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BLOG: Why do teachers burn out?

burnoutKatie Ashford is an English teacher in a secondary school in the Midlands, these are her individual views.

Hello everyone. My name is Katie Ashford and I am a workaholic.

Giving up working insanely hard was more of a challenge than giving up smoking. The threat of yellow teeth, empty pockets, lung cancer and premature death was enough to make me pack in that filthy habit over a year ago, but working harder than is necessary and healthy, for some reason, is much tougher to quit.

Allow me to transport you back to September 2011, when I began my foray into the world of teaching. I was catapulted out of Teach First summer training into a school in Special Measures, where I suddenly became responsible for 120 kids’ progress in English, was in the firing line when Ofsted came (twice before the Easter break) and accountable to parents and senior leaders when I made mistakes. It was utterly frightening.

Everything was high stakes, and there was high potential for burnout. I had spent my entire summer (and about a year beforehand) reading and thinking about education, and in particular, how I would be able to do right by the students I would be teaching. I’d read lots about the issues kids in ‘challenging schools’ face, and knew how much difference a good teacher could make to their futures. The pressure was enormous and failure was not an option. I had to be the best teacher I possibly could be right from the start.

Of course, for many reasons, I wasn’t very good at all when I first entered the classroom. The kids were in chaos, I was struggling to get things done, and I rarely slept more than 5 hours a night. In short, it was horrendous and exhausting.

It wasn’t long before I started to flag. Trying to work more than is humanly possible was obviously ridiculous, and was beginning to show in the lines on my prematurely wrinkled forehead. I was walking around in a sleepy haze, unable to push the emergency stop button on the relentless treadmill of marking and data. The holidays were still a way off, and I was on the brink of burning out completely.

And I wasn’t alone. I speak to countless teachers who feel this way, who work more hours than they should, have very little social life and rarely get a good night’s sleep. But does it have to be this way? What is it about teaching that means we feel compelled to work all the hours God sends?

There is a strange and unhelpful expectation that seems to float around teachers’ collective conscience, berating us every time we put the exercise books to one side and pick up a biscuit. We see our work as a duty, something more than a job, something that we should be prepared to burn out for. But I’m not sure it has to be this way, and I certainly don’t think we should allow it to be.

Unnecessary Admin

Any teacher that says they manage to clear their desk every night before going home is a liar, plain and simple. A teacher’s work really is never done, and unfortunately, a lot of what we spend our time worrying about is unnecessary, additional administration that could be done more effectively were the right systems in place.

Schools aren’t renowned for being the most efficient organisations, and much of that perception is a result of a lack of sensible systems and practices. Lots of teachers spend hours running around chasing up missing homework or kids who fail to show up for detentions, or filling out reams of behaviour related paperwork. This could be eliminated with a simple homework referral system or strong behaviour policy. Sadly, at many schools, senior leaders leave these things up to the teacher, draining hours of their time, and distracting them from what they really should be doing: planning and delivering lessons, and marking books.

Guilt

Most teachers I have met have extraordinarily high expectations of themselves. They don’t bat an eyelid at staying up until midnight to plan for an observation the next day or to mark a set of books more thoroughly. We convince ourselves that we have to do it, and that if we don’t, the entire world will implode and all the kids we teach will fail and we will have single-handedly ruined their lives.

This guilt is dangerous. It leads to people going in to work when they feel sick: ‘I couldn’t possibly leave year 9 with a cover teacher!’ It leads to classroom grouchiness from extreme fatigue: ‘PUT YOUR PEN DOWN, MICHAEL!’ It leads to hours staring into space instead of marking books: ‘I need a holiday….yawn.’

The brain needs break. Being a martyr and convincing yourself that all hell will break loose if you have a rest is not only silly, it’s also pretty incorrect. The world can cope without you. It was spinning just fine before you came into it, and it will carry on after you have gone. It may be a sad fact, but we all need to get over ourselves a little bit.

Whatever it Takes

Although admirable, the ‘whatever it takes’ culture that seems to have arisen in the teaching profession is rather worrying. I’ve read books that tell me to ‘work relentlessly’ in order to do give my students what they deserve; I’ve heard colleagues say things like ‘you can’t possibly be a good teacher if you leave school at 3:30’; I’ve been made to feel that working insanely hard is just the way it is in teaching, and that if I can’t accept that, then I’m not tough enough and I should quit. We tell ourselves that if we don’t work ridiculously hard, we don’t care enough or we aren’t good enough. This is simply not true. Work hard? Absolutely. Give yourself a mental breakdown in the process? No.

