Steve Heisler

Teacher Author Speaker


"Every single child wants to be successful. The problem is, if they can't be successful at being successful, they'll be successful at screwing up. Our job as educators is to change the latter to the former."    

- from the The Missing Link by Steve Heisler

A Prescription for Teacher Burnout

During my first semester as a NYC teacher I found myself in the staff lounge across from a veteran teacher whose face was obscured by the newspaper he was reading. I ventured a question to see if he might he be able to provide any insight to my struggle to reach a difficult student.

He bent back a corner of the paper and looked at me. “Oh yeah, you’re that new teacher, right?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “that’s me.”

“Well, don’t worry,” he said, returning to his newspaper, “you’ll get over it.”

One of the things I am proudest of in my professional career is being able to say that I never did ‘get over it,’ at least not yet.

Teachers struggle every day carrying a load that is often difficult and unwieldy. We have to answer to everybody, and right away. We must deliver individualized learning to a wildly diverse set of students that (the the same time) meets the needs of parents, each of whom has a specific vision for their own child, and the requirements of a host of administrators and school officials each of whom has an opinion about what ought to happen as well. Frequently these people are partners, but sometimes, it needs to be said, they are adversarial and, occasionally, unreasonably so.

I’ve been on all sides of this equation, as parent, teacher and supervisor, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.  Here’s the truth. You cannot be 100% successful. You cannot meet the needs of everyone, all the time: a certain amount of missing the mark is inevitable. Sometimes teachers just burn out and give up: we all know some who have. Some really good teachers have left the profession and some, unfortunately, who have given up haven’t left. This is also true amongst other professionals as well, especially in the ‘helping’ professions.

In reality everything I have ever heard from a teacher who has given up appears to me to be absolutely true. Difficult, incompetent administrators, impossible parents, poorly behaved students or an unappreciative public, as Madeline Kahn said in Blazing Saddles, “it’s twoo, it’s twoo!”  But so what! What is also true one day in school can be absolutely untrue the next.

And even if it’s not, so what!

Reality doesn’t cause burnout: burnout happens when mission is obscured by a loss of vision. To prevent burnout, or to cool it down, cede some time and careful thought to the development of a serious ‘philosophical’ teaching ideal that you can act on. I advocate doing this is not because you’ll wholly achieve this ideal, nobody will, but because what we need is a measurement tool for something greater than the ups and downs of a school day, or a school year or a even a school lifetime.

Teachers leave school every day with a knapsack full of ways they must improve to become better teachers, not to mention a tower of student work that needs review and lessons that need planning, and a whole life outside of school that must be administered to before the next bell. Teachers also carry home a million reasons to call in sick the next day. But coming back with a measure of renewed spirit must be driven by more than the just the pay. Like a watch, what we do must be worth more than merely the sum our parts. Remember when the pieces of a clock have been assembled you have more than just a functioning object, you also have a way to measure time.

The belief that our actions are associated with a larger purpose, like a philosophical ideal that is in our control to act upon, gives us hope, power and purposefulness as opposed to merely being buffeted by the whims and edicts of others. When you can articulate a fully thought out purpose, that includes rigorous academics, you can discuss, rationally, and measure how what you are doing is leading to the learning you intend to accomplish in both the affective and academic realms. And again, more than the sum of its parts, such clarity also opens one to inputs in the same vein. Instead of merely being overwhelmed by others’ directions and directives, we can measure their suggestions for how they fit into our intended plans.

I have found when I am driven by a true and focused passionate belief in something that is in my control to act on when I’m right, I know it, but when I am not right I also know that, too. When I am not right about something in which I have invested deeply I always get a feeling deep in my guts, a kind of tight queasiness that at first I always seem to want to interpret as something I ate. I may not want to admit it, but I know it, and in the end, because what I am trying to do (I hope) is greater than just me, I have to emplace my mistakes, triage the situation as best I can, and move forward in a better way.

So to prevent burnout, take a moment to create some hope by having a belief system about the value of teaching that is more than just passing grades and meeting administrative objectives. And because nothing keeps us more honest than knowing that we have left a trail of evidence, write it down, even if it’s just for you.

That is my prescription to prevent burnout for this school year: take a tablet of that philosophical hope every evening, with a nice glass of wine, and call me in June.