The Great Burnout of American Teachers

In order to retain experienced, effective teachers and avoid a mass exodus in public education, our educators need to be a top priority.

In order to retain experienced, effective teachers and avoid a mass exodus in public education, our educators need to be a top priority. During the COVID-19 pandemic, districts all around the United States have lost classroom teachers, support staff, bus drivers and substitutes. As a result, our teachers have been expected to fill in the gaps when needed. 

Underfunded, Undersupported, and Overworked

The pandemic has exacerbated an already underfunded, undersupported, overworked educational system and has put an added strain on our teachers. This is shown in the RAND Corporation’s fielded survey conducted in 2021. Their survey was of a nationally representative sample of 1,819 K-12 teachers through RAND’s American Teacher Panel. They found that three out of four teachers reported that their work since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year had been stressful. One in five teachers reported they were not coping well, one in four reported symptoms of depression, and half of them reported feeling burned out (Steiner, Woo, 2021, p.6). Teacher burnout and stress is a looming crisis and without the proper support and resources, is not sustainable. 

What It’s Like to Be a Teacher During the COVID-19 Pandemic

You can ask any former educator and they will all say the same thing. Teaching is one of the most demanding and stressful professions even during a non-pandemic year. It is a profession that is exhausting physically, mentally, and emotionally almost on a daily basis. After speaking with teachers currently in the classroom, they all describe the immense challenges and exhaustion they face balancing instruction, the well-being of their students, and the well-being of themselves.  


Laura Ellis - 11th grade/ELD classroom

“I am choosing not to do any extra curricular, unpaid work right now. I am a better teacher in the classroom when my work/home life is balanced.”


Laura:  age 46

High School English Teacher: Grade 11/ELD

Years Teaching:  22 years


Describe a typical day teaching during the pandemic?

A typical day during the apocalypse, I mean the pandemic, looks like this: I sub during my first period conference every day. There is a sub shortage, and large numbers of teachers are out due to COVID-19. The good news is that teachers are making extra money. The bad news is we are exhausted.

In my own classroom, 10 to 13 students have been absent in each class every single day since we came back from winter break. Most have mild COVID-19, some are just MIA, and some are in quarantine due to exposure. We are carrying on as normal with assignments and lessons. Lessons and assignments are posted in Google Classroom for students who are absent to complete. So far most absent students have not been completing their assignments, but I’m not too worried about that because I accept late work for full credit. This was a change I made since all this craziness started happening. 

I have been noticing a different level of stress in my students. They are quieter than normal, sometimes get a little panicky, and have a sadness behind their eyes I haven’t seen before the pandemic. This is a lot of stress for teens. It is also very disconcerting to have one-third of your classmates gone on any given day. In addition to pandemic stress, we had a 4 hour lockdown on campus right before winter break due to a shooter threat. Hence, the apocalyptic humor. It’s like a bad movie up in here. 

Teachers and staff are doing the best they can. Administration is short staffed. Special Ed Aides are short staffed. Every single aspect of education is short staffed. I try to have fun everyday and laugh at something. It’s the only way to get through this. 


How many hours total do you typically spend on teaching, grading, tutoring and supporting students as well as staff meetings?

To survive the education apocalypse–I have changed the set up of my day to include more student guided workshops. Basically, that means that the students are writing during class time and I use that time to grade, conference, and tutor during class. Other than that, I usually spend about 1-2 hours a day on grading, housekeeping, and meetings. 


What additional duties have been added to your job description due to the pandemic?

I’m lucky. I do not have additional duties other than a lot more email communication between students and parents. I am choosing not to do any extra curricular, unpaid work right now. I am a better teacher in the classroom when my work/home life is balanced. 


How much additional preparation time have you been given these past few years to prepare for remote or hybrid teaching?

This year, we are back in person and there is no additional prep time given to us. 

Last year, we had an extra office hour built into the school day during remote and hybrid learning. 


What were the stressors as an educator prior to the pandemic? 

The stressors were keeping up with grades, and making sure my students were comprehending the material. 



What stressors have been added during the pandemic?

My overall stress is very high right now and there have been several added stressors since the beginning of the pandemic:

  • My health
  • Trying not to get COVID-19 or give it to anyone. Unfortunately, I was not successful and ended up sick and in a 10 day quarantine.
  • My students’ mental health
  • My students’ physical health
  • Working in a high stress environment


Have you experienced stress, or feelings of burnout at any time?

