The common narrative among teachers is one of feeling ‘burnt out.’ Burnout results from chronic stress that has not been successfully managed. According to the World Health Organization, burn out is characterized by feelings of energy depletion, increased emotional distance from one’s job and reduced professional efficacy.
Before COVID-19, the top three sources of work stress for teachers included work overload, poor interactions with administration and digital stress. That hasn’t changed much, except digital stress has moved into second place.
I’ve recently interviewed more than 50 educators from across Canada on mental health issues, leaves of absence and return to work experiences as part of the Healthy Professional Worker Partnership project based at the Gender, Work and Health team at the University of Ottawa. Among the things we’ve learned is that teacher burn out is at an all-time high, and this is one important factor that impacts teacher retention.
The dominant narrative provided by the education system is that we need to monitor and improve the mental health and wellbeing of teachers because it may affect the mental health and wellbeing of students. But teachers’ burn out matters because teachers are human too.
Unfortunately, the programs and services offered to teachers aimed at improving their mental health are focused primarily on the individual level. Placing the burden on teachers to “fix themselves” when the problem is systemic is not only unhelpful it is also unethical.
So what can be done?
Rather than focusing on the ‘burn out’ of the profession, let’s change the conversation to teacher ‘burn in’ – a term introduced by Friedman & Reynolds. ‘Burn in’ leads us to focus on what’s right in education and contributes to positive thinking and resilience. ‘Burning in’ is a process that involves practicing skills such as paying attention to how you feel both physically and mentally, setting positive intentions and finding joy in small things.
COVID-19 provides the school system an opportunity to reflect on what we can change, what is working well and what can be improved.
The data collected from our study indicates we need to better support teachers who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed by building mental health supports into the school day.
Teacher education programs may provide a key place to focus efforts to support teacher mental health.
More training also needs to be provided to the leadership team in each school. Teachers require emotional support, mental health resources and healthy relationships with administrators and school boards. The school climate affects everyone in the school.
Improving teacher mental health involves a multi-faceted approach targeting policies that prioritize the unique work provided in school environments.
We need commitment from education systems and leaders to take action and work in partnership with teachers.
Melissa Corrente is the mother of two school aged children, an Ontario Certified teacher and research associate with the Gender, Work and Health team at the University of Ottawa.