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Recognizing When It's Time for a Change

From switching schools to pursuing new opportunities in the district, teachers can make changes to address their burnout, writes a teacher career coach.

May 26, 2021
Ken Orvidas / The iSpot

It’s been a rough year for all of us—no one has a corner on the stress caused by the pandemic. For educators in particular, there has been a continual upheaval to their work since the pandemic started, and it’s made some teachers reevaluate where and what they teach, or whether they want to keep teaching at all.

For the last eight years, I’ve been working with burned-out teachers as a career coach after a 33-year teaching career. When I start meeting with teachers, they always rush to tell me that they love their students. Many say that if they could be left alone to teach, they would be happy to stay in the profession, but they have found that the other aspects of the job—testing, administration, parents—have become increasingly hard to tolerate. Some teachers feel they are no longer making the difference that they wanted to make when they started their career.

Though these feelings are common, many teachers bury them and become increasingly burned out. Over time, this stress will take a serious toll; it’s only a matter of when. The good news is there are ways to address teacher burnout and brainstorm different solutions—including no longer teaching.

Take a Pulse Check

Start by making an assessment of how you feel—and identify some causes of those feelings—by asking yourself some self-reflection questions:

  • Do you feel so negative about your job that you can’t enjoy the good parts of it anymore?
  • Do you typically associate with other colleagues who feel the same way you do?
  • Are you pulled in so many directions that you feel you are always running behind?
  • Is there a specific stumbling block or are there triggers that make your work challenging?
  • Is there something particular you feel is missing from your work?
  • Do you dread going to work on Monday?

These questions may help you identify the root cause of your burnout—and the solution.

Birds of a Feather

Jim Rohn has said that “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.” So what would be your average? Is it more positive or more negative?

Of course, you need to have friends at work. But if you find that you are mostly negative just when you are interacting with certain colleagues, start creating boundaries with those interactions. Stay out of the teachers’ lounge, which is often where gossip and negativity can brew. Avoid workplace drama, and don’t put up with unprofessional or childish behavior. You have control over whom you choose to spend time with, so pick your work friends carefully—they may be the ones impacting how you feel about your job.

Audit Your Time

Many teachers are so dedicated to their job that they can unintentionally neglect their spouses and even their own children. This can be driven by the culture of their school but also can be an individual choice—and mitigated with some shifts.

A to-do list.
©Cozine/Shutterstock

When it comes to coursework and grading, assess what you have to do and what you choose to do out of habit. Consider every assignment and its value, and then cut out unnecessary grading that consumes your free time and takes away from your family, sleep, or activities that rejuvenate you.

Another way to set healthy boundaries is to be careful about volunteering for extra work. Teachers are natural helpers, but they can be guilty of overvolunteering. It’s OK to say no. If you find it challenging to do, then practice. It becomes easier the more you do it.

Opportunities in the Building

Sometimes teachers become so focused on what’s happening in their classroom that they are unaware of opportunities that may exist inside their school that may dramatically impact how they feel. There are other roles teachers can fill that keep them grounded in education while getting them out of day-to-day teaching.

Some of my clients have realized that their stress and burnout was caused by teaching the wrong grade or subject matter, for example. It is possible that if you teach middle school, you would prefer interacting with high school–aged students, while many elementary school teachers who teach fourth or fifth grade would be very comfortable in a middle school. It may take some trial and error to determine, but reflect on whether there seems to be a disconnect between you and the students or subject you teach.

Other teachers have pursued additional training, such as a tech certification, to learn something new and fulfill a need within the building. Many teachers I’ve worked with have transitioned to instructional coaching positions at their school, using their expertise in the classroom to help colleagues. A good place to start is letting administrators know you’re interested in learning additional skills and open to opportunities at the school.

District-Level Changes

Every school has a unique culture, and sometimes teachers are simply in the wrong school. A few years ago, I worked with a talented National Board Certified math teacher who was miserable because of the administration at her school. My client thought the only solution was to quit teaching but decided that teaching was in her blood, so she transferred to another high school. She is much happier now. Evaluate whether your frustrations seem tied to your school’s leadership, policies, or practices rather than the classroom. You may just have the wrong fit.

Other teachers are ready for another move in education. They may be bored or dream of being in a decision-making capacity after classroom teaching. Teachers can go on to become assistant principals and principals, or hold district administrative positions like human resources or curriculum design. If this sounds like you, determine whether you need additional training, and look for openings at the district level.

When It’s Time to Move On

When you feel there are more cons than pros, it may be time to move on from education altogether. I have one client who has decided to start her own travel agency and another who had an idea for a service similar to Stitch Fix. If you have decided it’s time to leave teaching, determine what type of job would be a good fit for you based on your interests, aptitudes, strengths, and experiences—there are a number of free assessments available online.

Most recruiters and hiring managers, no matter the industry, are looking for people who are confident in their abilities to transition from one realm into another. I tell teachers looking to transition out of teaching that they need to learn how to speak the language of the job description instead of writing their résumés and cover letters in teacher jargon that doesn’t translate well to the new position.

Remember, there’s no shame in asking for help when you’re feeling burned out; teacher stress and burnout is exacerbated by not making changes when you need them. It could be a simple fix, or it could require a long-term change. But the cost of doing nothing over time will hurt your physical and emotional health. If you are a teacher who has given it your best shot and are still frustrated, consider that it is likely your students are frustrated too. It may be time to think about what you could do differently so you don’t dread going to work on Monday.

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