Tackling teacher burnout with real solutions

When a teacher is exhausted from covering a colleague’s class, pulling an extra shift as hall monitor, tracking IEPs and trying to maintain enthusiasm during daily lesson plans; when the principal is unsupportive, school board members imply teachers are incompetent and the job seems thankless—it’s clear that working in public schools is beyond hard. “Crisis-hopping” is how one teacher describes it. “When you’re living that way, it’s not sustainable. It’s the complete antithesis of well-being.”

Photo of teacher with students

Now a new report offers a lifeline. “Beyond Burnout,” produced by the AFT and Educators Thriving, details practical, research-based solutions to improve the chronic levels of stress and burnout that are plaguing teachers and support staff in K-12 schools and contributing to widespread teacher shortages. At the core of these solutions is a call for connection, collaboration and commitment from leaders to support the well-being of educators so that they can, in turn, support their students. 

“Teaching has never been an easy job, but today it’s harder than ever—and this profession needs support and respect if we have any chance of recruiting and retaining good folks to meet kids’ needs,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Burnout is real: This report contains core strategies to address burnout and in so doing helps deter teachers and school staff from leaving the profession and the students they love.”

Tools to ease emotional exhaustion

To determine how best to address the emotional exhaustion so many educators experience, the AFT and Educators Thriving conducted a professional development program for 222 educators, using proven methods to increase well-being. Participants outlined their visions and goals, reflected on their existing strengths and learned about common pitfalls that can lead to burnout. There were sessions on prioritizing, mindfulness, setting healthy boundaries and time management, among others.

Over the course of a year, 92 percent of the participants reported that the program made their job feel more sustainable, and 94 percent agreed it improved their well-being. Emotional exhaustion decreased significantly—even during October, when even the highest back-to-school energy succumbs to the notorious teachers’ blues. These strategies work. In fact, some AFT affiliates, including the ABC Federation of Teachers in Los Angeles County, Calif., the Lynn Teachers Union in Massachusetts and the Cleveland Teachers Union, have already used them in partnership with their school districts.

What is well-being?

The report also tapped into teacher knowledge with a nationwide survey to identify what well-being looks like. The results are hardly surprising: Responsive leadership (from principals and other administrators) and a supportive school culture where staff can share challenges without being judged, for example, mean higher levels of well-being. Educators who collaborate the most report higher levels of overall well-being as well.

Other foundational elements strongly linked to educator well-being were adequate compensation, adequate staffing, and physically and emotionally safe school buildings. Just 14 percent of respondents felt they were adequately compensated for their work, and only 12 percent felt they had the staff they needed to meet student needs.

Of course, personal strategies like mindfulness are not going to solve the teacher shortage by themselves. That will take systemic change. So the AFT addresses both, supporting affiliates as they fight to secure attractive pay—so they can staff up and make workloads more manageable—and advocate for things like manageable staff-to-student ratios and paid time for planning and collaboration. 

“When educators are well-supported, they provide even better learning experiences for their students,” says Weingarten. “But they face stress every day, whether it’s helping students who exhibit signs of distress, dealing with the nonstop paperwork and administrative tasks, or facing the ongoing culture wars that are injecting politics into their classrooms, which can make it impossible to do their jobs.

“It doesn’t have to be that way. By prioritizing educator well-being and collaboration … schools can create an environment that fosters growth, resilience and, ultimately, better teaching and learning conditions for everyone.” This report is a road map for schools that are ready to accept the challenge.

“We can—and must—change the way we support educators,” says Tyler Hester, founder of Educators Thriving. “Until now, there has been strong consensus about what ‘burnout’ means but no unifying definition of educator ‘well-being.’ With a newly defined North Star, articulated by AFT members across the country, the conversation can move beyond burnout and toward clear, actionable strategies to measure and improve well-being.”

To access resources that can help with educator well-being at your school, check out the programs available on Educators Thriving.

[Virginia Myers and AFT communications staff]