Hahahaha! Yes! Every single day. I am counting the days until retirement and trying to come up with ways I can retire early. The mental burden of teaching during a pandemic is like a slow fog that sneaks around you, envelopes you, and then turns heavy. It’s like carrying a heavy blanket of stress around everyday. 


How have you been taking care of your own well being and mental health?

  • Yoga
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • I try to give myself a break for how I feel.
  • Attempt to find humor and good things in each and every day


How have you been supported during this time by educational leaders, parents, colleagues, friends, family, or your community?

My partner and colleagues have been a great support. It is nice to have people to talk to. For the most part, parents have been supportive as well. 


At any time during the pandemic, has leaving the profession crossed your mind?

Every single day. I like teaching, and I’m a great teacher. However, this is not what I signed up for. 


What is ONE thing you would change to make your job as an educator more sustainable, less stressful, and simply just better?

More money for the hours we put in 


How can educational leaders, parents, colleagues, friends, family, or your community be more supportive during this time?

Just be kind to anyone who works at a school 


Aaron Carmichael with teaching colleague, Mrs. Acuna

“I have found that my colleagues have been the most supportive through the pandemic.”


Aaron:  age 27

Middle School History Teacher: Grade 7

Years Teaching:  4 years


Describe a typical day teaching during the pandemic?

Since we are back teaching on campus, a typical day starts with me arriving at 7:00am. I then start supervision at 7:20am. Classes start at 7:40am and run until the end of the day at 2:11pm. Since the pandemic, getting students to keep their masks on is always a challenge and I end up telling multiple students to do this during every class. In addition, I have to remind students all day to use hand sanitizer since 7th graders won’t do it on their own. 


How many hours total do you typically spend on teaching, grading, tutoring and supporting students as well as staff meetings?

About 8 hours a day. But if you include the amount of time of thinking of the students, extra work that needs to be done, and daily stressors it is way more. 


What additional duties have been added to your job description due to the pandemic?

Since the pandemic has been going on we have many staff members missing work, and little to no sub coverage. Because of this, we have to typically sub on our conference periods. There was a full month where I only had 2 conference periods because of subbing. In addition, we have been short staffed with custodians and other staff members too, so having to clean our own classrooms has become a weekly occurrence. We have to often complete a home study plan for any student that is out for COVID-19. These plans are created for the student to do at home, and take some extra planning to create. 


How much additional preparation time have you been given these past few years to prepare for remote or hybrid teaching?

Little to none. It was more of a sink or swim situation.


What were the stressors as an educator prior to the pandemic? 

Since I was so new to the profession, I experienced the typical stressors many educators do in the beginning of their career. Planning, grading, and phone calls were always main stressors. 


What stressors have been added during the pandemic?

Completing all of the home study work for students sick on any given day is a huge stressor. As well as trying not to get sick myself, and planning at home a majority of the time due to not receiving my prep periods.


Have you experienced stress, or feelings of burnout at any time?

There were a few times last year during distance learning that I felt burned out and tired. Many of the students would not log in and it was very difficult to get buy-in from middle school students online. 


How have you been taking care of your own well being and mental health?

Playing sports, watching sports, listening to music, and just doing things that I enjoy that do not include work.


How have you been supported during this time by educational leaders, parents, colleagues, friends, family, or your community?

  • Educational leaders at my school have provided support through constant check-ins, and assistance with students, ensuring that we have everything we need.
  • Parents have been very supportive through phone calls, emails, and have been very receptive to assisting us with any problems that arise with a student.
  • My colleagues are supportive with listening when I need to vent, and help with coming up with lesson plans to assist students. I have found that my colleagues have been the most supportive through the pandemic.
  • A majority of my friends are my colleagues from work. If we are talking about work on our time off, we are usually just discussing the things that happened that made us laugh or maybe similar experiences we have had. This is extremely helpful to make teaching less stressful, and more enjoyable.
  • My family is and always has been supportive. I talk to my parents, aunt, brothers, sister, and sister-in-laws about the stresses and experiences of work. They are always helpful and supportive, and oftentimes put a huge smile on my face.



At any time during the pandemic, has leaving the profession crossed your mind?

No, it did not. 


