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  • Writer's pictureKevin Shorner-Johnson

Teacher Burnout and Demoralization: Naming, Listening, and Repair on this COVID Anniversary

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

I remember standing outside the elementary school, waiting to pick up my son from kindergarten, knowing this was likely the last pickup for a time, while we ‘waited a few weeks’ for the COVID-19 virus. Later, I felt the dissonance of watching March flowers bloom while simultaneously counting COVID deaths and waiting for the “all-clear.”


Man at the window during COVID
Photo courtesy of Megan Holmes, Unsplash

After that moment, if you are like me, memories become disjointed and hazy. I remember destructive national conversations as teachers returned to classrooms. I remember spray bottles, wipes, and constant quarantines that made just moving from one room to another a mountain-climbing task.


Then, one year later, in the fall of 2021, I remember a year that was supposed to be better but was not. I heard the voices of my teacher friends who described chaos without guidance. Simultaneously, I remember packed school board meetings filled with masking protestors with seemingly little concern for the lives of teachers.


Woman at the window
Photo courtesy of Vonlanthen, Unsplash

As I interact with my teacher colleagues, I sense these events are traumas. I sense that we each have a unique story of how we felt drained, exhausted, undermined, and defeated. And I sense that as we return to “normal,” we have not sufficiently asked each other about our pain, nor have we taken steps to address collective and individual traumas.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers had almost every form of learning, every routine and procedure turned upside down.

Stories about teachers at a global level often use a simplified story of burnout and exhaustion to describe what teachers faced and experienced. I increasingly find stories of burnout inadequate at capturing the multilayered complexity of individual pain.  Our ability to heal is dependent on truth-telling spaces for naming and listening to pain.


This past year, researchers published several studies on teacher experiences during COVID-19. Studies indicate that teachers experienced exhaustion, anxiety, harmful health outcomes, and demoralizing losses of agency, trust, meaning, and purpose. To uncover these findings, I examined a sampling of nine major recent studies and articles. I hope you might find resonance within your own story, normalizing pain and imagining systemic changes that will repair our learning communities from the harms of pandemic times.

Stethoscope on woman's chest
Metaphors of Listening to and Naming Pain, photo from Wix

Studies of Teacher Burnout

 

Pressley’s (2021) early study examined teacher experiences of burnout in October of 2020. Recruiting 359 teachers, Pressley found that diverse measures of anxiety and administrator support were significant (p = .000) predictors of teacher burnout.


A subsequent study by Pressley and Ha (2022) found significant relationships between administrative support and efficacy (p< .001) and teacher stress (p< .001). When teachers experienced a loss of efficacy, they encounter heightened feelings of stress. Consequently, stress also has a significant relationship with measures of teacher anxiety. Forms of stress are interconnected with the absence or presence of administrative support. Traumas, stressors, anxieties, and supports formed an interconnected web of teacher experiences.

Spider web
Our wellbeing is part of an interconnected system. Photo by Shannon Porter, Unsplash.

One of the most significant studies by Kush et al. (2022) pulled data from nearly 2.8 million respondents to the US COVID-19 Trends and Impact Survey. The largeness of this data set allowed researchers to compare teaching with other professions.  This survey contained questions about depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and feelings of isolation.


Results indicated that teachers faced significantly (p < .001) higher rates of anxiety than healthcare (OR 0.696; d = -0.2; CI 0.68: 0.71), office (OR 0.807; d = -.12; CI 0.79: 0.83), or other professionals (OR 0.78; d = -0.14; CI 0.76: 0.80).


COVID-19, aggressive political rhetoric, and disruptive changes might fit the model of “workplace conditions” that made teaching a high anxiety profession.

Teachers reported significantly (p < .01) more depression and isolation than healthcare workers. However, office workers and workers classified as other reported more depression and significantly more isolation (p < .001) than teachers. When remote teachers were compared against in-person teachers, remote teachers reported significantly more “depressive symptoms (OR 1.12, d = 0.06) and feelings of isolation (OR 1.56, d = 0.25) than those teaching in person” (Kush et al., 2022 p. 596). Being together with colleagues, even in a very stressful and often dangerous situation, may have been a protective factor for teachers.


Why did teachers report being more anxious than healthcare workers?


Pittman and Karle’s (2015) book on the neuroscience of anxiety describes anxiety as related to elements of fear and worry that are built to protect us from uncertainty. The human brain can be described as a prediction engine, using past experiences to make predictions about the future. When we operate from fear and uncertainty, our entire body is engaged in response.


