Transparency in Teaching (Stuff) Podcast

BATTLING TEACHER BURNOUT: WHAT TO DO TO PUT OUT THE FIRE

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Google “Teacher burnout,” and you’ll get more articles, blog posts, videos, and social media comments than is humanly possible to look at in a lifetime. (Ok, that may be a bit of a hyperbole, but if you do happen to have enough time to go through them all, then there is something drastically missing from your life, like an actual life, maybe?). According to a 2022 Gallup Poll, “More than four in 10 K-12 workers in the U.S. (44%) say they ‘always’ or ‘very often’ feel burned out at work, outpacing all other industries nationally.” This makes educators among the most burned-out groups in the U.S. workforce. Burnout is real and is becoming more deadly to the teaching profession than the pandemic was to birthday parties.

Psychology Today defines burnout as “a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” A myriad of educational stressors can lead an educator to feel the need to turn in their classroom keys. Things like an unsupportive administration, hostile co-workers, lack of resources, and overwhelming work that requires countless hours beyond the school day contribute to educator stress. There’s also the pressure of high-stakes testing and the time crunch it takes to prepare students for that while still trying to get through the required curriculum. And let’s not forget the increased political finger-pointing from the outside world that makes teachers feel like pawns in an election cycle chess game.

But perhaps the biggest reason teachers want to step away from their classrooms is the increased disruptive student behavior and the lack of administrative and parental action. Teachers understand that the pandemic definitely exacerbated the problem. A year of living in their rooms with nothing but their phones and social media as companions did much to decay students’ ability to return to the norms of pre-pandemic socializing. But regardless of what is causing the increase in bad behavior, those in charge still need strong responses and meaningful consequences given to students who are causing campus discipline disruptions.

Social Media is Ruining Social Skills

Student behavior has steadily gotten worse over the years, and most of the blame for that is social media and students’ addictions to their phones. Research backs up this accusation. Students have grown more lonely and depressed, which seems ironic given that the “social” in social media is touted as a way to bring people together. Many students feel empowered to try outrageous acts after watching their peers get lots of likes and recognition on platforms like Instagram and YouTube. It doesn’t help that the amount of views they acquire leads to big rewards for these content creators. I don’t know how many students I had who said their goal in life was to become a “YouTuber.” (Here is some research that supports this notion: here and here and here. There are LOTS more if you are interested).

This quest for “likes” has fueled many students’ desire for recognition. Posting and viewing content occupies much of the time of many teens. This can lead to “challenges” such as the ones I lived through asking students to video and post antics such as “slap a teacher” and “destroy school property.” We experienced this at our school—extensive destruction caused student restrooms to close for repairs.

Real-life Examples

To illustrate this, I had a friend who was knocked down, kicked, and punched when trying to break up a fight that started in her classroom. Instead of coming to help, students whipped out their phones and videoed the incident to post on their Instagram pages. Then, news outlets found these recordings and used them on their nightly news. Soon, my friend had reporters knocking on her door, asking her to come out and comment. Needless to say, this traumatized my friend even more. What did the district do? Not much. After the administrators tried to empathize with my friend with some consoling and back-patting, nothing happened to the students and those who posted the videos. My friend, however, is on leave indefinitely.

Another teacher friend tried to warn her administration that a new student with a known emotional disability had verbally threatened to kill her. She had tried to establish a relationship with the student, but this would be impossible due to the student’s emotional state. She asked the administrators to remove the student and put him with a teacher who could better help this student. The administration dismissed her concerns, saying that the student understood that they were on their last chance and facing expulsion if they were to misbehave. This apparently didn’t matter, as the student came to school with a loaded gun in their backpack. As a result, another friend is on permanent leave.

How Should We Handle Disruptive Students?

These are extreme but not uncommon examples of what many teachers have to deal with. The bottom line is many teachers just don’t feel safe at school. However, the more common reasons teachers are frustrated are the daily disruptions that unruly students cause. These disruptions can be as simple as a refusal to stop talking during class or flat-out confrontational aggression. Due to changes in discipline policies, unless the student poses a safety threat, many districts no longer allow teachers to remove students for defiance. So a student who tells a teacher they flat out won’t do what they are asked or tells a teacher, “Fuck you!” gets to remain in class. Teachers are asked to have restorative conversations or practice Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) with students. Conversations need to happen, for sure, but when? Stepping out of my class to have a private conversation with a disruptive student is a surefire way to lose the rest of my class in the process.

These changes stem from an abundance of research that has shown that students of color are disproportionately disciplined and removed from class, contributing to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” There is no getting around that as a fact. Still, when a disruption happens in my classroom, my instinct is to put an end to it as quickly as possible, regardless of the color of the student who is causing the problem.

