Educators Dr Derek Porter and Dr Stephanie McGuire discuss teacher burnout and explain how by embracing joy in classroom, it not only enhances the learning experience for students but also helps teachers stay committed to their purpose.
Teacher burnout is a serious issue that affects educators everywhere. The chronic stress and emotional exhaustion experienced by teachers can lead to a sense of detachment, reduced effectiveness, and physical ailments. However, amidst the challenges of the profession, many teachers have found a powerful ally in combating burnout—joy. This article explores the causes of teacher burnout, highlights the importance of joy in resilience, and presents strategies for school leaders to embrace joy as a part of the school culture to prevent teacher burnout.
- Joy: Joy is a positive feeling where contentment, satisfaction, delight, and gladness intersect. More specifically, in an educational context, joy in the classroom is when students experience the intersection of contentment, satisfaction, delight, and gladness in what or how they are learning.
- Burnout: Burnout is a type of psychological distress – a chronic negative psychological condition that results as day-to-day work stressors take their toll on educators. Teachers who experience burnout have three categories of symptoms: exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished personal achievement (Roloff & Brown, 2011, p. 453).
- Resilience: Resilience is how we deal with professional adversity—by drawing on our inner resources so that we can emerge stronger and better equipped to deal with setbacks or challenges. A resilient person doesn’t just muscle their way through a tough moment; they experience and express a wide range of emotions and intentionally take a number of actions to get through that moment (Aguilar, 2021).
- Rigor: Rigor is an invaluable teaching approach that helps children learn to think deeply, make meaning for themselves, and become aware of their own learning process. As a result, students gain a life skill that can lead both to academic success and a lifelong love of learning (Kelmon, 2022).
I. Understanding Teacher Burnout and its Causes
a. Trendlines of Burnout Post-Pandemic
The return to the classroom has not signified a return to normalcy for many educators. The challenges of helping students recover academically and emotionally, coupled with staffing shortages has led to increased workloads leaving many teachers overworked and overwhelmed. A recent study published in the Educational Researcher reveals that teachers experienced higher rates of anxiety during the pandemic, surpassing even those reported by healthcare workers. The study, which surveyed millions of American workers over seven months in 2020 and 2021, found that both remote and in-person teachers exhibited considerable anxiety symptoms, such as sleep disturbances and panic attacks. The findings suggest that the severe stresses experienced by teachers are unlikely to subside simply by administrative attempts to revert to pre-pandemic routines (Kush et al., 2022).
b. Factors Contributing to Teacher Burnout
The factors contributing to teacher burnout, such as gender and years of experience, underscore the complex nature of educators’ well-being. Gender disparities are evident, as female teachers exhibit notably higher rates of mental health challenges compared to their male counterparts. In the United States, 44% of teachers in K-12 education said they very often or always feel burned out at work. female teachers (55%) are especially burned out compared to male teachers (44%) (Marken and Agrawal, 2022).
In the realm of years of experience, surprising patterns emerge; while one might anticipate older teachers to display heightened anxiety due to health concerns, the study reveals that teachers under 30 are more susceptible to anxiety and depression than those over 50. This suggests that newer teachers may find the multifaceted demands of the profession overwhelming, especially in the context of a global pandemic. Educational leaders are advised to proceed with nuances to create a supportive environment that caters to the unique challenges faced by educators across various contexts (Kush et al., 2022).
c. Major Symptoms of Teacher Burnout
The intricate facets of teacher burnout, cynicism, ineffectiveness, and exhaustion, are indicative of a multifaceted challenge that necessitates a comprehensive approach. The World Health Organization’s definition: “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy” (WHO, 2019). Burnout is characterized by the debilitating impact of energy depletion, emotional detachment, and reduced professional efficacy.
The prevailing emphasis on individual teacher self-care falls short in addressing the deep-rooted issue of burnout. While well-intentioned, this advice places undue responsibility on teachers themselves, neglecting the systemic factors at play. Suggesting that teachers prioritize self-care or “work smarter” doesn’t address the complex realities of the education profession, where burdens often extend beyond the classroom. Recognizing that burnout’s symptoms are mere manifestations of underlying structural challenges. Therefore, fostering an environment where educators’ dedication is met with the necessary resources and understanding is essential.
II. Embracing Joy: Strategies to Prevent and Recover from Teacher Burnout
Since burnout is a rising and valid concern among educators, it is vital for school leaders to consider what systems can be put into place and what cultures they can build to prevent burnout and relieve stress for teachers. That leads us to one of the strongest antidotes of all- joy. When we experience joy, we, as humans, feel positive emotions and the feeling of joy can even become an internal state of being (Bstan-‘dzin-rgya-mtsho et al., 2016). Joy on the job can increase personal functioning which can enhance organizational functioning (Frederickson, 2003) and it can lead to overall flourishing. So, school leaders can and should embrace joy in order to prevent burnout and relieve stress for teachers.