At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers had almost every form of learning, every routine and procedure turned upside down. The political environment and conflicting decisions about COVID protocols appeared to call into question the predictability of situational responses. Given this, it makes sense that teachers carried higher rates of anxiety than any other profession.


Woman experiencing anxiety
Photo courtesy of Joyce Kelly, Unsplash

Anxiety and the Impact of Workplace Conditions


Ferguson, Frost, and Hall’s (2012) pre-pandemic study on teacher (n = 274) anxiety, depression, and job satisfaction attempted to tease out the conditions that impact teacher mental health and satisfaction. When anxiety was studied, researchers found significant (p < .05) relationships between anxiety and employment conditions (standard r = .232) followed by workload (standard r = .188) and student behavior (standard /r = .173). When researchers analyzed teacher depression, they found significant (p <.05) correlations for workload and student behavior, but not for employment conditions.


While this study was conducted with a regional Canadian sample in pre-COVID times, I wonder if this finding about a relationship between employment conditions, workload, and anxiety might explain COVID experiences. COVID-19, aggressive political rhetoric, and disruptive changes might fit the model of “workplace conditions” that made COVID teaching a high-anxiety phenomena.


The Toll of Anxiety and Stress on Teacher Health and Wellbeing

 

Stressed woman
Anxiety and Stress have an impact on teacher sleep. Image from Wix.

Debilitating anxiety and stress take a toll on our health and wellbeing. We may find ourselves unable to sleep, ruminating on thoughts outside our control. We may find ourselves exhausted and physically susceptible to illness.


Research studies of teachers in Ireland and music teachers in the United States indicate the accumulated pressures of COVID-19 took a toll on teacher sleep and wellbeing.


Using questions on burnout (personal, work-related, student), job satisfaction, and valuation, Minihan et al. (2022) studied the impact of COVID-19 occupational stress on 245 Irish teachers.  Researchers noted “100 participants (42%) lacked confidence in their ability to remain safe while at work” (p. 2). Participants noted their physical (n = 78; 37%) and mental (n = 136, 59%) health deteriorated during the pandemic, with 70% of participants reporting a reduction in sleep patterns. Thirty-three percent of respondents reported increased alcohol consumption.


Knox (2022) asked similar questions about the health and wellbeing of 109 music teachers. These participants noted that the work of being a music teacher had significant health-related impacts and 85.6% of respondents identified they would benefit from receiving professional mental health help. However, only 21.2% of teachers reported they were currently receiving mental health help. Teachers described feeling stretched too thin to consider help and support.

This sense of ‘being on’ led music teachers to report that they often had to be false versions of themselves, sweeping emerging pain under a COVID mask of perseverance.

A research participant commented that it was "not uncommon" for her to cry in the car on returns home. A participant stated:


“Because our job as music educators requires more time than just a regular school day, we are expected to be ‘on’ all the time. We are faces in the community and if something is wrong with us everyone knows. There’s a lot of extra pressure put on music educators.”


This sense of ‘being on’ led many music teachers to report that they often had to be false versions of themselves, sweeping emerging pain under a COVID mask of perseverance.


Ninety percent of Knox's (2022) respondents reported having trouble sleeping sometimes, often, or very often.


Knox (2022) concluded, “Music teachers haven’t just reached their breaking point, but surpassed it, further imperiling a profession that has long struggled with low pay and declining morale” (p. 13). Distressingly, 53.8% of respondents identified thinking they made a mistake in their career choice.


Professionals in Crisis without Necessary Supports


Taken together, these research studies paint a picture of professionals who recognize they are in a state of cyclical crisis without access to necessary supports. Marshall et al. (2022) reported data from the CDC indicating that one-third of surveyed teachers sought counseling “during the pandemic, compared to 20.3% of all adults” (p. 8). Given Knox’s findings, I believe these data underrepresent teacher needs.


COVID-19 conditions impacted sleep, stress, and feelings of safety amidst high levels of work and destructive patterns of self-care. Teaching has always been a difficult profession that wears down teachers during intense periods. However, the experiences during COVID-19 point to abnormal wear-and-tear that were particularly destructive.


My Brain Feels Like a Browser with 100 Tabs Open


The aptly named 2022 article by Kim, Oxley, and Abury titled “My brain feels like a browser with 100 tabs open” described the accumulating mental and emotional load of teaching in COVID-19. This longitudinal interview study shadowed British teachers and head teachers (n = 24) at time points throughout the 2020 year to chart changes in wellbeing. Studied teachers and headteachers first experienced momentary relief as everything shut down in March of 2020. However, this was followed by steadily declining qualities of mental health and well-being.


