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What We’re Doing About Educator Burnout

September 14, 2023

What We’re Doing About Educator Burnout

We can move public education forward together, ensuring dignity for all, respect for our work and wellness as employees.


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By Ray Gaer

Chances are you work in a school district where you have seen a serious shortage in personnel. By now, many educators and school support staff have left education out of frustration, exhaustion or both. These past few years have been extraordinarily challenging.

COVID-19 hit public education in waves, each bringing new challenges and compounding problems. The first wave in March 2020 closed our schools, and parents came to the realization that educator and staff jobs are more difficult than they imagined. A new respect was born for this work, making our “union of professionals” far more than a slogan: It’s our battle cry.

Within a short time, we became essential workers, not only in the classroom but as community safety nets, providing school supplies, lessons and meals to students and their families. As it should be, we met our community where they were.

Now with the worst of the pandemic over (we hope), we’re back at work in person. But the impact of COVID-19 has left holes we’re still trying to fill. The loneliness, isolation and trauma will take time to heal.

Unfortunately, a faction of our society is trying to use the pandemic to dismantle public education. In hotspots around the country, they are banning books and emptying libraries. They are listening to fearmongers who question our credentials and raise doubts about established curriculums. They’re even trying to blame us for the effects of the pandemic. These negative voices have poisoned the well.

There is not one person in my school district who isn’t exhausted. They are contemplating their careers and wondering if they can continue.

Educators are looking for a lifeline. Our local AFT affiliate, the ABC Federation of Teachers in Los Angeles County, partnered with a nonprofit, Educators Thriving, to survey and interview 1,300 educators districtwide, asking how they were feeling about their jobs. Many felt depleted. But they also expressed a kind of “ganas,” which is Spanish slang for a drive to thrive and win. While about 86 percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they “continually grow as an educator,” more than half agreed or strongly agreed that “at the end of the day, I am too exhausted to do anything.”

As the world slowly finds normality, American educators and staff find themselves too worn out to take care of our families and do our jobs to the highest standard we set for ourselves. HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM!

We’re in a pickle

The full results of the ABCFT survey and others like it are published in a new report, “Beyond Burnout: A Roadmap to Improve Educator Well-Being.” This report quantifies what we knew or suspected: Students are struggling — and their educators and school staff are not thriving either.

Data is like a flashlight to help us see what’s happening. In 2022, for the first time since the National Assessment of Educational Progress began testing students in the 1970s, students’ math scores dropped. As if that wasn’t bad enough, their NAEP reading scores fell by the largest margin in 30 years. It confirmed what we knew: that the pandemic hit students hard — both emotionally and in their studies. Two years is a pretty big chunk of time in a child’s life. And because educators’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, the AFT and Educators Thriving set out to discover what could be done to improve school employees’ frame of mind. Our local union got to be part of this national effort to establish data on the well-being of teachers and staff.

In late 2022, we held our annual labor-management retreat of 120 school site union representatives, administrators and others from the ABC Unified School District. The daylong retreat to review our data generated palpable excitement as teams sat side by side to talk about well-being in a data-driven way. This enabled site-based collaboration, sharing of promising practices, and decision-making informed by real data.

Starting the day with conversations about wellness and depletion truly had an impact on our members and administrators. Since this retreat, principals have opted into site-based data collection to analyze the well-being of our staff and to make site-specific improvements, addressing issues that were leaving teachers feeling wiped out. The union and district plan to repeat the retreat this coming year.

Listen, measure and act together

In similar ways, AFT locals across the country followed this process and plan to use it going forward. For example, the Lynn Teachers Union in Massachusetts shared its survey work with the district, which has since implemented the survey across all schools and will use this data to inform the district’s priorities during the coming school year. Likewise, the Cleveland Teachers Union is collaborating around ways to bring evidence-based training in well-being to more educators this year.

In “Beyond Burnout,” the first directive to school administrators is to listen. As a good leader learns, the most critical skills are to listen and assess. Hopefully, district leaders will make data-informed decisions together with their labor unions to identify and prevent burnout.

What’s the takeaway?

We can move public education forward together, ensuring dignity for all, respect for our work and wellness as employees. As always, progress toward improving the working conditions of educators and staff will require collaboration at all levels. Using the data they’ve gathered, school-level teams can improve staff well-being. Mentors can support educators. And district-level teams can make systemwide improvements.

The report’s key findings echo those of the AFT Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force: We must create positive working and learning conditions for all. Too much is at stake if we don’t.

Watch a video and read the burnout report here. Learn more about the initiative here and here. For questions or comments, reach out to [email protected].

Mental Health Awareness

As we navigate the complexities of today's world, it is crucial to prioritize mental health in order to foster resilience, empathy, and emotional intelligence among our children. The resources included in this collection address various topics, such as stress management, self-esteem building, mental health coping mechanisms and professional learning webinars.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

BEYOND BURNOUT: A Roadmap To Improve Educator Well-Being

Read more about burnout and how we can improve educator well-being.

The AFT was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. We are... See More

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