Principal Nidia King made her way quickly down the school’s empty hallway toward the sophomore wing. The text from Ms. Aguilar about a student intentionally flipping a desk during class had pinged on Nidia’s phone just three minutes before. Even so, she was already getting another notification from Mrs. Li, the school’s nurse:
Ms. King, I’ve got Mr. Jones in the clinic right now, and I am concerned. He is feeling dizzy and his blood pressure is high, so I’ve asked him to lay down. He says it’s just stress, but I think he needs to go to the hospital. I suggest you find coverage for his afternoon classes.
Nidia took a quick moment to type an affirmative response before placing her fingers on her temple. Her eyes squeezed shut as she collected her thoughts. Mr. Jones was not the first teacher to become physically ill as a result of the particularly stressful school year. She knew he wouldn’t be the last, either—everyone on campus seemed to be burned out, including herself. She’d tried everything to help… Jeans pass incentives, encouragement to make time for self-care, emails about leaving work at work… Even so, morale was lower than ever. Something needed to change.
Teachers Are Not Okay
Although burnout has become more insidious and prevalent in K–12 classrooms over the past few years, it is by no means a new phenomenon. But what is teacher burnout? Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first introduced the concept of “burnout syndrome” (BOS) in 1974, defining it as a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion as a result of high expectations and persistent stress.1 This phenomenon has since become a significant concern in the education sector. According to a recent survey by the National Education Association (NEA), an astonishing 90% of teachers in the United States reported having serious burnout, with 67% describing their burnout as “very serious.”2
Teachers Who Are "Very Satisfied" With Their Jobs: 1984-2023
Teacher burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, which stems from the constant pressure and demands placed on educators.3 School administrators are well-aware of the overwhelming workloads and high emotional demands placed on teachers, as they experience these on a daily basis, too. Educator burnout can lead to a cynical attitude as a coping mechanism and a means of distancing themselves from teacher stress. In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) noted in a 2019 report that burnout syndrome shares many symptoms and clinical features with depression, including loss of energy, exhaustion, negativity, decreased enjoyment in life, and reduced productivity.4
The signs of teacher burnout can be found everywhere, and the statistics surrounding demoralization among teachers are alarming. Between February 2020 and May 2022, over 300,000 public school teachers and staff members resigned due to burnout.5 Additionally, more than 30% of K-12 teachers have chosen early retirement as an alternative to continuing their teaching careers.5 On the other end of the spectrum, up to 30% of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years5, and approximately 20% of teaching positions remain unfilled due to the large number of teachers quitting.5 These statistics illustrate the magnitude of the problem and its impact on the education system.
If you are brave enough to venture into the comments section of an article about preventing teacher burnout, you will inevitably see some version of a statement about how all careers are stressful and teachers should just deal with it “like the rest of us.” This unhelpful misconception downplays the severity of the current situation in education. According to a 2022 Gallup poll, nearly half of teachers report feeling burned out “very often or always,” whereas only 30% of all other workers surveyed reported feeling that way.6 Additionally, being a teacher was recently ranked as one of the top four most-stressful careers, just behind being a police officer and deployed military personnel.7 In light of these circumstances, it is no surprise that reports indicate almost 2 in 5 public school teachers plan to leave the profession within the next two years.5
The staggering prevalence of teacher burnout and the associated consequences demand immediate attention. School administrators understand this more than anyone—they, too, experience the same pressure as their teaching staff on a daily basis. School leaders want to help but often don’t know how when they, too, are struggling.
What’s Really Going On
The first step administrators must take to effectively address teacher burnout is to understand its root causes. The problem is, if you were to ask ten people why educator burnout has become such a serious issue in recent years, you could quite possibly get ten different answers. Some responses would point to the pressure on educators to close pandemic-related learning gaps, and others would point to the loss of classroom autonomy and the politicization of education. Still, others would refer to the overwhelming amount of responsibilities and paperwork that keep piling on to teacher workloads with little to no increase in pay to account for it.
