As districts continue to recover from the COVID pandemic, one issue has emerged as the primary concern for school leaders.
No - we’re not talking about student masking or staff vaccines. While these are clearly important (and divisive) topics, another concern has separated from the rest of the pack.
That topic is teacher burnout.
Recent studies indicate that nearly one in three teachers will resign or retire early due to COVID. Combine teacher turnover with the nationwide sub shortage, and educators are being asked to do more than ever before. Throw in 18 months of learning loss with the continued rise of social emotional issues … and you have a recipe for disaster.
Unfortunately, some districts continue to march forward with strategic plans and new initiatives as if burnout is non-existent. "We've got to get our kids caught up" leaders justify upon adding another task to teachers' already-full plates.
But say you want to address teacher burnout. Aside from ensuring school leadership makes each decision through an empathy lens (a complex issue for another time), what practical steps can schools implement to address teacher burnout?
Free yoga classes?
Bring puppies to work?
While I have tried every one of these ideas (yes, even bringing puppies to work), one gift stands alone when addressing educator fatigue: the gift of time.
Certainly, we could theorize the gift of time is important to staff. But what does the research say?
Gary Chapman is best known for his research on romantic relationships. In 1992, he published The 5 Love Languages which explored how couples express and receive love. Chapman found when couples invest time to learn their partner's five unique styles of communicating love - the five love languages - they build stronger and longer-lasting relationships.
Given the enormous success of the Love Languages research, Chapman teamed up with Paul White to discover the keys to effective relationships in the workplace. Called The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, the authors sought to help supervisors effectively communicate appreciation and encouragement to their employees, which would result in greater job satisfaction, healthier relationships, and - ultimately - decreased burnout.
Among their key findings, Chapman and White found that time has become the most valued resource for employees:
"For a while, "time off" was seen as something that younger employees (millennials and Gen X) primarily wanted. But we have found that "time" has become the most valued resource for most employees, regardless of age group."
Unfortunately, many school leaders do the exact opposite. Rather than provide staff flexibility with their time, administrators notoriously micromanage employees. Prescribed curriculums, structured planning, abbreviated lunches, fixed bathroom breaks .... the educational system is the antithesis of flexibility.
Clearly, schools are limited in the amount of time "off" they can give to employees. Ninety percent of educators' day consists of actively monitoring and engaging children, meaning staff can't just come and go as they please.
However, school leaders must understand the psychological importance of time. Rather than throw their hands up and say, "We run a school, there is nothing we can do!" school leaders must get creative in how they manage the workday.
This year, one of my goals was to complete a 20-minute “touch base” meeting with all 120 of our teachers. The purpose of these meetings was to create a safe space for sharing feedback on the district, while also getting to know staff on a personal level.
When I began meeting with teachers in September, I assumed they were still in the “honeymoon” period to begin the year. However, I was surprised to discover a number of staff who already reported high burnout levels. Here are notes from a meeting with a middle school teacher dated 9/20:
“This year, we appear to be dealing with less COVID issues, but we are still trying to cope with the stress. The kids are tough ... and I’m being asked to cover classes ... I just give so much of myself each day. There are days when I go home and just sit down because I’m exhausted. I don't know what it is, but I feel more tired and stressed than ever before.”
Here are notes from a meeting with a high school teacher dated 9/23:
“So this is my 16th year as a teacher. It’s also been my most difficult. I feel as stressed as I would in December, and we’re only five weeks into school. I am stressed beyond belief. The constant covering ... it’s really taking a toll. We need time. We need more time.”
Regardless of building level or content area, the themes of stress, exhaustion, and fatigue kept popping up in my conversations.
Realizing we needed to quickly come up with a plan or risk losing staff (both figuratively and literally), a colleague and I brainstormed ideas - any ideas - that would show our staff "we hear you."
We discussed several ideas: offer mindfulness training, hand-deliver goodie bags, take staff to a movie, bring in food trucks for lunch. But when the dust settled, one idea rose above the rest: giving teachers time.
We developed an idea to generate several two-hour early dismissals. By having students leave early, teachers would have additional time for planning; time that is taken when teachers cover classrooms.
When we presented this idea during an all-staff meeting, you could feel their excitement and relief. Overwhelmingly, our staff supported the idea. Not only were they happy we listened ... they were happy we were actually taking action.
One small hurdle existed - getting the school board to approve the plan. Given this idea would change the school calendar, we needed permission to move forward. However, thanks to a district-wide survey, we had plenty of data justifying the proposal. And after some discussion, the school board unanimously approved the recommendation.
When I shared our plan on social media, our approach received plenty of attention. While mostly positive, a few questions popped up. Here were some of those questions, along with my responses:
“What about student supervision?” During any early dismissal, student supervision must be considered. Understanding that many of our parents will be unable to leave work early - we arranged for paras to supervise students. Also, we asked our transportation department to run two separate bus routes - one at the early dismissal time (1:15pm) and one at the “regular” dismissal time (3:15pm).
“What about lost instructional time?” Philosophically, this was the most difficult question. We already lost over a year of learning … why take more time away from instruction? However, one could argue whatever instructional time is lost will be regained (and exceeded) when teachers are better-prepared to teach the material, as well as more committed to their job because their opinion is valued.
“Won't your community complain?" Every community has individuals who complain about school district decisions. While these people can be exhausting, understand that community perception plays a large role in school success. Therefore, school leaders would be wise to proactively forecast and address concerns when the decision is announced.
“Will your staff abuse the time?” We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: leaders must make decisions based on their best staff. Unfortunately, many administrators worry about their worst staff when making decisions. This mindset results in schools never pushing forward with new innovations. Finally, if you have staff who you know will abuse time … why are they still in your organization?
“But It's hard to collect data!” It’s crazy to see how many districts make arbitrary decisions rather than collect data. Leaders must search for multiple data points to share when making difficult decisions. “Yeah, but our staff doesn't like surveys” you may be thinking. Ironically, the reason most staff don’t like surveys is because leadership never uses their feedback!
“You’re making this sound way too easy!” Certainly, going through the process of collecting feedback, brainstorming solutions, generating buy-in, and implementing change takes work. But isn’t that what leaders are paid to do? Too many administrators see what other districts are doing and say “Oh, that’s cool” but lack the initiative to implement the idea. You are the highest paid employees in your district - it's time to put in some work.
Teacher burnout isn't going away.
In fact - as educators continue to leave the profession and teacher program enrollment continues to decline - teacher burnout will only compound.
Will you continue to operate business as usual?
Or, will you address the elephant in the room?
Our teachers need time.
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