Each teacher’s tolerance level, temperament, and training all factor into how they handle classroom discipline. We all know that one teacher who sends kids out of the room for the slightest thing. At the opposite extreme are those who are so tolerant of disruption that walking into their classrooms is like walking into a three-ring circus. Teachers do not get much, if any, training on how to handle discipline. It’s more like a baptism-by-fire thing, a learn-as-you-go if you will.

Please, Not Another System!

Districts or schools implement new discipline systems with very little professional development (PBIS, comes to mind…). They adopt new programs without consulting teachers or giving teachers time to plan for needed changes. It’s hard for teachers not to get cynical about new programs as they change or even disappear with each new administration or if the school’s program coordinator gets a better job elsewhere. There’s A LOT of eye-rolling when the administration announces new systems at staff meetings. We’ve been down that path before.

If teachers didn’t have to deal with disruptive students, we’d all be running to get to work every day. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing a student’s eyes light up when they finally understand, accomplish something difficult, or experience something new. We love sharing ideas and helping students become contributing members of society and stewards of a better future. Honestly, even with all the demands placed on teachers, if student discipline issues disappeared, I’d bet many more people would choose to become one.

So what can be done?

1). Teacher training programs must do a much better job of helping teacher candidates learn how to deal with real discipline issues. Fourteen weeks of student teaching doesn’t even scratch the surface. There should be entire classes devoted to this, field trips, role-playing, guest speakers, and how to talk to parents. Student teaching should start before the school year begins so that candidates can work with their cooperating teachers to see how they set up a classroom and deal with discipline issues at the beginning of the year. Most candidates start their programs several weeks into a school year, missing all the work that goes into making a class function.

2) Teachers must be part of the adoption process if schools are serious about implementing programs like MTSS, PBIS, or any other trendy new system that seems to work elsewhere. There needs to be adequate training that gives teachers a deep understanding of the system and why it works. Then, give teachers ENOUGH time to make changes to their curriculum and classroom policies. Introducing a new system at the pre-service day meetings and expecting teachers to be happy and compliant is the fastest way to see a possibly good program fail. You’ll never get the buy-in that these big program adoptions need.

3) When a student becomes a problem, work quickly to get the student the support they need. Recording a problem ten times before anything happens (which we had to do before a student was removed from a class) is demoralizing for the teacher and frustrating for a class that suffers repeated disruptions. You know it’s bad when students notice how nice the class is when Susie isn’t there. Sometimes, a student needs to be removed from class to keep order. Schools must develop systems that allow teachers that option without stopping and filling out paperwork. The administration needs to figure out a better way to work with these students than giving them a bag of chips and a soda and sending them back to class. It sends a horrible message to the rest of the class and any would-be troublemakers. (Yes, that really happens!)

For Parents

4) Support teachers who call you about your child’s behavior. I don’t know any teacher who delights in having to make those calls. If a teacher calls you, it is because they are genuinely concerned about your child. They are asking for your help. I was so nervous when I had to call because I never knew if the parent would be helpful or tear me a new one. Share information that may help the teacher better understand your child. Give the teacher the benefit of hearing their side before you assume your child’s innocence. I’d be especially suspicious if your child’s first words when they walk in the door are, “You might get a phone call from Mrs. Smith, but I didn’t do anything wrong!”

5) Monitor who your child hangs out with and their social media (You’re the one paying for the phone and phone service, so don’t feel guilty). Personally, Keep track of their grades and homework by using the online systems that most schools have in place. These things can give you clues to how your child is doing in school academically and socially. It may help you intervene before things get out of hand. Be a partner. Attend conferences, join the PTA, volunteer at your child’s school, and visit classrooms when possible. You’ll have a much better idea of what is going on and what your school is doing to support your child.

6) Last, teach manners, like saying “Please” and “Thank you.” “Excuse me,” “Can I help?” Teach empathy and compassion. I always tell students they are the ambassadors for their families. Like it or not, people will judge you and your family based on your actions. I used to threaten my boys to be on their best behavior since they attended the same school district I taught in. The last thing I wanted was for colleagues to say, “ Damn, I’ve got Kartun’s kid!”

Put Out the Fire Before It’s Too Late

The consequences of educators’ stress are far-reaching, affecting not only the well-being of teachers but also the quality of education that students receive. Districts must move to improve the management of disruptive student behavior if they want to significantly improve workplace well-being and teacher resilience. If improving job satisfaction in education doesn’t take precedence, schools will be hard-pressed to find the highly qualified experts this job demands, especially since research demonstrates that the quality of the teacher is the strongest predictor of student success.  A teacher’s job is to instill a burning desire for knowledge, but they shouldn’t get burned in the process.

Here are the links to the resources used to create this week’s episode:

K-12 Workers Have Highest Burnout Rate in U.S.

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