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Shanker Blog: Let’s Celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week by Acknowledging and Repairing a VERY Broken System

Each May, as the school year winds down, districts across the country will soon celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week. In previous years, receiving doughnuts, gift cards, and T-shirts was a nice way to end the school year. One could even laugh at the less than stellar tokens of appreciation, like the mini box of raisins with a sticker that exclaimed “thank you for ‘raisin’ student achievement.” But, amid COVID-19 and a host of new challenges that are facing educators, this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week may function as a going away party for many teachers who will soon leave the profession.

That unfortunate reality of rising teacher burnout has serious consequences across the education system and requires greater attention to reverse this alarming trend. To put a number on this problem, a recent report found that 55% of teachers will leave the profession sooner than they had planned, and a staggering 90% are suffering from burnout (Kamenetz, 2022). I am one of these statistics. After years of suffering from burnout, I finally hit my breaking point — a persistent eye twitch induced by stress — and left the profession. After walking out of my classroom, I raced straight ahead to do as much research as possible on teacher burnout because I love the profession, and I know we must improve it for educators. 

Burnout has become a common buzzword used in the media, but the term means so much more than just being tired or anxious.  Researchers define burnout as a psychological syndrome that can occur among individuals who work with other people in some capacity. For teachers, there are three dimensions of burnout: (1) emotional exhaustion, (2) depersonalization, and (3) lack of personal accomplishment (Maslach et al., 1997). 

Critically, burnout may come about in different ways for different teachers.  For some, not having the support of school leaders amidst student misbehaviors or time pressure concerns may be a driver. For others, a lack of boundaries or value dissonance may be the determining factor for pushing teachers out of the classroom. And, for some teachers, it may be a combination of all those factors. 

Once teachers start experiencing burnout, it can present itself in a multitude of ways, such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, apathy, forgetfulness, cynicism, weight gain/loss, increased drug/alcohol use, and familial problems. Personally, aside from my persistent eye twitch, I experienced chronic fatigue, increased irritability, frequent insomnia, and a diminished desire to exercise.

Of course, many—if not all—of the teachers enduring burnout love various aspects of the job. For instance, every day since I left the profession, I miss my students, I miss discussing literature with young readers, and I miss collaborating with other teachers. Yet, even with the heartbreak of leaving those rewarding parts of the profession, thousands of the best educators in America are exiting the classroom each year. But there is hope for reversing this trend. There are still plenty of steps that school leaders and policymakers can take to ease the burden on teachers, and to retain experienced educators in the profession. 

First, we must acknowledge the additional stressors the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on both teachers and students during the last several school years. Like everyone, teachers and students have gone through the trauma of seeing loved ones get ill and having their entire lives upended, while feeling the isolation of interacting with humans via Zoom. On top of that, teachers and students have had to endure a constant pivoting from virtual to hybrid to in-person instruction, all while rethinking the very concept of schooling. Further, they have done all this while on the front lines of an emotional national debate about masks, vaccines, and social distancing that has often centered in the classrooms. We must recognize the sacrifices teachers and students have made during this period, and work to improve the profession going forward. 

With this in mind, I urge all of us to focus our attention on treating teachers like professionals and providing them with better working conditions. First, we must start treating teachers like trained professionals. This includes providing a livable wage, so teachers do not have to take on a part-time job or a “side hustle” to pay their monthly bills. Every teacher has a college education and over half possess an advanced degree (Walker, 2018) while also attending professional development (PD) more regularly than most other professionals (Professional Development Path, 2015). Additionally, the lessons that reach students have undergone an extensive process that includes, district approval over textbooks and novels; vetted instructional maps and lesson plans; and standards alignment. The route to teaching a high-quality curriculum is lengthy and comprehensive, and we should trust teachers’ professional judgment to deliver it in the classroom. 

Finally, let’s give teachers a seat at the decision-making table. They are in the classroom with students day in and day out and know what works best for learning. Instead of leaving teachers out of the loop on policies that directly affect and sometimes harm them, such as inequitable standardized assessments and punitive evaluation systems, let’s value their expertise and make them a vital part of the process.  

We must also improve working conditions for teachers. This starts with respecting their boundaries and eliminating the time-pressure problems that plague the profession. Consistently glamorizing the idea that devoted teachers regularly work late into the night or miss family events to grade papers is extremely toxic and taxing. Rest should not be radical – it should be something we value, prioritize, and promote. 

Next, we need to create a caring work culture built on relational trust between school leaders and teachers. School leaders need to reassure teachers that they support them and have their best interests at heart. This includes providing the resources and tools needed to be an effective teacher; creating shared norms and values; and being genuinely supportive and empathetic toward their staff. Teachers should not have to spend money they don’t have on school supplies (tissues, paper, pencils, erasers, books, etc.) that are essential to learning. Additionally, teaching is about collaboration and teachers need to have shared goals, norms, and values for educating students. A leader who breeds competition over collaboration is isolating teachers and ultimately hurting students. 

Finally, school leaders need to be supportive and empathetic. Teaching is hard, and educators are real human beings. Allow them an additional mental health day after a traumatic event. Give them more than 45 minutes of daily planning time, so they can sufficiently meet the expectations of the profession. Grant them the flexibility to work from home on PD days. All these things are commonplace to support emotional health in other professions, and they go a long way toward humanizing a profession that dictates things as small as when, or if, you get to use the restroom.

As we consider these issues, we must always remember that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.  It is not too late to keep thousands of great teachers in the profession, but we must act now! 

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Kayla Reist

Kayla Reist is a fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C. She is currently completing her master’s degree program in Educational Transform...