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Commentary: Reversing teacher burnout in Los Angeles: Giving teachers room to invest

Guest Contributors | September 20, 2016

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screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-9-16-32-amBy Jane Mayer and Jesse Soza, Ed.D.

Teacher turnover in the United States is a silent epidemic — one that is eroding the core of our schools. Every year, over 1 million teachers enter and exit our classrooms, and in Los Angeles alone, 40-50% will leave the profession entirely within five years. This creates unstable school environments — ones that are more difficult for administrators to manage and in which students are less likely to thrive, emotionally and academically (Teoh & Coggins, 2013*).

Regularly each spring, students, especially in our underserved urban communities, start asking their bright and passionate teachers, “Miss, are you coming back?” Every teacher who has left the classroom dreads that question — and the real heartbreak is that most teachers leave not because they hate teaching, but because they are so frustrated by systemic challenges that they feel they have no other choice.

Kara Reeves, a teacher in Memphis, details the reasons one of the reasons she left the classroom—norms on campus that are not created or desired by the teachers (and most likely event schools themselves): “As a test administrator, I was now responsible for reporting my teachers if they did not follow those guidelines. The stress and worry of that prospect was just too much for me. I had become an enforcer of a practice I didn’t even believe in. I couldn’t do this to my teachers, so I left the position after two years and went back to the classroom.” She eventually burned out, exhausted by trying to work within a system in which she had no agency.

Giving teachers agency (power) to create norms (i.e. guidelines, governing principles, structures, etc.) is a strong influencing factor for teacher retention. A norm is any condition of a school site that governs the expected behavior of either teachers or students. For example, a norm might be that when a student cusses, the teacher is required to carry out a specific response (e.g. a red form for suspension). Another example would be that a teacher is required to turn in three grades per week regardless of the topic or pace of the current unit.

If the school norms support how a teacher is attempting to carry out his or her job, that norm is meaningful and contributes to both teacher satisfaction and student engagement. However, when there are too many norms on a school campus that prevent the teacher from carrying out his or her job (because of ineffectiveness or uselessness), the teacher begins to perceive a sense of normlessness which prevents him or her from doing the work he/she so passionately wants to do (Senge, 1993).

A 13-year veteran teacher from an underperforming public school in Oakland, where The Teaching Well is attempting to reverse the local 70% turnover rate highlights a standard teacher response to norms: “… [Leadership is] just pushing too much at once… I can’t get anything done because [they’re] pushing for this thing to start and this thing to start and this thing to start. I haven’t even trained my little third-graders to take out what folder at what time of the day because we’re rushing through everything so fast… I feel like the people who are planning these timelines have never even been in the class; they don’t get it.”

Like the teacher above, when educators begin to feel like this, they may isolate, burn-out or act in direct violation of school culture in an attempt to maintain a perceived best environment for them and their students. As a result, they either isolate completely from their school community and work in a silo in their rooms, which cuts them off from collaboration and social support (Templin, 1988). Acting in defiance of norms which with they disagree, they run the risk of reprimand for not following rules. Both of these actions lead them closer and closer to burn out.

The following are several concrete ways to reverse feelings of normlessness on campus and prevent teacher turnover:

  1. Create spaces for teacher voice and regular dialogue about well-being and satisfaction on your school campus. Again (see previous articles), this is foundational to preventing burnout. Countless major researchers on teacher turnover suggest that when teachers feel that their voices are heard and valued as sources of expertise, they are more likely to stay.
  1. Create spaces for community awareness around the norms on the campus. As a group, make a list of all of the (perceived or otherwise) norms on the school site and engage all community members (teachers, administrators, support staff) in the conversation. Each educational environment is unique, so there is no one-size fits all solution to this problem.
  1. Engage in honest, reflective dialogue about whether the school norms are supporting the majority of teachers to self-actualize as healthy and passionate educators. Hearing that half of a staff is frustrated by the norms of a school can be emotionally triggering and challenging, but we have to go back to trusting the experiences of the teachers. Can we really all trust that we want what’s best for kids and move together in support of adult sustainability?
  1. Be willing to change the norms. This is really where the rubber meets the road in educational transformation. If the voices of the community reflect that change is being requested, it needs to be honored. This is how we truly engage teachers in investing in communities and preventing burnout.

When teachers and administrators are able to co-create the conditions to best serve themselves and their student communities, they generate a feeling of agency, which means they are much less likely to isolate, burn out or retaliate. Agency creates investment, participation, collaboration and sustainability. And we can at least begin the process of creating a more sustainable teaching force for our future generations.

• Read more in this series:

Jane Mayer is a former LAUSD and charter school teacher in Los Angeles. She currently directs the Los Angeles region of a non-profit organization, The Teaching Well, committed to transforming education by prioritizing teacher well-being and sustainability.

Jesse Soza, Ed.D. (contributor), is a former 12-year teacher. His dissertation on the origins of teacher turnover and dissatisfaction was nominated for a Carnegie Award for Distinguished Education Dissertation. He currently consults with schools and districts about how to reform systems to ensure teacher sustainability.

* References:

  • Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.
  • Templin, T. J. (1988). Teacher isolation: A concern for the collegial development of physical educators. Journal of Teaching Physical Education, 7, 197–205.
  • Teoh, M., & Coggins, C. (2013). Great expectations: Teachers’ views on elevating the profession. Boston, MA: Teach Plus.

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