What is ONE thing you would change to make your job as an educator more sustainable, less stressful, and simply just better?

More time off! Just kidding. I would change how “teacher achievement” is measured. Since teachers are always being judged on how our students are performing, sometimes it is out of our control. I cannot force a 12 year old to pick up their pencil and start to write, even if they come to school everyday. Their decision to not do work is not a representation of my ability as a teacher. Unfortunately, this is not how it is always perceived in our society. 


How can educational leaders, parents, colleagues, friends, family, or your community be more supportive during this time?

Support can be done in a multitude of ways. For me, the smallest acknowledgement of appreciation usually goes a long way. 



Ms. G’s work space and the daily cleaning routine added for in-person instruction

“The only reason the educational system isn’t crashing down right now is because of the teachers and school staff.”


Ms. G.:  age 50

Title 1A Reading Specialist: K-5

Years Teaching:  21 years


Describe a typical day teaching during the pandemic?

First thing in the morning, I have to check to see if I have a full team of Educator Assistants to conduct reading intervention groups. If not, I have to see if they were able to obtain subs (most of the time there is never a sub and I am lucky if I can get a sub for my position without it being pre-arranged weeks in advance). Then as a team, we check to see which kids are here, which are in quarantine and for how long. Sometimes I am pulled away from my groups and Title compliance duties to cover a classroom because no subs are available. 


How many hours total do you typically spend on teaching, grading, tutoring and supporting students as well as staff meetings? 

I spend 12+ hours a day at least 4 days a week supporting students and staff meetings. 


What additional duties have been added to your job description due to the pandemic? 

Covering classrooms when there are no subs and the continuous cleaning we have to implement throughout the day.


How much additional preparation time have you been given these past few years to prepare for remote or hybrid teaching?

It has been sporadic, but a decent amount of time for me. I can’t speak for classroom teachers. 


What were the stressors as an educator prior to the pandemic? 

A full plate at all times on a normal day. It is like spinning plates constantly. 


What stressors have been added during the pandemic? 

I have a fear of getting ill, making sure my own children are healthy and sane, losing my sanity on a daily basis, being a nurse, social worker, counselor, and being a mother to numerous children who have been traumatized by the pandemic.


Have you experienced stress, or feelings of burnout at any time?

EVERY DAY. The only reason the educational system isn’t crashing down right now is because of the teachers and school staff, not the state and how they handled the pandemic. WE ARE TIRED and it can’t be sustained.


How have you been taking care of your own well being and mental health? 

I take more than usual mental health days, sleep more, get better nutrition, and go on vacation more.


How have you been supported during this time by educational leaders, parents, colleagues, friends, family, or your community? 

My principal has been amazing, and is a true rockstar. He has steered our ship to the best of his ability, and has been put through administration hell. Parents are a mixed bag though. Some parents are extremely supportive while others have been highly critical about our efforts as educators. We are a tight knit group at our school with a family atmosphere, and highly supportive of one another. My friends and family have been incredibly supportive and I am very lucky that I have a home to go to at the end of the day that allows me to decompress and relax. 


At any time during the pandemic, has leaving the profession crossed your mind? 

Absolutely! I own an Orton Gillingham tutoring business on the side of my full job. If I could afford medical insurance for both myself and my partner, who has a private practice in mental health, I would have left public education.


What is ONE thing you would change to make your job as an educator more sustainable, less stressful, and simply just better? 

Hire more teachers and mental health professionals to support our schools


Not Martyrs or Superheros

Teacher burnout and stress has been amplified during the past two years and they are reaching their breaking point. This has sent many educators into early retirement or into new careers. Our teachers do not have to risk their health, family or sanity all for the sake of the students. They are not martyrs or superheroes who should be expected to give every piece of themselves to the job. The reality is, teachers do not have unlimited resources to keep at this pace, nor do we have unlimited teachers at our disposal. Right now, more than ever, teachers need to be compensated accordingly, supported, and have autonomy in decision making regarding our schools if we are to prevent them from leaving the profession.



Reference:

Steiner, Elizabeth D. and Ashley Woo, Job-Related Stress Threatens the Teacher Supply: Key Findings from the 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2021. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1108-1.html.


Schedule a Meeting

Ready to learn more? Schedule a meeting with Horizon Education using the form below.

Book A Meeting