Ghanizadeh and Jahedizadeh conducted a thorough analysis in 2015 that looked at the causes of educator burnout on three different levels: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and low professional self-efficacy and accomplishment.8 This analysis may be a good starting point for observing the problem on paper (especially from a pre-pandemic educational point of view), but it fails to paint a clear picture of the many contributors that have created the perfect storm for teacher burnout. This list is not exhaustive, but it does touch on a few of the commonly-cited reasons teachers give for feeling like they’re hanging by a thread.
1: Increased Workload and Job Demands
The relentless increase in workload and job demands on teachers has become a significant contributing factor to educator burnout. Teachers are constantly faced with overwhelming work expectations that extend well beyond their regular job duties and contract hours. This extended workload creates a chronic state of teacher stress and exhaustion, making it increasingly challenging for educators to maintain their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.Some teachers have reported spending as many as 27 uncompensated hours outside of their contract time on tasks such as lesson planning, grading papers, and administrative paperwork.9 In fact, according to a 2021 Gallup survey about the teaching crisis, teachers work an average of 55 hours a week, and principals work an average of 62 hours a week.10
It can be pretty disheartening when well-meaning people advise teachers to simply “make time for self-care,” “leave work at work,” or “learn how to say no.” Many teachers, especially those who work in Title I schools, do not have the ability to take that advice.
It’s also no secret that, in addition to their regular duties, teachers have also been expected to wear more and more hats in order to meet the needs of their students. Educators must frequently fill the roles of cheerleader, counselor, mentor, role model, detective, authoritative figure, data analyst, and content specialist for their students. They are frequently asked to give up their planning periods to cover other classrooms due to extreme substitute teacher shortages. This constant juggling of responsibilities leaves teachers with limited time for preparation, self-care, family, and personal interests, ultimately leading to burnout.
How School Leaders Can Help:
There’s no doubt that teaching—and the demands that come with the profession—have drastically changed over the past several years. Knowing how to help educators handle these demands while still meeting district and state expectations can put administrators between a rock and a hard place. One way school leaders can support their staff is by genuinely listening to them, backing them up with appropriate student behavior consequences, and also by intervening when parents act inappropriately. They can provide meaningful teacher observations that truly help them improve in their craft. Principals can give positive and constructive feedback to help with instruction, provide ideas, and brainstorm with teachers for solutions to challenging situations.
The amount of planning and preparation required to ensure a course will be successful and engaging isn’t something school leaders can control, but they can make planning and preparation more efficient by providing teachers with the right resources. Providing teachers with the right technology and learning tools can lessen the burden of lesson planning and data progress monitoring. AP® teachers who use UWorld’s Learning Tools for AP Courses, for example, are able to save hours of planning time on rigorous assignments and assessments, and even more time by using UWorld’s reporting tools for gauging student progress.
Additionally, school leaders can minimize the amount of time teachers spend working outside of their contract hours by limiting redundant documentation and protecting teacher planning periods as much as possible. Instead of insisting that teachers spend time writing out every learning objective on the board, or asking them to cover another class during their prep time, honor that small block of time and allow your teachers to work on important tasks.16
2: Lack of Autonomy and Control Over Decision-Making
The loss of autonomy in schools has been a significant contributing factor to both administrator and teacher burnout for years. Curriculum changes, testing guidelines, and even pedagogical mandates happen frequently as “top-down” decisions by people who do not work in schools (or even in education), and with very little input from principals and teachers. It can be frustrating when people who have never taught place sweeping mandates on educators who are not only professionals in their field, but also know their students’ personal needs.
Teacher autonomy refers to the professional freedom and decision-making power that educators have in shaping their instructional practices, curriculum, and classroom environment. When teachers are stripped of their autonomy, it hampers their ability to meet the individual needs of their students and stifles their creativity and professional judgment.
How Much Influence Do Teachers Feel They Have Over Their Job?
