Teacher Leadership

Teachers Helping Teachers: Eight Ways to Prevent Burnout

Teacher and blogger Katy Farber suggests that support between teachers can go a long way.
June 15, 2011

Editor's Note: Katy Farber teaches fifth and sixth graders in the Burlington, VT area. She's also a mother, blogger, and author. The ideas in this post are based on Katy's recent book, Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus

You know the feeling. It happens when you see other people out for walks during their lunch hour (and you just spent 10 minutes "eating" while emailing a passive aggressive parent). Or when you hear how you need to try this new teaching technique, even though you have been doing it for years. Or when you are up all night, sick, and have to crawl to the computer to write your sub plans. You think, "How much longer can I do this?"

We all know that teaching has gotten increasingly more difficult to manage. We're constantly asked to do more with less. And there is no end in sight to the increasing pressure on us from standardized testing, parents and administrators, contentious bargaining sessions, the current anti-teacher climate, and top-down leadership.

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Teachers need to band together to support each other and make teaching a more sustainable career. There are several things we can do for each other and for ourselves.

1. Support Teachers in Times of Need. When someone on your staff is going through a difficult time, a thoughtful gift from his or her fellow teachers can mean a lot. A fund can be created at the beginning of the year. Each staff member can bring 20 dollars (or what they can). One person can be in charge of this amount, and select appropriate gifts or support when it is needed. In my school, we call it the Sunshine Fund, and through it we have delivered gift baskets to those recovering from surgery, transportation funds for someone whose family member was seriously injured and in the hospital, and meals to new mothers. This is a meaningful way to support each other, and it builds community and morale.

2. Plan for a Better Work/Life Balance. A small group of teachers can improve the climate and community of the school by planning some activities that support wellness. I don't mean another canvas bag or mug! This could be a weekly running or walking group, monthly get-togethers, weekly treats in the teachers' room, or other meaningful ideas. Wellness funds could be used for weekly yoga classes as well. We need to encourage each other to be involved in activities outside of school.

3. Provide Back Up. Have a meeting with a difficult parent? Plan to take a trusted colleague with you. Is your colleague having a rough day? Do their recess duty for them. These acts of kindness show solidarity, community, and kindness.

4. Support New Mothers. Sleep-deprived breastfeeding new mothers face many challenges as they return to teaching. Support them in helping to find a secure place to pump milk, and work with staff to provide coverage so they can continue to work and provide breast milk for their babies. This can be challenging in a space- and time-strapped school -- but it is essential to creating a family friendly, breastfeeding supportive environment.

5. Seek Leadership Opportunities. Teaching lacks a clear career ladder. Many teachers don't want to become principals, but they want to explore other professionally paid challenges. Seek out opportunities to extend and enrich your profession, such as mentoring, coaching, teaching college courses, or writing.

6. A Change Would Do You Good. When you feel like quitting, it might be that you are simply ready to teach another subject, grade level, or in a different school. I was inspired by a colleague who spent 10 years teaching fifth and sixth grades, and then moved to teaching kindergarten. Changing your position or school might be a better fit and a way to rejuvenate your teaching.

7. Band Together. Teachers can and should work together to forward the interests of public education and teaching. We can meet together and take action on issues of importance such as the environmental health of a school, the leadership, endorsing (or not) school board members, and taking positions on certain policy decisions. Joining your local union, and getting involved directly with supporting schools and public education, can lead to empowerment and further engagement.

8. Create a Positive, Supportive Climate. The last thing teachers need is to feel more isolated! Teachers need to collaborate, problem-solve, and share successes often. This should be regular, planned, in school time. Sometimes administrators need to be reminded of this. If the climate deteriorates for any reason, handle it directly before people are hurt and disenfranchised. This could be through staff meeting discussions, or through a group reading of a book such as Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Roger Fisher.

These are just a few ideas that can help teachers stay positive, empowered, and connected to their school communities. In these increasingly challenging times in public education, teaching is harder than ever -- and it doesn't look like that will change anytime soon. Teachers can support each other to make each day a little brighter. And that's a start.

What are your ideas for how teachers can prevent burning out?