Extinguishing Teacher Burnout
Author’s note: All principal names mentioned in this article are pseudonyms.
Have you ever heard a teacher come in and say they’re quitting because of the content, the curriculum, or because the scope and sequence are too tough? The truth is, teachers often quit because of burnout, which comes from not feeling supported. How do you combat burnout? Three principals in a high-turnover district share how they beat the odds through intentional teacher support.
Principal 1: Build Relationships and Trust
Principal Miller serves a large high school in a high-poverty urban district where teacher attrition is a significant issue, as 1 in every 5 teachers leave the district each year.
“I realized quickly with that turnover that we needed to reset it, but we had to be intentional about telling people we are on your side and we are here; we are not out to get you,” he says. This meant a fundamental shift in culture. “We had to create an atmosphere, even in a large school, that was more family-like than business-like.” With far more teachers returning every year, the work has paid off.
The Circle of Irritability
Miller believes that everyone wears a circle of irritability that acts as a target. A well-supported teacher may have only a small circle and can withstand a variety of job-related stress. “The smaller the circle of irritability for a teacher is, the greater their teaching will be,” he says. In contrast, unmanaged stress can make the circle grow. “When the circle grows bigger, we tend to take that out on others: students, the rest of the department, on assistant principals, on parents. We are not patient, and we don’t take the time to listen.” Without relationships, Miller finds teachers compound their stress, experience burnout, and leave the classroom.
Miller tries to identify big issues early. Factors such as planning time, professional development, technology, even copy paper all play a part. He tries to remove as many distractions as possible. “If I can take away as many of those things as I can, people feel better and there is less of a reason to give excuses for failure.” By ensuring major needs are met for everyone, he’s better able to layer more specific supports for individual teachers. Miller finds supportive relationships key to shrinking the circle. Teachers who feel they belong take greater ownership and are willing to share their concerns. “If you have a relationship with somebody and they believe in you, they are going to stay. People who have good relationships with kids, good classroom management, good teaching, and are supported by their administrators don’t leave.”
Shrinking the circle takes time, trust, and relationships. “If you have a big circle of irritability, any dart anybody throws is going to get you going,” he notes. “So many times we run [a school] like a business. And I know there is a business aspect, but build relationships and trust with people. If somebody trusts you and has a relationship with you, they will do anything you say. And it takes time. Change does not get solved overnight.”
Principal 2: Always the Teacher
As the principal of a large elementary campus, Principal Rodriguez works hard to be present in classrooms and foster meaningful relationships. “I never forget that I am a teacher first. That’s it. I really try to put myself in their place, where they are,” she says. With a large population of students at risk, instructional consistency is important.
She relies on veteran teacher leaders as mentors to ensure everyone is connected to a team. “The support can go many different ways—discipline support, being visible, and knowing that we have a vision and this is what we are going to do,” she says.
Rodriguez believes in the value of shared decision making to encourage teacher commitment and foster a culture of ownership. “Anything we do, we talk about it … it is not my school, it is our school.” That also means sharing responsibility for student outcomes.
Rodriguez spends time getting to know her staff, working to keep a focus on what is most important. “I just ask, walking down the hall, ‘How is your daughter doing? How’s this? Does your husband feel better?’ Just making it personal because that’s important.”
To understand what teachers are thinking, Rodriguez knows she must be present. “You cannot go into your office, close your door, and expect everything to happen. You have to be visible, you have to know your community, be visible to your community, visible to your students, visible to your teachers and staff.”
Rodriguez actively participates in the work that teachers do in an effort to be viewed as more accessible and transparent. “This morning, we were planning curriculum and I am right there with them, asking questions … I think that makes them feel like we are doing this, not just adding on one more thing to do.”
“Get to know your teachers. Really get to know them and celebrate their strengths,” she says. “Get to know their challenges and provide support for those challenges.” She finds that when teachers successfully work through their struggles, they build greater capacity for future trials.
Rodriguez emphasizes the importance of modeling positivity. “Even if you have had a really crummy day, you have to walk out your door and put your smile on and be positive,” she says. “If they see you, they will think that is part of what our culture is, and they are going to appreciate that.”
Principal 3: Framing the Day
“What’s in your frame today? You have control over what’s in your frame. You want to focus in on something negative today? Sometimes you need to come in and vent. And there is a time and a place to do that, but at the same time, you have to keep focusing.”
Principal Williams serves a traditionally higher-performing middle level school. While the student population is already diverse, the campus is seeing increasing levels of poverty and English-language learners. Instructional needs are changing, and his teachers need greater resources and support.
Williams takes personal ownership in each teacher. “When you hire people, you need to hire people and think ‘Hey, this is my teacher; how can I support them?’” he says. “We spend a lot of time in an interview establishing expectations then and there. It is kind of like a social contract that you do with your kids in the classroom.” He uses the interview as a chance to start the conversation of support. Sometimes vacancies in high-needs areas require consideration of less-experienced candidates. “They are going to be a two- or three-year project, so they need a whole different level of support,” he notes. Spending time with the teacher allows insight into what kind of support they may need such as classroom visits, mentoring, or pairing with a master teacher.
Systems of Support
Williams is deliberate about implementing support systems. He finds student learning needs are becoming more individualized. Even for his veteran teachers, the increased workload due to planning, accountability, and administrative tasks can be overwhelming.
To help reduce stress, Williams tries to find the seemingly small concerns that can quickly accumulate. “How do you retain people who aren’t satisfied? I think that it comes from a philosophy of support. That is, when you are unhappy in your job is when you don’t feel supported,” he says. By addressing these early, he hopes to build trust. He also shares that he wants teachers to find a balance between career and family.
Each day, Williams looks to “fill his frame” by seeking out the best in his teachers. “I want to find staff doing something right. This reinforces what you want them to do,” he says. “You can find people doing the wrong thing all the time. Is that what you want to spend all your time on?” Recognizing the challenges of teaching and celebrating successes can have a positive impact on school culture. By encouraging his teachers to maintain perspective and refocus their attention by framing the day, Williams works to emphasize their successes. “You are the photographer for that day. This life has its ups and downs; we can focus on whatever we want to.”
The Relational Principal
Every teacher lost to burnout diverts valuable resources that could be better spent fostering school culture, growing teachers, and improving student outcomes. These principals all held a similar belief that when teachers feel supported, they will stay.
Forrest Kaiser, EdD, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas at Tyler. He has served as principal of four schools and currently works to prepare a new generation of school leaders.