Research shows nearly one in three Australian teachers are so unhappy in their profession they consider leaving within their first five years of employment. That means 16,000 teachers currently in Australia’s classrooms are finding the challenge of managing their professional lives too great.
It’s difficult to put an exact figure on teacher attrition and burnout. But even if we only count the indicated 10% of teachers who have already made up their mind to leave the profession by their second year, teacher burnout is potentially incredibly costly. Half a billion dollars in training is potentially lost every five years.
The cost can be tripled if all of the early-career teachers who are showing signs of burnout do leave the profession. Perhaps more importantly are the personal costs to those who abandon it because they don’t feel supported.
Most teachers rarely have time or encouragement to reflect on how the day’s events in a busy classroom have affected their emotions, so prevalent is the expectation that they should minimise or avoid their own feelings at all costs. It is an expectation from the schools that employ them; the parents who entrust their children to them; and, ironically, often from the teachers themselves.
As a simple example, consider a child a teacher is helping to read. When that child looks up with a tear-streaked face and says, “I can’t do it, I’m stupid!” some teachers will feel a sense of frustration or powerlessness that despite their best efforts, a goal has not been met.
Those who are strongly empathetic will feel sadness and an instinct to nurture or protect a child in distress. Such complex reactions happen daily in any classroom. A reflexive teacher will ponder how such events affect their students’ emotions without recognising that their own feelings are being contained. And it’s not just for that student, but for each of the 25 or more students in their class, for five hours a day, every day of the week.
Researchers have documented how a teacher’s health and well-being can be damaged when they avoid or suppress their emotions – whether they do so naturally or because it is expected of them. Teachers need to acknowledge they have emotions that often endure well past a highly emotionally charged moment.
For example, long after I had finished teaching a group of volatile students, I realised I was living every day with an intense and persistent underlying fear that was affecting my day-to-day actions and decision-making with subsequent classes. At the time, I could not admit to that fear due to a greater anxiety about appearing weak or incompetent.
Supporting teachers with their “emotional work” is not just the responsibility of the school principal or the teacher’s colleagues. The broader community needs to understand and be ready to encourage teachers, and acknowledge that being a teacher is emotionally taxing.
There’s still a widely held public perception that teaching is an easy job because school’s out at 3:30 and there are plenty of holidays. And if teachers themselves do not feel they can acknowledge the emotional nature of their work, can we expect the community to understand it?
Researchers have documented the importance of finding practical solutions for teachers so they can deliver curriculum in an engaged rather than an emotionally exhausted way, such as making time to reflect on their work.
One study points out that Australia will continue sliding in international rankings if it expects its teachers to constantly improve their classroom practise without the benefit of improved professional development.
What can we do to support teachers?
My yet-to-be-published doctoral research indicates that giving teachers an opportunity to regularly debrief in a formal setting and reflect on any challenging incidents that may have emotionally affected them can help them reframe those incidents in a way that makes their new thinking useful in subsequent teaching practice.
Teachers who hear the many perspectives of their peers gain a deeper understanding of their own emotional responses, of the assumptions that were made, and perhaps even what led to an incident in the first place. This process is useful for beginning teachers who are navigating difficult events for the first time, but also for more experienced teachers.
It is not enough to leave this important work to informal staffroom chats because too much of the debriefing process can be left to chance and important stages may be missed. By establishing regular, facilitated forums to debrief in small groups, teachers can form collaborative working relationships that dissipate fear of appearing weak or incompetent. Granting a few hours a month is all it takes – an extremely small cost when the benefits are considered.
Teacher well-being is an important issue for all of us, not just in terms of teacher attrition or wasted training. We bestow a great deal of responsibility on our teachers to nurture our children in all aspects of their development. But we can hardly expect this from burnt-out and stressed teachers whose own emotional needs are neither being acknowledged nor met.