The hidden dangers of caring about your career too much

Teachers give a lot—and get too little in return.
Teachers give a lot—and get too little in return.
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
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A teacher I know recently left the profession after seven years in the classroom. She was an amazing science educator, bringing project-based learning to a high-poverty school in the South Bronx. Her students loved her, her principal depended on her, and her love for her students was palpable. Why would she leave what was so clearly her calling?

I asked her that very question. “Half of the time I’m wracked with guilt and sadness for the students I can’t help,” she said. “The other half of the time I’m utterly exhausted from trying to finish the crushing workload and endless paperwork. I can’t go on like this… there just won’t be anything left of me.”

Her problem is not unique: A recent study in the Academy of Management Journal found that people who pursue careers that they treat as callings have particularly high rates of burnout. The study focused on workers in animal kill shelters. But as a psychologist who has worked closely with public schools for over a decade, I recognized a lot of teachers in that description, too.

People who feel called to their careers, according to these researchers, have a passion for the work, a sense of obligation or moral duty to do it, and the need to make a positive social difference. This attitude makes for incredibly valuable employees—but their passion for their work also means that they are easy to take advantage of. The researchers describe people who go “far beyond the call of duty,” working unpaid hours while taking on the most difficult tasks. This kind of devotion means expending a great deal of emotional resources. It’s no surprise that the most passionate employees are often the ones who get tapped out.

Burnout is major problem for all kinds of important professions, from physicians and nurses to social workers and attorneys. But it is particularly common among teachers in the US public-school system. Between 40-50% of new teachers will leave the teaching profession by their fifth year of service. Teachers who leave the profession cite many different reasons; low salaries, though a common complaint, certainly aren’t the whole story. Long hours, lack of autonomy, large class sizes, no time to go to the bathroom, and increasing pressure for accountability in the face of inadequate resources creates an environment that is particularly toxic to those teachers who feel called to do “whatever it takes” to help their students learn.

Most teachers regularly go above and beyond for their students yet are wildly undercompensated for their efforts. A recent study showed that teachers work more unpaid overtime than any other profession, with 61% of teachers working as many as 13 extra hours every week. Combine this with the fact that US teachers put in 30% more hours in the classroom than their international peers, and it’s no wonder that so many teachers wind up leaving the profession out of a sense of self-preservation.

The high rate of attrition, coupled with a dramatic decrease in the number of people enrolling in teacher preparation programs, has resulted in a looming teacher shortage. It is critical, then, that we find some way for committed teachers to avoid burnout and feel comfortable remaining in the teaching profession. Here are a few ideas that can help devoted teachers—and others who feel called to their professions—preserve their energy so they can keep doing the work that matters to them.

Find someone to help you process the difference between idealism and reality

To become a therapist, trainees must participate in clinical supervision—a process that pairs a training therapist with a practicing therapist to problem-solve, uncover blind spots, and get advice. The expectation is that when a new therapist encounters the depths of human unrest, she will have an emotional reaction herself, and she can examine her own feelings in a supportive environment with the help of another professional.

The same is true of teachers. We cannot expect teachers to know and love children who are living in crushing poverty or emotional turmoil to “just deal with it” indefinitely. Pairing teachers with mentors who can provide a sounding board, preferably with an agreement of discretion so the teacher can speak freely, would help these deeply committed teachers resolve some of this emotional wear and tear before burnout has a chance to take hold. If such a program doesn’t exist, then teachers should reach out to a veteran teacher they admire in their school or district and form the relationship themselves.

Set boundaries and don’t cross them

The advice to “set boundaries” is commonly offered to teachers who have begun to bend under the weight of their workload. When educators first hear this advice, it’s not uncommon for them to lash back. “You try to set boundaries when a child’s whole future depends on finishing his IEP paperwork before his mother changes her mind again!” I hear you. And yet, boundaries must be set.

Justin Ashley, a veteran educator who was the first person to be awarded North Carolina’s Social Studies Teacher of the Year and its History Teacher of the Year in the same year, says this: “If we want to help students for a few decades and not just a few years, we have to take the long-view. Not self-sabotage, self-preservation.”

One strategy successful teachers use is to leave the building at the same time every day. No excuses! Come in early if you must, but always leave at your appointed time. This will give you the freedom to make other plans, see friends, and have time that you can count on to decompress.

Another strategy is to turn off your email and do not work over the weekend—no matter what. When you start to feel the first signs of burnout, the worst thing you can do is push through. Instead, pull back and find ways to completely disconnect, even if it’s only for the weekend.

Have a rich, vibrant life outside of work

Ashley, who is in his ninth year of teaching, suffered his own burnout at the height of his success, ultimately resulting in admission to a hospital for treatment. He argues that having hobbies and a rich after-hours life is crucial to overcoming teacher burnout. “I burned out after a few years of teaching. But when I started taking better care of myself, exercising, and spending more time with my family, that’s when my passion for teaching was reignited. Creative lesson ideas began to flow again; student relationships began to build. If you live an adventurous and balanced life outside of school, that positive energy spills over into the classroom as well.”

As for the rest of us…

Teachers must take control of their own burnout. But society can also do a lot more to show educators—and people in other high-burnout professions—how much we understand the value of their work.

Only 34% of American teachers believe teaching is a respected profession, according to the OECD’s international TALIS study, which surveyed a total of five million teachers in 34 countries. And although teaching is a profession that involves rigorous preparation programs and a licensing exam, the structures in the US education system actively work to disempower teachers. The Pearson education publishing company, district professionals with no classroom experience, and outside consultants often have more say in how classroom policies are crafted than teachers themselves.

This is one of the most important social justice and economic issues of our time. Until teachers feel valued and supported in their pursuit of their calling, they will continue to leave the classroom—and our most vulnerable children will suffer as a result.