There exists an institutionalised misconception that in order to be a good, caring teacher, you must work all hours. This is wrong for teachers of all levels of experience, but is particularly damaging when a bright eyed, bushy tailed NQT gets the idea into their skull. Burnout comes about quickly, and before we know it, people make themselves ill or leave the profession. It’s an idea that permeates the entire system: teachers rarely brag about how little they have to do, but exchanging stories about the number of books one has to mark or the pressure of looming SLT imposed deadlines is commonplace.

Over-working in this way isn’t just bad because of the potential for burnout; it’s bad because it does not actually make you a better teacher. Sleeping only 5 hours a night is not sustainable and will lead to bigger problems further down the line. We work hard because we want to give everything to our pupils, but we must look after ourselves first and foremost.

And so, as a reformed workaholic, I implore those of you out there who are reading this at 2am after a 19-hour day to turn off your computer and take yourself off for a well-earned break.

Add your comments below:

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Comments

Suzanne Harbourne on 01-02-2014

This is a very poignant article for me but what, in reality, do we do about it?

Lorraine M. on 01-02-2014

I think a few years ago when my children were still in school there were a number of lack lustre teachers and it did all need a shake up. However my daughters boyfriend is an Nqt and it does seem to have all gone into overdrive the training year was a living nightmare with some assessing him as brilliant some as needing improvement leading to much confusion! . This year the hours he puts in are monumental and the pressure ridiculous I can see why some are prematurely burning out !

Jill B. on 02-02-2014

I would say that there have ALWAYS been teachers who don't work hard enough, and teachers who risk working too hard - and in my experience there are far more of the latter than the former. Teaching certainly isn't a job you can do well (I question if you can do it at all) if you don't expect to work in the evenings, part of the weekend and part of each holiday. But it is definitely about balance and being reasonable in your expectations of yourself - and you're absolutely right, Katie, that an overworked and exhausted teacher can't be effective.

I really do believe it can be done but it isn't easy to get the balance right. I think you need to be constantly aware of how hard you're driving yourself and when it's unrealistic and unproductive, and leaders at all levels have to be mindful of this with respect to their own well-being and also to the well-being of those they lead.

See also Alex Quigley's post and my response there.
http://www.huntingenglish.com/2014/01/31/longer-school-days-and-a-worklife-balance/

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your experiences, Katie, and good luck with the balancing act in the future.

Raj U. on 02-02-2014

Thanks Katie, interesting reading for a governor. Sensible efficient school systems & practices would indeed make life easier for all teachers. That means good supportive Senior Leaders who understand it is their job to run school to allow teachers to be as effective as possible.

Mary S. on 08-02-2014

Thank you Katie, I am doing the Teach First primary programme and I couldn't agree more that your well-being must come first. Last term I reached burn-out and couldn't think clearly at all. As a result of perpetual late nights and work-filled weekends I completely lost any spark or personality; I couldn't teach well on 5 hours sleep. This term I have taken the attitude that not everything can be done and if it means I won't have marked a set of books by the next day or uploaded data so be it. My class needs a teacher on at least 7 hours sleep who can think on their feet and and respond spontaneously to anything thrown at them. They pick up on my mood and if I'm drained then so are they.

Danielle C. on 21-02-2014

I have recently gone on maternity leave and made to feel I still needed to do work because of this ridiculous institutionalised misconception. For my first 2 weeks of I worried myself sick about what needed to be done, I've since stopped checking my work email and begun to rest!

Million M. on 11-10-2014

I have finally burnt out after 15 years. I was burnt out not by unruly children but senior management passing on their roles and responsibilies to an already over worked tutors / teachers.

Paper work, poor ppolicies, lazy or incompetent leadership in adult education. Primary teaching - bullying heads scared of OFSTED.

Jugements or should I say labels: you are an outstanding teacher, you are inadequate- but I coached and co wrote the teacher graded as outstanding plus it was one lesson and I hate being observed and get nervous. Tough - your crap and you will be fired.


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