260.
*Jennifer Cleary is a former teacher and currently is a content developer and faculty consultant for Learning Sciences International. She is a co-author of the forthcoming book, Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction (LSI Publishing: 2017), along with Robert Marzano and Terry Morgan. At LearningSciences.com, leaders at every level can find supportive resources to develop instructional leadership, growth-oriented evaluation practices, and sustainable success.
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