“I feel like I’m on overload. My brain feels like a browser with 100 tabs open. There is so much to think about all the time”

Teachers identified feeling as if they were caught between burdens, drastic levels of uncertainty, and the simultaneous feeling of the profession being under assault. One male secondary teacher noted, “There’s so much that you have to remember that it just absolutely owns your brain” (p. 308). Using the metaphor of a web browser, a female secondary teacher reported, “I feel like I’m on overload. My brain feels like a browser with 100 tabs open. There is so much to think about all the time” (p. 309). Feelings of cognitive overload were exacerbated by constant uncertainty and the feeling of having “the rug ripped from under me” and being “in a weird alternate universe” (p. 304).


The authors concluded teachers were overburdened without the necessary resources to support job demands. This led to “experiences of stress and anxiety, exhaustion, and a lack of feeling valued as a profession.” (Kim, Oxley, & Asbury, 2022 pp. 312-313). The unprecedented nature of COVID-19 impacted educators on a global scale.

 

Teacher Shortages and Those Who Remain

 

The accumulated effect of stresses on the mental health and well-being of teachers alongside a preexisting teacher shortage in the United States may have set the stage for dramatic challenges. Marshall et al. (2022) reported that 76.4% of teachers “considered leaving their position during the 2021-22 school year” (p. 8). This same article noted that “only 37% of respondents would want their child to become a teacher, an all-time low since the poll began asking the question in 1969” (p. 7). Departures from a profession may create a recursive cycle, where each departure extends and expands the workload of remaining teachers, leading to greater burnout and continuously increasing shortages.

 

Challenging the Simplistic “Burnout” Narrative


Without a doubt, teachers were impacted by forms of exhaustion that taxed every available resource. Teachers were impacted by constant uncertainties. And many teachers were taxed beyond capacity, covering for quarantining colleagues and without access to necessary mental, emotional, and physical supports.

"calling it ‘burnout’ tells the wrong story about the kinds of pain educators are experiencing"

However, Santoro (2019/2020) notes that “calling it ‘burnout’ tells the wrong story about the kinds of pain educators are experiencing because it suggests the problem lies within individual teachers themselves” (p. 28). We must interrogate beyond the exhaustion narrative to one that opens complex conversations about teacher demoralization. Prior research has found that teachers describe entering the teaching profession based on a desire to care for children, build better societies, awaken minds, and develop latent potential within students. Santoro notes that a moral drive to “do good” is a significant part of what keeps teachers going.


Prevented from "Doing Good"


When teachers feel like systems and structures prevent them from "doing good," they feel morally compromised or without the autonomy to make decisions for the betterment of students.  Santoro (2019/2020) writes: “for work to be good, it has to be conducted in ways that align with its social purpose. If the work cannot be done ethically, then its social value and purpose are compromised, and its practitioners such as teachers, become demoralized.” (p. 28)


I experienced this narrative of demoralization as I was developing our new master’s program in peacebuilding and social-emotional learning. Roughly 10 years ago, I noticed a shift in teacher body language when I spoke about “reclaiming space for connection and care.” Something changed upon that utterance that allowed teachers to share stories of demoralization. Teachers expressed that the requirements of No Child Left Behind and other policy contexts undermined a fundamental desire to connect with and care for students.


Etown Master of Music Education Students who "Reclaim Space for Connection and Care"

Sitting with this research on burnout and exhaustion, I recognize that “reclaiming space for connection and care” spoke to a moral place within teachers that reawakens original callings. Teachers enter the profession because they want to make a difference in students’ lives. When educators are restricted by political posturing or reactive policies of fear, teachers feel demoralized because their original callings are impeded and devalued.

"for educators to experience well-being at work, they need to feel that their personalities and identities are accepted, that their experiences are validated, and that their full humanity is acknowledged within their school culture.”

Stark, Daulat, and King (2022) note that teachers often feel pressured to solve large-scale societal problems and traumas that are well outside the control of the classroom. Teachers do this while simultaneously exuding an emotional exterior of positivity or “professional perfectionism.” In these contexts, “to ask for help, to be emotionally vulnerable is to be professionally vulnerable” (p. 27).


Teachers may feel pressure to hide their struggling selves while simultaneously attempting to address the global challenges and traumas that accompany an ongoing pandemic. They conclude, “for educators to experience well-being at work, they need to feel that their personalities and identities are accepted, that their experiences are validated, and that their full humanity is acknowledged within their school culture.”  (Stark, Daulat, & King, 2022 pp. 28-29)

 

Demoralization. Burnout. Stress. Anxiety. Depression. Exhaustion.

