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To take care of and for others, you must first take care of yourself. This message is one of my most memorable takeaways this semester.
I have heard the phrase, "Show up for the kids" more times than I can count. It's stated in memos and emails to teachers and whispered in conversations. School districts and administrators try to contradict the message with self-care professional development. But looking out for our teachers means first taking care of and showing up for themselves.
I'm sure you've heard and seen the dozens of stories reporting the high cases of teacher burnout and turnover. It's a crisis, like many others, that was brought to the surface by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teachers changed their teaching format multiple times per week, transformed their curriculum and resources, and adapted to meet the different needs of children and students quarantined at home. Instead of teaching reading and math, they focused on self-regulation, peer interaction, and play strategies. All this change takes a toll on teachers' mental, emotional, and physical states. One person can only do so much to support the constantly developing needs of young humans.
The point is, you've heard these stories before. So, why do we still need to talk about it? Because the problem is not going away. Until there is a systemic change to support teachers' needs, voices, and health, we still need to speak up. In this post, I will share the rates of teacher burnout and turnover; messages from real teachers and teacher candidates; and practices for burnt-out or struggling teachers.
The high rates of teacher burnout and turnover
The national teacher shortage and high teacher turnover rates are not new news. Like many systemic issues, the pandemic brought this crisis to the surface. Teachers are leaving the profession at a much higher rate than before the pandemic. In an Edweek Research Center report which surveyed the likelihood of leaving the teaching profession in the next two years, the percentage of teachers who responded “very likely” increased from 13% in 2019 to 33% in 2021.
The increased burnout, lack of control and respect, and additional responsibilities and expectations are getting to be too much. Many teachers find that it is not worth it to stay with the little pay they receive. Shockingly, “Younger teachers, and those early in their careers, are among the most likely to leave teaching,” according to an Edweek article.
When the pandemic began, teachers were called the new superheroes. Every news channel and talk show praised teachers for their dedication and the problems they face by teaching online. However, there was little federal action to increase pay or lend support to teachers. Instead, professional development seminars were provided on self-care and mental health while discouraging teachers from taking mental health days.
Change within the education system is long overdue. According to an NPR article from 2016, "teacher salaries have been declining since the 1990s." Moreover, there has been a consistent turnover of teachers for decades. All teachers, professors, support staff, and teacher candidates must be protected and represented through federal policy.
Showing up for the kids is not enough anymore. Teachers and teacher candidates, including me, are questioning their career choices. If nothing changes, the number of new teachers entering the profession will inevitably decrease. Then, who will teach our next generations?
Explore the links under the Resources section of this post for more information on the teacher shortage, teacher turnover, etc.
Messages from teachers and teacher candidates
This blog shares mainly one perspective on teaching, teacher education programs, etc. I wanted to change that perspective in this post by opening my platform to other real educators, teacher candidates, or anyone working in the educational field. To protect their confidentiality, I did not share their names or identities.
1. "Finally, it was time for me to leave [after a challenging day in the classroom] and I went to my car and I just cried. I was in total disbelief and I didn't really have anyone to talk to about it. So many thoughts raced through my head, 'Am I good enough for this job?' 'Do I want to continue on this path if this is how these situations affect me?' I told myself I had to keep going because this is what I have wanted to do since I was young, but still I wish I had someone to talk to about the situation."
2. "Exhausting - supporting admin and teachers as they deal with continued challenges."
3. Click here to watch an interview with Vera Ahiyya --of my favorite educators I follow on social media (@thetututeacher)-- describe her experience with teacher burnout.
To read a past post that references outside input from real early childhood educators, check out, "How to Put Our Love for Children into Writing: Writing in Early Childhood Education."
Recommended practices for burnt out or struggling teachers
As I will discuss in an upcoming post, I felt burnt out this semester. I experienced several emotionally charged interactions with students and teachers that were difficult to process at the moment. I sometimes came home mentally and physically exhausted, not having an outlet to talk through my feelings or what happened.
Working in education comes with confidentiality. To protect children, families, and coworkers, I respect confidentiality by not using names or sharing other confidential information or interactions. However, it is difficult to find solutions, validate my feelings, or understand my experiences when I cannot share everything.
And unfortunately, the root of many of these problems stems from the education system. So, what can teachers do to support their mental and emotional health within a troubled system and limited by confidentiality?
The Rain Practice
A few weeks ago, my therapist introduced me to the RAIN practice. The acronym, developed by Tara Brach, stands for:
Recognize what is happening;
Allow the experience to be just as it is;
Investigate with interest and care;
Nurture with self-compassion.
On Brach's website, she describes RAIN as "an easy-to-use tool for bringing mindfulness and compassion to emotional difficulty." Recognition, acceptance, loving investigation, and self-nourishment are skills and steps often forgotten among educators. A heavy or emotionally charged interaction occurs spontaneously or stretches across the school day, but we are encouraged to push it aside and put up a wall. However, these skills are what we teach our students! We must start practicing what we teach.