a. Enhanced Administrative Support
School leaders can foster work cultures and climates where teachers feel supported, valued, and appreciated. When speaking with educators during research interviews, each carries stories about ways administrators support their efforts, which has helped to bring them joy. Teachers in schools with high levels of joy speak of administrators that listen to their opinions and trust them to do their jobs. This is powerful, because when teachers feel supported by their administrators, the teachers likely rate their classrooms as being joyful too (McGuire, 2023). The feeling of joy can be then spread from teachers to students, making learning a more joyful endeavor.
b. Increased Teacher Autonomy
Teachers are experts and deserve to be treated as professionals. Teachers can feel this when they are given autonomy over lesson planning and classroom decision-making. Teachers that report classrooms with high levels of joy share their experiences of being free to veer off of the lesson plan to meet students’ needs and capitalize on in-the-moment learning opportunities. Teachers who have freedom beyond scripted lesson plans find opportunities to make learning joyful for their students and share their own joy through creative lessons and unique techniques.
Moreover, research found that there are numerous ways that teachers can make learning joyful for students, leading to the conclusion that there is no perfect recipe to making a classroom joyful. But it does lead to the understanding that teachers need space and the power to use strategies, techniques, and ideas that work for them and their students. More autonomy in using what works means they have what they need to cultivate joy!
c. Giving Teachers Choices in Burnout Care
Teachers share different ways that help them to relieve stress and contribute to their well-being. There are suggestions for educators offering ideas to combat burnout in books, blogs, and on social media. Some include: yoga, meditation, reading inspirational quotes before work, turning off email after contract hours, and keeping notes from students to remember “your why.” The variety of ideas show that burnout care may look different among different staff members, because each staff member is unique. Therefore, offering teachers choices in ways to prevent burnout and foster their well-being will be essential in moving forward in a post-pandemic era.
Allowing for choice in burnout care carries an underlying premise that school leaders will prioritize their teachers having a work-life balance. This means expecting greatness within the bounds of contract hours and allowing teachers to take mental health days, care for themselves and their family members and friends, and giving teachers the space to say no to the initiative that might push them to burnout.
III. Joy in the Classroom: The Motivating Force
We want our teachers to be joyful, so that they can spread joy to their students, since we know that teachers have the capacity to transmit their emotions to students (Frenzel et al., 2009). When students experience joy in what they are learning or how they are learning it, they begin to build the desire to want to come to school and work towards the ultimate goal- to build their love of learning, the fire that can last a lifetime.
a. Upholding Academic Rigor through Maintaining Joy
A common misconception about joy is that it is frivolous fun, chaos in the classroom that is silly and unproductive towards attaining intended learning outcomes. This is not the joy we are elevating in this article. We are marinating on the joy that is the internal emotion where students are satisfied, content, glad, and delighted to be experimenting with new chemicals in Chemistry or exploring primary sources to determine reasons for major historical events, deeply curious to discover how to solve a wicked math problem, or so enveloped in a story they miss the bell to find out how it all ended. If this imagery reminds you of students in flow, then it will be no surprise that others have connected experiences of flow to joy!
So if joy in the classroom looks like those moments above, then surely a lesson can lead to the experience of joy while being rigorous- allowing students to make meaning and learn deeply. Mehta and Fine (2019) speak of classrooms where there is academic rigor and joy in his book, In search of deeper learning: The quest to remake the American high school. Lessons that invite students to think deeply, be curious, and explore the content in more rich detail predict joyful classrooms (McGuire, 2023).
b. Understanding the Link between Joy and Effective Learning
Joy can serve as the key ingredient to developing lifelong learners, as it can fuel passion to continue curiosity and enjoy the learning and discovery process. Therefore, the link between joy and effective learning can be strong and not at odds with common misconceptions. Students can enjoy the journey of learning while effectively meeting the success criteria of the intended learning outcomes.
As teachers and school leaders face the challenges of the education profession, embracing joy can serve as a powerful tool in resisting the pressure of burnout. By implementing various strategies to promote mental fitness, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and positive working conditions, educators can build resilience and find fulfillment in their work. Embracing joy in the classroom not only enhances the learning experience for students but also helps teachers stay committed to their purpose by making working conditions desirable. By acknowledging the importance of joy and making concerted efforts to nurture it in the educational setting, teachers and school leaders can create a positive and supportive environment that fosters teacher well-being and academic success.
Derek Porter & Stephanie McGuire
Dr Derek Porter earned his doctorate from the College of William & Mary. He began his time at St. Christopher’s School as a Global Thinking teacher. Over the last decade, Dr Porter has built upon his work with students by serving as a faculty research coordinator with the Center for the Study of Boys in Richmond, VA. Through these experiences, he discovered a passion for teacher excellence through professional learning models, making it the focus of his dissertation and subsequent works.
Works: Human Dignity Through Public Service Announcements. NAIS Independent Spirit Article
Dr Stephanie McGuire is a school leader at an elementary school in Northern Virginia. She earned her PhD from William & Mary in Educational Policy, Planning & Leadership in K-12 Administration, and her research is dedicated to understanding and spreading the joy of learning. Stephanie’s Dissertation: Elevating Joy in Education through an Investigation of How Teachers and School Leaders Make Learning Joyful
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