It is a truth universally acknowledged that teachers are leaving the profession in droves, notably in their first few years at the job.
Can it be that they – we – just don’t have enough ‘grit’? Perhaps. Or maybe we’re all just flaky millennials who can’t commit? Maybe, though many early-career teachers aren’t in their twenties. Instead of throwing up controversial hypotheticals, let’s dig a little deeper into some of the facts.
FACT 1: Teaching is Stressful
I know I’m likely preaching to the choir here, but it’s worth acknowledging it ourselves, lest we be persuaded by ignorant outsiders in awe of the holidays.
Teaching is stressful. We know it because the research says it. We know it because the media reports it. But mostly, we know it from experience.
When I do meet the very occasional uninformed, unwitting outsider who doesn’t ‘get it’, I explain it this way:
“You work at an office/worksite, right? Let’s say that you’re the head of that office department/worksite. You get 30 new interns/apprentices at the start of the year. And you need to train them to do XYZ by the end of the year. Sounds easy enough, right?
“But let’s say that seven of them don’t speak English fluently, and two of them not at all. At least half of them have some issues at home. Four of them turn up late almost every day, if at all. One has a physical disability that you need to cater for without training. Six have a diagnosed disorder of some kind and you’re pretty sure at least another three do because they are yelling/being aggressive/not learning an awful lot. A third of them barely read or write. Most of them don’t want to be there. But they have to be. And you have minimal time to prepare and have to consistently fill in data about them, develop their social skills and answer to a bunch of stakeholders. You’re on your own in the teaching and planning most of the time. And you barely have time to go to the loo.
“How are you going to handle it?”
Usually with a startled look and a new appreciation for teachers.
Basically, there’s an awful lot to do in a small amount of time, with a lot of pressure and not enough resources, and there’s children’s wellbeing, education and futures on the line.
Dang! It’s stressful just reading about it.
FACT 2: Teachers are Perfectionists and Caring
Controversial, perhaps, but for many teachers this is the case. Certainly, the research suggests that it’s often perfectionists who get burnt out and leave the profession.
Teachers are often people who have had an experience of achieving well at school themselves, or reasonably well. That makes sense, right? Or else we wouldn’t decide to return to school. Many of us are used to doing well and receiving praise for doing well.
Our personal standards are high, which is great, but often they’re so high that they are unachievable and indeed impossible to maintain.
So what do we do? We work around the clock for a couple of years and when we don’t achieve our impossible standards we beat ourselves up over it, burn out and perhaps eventually leave teaching for another career.
FACT 3: We Live in a Changing World
To quote my fifth-grade self, “nah, duh!” The world has always been changing. Every moment it is changing.
Yep, exactly. The world, society, culture and styles of education have changed, but much of the system and its infrastructure hasn’t. You’ve no doubt all seen the Sir Ken Robinson TED Talk about Industrial-Age Education, but let’s look at this point from a current teaching perspective.
We live in extraordinary times where so much change has happened over such a very short period of time that our society – and our education system – is struggling to cope.
A caring, intelligent person (like yourself) decides to become a teacher because you know education is vital and you feel you can help kids through your work. And you probably had at least one, if not several, teachers who influenced you for the better, and they’ve inspired you to do the same.
But your schooling was a little while ago, the uni course you completed didn’t prepare you so well and, gosh, there’s a lot of behaviour issues. And there’s all the stress and pressure (see FACT 1). And you don’t have to stay in this job. The culture has changed so that people do shift in their work. Your friends get paid a lot more and don’t take stuff home, and they always seem to be having long boozy lunches!
“I can go somewhere else, do something else, be happier and be paid more. The society I live in accepts that and encourages it. That’s it! I’m not going to be a teacher anymore.”
Ringing any bells?
It’s a shame. It’s a real shame, because often the ones who burn out, think about leaving or do in fact leave are the passionate ones who have high standards for themselves. Due to an unsupportive system and many teachers’ own unsupportive behaviours (see FACT 2), they step out of teaching. However, if we could instead find a way for teachers to be happy, healthy, passionate and balanced, and create a system that supports happy, healthy, passionate and balanced teachers, we could really benefit more children and young people.
So, what do we do with this information?
Well, as I see it, there are a few options:
Sit and bitch over your coffee in the staffroom at recess, or chardonnay on a Friday afternoon.
Leave and take a different job and enjoy those long lunches.
Adjust yourself and the system.
Each of these are perfectly fine options, depending on your game. Personally, I prefer the latter. I’m looking to change some of my behaviours and some elements of the system I exist in, to better cope with myself, my students and the teaching profession. I’d love you to join me!
What's your experience with burn-out? Are you a recovering perfectionist? Is your school super supportive and adaptive? Share your ideas in the comments box below!
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 Stroud, G. (2017). Why do teachers leave? Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-04/why-do-teachers-leave/8234054
 Pillay, H., Goddard, R., & Wilss, L. (2005). Well-being, burnout and competence: Implications for teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education. Retrieved http://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1403&context=ajte
 Stoeber, J., & Rennert, D. (2008). Perfectionism in school teachers: Relations with stress, appraisals, coping styles and burnout. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 21, 37-53. Retrieved https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18027123