*Source: NFER analysis of Teacher Voice data12
Research from NFER suggests that higher levels of teacher autonomy are positively correlated with job satisfaction and retention.12 Teachers who have greater control over their classroom practices and can adapt their teaching to their students’ unique needs experience higher job satisfaction and are more likely to remain in the profession. Conversely, when teachers feel micromanaged or constrained by external pressures, it can lead to frustration, demoralization, and ultimately, burnout.
How School Leaders Can Help:
Sadly, this is an issue that affects school administrators just as much as teachers. It can feel especially frustrating to school leaders who want to support their staff and students but have no control over many of the macro-level decisions that affect them. What administrators can do, however, is provide their teachers with as much classroom autonomy as possible. The level of autonomy that is appropriate for each teacher is different. Just as we expect teachers to differentiate for students and meet them where they are, it should be the same for educators. A first-year teacher will naturally need more hands-on support, whereas an experienced teacher with a track record of strong student performance should be allowed to make their own stylistic teaching choices. New and experienced teachers, alike, should also be given the freedom to be creative and try new things with their lessons, discovering what works and what doesn’t.
3: Intense Pressure to Close Gaps & Get the Scores
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in learning loss for K-12 students. It’s also no secret that school administrators and teachers have been under intense pressure to close these learning gaps quickly, regardless of academic scoring predictions. According to “The Nation’s Report Card” by the NAEP17, academic score patterns predict it may realistically take decades to completely close the learning gap in the United States.
National Assessment of Educational (NAEP) Progress Composite Scores and Projections
*Source: NAEP/McKinsey & Company17
Furthermore, the emphasis on standardized testing has been increasing in K-12 schools for years. According to a 2020 study, research has shown that, in many countries, many teachers work in an educational system that appraises them, in part, using student test scores.18 The pressure to make sure students perform well on standardized tests can be overwhelming.
College readiness exams can be especially stressful for educators. Many colleges have become “test optional,” so high school teachers must ensure the “option” to take rigorous college-level courses and their exams is a good one.
How School Leaders Can Help:
Although standardized tests are necessary, administrators can ease feelings of assessment burnout by fostering a supportive and collaborative school culture. This can be achieved by emphasizing the importance of a well-rounded education, encouraging diverse teaching strategies, and valuing the individual strengths of both teachers and students.
Additionally, administrators can provide ongoing professional development opportunities to support teachers with a deep understanding of the curriculum and effective assessment practices, enabling them to confidently address the needs of diverse learners. By promoting a growth mindset, recognizing teacher efforts, and providing constructive feedback rather than fixating on just test results, administrators can create an environment that values continuous improvement and mitigates the undue pressure teachers may feel.
Principals can’t change the educational policies that place a greater emphasis on test outcomes, but they can help their teachers get the scores they need by providing them with excellent resources. Providing AP teachers with rigorous learning tools like UWorld’s Learning Tools for AP Courses can help them better prepare their students for their exams. Online learning tools that help students learn through authentic practice questions and answer explanations can help teachers feel more confident about student scores.
