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Teacher Burnout: Warning Signs and Prevention

Teacher walkouts and strikes have been popping up across the US in the past two years. #RedforEd has gained momentum for good reason. The profession of teaching is NOT the same as it was 20, 10, even 5 years ago. I recently watched my local teachers union #DCTA in Denver negotiate for change between with #DPS.

#DCTA Strike for better classroom conditions in Denver Public Schools
#DPS and #DCTA negotiate for days before coming to a deal that teachers were hoping for

Denver Public Schools and districts across the nation are feeling the effects of this shift in teacher mindset and retention as teachers are leaving the profession at higher rates. In fact, studies show that 17% of new teachers leave the classroom in the first five years of teaching. This percentage has steadily increased by 3-5% points each year since 2008 (NCES 2015-337), making veteran teachers (10+ years experience) a hot commodity.

I truly believe quality teachers are a rare breed; they passionately enter their profession with goals to be a change-maker and positively affect the lives of our next generation(s). Teachers knowingly accept the low salary, long hours, and life of service for the peace of mind that they are making a positive impact.

Unfortunately, these dedicated educators are feeling the pressures of a changing public education system. With more focus on the test, the necessary vigilance for safety in schools, and the never ending addition of responsibilities with lack of resources to follow through, quality teachers are deciding to exit the classroom after experiencing 'teacher burnout'.

Burnout is something that I personally experienced as a special education teacher years ago. Looking back, there are steps I could have taken to manage the stress that led to burnout if I had been more #mindful of the warning signs and proactive in taking care of myself.

I quickly learned that I was not alone, as many teachers are quietly living with the warning signs of burnout. Teachers are currently living on the edge, fed up with the status quo in education, and they are standing up for fairer wages and a better working environment (learning environment for students). Districts and administration are seeing the effect that years of stress has on teachers, and it is reaching a tipping point. Subsequently, they are no longer functioning effectively in their classroom or personal lives. Some even resort to alcohol or prescribed medication(s) just to ‘get by’.

When a teacher is not at their best, they becoming less tolerant and their entire classroom is affected. So how do teachers avoid the plague of burnout that is spreading through our schools?

It is crucial to be aware of the common warning signs of burnout, then take it a step further to recognize the negative impacts that teacher burnout can have on a classroom and student learning. The final step is becoming proactive and ‘taking care of self’ so that you can remain a happy person as well as an effective teacher.

The Warning Signs of Burnout

These warning signs/symptoms exist along a sliding scale. Meaning that the

earlier you are able to recognize the signs, the easier it will be for you to avoid burnout. At Hopkins, we recommend establishing a mindfulness practice create a positive foundation and subsequently address the symptoms when they arise.

Physical and emotional exhaustion and the impact on a classroom:

Chronic fatigue- In the beginning stages, teachers may experience low energy and feel tired most days. Teachers can mistake this for fighting off the cold or the changes in the fall season. As it progresses, teachers feel physically and emotionally exhausted, drained, and depleted. Some teachers experience this as a sense of dread for what lies ahead on any given school day, making for an anxiety-filled Sunday evening.

Loss of appetite- It begins with working through lunch; teachers may not feel hungry and may skip a lunch to get work done. As it progresses, teachers may lose their appetite all together and begin to lose a significant amount of weight. Many times this is mistaken as a good thing, but can quickly become unhealthy.

Insomnia- Teachers may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep a couple nights a week (Sunday nights). This symptom gets progressively worse as stress compiles week by week.

Forgetfulness/impaired attention- It begins with a lack of focus and mild forgetfulness. The problems may progress to the point where teachers can't get their work done and the papers to be graded begin to pile up.

Increased illness- As the school year goes on many teachers wear down and must take sick days. This can be the result of a depleted immune system that is weakened by the months of constant stress, making teachers more vulnerable to infections, colds, flu, and other immune-related medical problems.

Physical symptoms- Some teachers even experience physical symptoms when the stress becomes overwhelming . These may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, and/or headaches (all of which should be checked out by a physician).

