Very few people will deny that the job of a teacher is tough. But how tough is it—really?
It’s so tough that teachers are now the most burned-out employees in America.
It’s so challenging that fewer than 1 in 5 Americans would encourage a young person to become a K-12 teacher.
And it’s so hard that teacher vacancies are up 51% over last year.
Though I work with educators almost every day and witness many teachers’ front-line struggles, I know what I see is just the tip of the iceberg. “We are caught in a negative feedback loop in which the stress of the job worsens the teacher shortage,” says Jay Schroder, educator and author of Teach From Your Best Self. “This in turn increases the strain on the system, accelerating burnout and inducing more teachers to leave.”
Schroder, a veteran teacher with 24 years of experience in the classroom, believes that teachers today are facing a ‘perfect storm’ of challenges. Helping them navigate and even thrive in these conditions—without waiting for things to change at the institutional level—is the goal of his book and training program.
“Ultimately, the current education system is unsustainable,” he says. “Education needs to be re-envisioned in a way that prioritizes the well-being of both students and teachers. However, we don’t have time to wait until education leaders implement the systemic changes necessary for both teachers and students to thrive.”
Based on his own experience and that of the hundreds of educators he has worked with, Schroder believes it is 100% possible to thrive despite these challenges. But as he admits, the challenges are indeed formidable.
Why teachers are so stressed
When I asked Schroder why teachers are reaching a breaking point, he gave me a laundry list of reasons:
- Too much to do and not enough time to do it in (which is why a new Rand Corporation survey found that teachers work an estimated 53 hours a week, and still don’t ever feel caught up).
- Teachers teach large classes of students often packed with students who have extra needs.
- Some of these students have been impacted by trauma and social pathologies which is contributing to the surge of student behavior and mental health issues impacting the classroom. The problem has become so severe that the American Academy of Pediatrics has called the mental health of our young people a national emergency.
- The pressure on teachers to close pandemic caused learning gaps.
- The politicization of education and the way educators are being unfairly characterized through misinformation.
- The shortage of qualified educators, which adds even more pressure on the teachers who remain.
And it’s not just teachers who lose out in this scenario. “A study involving 1,102 German elementary school students found that teachers’ emotional exhaustion correlated with significantly lower student mathematics achievement,” says Schroder. “An early systematic review of studies exploring the consequences of teacher burnout on students confirms the correlation.”
Schroder points to the physical effects of stress as a huge factor in teacher burnout and student underachievement. “When overloaded with stress, as many teachers are right now, our limbic system triggers a reaction that sends us into a survival mode, diverting resources from our prefrontal cortex to our muscles, lungs, and heart,” he explains. “In the short term, a teacher in this state is likely to be impatient, irritable, and reactive. In the long term, chronic stress leads to a host of mental and physical health issues.”
Furthermore, the neurons in our brains that mimic the firing of people around us, called mirror neurons, can add to a negative classroom experience. “When both teacher and student are operating from the lower, reactive parts of the brain, student resistance to learning increases as do classroom management issues,” says Schroder. “This in turn drives teachers more deeply into stress and frustration.”
The positive side
However, the fact that students have mirror neurons can also be a positive thing. If, says Schroder, the teacher is able to continuously teach from her own best self whole brain, the mirror neurons of her students will fire in sync with that, making them more likely to be in their best self learning brains.
“When students are in their best self learning brains, the teacher’s job becomes easier, which makes it easier for the teacher to retain their best self brain,” he says. “From this best self state, a teacher is more effective, having more fun, and more likely to be in touch with their passion for teaching.”
Rather than giving teachers more training on instructional methods, Schroder believes the key is to help build their capacity to retain this best self in the face of all of the challenges. This requires a major mindset shift, from doing to being. “Teachers don’t need more classroom techniques and strategies,” he says. “They don’t need more to do. What they need are approaches to teaching that allow them to bring a centered, clear, relaxed version of themselves to the challenges.”
The self-care question
How do teachers attain that ideal version of themselves? It won’t be solely through the practice of self care. In fact, it can be extremely unhelpful to tell stressed teachers to practice self care. “This push for ‘self care’ has left a bad taste in the mouths of the teachers I work with,” agrees Schroder. “The problem is that ‘self care’ gives teachers yet another thing to do on a to-do list that is already impossibly long. It also implies that, if a teacher is feeling burned out, it’s because they’re not doing enough to take care of themselves.”
This narrative—which throws all the responsibility for their stress back on the teacher—is one of the things that has driven us into this educational crisis and is threatening to drive the whole education system off a cliff, Schroder says.
“Self care is obviously a good thing, but the challenge we face in education isn’t due to the fact that teachers aren’t doing enough to care for themselves. It’s because we’ve created an unsustainable education system that takes advantage of the good people who are getting up every day to work inside of it and teach our young people.”
How teachers can help teachers
To maintain a healthy, resilient psychology, says Schroder, human beings need to receive positive messages from one another. The need for these messages increases with the intensity of the work being performed. Without such messages, people feel unseen, unappreciated and taken for granted—and well on their way to becoming depleted and demoralized.
“One of the challenges in education is that teachers work separately, so they don’t get to see each other’s brilliance,” says Schroder. “This makes it difficult to offer meaningful positive messages to one another. Still, the need is so crucial, it’s important for teachers to go out of their way to offer encouragement in the form of positive messages to one another. And it’s important for administrators to be generous in giving specific, positive messages about the good things they observe.”
Schroder points to research that shows how reflecting the positives we see in others is a powerful way to help them access their best selves. “Receiving positive messages can function as a kind of protective shield for teachers, helping them retain their best even under stressful conditions,” Schroder notes. “Ideally, school cultures would be transformed into places in which staff members, administrators included, took the time to be curious about the struggles and triumphs of one another, and offer one another the heartening messages educators need to hear.”
Combating negative messages
The need for positive messages is especially pressing with the recent negative narrative about teachers that has sprung up in the media. “The education profession tends to filter for the best of humanity,” says Schroder. “Every new teacher I work with wants to bring their best and is inspired by the possibility of helping young people. They know going in that the pay is low and the job is stressful; they become teachers because they want to dedicate their lives to something larger than themselves.”
That’s why it’s so tragic to see the vast numbers of teachers who are quitting. “It really takes a lot for a teacher who has made the decision, gotten the education, taken out the student loans, put their hearts into being the best teacher they could be, to reach their breaking point and decide to leave the profession,” says Schroder. “For the teacher, it’s a heart-breaking decision. For society, it’s a preventable tragedy.”
Schroder and I agree that America’s teachers are one of our greatest untapped resources. Why untapped? Because, says Schroder, no one can perform to their potential when they are constantly overwhelmed.
“Imagine an education system in which vitally inspired, passionate, refreshed and invigorated educators were empowered to reform education so that it brings out the best in everyone–students, staff, administrators, and adult volunteers alike,” he says. “In such a system, student achievement would go up simply as a byproduct of what happens when people are operating at their best.” In the end, stressed teachers lead to stressed students. But thankfully, the opposite is also true. It’s just one more reason that we need to rethink the value of teachers—and support them accordingly.
This article was originally published at Forbes.com on November 7, 2023.