“When you’re working in a very demanding environment, even if you are extremely passionate, you still get a mental and physical fatigue, and it affects your attitude … When you’re a teacher, your job is standing in front of kids for six hours of your day. That can be very difficult and very stressful when you’re feeling worn out.”
The above quote is from an article in The Atlantic, a story I found particularly pertinent given my own experiences and the frustration being felt by many other teachers. As a teacher who left the profession for the very reasons outlined above, I can understand how/why teacher burnout occurs. Whilst my diagnosis with Depression obviously had a significant impact on the stress levels that developed over time, I know of plenty of other teachers struggling to deal with the physical and mental exhaustion that comes with teaching.
Yes, there are plenty who see teaching as being “easy” because there are “so many holidays”, but such notions are far removed from reality. In my experiences, and from my discussion with others, the biggest problem isn’t so much the stressors that occur within the classroom (of which there are plenty), but more the additional pressures that teachers are being burdened with every day and the lack of support systems in place. Too many teacher are simply left to cope with the burdens of a highly important and demanding job with little or no regard from management at school or governmental level about how teachers are coping, both individually and collectively.
For anybody dealing with any additional stressors – whether it be a mental illness such as Depression or other factors, either temporary or longer term – the likelihood of “burning out” is high and, for whatever reason, Queensland schools are seemingly happy to let this happen. In my case, it wasn’t until I had reached a point that I was engaging in self-destructive behaviours and contemplating suicide that my stress and anxiety came to the attention of the school, and that was because I took it upon myself to notify the school that I had sought psychological treatment. The school administration was completely oblivious to what I was going through, despite myriad warning signs that students had picked up on, nor were they particularly interested in my plight once they became aware, which of course only increases any stress, anxiety and depression you may be experiencing as you realise that you are, essentially, on your own in dealing with it.
As suggested by this article, being too dedicated can drive teachers to suffer increased levels of stress and exhaustion and it is often self-inflicted due to an unwavering commitment to their students, as one teacher in the article states, “a lot of people will grudgingly admit that we as teachers are our own worst enemy in terms of burning ourselves out.” However, as another teacher quite rightly points out, working excessive hours if often necessary to achieve the outcomes we want for students, “I have to be here because the amount of time that we spend on this is absolutely necessary.” I know I can relate to such sentiment because I always felt that, no matter how much time I committed to teaching and preparation, it was never enough. Many times I spent an entire night reading essays and assignments that were handed in that day so that I could get them back to the students the next day. The lack of sleep was worth the sacrifice if it meant students had more time to improve upon their assessment and achieve a better result. I would often spend 12 hours or more a day at school and make myself and my classroom available on weekends for those students who needed extra assistance or access to equipment. That is what teachers do, but it comes at a price.
We are never going to stop teachers overdoing things because the dedicated, passionate ones will always go above and beyond to help their students. What we need is better support mechanisms in schools to identify those teachers at risk of burn out and have strategies in place to assist them. I don’t know how I reached the point of self-destruction without anybody noticing, but it is happening all too often. For me, reaching that point simply resulted in Education Queensland determining that I was no longer suitable to teach because they felt I was a risk to myself and therefore a risk to students. The fact that I had already taken steps to access treatment for my stress and anxiety was irrelevant in their eyes. As far as they were concerned, anybody who “can’t handle the pressure of teaching” is an unacceptable risk and should no longer be permitted to teach. Needless to say, such an attitude didn’t exactly help reduce my stress and anxiety levels and ultimately it was a battle with bureaucracy that I knew I could not win.
It is the school administrators and governmental bureaucrats (many of whom have never been in a classroom as a teacher) that burden educators with an ever growing number of additional expectations and responsibilities without ever providing any of the necessary support mechanisms to help manage stress and anxiety. It is a disgrace how little regard there is for the physical and psychological well-being of teachers. Whilst I have come to terms with my own situation and moved on to a new phase of my life (even though I miss being in the classroom), this article just served to remind me about the demands of teachers and why it is that great teachers are often left with no choice but to leave a profession they love. It seems there are some schools in America at least that are making an effort to ensure teachers do not become prone to burn out, but when are Queensland education authorities going to take the plight of teachers seriously? Given the lack of support services that exist for students in schools here and the lack of consideration for their social, emotional and psychological needs, I guess the development of any strategy that might serve to assist and support teachers experiencing stress and anxiety is still a long way off.
You can read the full article here.