Commentary

Community must come together to help teachers avoid burnout

It’s that back-to-school time of year again. Kids are donning their backpacks, sharpening their pencils and swapping summer stories as they settle into classroom seats for another school year.

Meanwhile, teachers are buckling their figurative seat belts and devising ways to not let the frustrating and draining aspects of their jobs affect students. For teachers, this promises to be another school year of overwhelming professional demands.

More than 41% of teachers leave the profession within five years of starting, and teacher attrition has risen sharply over the last two decades, according to a 2014 study. This amounts to a loss of half a million U.S. teachers every year. When I wrote my recent book on teacher burnout, similar statistics took up a two-page spread — and that was after drastic editing.

It takes extensive education, rigorous assessment and considerable preparation to become a teacher. As for intentions, 85% of teachers said they became teachers because they wanted to make a difference in children's lives, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and 90% of students believe their teachers care about their learning.

When we lose teachers, we lose good folks who had the potential to shape our students – and our world – in positive ways. What is chasing these professionals away? What is causing this epidemic in teacher burnout?

To answer, let me simply share what a single hour in a teacher’s work day entails. Teachers must connect with every child, assure kids they care, hold young attention spans for the entirety of the class, differentiate instruction so every student is engaged and challenged, provide individualized feedback, shift direction to incorporate new tools and curriculum, juggle ancillary job requirements, incorporate the latest technology to prepare students for a career world that doesn’t yet even exist and notice and treat non-academic needs.

They also have to develop character, learn and implement new approaches to teaching and classroom management, keep children from fighting, use lessons that leverage and celebrate children’s cultural backgrounds, assess and grade students’ work, remain vigilant in fighting bias, vary lessons so class doesn’t get stale, accommodate learning challenges, adjust for the needs of non-native English speakers, foster a collaborative relationship with colleagues, use data analytics to inform decisions and involve parents.

They have to stay up to date on every subject, adhere to administration’s requests, teach concepts, teach the “whole child,” engage critical thinking and maintain a smile and sense of humor.

I didn’t even capture all the things a teacher must do, but I think you get the picture. Teachers can take steps to avoid burnout, such as implementing efficient grading practices and collaborating with colleagues. However, there is much community members surrounding teachers — whether we have children or not — can do to make the job more sustainable.

As this new school year begins, we can ask ourselves: When was the last time I volunteered at a school event? Are there classroom items I can donate to my local school? Can I use my expertise to deliver a standards-based lesson as a professional visitor? Can I let a principal know I’m here to help if any teachers have a way for me to contribute? At the very least, when we read about teachers, talk about teachers, or meet teachers, can we treat them with the utmost respect?

I hope so. Let’s each lend a hand to help our community’s teachers enjoy a school year without burnout.

JENNY GRANT RANKIN lives in Laguna Beach and teaches at the University of Cambridge in England.

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