4: Public Perception and the Villainization of Teachers
Negative public perception and the unjust villainization of teachers have emerged as significant factors contributing to the alarming rate of teacher burnout in recent years. Teachers, who are dedicated professionals trying to make a positive impact on students’ lives, often find themselves subjected to unwarranted blame and criticism from various sources. Attacks on educators and public schools by policymakers, media outlets, special interest groups, and even parents have fueled this damaging perception.19
Most teachers must have a bachelor’s degree in their field, multiple certifications, several hours of professional development each year, and be held accountable with seemingly endless amounts of paperwork, data-tracking, and administrative reviews. They do not get two months off of work for the summer and leave school at 3 p.m. In many states, teachers must also earn their master’s degree. They are asked to give up their personal time, personal pay, and sometimes their personal safety for their students, yet they are still often perceived as part-time babysitters (deserving part-time pay). They are often held to the expectation that they are solely responsible for raising children while also being accused of indoctrination and incompetence. When teachers speak up about this, they’re often dismissed or criticized, saying they should do everything without complaint “for the kids” and that they “chose” these declining work conditions by becoming teachers. Brittany Perreault,20 former president of the Michigan Education Association’s Aspiring Educators at Michigan State University, said it best:
“One minute teachers are hailed as front-line heroes–the next they are villainized as selfish and lazy.” ~Brittany Perreault, former president of the Michigan Education Association’s Aspiring Educators
Research shows that the relentless portrayal of teachers has taken a toll on their well-being, and the majority of educators no longer feel respected or viewed as professionals.15
Teachers Who Feel Respected and Seen As a Professional
Teachers face countless challenges in the classroom, including student needs, curriculum demands, and limited resources. However, it is the constant vilification by adults that pushes many talented educators to the point of burnout and demoralization.21
How School Leaders Can Help:
School leaders are not responsible for, nor can they control, the public’s and media’s perceptions of teachers. They do, however, play a vital role in mitigating teacher stress experienced due to negative public perceptions and the unjust villainization of the teaching profession. Firstly, administrators can actively foster a positive and supportive school climate where teachers feel valued and appreciated. Regularly praising and highlighting teachers’ accomplishments and labors will help achieve this, both within the school community and with outside stakeholders.
Furthermore, administrators can provide professional development opportunities focused on building resilience and coping strategies to help teachers navigate the challenges of public perception. By creating an environment that fosters understanding, recognition, and resilience, administrators can empower teachers to rise above the negativity, strengthen their commitment to the profession, and continue making a lasting difference in the lives of their students.
5: Student Behavior and Trauma
It’s well-established that since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, students have been greatly affected in more ways than just academic learning gaps. Emotional learning gaps as a result of the lack of socialization, in-person school structure, and the trauma many students experienced from the pandemic, itself, have resulted in a far greater number of student behavioral issues. A recent study found that approximately 34% of teachers feel some level of anxiety around student behavior management.5 Furthermore, the majority of teachers in another study reported that student mental health and wellness issues had a great affect on both academic learning and classroom management.15
Compounding this issue is the ineffective implementation of macro-level behavior plans in many schools, such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS).22 PBIS is an evidence-based framework designed to promote positive and prevent challenging behaviors through proactive strategies. However, when not implemented effectively, it can contribute to educator burnout.23 Inadequate training, insufficient resources, and inconsistent application of PBIS principles can lead to frustration and disillusionment among teachers. Without a strong foundation in PBIS, educators may feel ill-equipped to address and manage negative student behaviors effectively, further intensifying their burnout.
The convergence of negative student behavior stemming from COVID-19 trauma and the poor implementation of PBIS in schools has become a significant driver of teacher burnout. The pandemic’s disruption has had a significant negative impact on students’ emotional health, increasing challenging behaviors. The trauma experienced during this time, such as feelings of loss, anxiety, and social isolation, has manifested in behaviors like aggression, defiance, and emotional outbursts, making it challenging for teachers to maintain a positive and productive learning environment.
How School Leaders Can Help:
Administrators at schools have extensive knowledge about how students behave, and they have the authority to help teachers feel less stressed as a result of disruptive students, especially when it comes to PBIS implementation. By standing by them when student consequences are required, upholding consistency with school behavior policies and expectations, intervening when appropriate boundaries are crossed, and even involving parents when necessary, principals can show support for teachers in managing behavior issues. Additionally, administrators can encourage open communication with teachers, provide ongoing training opportunities, and actively solicit feedback from them to foster a collaborative environment that effectively addresses behavior concerns.
Furthermore, school administrators can make sure that students have access to the emotional supports they require in order to succeed in the classroom. Through professional development, they can ensure that all staff members are trauma-informed and that students have access to guidance counselors and mental health resources. School administrators cannot fix the trauma many students have experienced as a result of COVID-19, but they can offer them a supportive school environment.