Anxiety- It starts off somewhat harmless, teachers may experience mild symptoms of tension, worry, and edginess. As they move closer to burnout, the anxiety may become so serious that it interferes with their ability to teach effectively and can spread to cause problems in their personal life.

Depression- This will first show up as teachers feeling mildly sad, occasionally hopeless, and experience feelings of guilt and worthlessness in their career. At its worst, teachers feel trapped, extremely depressed, and think their students and world would be better off without them. (If at any time your depression is to this point, you should seek professional help immediately. (In CO contact 1-844-493-TALK(8255) or visit #LetsTalkCO.

Anger- It can start off as interpersonal tension and irritability. It may progress and turn into angry outbursts in the classroom and serious arguments at home or with administration. (If anger ever gets to this point and results in thoughts or acts of violence toward family or coworkers, seek immediate professional assistance.)

Signs of Cynicism and Detachment in Teachers and the impacts on a classroom:

Loss of Passion- To begin, a teacher’s loss of passion or enjoyment may seem very mild, such as not wanting to go to school or being eager to leave and not participating in after school activities. When left untouched, a teacher’s loss of enjoyment may extend to all areas of life, including time spent with family and friends. At work, teachers may try to avoid certain tasks or meetings and figure out ways to escape teaching altogether (an increased use of videos, free time or computer based lessons).

Pessimism- This first presents itself as negative self-talk and/or moving from a glass half-full to a glass half-empty attitude. A teacher feels this as a lack of support from administration and community. When full blown, this may move beyond how a teacher feels about him/herself and transform into a loss of faith in student performance and the trust between coworkers and family members. Many teachers may feel that they can't count on anyone.

Isolation (The Teacher Island)- In the early stages of isolation, teachers may seem to have a mild resistance to socializing (i.e., not wanting to go out to the staff lunchroom or happy hour; closing their classroom door occasionally to keep others out). In the higher stages, teachers may become angry when someone speaks to them, or they may come in early or leave late to avoid interactions with other teachers.

Detachment (the opposite of mindful) - Detachment is the general sense of feeling disconnected from others or from your environment. For teachers it can take the form of the isolation behaviors described above. Many times for teachers it results in removing themselves emotionally and physically from their job and other responsibilities of life (just going through the motions). Teachers may call in sick often, stop returning calls and emails, or regularly come in late from breaks.

Signs of Ineffectiveness and Lack of Accomplishment in Teachers and the impact on their classroom:

Feelings of apathy and hopelessness- This is similar to what teachers experience in the depression and pessimism sections above. It is the general sense that nothing is going right or nothing they teach matters. As the symptoms worsen, these feelings may become immobilizing, making teachers feel like "what's the point?". At this time they have lost their passion for teaching and lesson plans suffer. Students become disengaged and negative behaviors increase, creating bad habits in students moving forward.

Increased irritability- Irritability often has roots in feeling ineffective, unimportant, useless, and an increasing sense that you're not able teach as efficiently or effectively as you once did. In the beginning, this can interfere in personal and professional relationships. When not treated, it can destroy relationships and careers.

Lack of productivity and poor performance- Despite long hours in the classroom and at home, the chronic stress that teachers experience prevents them from being as productive as they once were. This often results in ungraded student work, power struggles with students, upset parents, and an ever-growing to-do list. For many teachers, it seems that as hard as they try, it is impossible to climb out from under the pile.


Whether you believe you are experiencing some warning signs of burnout or not, it is beneficial for you to be proactive and establish habits or routines that will support your mental health and emotional resilience. Many of these signs of burnout are common for ER doctors and professions considered more stressful. I will argue that the profession of teaching is quickly becoming one of the most stressful/traumatic career paths to follow. This makes it critical to prepare teachers for the known stresses. One way this can be accomplished is through the practice of mindfulness.

There are many books, magazines, and apps that will support the establishment of a mindfulness routine.

I encourage all teachers to find something that works for them and stick with it. If you require a structured environment and guided practice in mindfulness to prevent burnout you can learn more by clicking here.


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