 

Each of the studies presented identifies the markers of a professional crisis writ large. However, while crises are often studied with large-scale surveys and measures, they are experienced individually at complex intersections of overlapping pain. It is all of our work in caring for one another to listen to overlapping stories of exhaustion, anxiety, stress, depression, isolation, and demoralization.

 

Like the problems facing education, the remedies to teacher well-being are complex and varied. Teachers need autonomy, agency, and trust to make professional decisions in the best interest of their students. Teachers need a workload that balances preparation with connection, work with family life, and physical stamina with the demands of the day-to-day. Teachers need the predictability of routines and procedures to keep everyone safe. And finally, teachers need the freedom and the space to bring the whole of their emotional and moral selves into classroom spaces. Teachers need the space to reconnect with what matters.

 

Recommendations for Teachers

 

I hope this research validates, normalizes, and destigmatizes your individual experiences. The literature on these overlapping experiences of burnout, demoralization, anxiety, and stress recommends some of the following paths to renewal and care:

  1. Teacher support groups – Invest in building meaningful connections with colleagues and conversations that normalize experiences of anxiety, stress, depression, burnout, and demoralization. Open safe spaces for vulnerability, compassion, and care. Research on teacher experiences identifies teacher-teacher relationships as one of the most supportive mechanisms during the pandemic.

  2. Seek counseling or other forms of mental health care as an investment in yourself. We are constantly told to be as busy as possible and that we don’t have time for this investment. Make investments in your care a priority.

  3. Reconnect with your moral and creative reasons for becoming a teacher. Journal about what makes your work meaningful. Identify the barriers that impede you from meaningful work. Reclaim it for yourself and your students.

  4. Identify what is within your control and what is not. When entering a classroom, repeat the mantra “This, here, now,” claiming that we have a meaningful impact on what is here and now before us. When you go home, repeat “This, here, now,” letting go of elements that continue outside of your control, being present in your renewal.

 

We know our children increasingly come to us bearing traumas and social-emotional needs that are an indicator of our collective brokenness. Centering the phrase “reclaiming space for connection and care,” I know that our most important work occurs in the smallest gestures and moments when we fiercely believe in loving and valuing each other.

 

Recommendations for Communities

 

As we experience another anniversary of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to listen to the collective pain of teachers. I believe in the teaching profession. It is one of the noblest callings to care, inspire, wonder, explore, and learn. Yet even the strength of this moral calling has human limits. When teachers are faced with ever-escalating demoralization and challenges to health and wellbeing, it is time for us to listen.

 

References


Ferguson, K., Frost, L., & Hall, D. (2012). Predicting teacher anxiety, depression, and job satisfaction. Journal of Teaching and Learning, 8(1), 27-42. https://doi.org/10.22329/jtl.v8i1.2896

 

Kim, L. E., Oxley, L., & Asbury, K. (2022). “My brain feels like a browser with 100 tabs open”: A longitudinal study of teachers’ mental health and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 299-318. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjep.12450

 

Knox, C. (2023). Mental health matters: Understanding well-being and burnout in music educators. (Master’s thesis, Ohio University).

 

Kush, J. M., Badillo-Goicoechea, E., Musci, R. J., & Stuart, E. A. (2022). Teachers’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Educational Researcher, 51(9), 593-597. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X221134281

 

Marshall, D. T., Pressley, T., Neugebauer, N. M., & Shannon, D. M. (2022). Why teachers are leaving and what we can do about it. Phi Delta Kappan, 104(1), 6-11. https://doi.org/10.1177/00317217221123642

 

Minihan, E., Adamis, D., Dunleavy, M., Martin, A., Gavin, B., & McNicholas, F. (2022). COVID-19 related occupational stress in teachers in Ireland. International Journal of Educational Research Open, 3, 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedro.2021.100114

 

Pittman, C. M., & Karle, E. M. (2015). Rewire your anxious brain: How to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic and worry. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

 

Pressley, T. (2021). Factors contributing to teacher burnout during COVID-19. Educational Researcher, /50/(5), 325-327. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X211004138


Pressley, T., & Ha, C. (2022). Teacher exhaustion during COVID-19: Exploring the role of administrators, self-efficacy, and anxiety. The Teacher Educator, 57(1), 61-78. https://doi.org/10.1080/08878730.2021.1995094

 

Santoro, D. A. (2019/2020). The problem with stories about teacher “burnout”. Phi Delta Kappan, 101(4), 26-33. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031721719892971

 

Stark, K., Daulat, N., & King, S. (2022). A vision for teachers’ emotional well-being. Phi Delta Kappan, 103(5), 24-30. https://doi.org/10.1177/00317217221079975

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