(Dis)honorable Mentions: Lack of Resources, Low Pay, Learning Interruptions, and School Violence
Along with those mentioned above, there are numerous other factors that can lead to teacher burnout. One of them is a general lack of teaching resources.
While rigorous online teaching resources like those provided by UWorld can undoubtedly help with lesson plans, they cannot make up for the fact that so many teachers lack the computers, desks, and regular classroom supplies they require. According to a 2022 study, teachers were predicted to spend more than $820 on school supplies for their students in 2022–2023.24
Some additional sources of teacher burnout are low teacher salaries, constant classroom interruptions, and the shocking increase in school violence. School administrators can try to minimize the number of school-wide announcements, office phone calls, and multi-person administrative walkthroughs during classes, but they cannot do much about raising teacher pay. As far as school violence goes, administrators can make sure their teachers and students are prepared for any and all emergency situations and, of course, hope they never come to pass.
Administrators are Burned Out, Too
We cannot talk about how to deal with teacher burnout without acknowledging that school leaders are stretched equally thin. They, too, deserve the same care and attention as the students and staff in their schools. Just like in an airplane emergency, administrators must put their oxygen masks on first to protect and support those around them. Neglecting their own well-being can have severe consequences, leading to a loss of ambition, idealism, and self-worth. Ultimately, this may result in their abandoning a career they not only love, but that also makes a difference in the lives of students.
To combat burnout, administrators must proactively think about their own well-being. This involves changing school structures and practices that contribute to excessive workload and stress. It’s essential to create a culture of reflection and provide designated time for administrators to step back, evaluate their own needs, and seek support before reaching a breaking point. By recognizing the challenges and seeking opportunities for growth and improvement, administrators can cultivate a healthier work environment that supports their well-being and allows them to continue making a positive impact on both staff and students.
For the Educators Who Need to Hear This: We See You and Everything You Do for Our Kids
At UWorld, we recognize and deeply appreciate the extraordinary efforts that educational leaders and teachers put forth daily to support our children’s education. Without their dedication, expertise, and unwavering commitment, the educational landscape would be vastly different. We understand the tremendous impact they have on shaping young minds, inspiring a love for learning, and preparing students for future success.
Educational leaders and teachers are the backbone of our education system. Their tireless work extends far beyond the classroom walls. They create engaging lessons, provide guidance and mentorship, and instill important values that shape the character and future of our students. Their passion, creativity, and resilience are what make a difference in the lives of countless young individuals.
At UWorld, we want to express our heartfelt gratitude to all educational leaders and teachers. Your dedication and unwavering commitment to our students do not go unnoticed. We value your expertise, your passion for teaching, and your tireless efforts to make a positive impact. Our mission to provide high-quality educational resources and tools would not be possible without the exceptional work you do. You are instrumental in shaping the minds of the future, and we are grateful for everything you do. Thank you for your unwavering commitment to education and for making a difference in the lives of students across the nation.
Learn more about how we strive to support educators who want to prepare their students for college readiness success with our online Teaching & Learning tools.
- Freudenberger, J. “Staff Burn-Out.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 30, no. 1, 1974, pp. 159–165. https://www.google.com/url?q=https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1974.tb00706.x&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1684791629120380&usg=AOvVaw1Ihs2THqeryF2US-3M5rFe
- Jotkoff, E. (2022, February 1). NEA survey: Massive staff shortages in schools leading to educator burnout; alarming number of educators indicating they plan to leave profession. NEA. https://www.nea.org/about-nea/media-center/press-releases/nea-survey-massive-staff-shortages-schools-leading-educator
- Naus, F., van Iterson, A., & Roe, R. (2007). Organizational cynicism: Extending the exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect model of employees’ responses to adverse conditions in the workplace. Human Relations, 60(5), 683–718. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726707079198
- Liselotte Dyrbye, M. (2019, July 26). Association of Racial Bias with burnout among resident physicians. JAMA Network Open. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2739043?resultClick=1
- Teacher Burnout Statistics. ThinkImpact.com. (2023, February 2). https://www.thinkimpact.com/teacher-burnout-statistics/
- Bouchrika, I. (2023, May 9). Teacher burnout statistics: Challenges in K-12 and higher education. Research.com. https://research.com/education/teacher-burnout-challenges-in-k-12-and-higher-education#:~:text=Burnout%E2%80%93Prevalence%20in%20K%2D12%20and%20University%20Teaching,-In%20the%20United&text=These%20are%20the%20top%20two,to%20male%20teachers%20(44%25).