So, after an overstimulating day, I try to sit in my car in silence. I close my eyes, steady my breathing, and reflect on my day through RAIN. I give myself five or ten minutes and allow myself to be and feel.
Develop positive coping mechanisms
This Edutopia article identifies positive coping mechanisms --including exercise, meditation, counseling, etc.-- as a step in developing healthy habits to prevent burnout. On days teachers come home exhausted or frustrated, it may be easy to fall into unhealthy habits. However, positive coping mechanisms support teachers' long-term mental and physical health.
Find what works best for you to cope with stress. For some, moving your body and removing yourself from the source of the stress helps. For others, silence and reflection work better. A few may find talking through their stress and experiences with a trusted friend, loved one, or counselor is best. Personalize your coping mechanism to your physical, mental, time, and financial needs.
Set boundaries, focus on what you can control, and maintain reasonable expectations
These three strategies, outlined in this Mental Health America article, are interconnected in maintaining control within your professional and personal lives. During the pandemic, lines between professional and personal have been blurred, control seems out of reach, and past expectations have been thrown out the window. Recognizing your own needs is more important than ever.
I get it! It is challenging to leave work at school. I see email and course notifications pop up at 7:00 pm, and I immediately feel the need to open them and reply. However, setting boundaries is healthy to separate your professional life from your personal life. So, when you come home, you can dedicate time to your loved ones.
But how can teachers set boundaries?
Along with the shift in boundaries between home and work, COVID-19 has taken away certainty from everyone, especially educators and families. Even after more than a year since the start of the pandemic, teachers cannot predict or control the format in which they will teach. So, what can teachers control? Free time, priorities, boundaries, and mindset.
And most importantly, be patient with yourself and others. Teachers' expectations are constantly changing to meet the needs of students and families through virtual and hybrid learning. Setting small goals and control factors within your classroom may bring some peace of mind.
Continue doing what you always have. Welcome each student into your classroom community. Provide equitable opportunities to succeed. Meet students' needs through materials and resources you have available.
For additional strategies for teachers and school districts, explore the "Resources" section of this post.
. . .
Writing this post has encouraged me to stop to reflect on the situation at hand and my future career decisions. Despite all of the systemic issues, high rates of teacher burnout, etc., why am I still pursuing teaching?
That's a great question. Right now, I still feel joy when I work with young children. Although some days are difficult, I still show up. I hold on to the initial spark and reasons I chose to become a teacher. When I reach a low point or feel too exhausted to speak or work on coursework, I apply my coping mechanisms.
My biggest accomplishment this semester was recognizing my physical, mental, and emotional needs. I now understand when I need to take a break and what I can push off for later. I found running to be a healthy release of stress and physical tightness. I even started therapy!
However, I want to be honest with you all. I do not know what my career will look like. I don't know whether I will be teaching for the next twenty or thirty years. In the future, I may take a break to focus on different priorities or pursue different dreams. And that's ok!
It's healthy to change things up, and no one should feel guilty for trying different things during their career. For example, I know that I want to teach abroad, attend grad school, and become a professor at some point. My values and priorities will inevitably change and grow.
I guess what I'm trying to say is do what is best for you. Prioritize yourself and your mental health. Accept the differences at hand and meet yourself where you are. That's the most anyone can ask for right now!
Previous post: My Junior Year Plans
Click the link below to learn about the courses, experiences, and opportunities I have planned for my junior year of college!
Click on the links below to explore the sources mentioned in this post!
Video: "Why So Many Teachers Are Leaving This Year: A Teacher's Rant"
Video: "5 Things All Teachers Need to Hear Right Now. . ."
Video: "Dealing with Burnout as a Teacher" - Roadtrip Nation
NPR: "Frustration. Burnout. Attrition. It's Time to Address the National Teacher Shortage"
Edweek: "Teachers' Mental Health Has Suffered in the Pandemic. Here's How Districts Can Help"
Report: "Mental Health and Becoming a Teacher: A Narrative on the Experiences and Identities of Teacher Candidates"
"RAIN: A Practice of Self-Compassion" - Tara Brach
"How to Put Our Love for Children into Writing: Writing in Early Childhood Education"
Edutopia: "How to Fight Burnout"
Mental Health America: "Teachers: Protecting Your Mental Health"
Leave me a comment!
If you like this post, have any questions, or have ideas on how I can improve my blog, leave me a comment below! Your input is always appreciated. As always, thank you for your support.
Take action. Start the conversation. Be the change.
Meghan Hesterman (she/her) is a child advocate and education blogger. While a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), she created Journal of a Future Teacher to share her journey in becoming an early childhood teacher.