When I first became a teacher I distinctly remember being told that what my kids read doesn’t really matter as long as they are thinking “critically” and using “higher-order” thinking skills. And I thought to myself okay, I can do that. And I did. I taught novel after novel. I created (or borrowed or begged and sometime stole) worksheets, tests and projects that I felt taught “critical thinking skills.” But something was off.
That first year was a blur. I never felt ready for the next day’s lesson. I never felt like I was on top of the various initiatives and expectations. I never felt caught up on grading. In the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t think I’ve ever felt “caught up” on grading.
That year I was focused on one thing: surviving.
Year two was less of a blur, but still a struggle. In fact, each year brings with it new struggles: classes are different, students are different, initiatives are different. We are in danger of burning out each year. It’s the best and worst part of teaching: that each year is a new start.
When I think back on it, I’m a bit surprised that I survived my first few years of teaching. According to the National Center for Education Statistics every year U.S. schools hire more than 200,000 new teachers. By the time the school year is over, at least 22,000 have quit. 30 percent of new teachers leave the profession after three years, and more than 45 percent leave after five.
Why? Why do a little less than half of us leave after we’ve spent 5 years in the profession?
Surprisingly, our notoriously low salary isn’t the reason; nor are our students. In fact, less than 20% of teachers who leave say it’s because of low pay. The most cited reasons for teachers leaving the profession are lack of support from administration and feeling powerless in curriculum and instruction decisions. It makes sense. Burnout begins when one feels powerless about curriculum decisions, what to do with department time, standardized testing constraints, or even how to teach. For many teachers, years of feeling powerless can sap their motivation, and they quit.
So, how can we get fight back against burnout? For me it all comes down to two things: collaboration and choice.
Collaboration: In my opinion, most teachers don’t get enough time to collaborate. We have to find it out on our own. Teachers need time: to collaborate and commiserate, to talk about our teaching, to learn about new techniques, approaches or tools. For me, it happens in hallway chats, during lunch and over summer break. I can’t control the time we are given, but I can make sure to use the few chances we are given to my advantage because I know I am a better teacher when given the chance to collaborate.
Choice: No, I cannot always choose to teach whatever I want (let’s be honest, if I could, my classes would all be reading Stephen King), but I can choose how I approach each new educational reform or school focus. We burnout because the rotating cast of initiatives and the “language of education” are always changing. But we have a choice. We can choose to collaborate, approach our lessons creatively, attend professional development and keep an open mind.
When all is said and done, teaching and learning revolves around one fact: true education only happens with intrinsic motivation, a desire to learn because we are passionate about the subject. If we are not self-motivated to become better educators, we simply cannot expect the same of our students.
We can choose to change. We can choose to collaborate. We can choose to find new ways to reignite our passion for teaching. Passion leads to skill, which leads to mastery.
And passion is what protects us against burnout.