- Brinson, L. C. (2010, October 12). 10 most stressful jobs in America. HowStuffWorks. https://money.howstuffworks.com/10-most-stressful-jobs-in-america.htm
- Teacher Burnout: Why it happens – and how it affects students. SchoolMint Blog. (2022, December 8). https://blog.schoolmint.com/teacher-burnout-why-it-happens-and-how-it-affects-students
- McLoud, S. (2022, December 16). I get paid for 180 days of work each year, but I actually work more than 250. We Are Teachers. https://www.weareteachers.com/teacher-overtime/
- Joep. (2021, November 24). Gallop report release highlights teaching crisis. NSW Teachers Federation. https://www.nswtf.org.au/news/2021/02/20/gallop-report-release-highlights-teaching-crisis/
- Garrigan-Durant, M. (2019, December). Take online courses. earn college credit. Research Schools, Degrees & Careers. Study.com. https://study.com/blog/5-ways-to-fulfill-teacher-professional-development-requirements.html
- Worth, J. (2020, January 29). Seven new insights into teacher autonomy. NFER. https://www.nfer.ac.uk/news-events/nfer-blogs/seven-new-insights-into-teacher-autonomy/
- Merrimack college teacher survey 2023: Merrimack College. Merrimack College |. (2023, May 15). https://www.merrimack.edu/academics/education-and-social-policy/about/merrimack-college-teacher-survey/
- MetLife. (2012, March). The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. Eric – Education Resources Information Center. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED530021.pdf
- Will, M. (2023, May 22). Teachers are stressed and disrespected, but happier than last year: 7 takeaways from New poll. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-are-stressed-and-disrespected-but-happier-than-last-year-7-takeaways-from-new-poll/2023/05
- Barton, A. (2022, September 30). 12 things that waste teachers’ time every single day. Bored Teachers. https://www.boredteachers.com/post/waste-teachers-time
- Bryant, J., Dorn, E., Pollack, L., & Sarakatsannis, J. (2023, January 11). Covid-19 learning delay and recovery: Where do us states stand?. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/covid-19-learning-delay-and-recovery-where-do-us-states-stand
- Smith, W. C., & Holloway, J. (2020, November 5). School testing culture and teacher satisfaction – educational assessment, evaluation and accountability. SpringerLink. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11092-020-09342-8
- Graham, E. (n.d.). Who is behind the attacks on educators and public schools?. NEA. https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/who-behind-attacks-educators-and-public-schools
- Perreault, B. (2021, March 28). Future teacher: Want to stop the shortage? stop villainizing educators. Crain’s Detroit Business. https://www.crainsdetroit.com/crains-forum/future-teacher-want-stop-shortage-stop-villainizing-educators
- I was teaching for the kids but I’m leaving because of the adults. Bored Teachers. (2023, February 3). https://www.boredteachers.com/post/leaving-teaching-because-of-adults
- Epperson, A. (2022, October 12). Debunking the top PBIS Myths. PBIS Rewards. https://www.pbisrewards.com/blog/debunking-top-pbis-myths/
- Van Gemert, L. (2022, March 28). 6 reasons why PBIS is a terrible idea and should be discarded. Gifted Guru. https://www.giftedguru.com/pbis-is-a-terrible-idea/
- Winstead, S., & WinsteadHi, S. (2022, August 15). Report: Teachers will spend over $820 of their own money on classroom supplies this year. My eLearning World. https://myelearningworld.com/teacher-spending-supplies-2022/