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The Real Cause of Burnout

I sputter through a lesson, watching students painfully trying to grasp the concept of cultural relativity and its limits and virtues.  They wrestle with the concepts in groups and slowly move forward into questions surrounding genocide.  Minutes earlier the class had analyzed the character development based upon the plot and setting, but now we are moving into the philosophical implications of a humanity shaped by geography.

It is both incredibly abstract and yet deeply personal and earthy and tangible, yet my students struggle to grasp the question in its bold, broad and confusing complexity.  Despite the difficulty of critical thinking, my students move forward free of coercian.  Each child understands that I don’t care about grades and I will not hold them in for detention if they fail to learn.  Yet, despite the somewhat awkward, clunky lesson, the general atmosphere is positive.  True, students get frustrated (a few quite visibly) but they also seem excited.

I ask them afterward why they enjoyed the lesson and they mentioned:

  • It was uncomfortable and often school is too focussed on student comfort
  • It is personal
  • It is relevant to them
  • It connects to the deeper questions of life
  • It includes conflict
  • Every student had the freedom to express their own beliefs – in other words, there was autonomy
  • It is meaningful
  • It is challenging
  • Every student has something to offer (unlike certain math problems or worksheets that are “leveled” for students)
  • It connects to multiple subjects and to life experiences

I stop and stare at the list.  It seems to me that the students found the work to be motivating, because it was meaningful, personal and challenging and in the process, they were able to work both independently and interdependently with a high degree of autonomy.

Nothing new here.  It’s the same thing Daniel Pink argues in Drive.

It has me thinking about teacher burnout. I work in a district with high turnover.  Many people would say, “It must be those low-income kids. They can be challenging.”  And it’s true.  The culture clash and the difference in age can be challenging.  However, I have rarely met people who quit a job simply because it is challenging.

It’s not that teachers simply “couldn’t cut it.”  Nor is it as simple as, “They worked too hard and they wore themselves out.”  Instead, when I asked teachers why they quit, they mentioned micromanaging administrators, a lack of autonomy on curriculum, a sense of loneliness in the profession, the stress of unreasonable expectations and the general atmosphere created by standardized education.  Like my students, these teachers understood that teaching might not feel comfortable.  However, the challenge did not wear them down. It was something else . . . something deeper that was beat out of them.

Drill and kill.

Perhaps attrition is the best term for it.

They were victims in the war on learning and the weapons were worksheets and stickers and awards assemblies and free pizza coupons, where a child could trade in a love of literature for a hunk of greasy dough.  The very thing designed to motivate teachers were the toxic poison that killed the love of learning and ultimately the love of teaching.

While the national media focusses time and attention on recruiting teachers to urban settings, the bigger issue remains one of retention.  However, bribing us with merit pay will ultimately fail, because the real issue of burnout cannot be solved with money.  Give us freedom.  Let us be creative.  Allow teachers to do something that is challenging and meaningful.

When teachers say “I need more support,” they were not asking for more meetings or more binders or more programs or more teacher-proof resources.  They were asking for freedom.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


11 thoughts on “The Real Cause of Burnout

  1. When I left the NYC system, this was definitely part of my problem, aside from the fact that the DOE conveniently “forgot” to renew my visa. I was feeling pressure to conform to the expectations of the system I was in.

    The kids were difficult, but if I’d had the support I needed, I would have fought harder to stay with them. I didn’t have quite as much micromanagement in my 3rd year teaching as in previous years, and I had started to learn how to teach more effectively but I still had to create 5 emergency lesson plans in case I was absent, and take attendance exactly at the beginning of each period, etc… It was pretty difficult.

    Posted by dwees | October 28, 2010, 5:19 pm
  2. Nicely put.

    The idea of “challenge” as an incentive in and of itself is one that is not explored often enough in our profession. How do we allow the challenges inherent in teaching to naturally incentivize the profession? I mean, if we can’t pay teachers more, the least we can do is make it more interesting and mentally stimulating.

    Heck, we might find, if we structure it right, that more teachers are driven & inspired to drive & inspire more students for more years. And that could be a very good thing. Thanks, John.

    Posted by Jason Flom | October 28, 2010, 5:25 pm
  3. I especially like the closing paragraph, John:

    “When teachers say ‘I need more support,’ they were not asking for more meetings or more binders or more programs or more teacher-proof resources. They were asking for freedom.”

    I think our schools leave many of our needs unmet – students and teachers’ needs. I’m coming at this from a Glasser perspective.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about another need, apart from freedom (though certainly connected to it): fun.

    When our survival needs aren’t being met, odds are we’re in crisis. However, when our survival needs are being met, some mix of belonging, freedom, fun, and power drives us and helps motivate our behavior. Sometimes we might sacrifice out of a profound sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, like a family or community, but I would suggest that more often than not, we like to do things that are fun, things that let us collaborate with others, things that let us choose how to meet our goals, and things that make us feel successful and powerful.

    What if we’re asking for fun as much as freedom?

    What difference could that make?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 29, 2010, 6:03 am
  4. So fun > choice then? Or in other words fun = choice + challenge + excitement?

    I think that I enjoy school because it’s fun too. It’s not always the challenge. Right now we are having a serious challenge. We can’t get our wireless network working properly which although it is a huge challenge, it’s not a lot of fun. I’d really like to be able to move on to a different pursuit this year and leave our wireless network issues behind us. I’d rather have the chance to implement the technology the wireless network allows us to access.

    That being said, I’ll take challenging any day over a situation that is too easy. I’d much rather being trying to fix wireless networks than having nothing to do all day.

    Posted by dwees | October 29, 2010, 8:53 am
    • I know it’s a pain in the butt, but your “although it is a huge challenge, it’s not a lot of fun” cracked me up.

      Good point, though. Challenge is not inherently fun. Some challenges are. Some aren’t. Some motivate. Some demotivate. Finding the right balance is the challenge here.

      Posted by Jason Flom | October 29, 2010, 9:22 am
      • When the challenge is surmountable and allows us progression in our job, it contributes to the fun of doing our job. When the challenge is frustrating or assigned to us without consideration of its impact on the rest of our work, then perhaps the job is designed poorly.

        What do you think? Is teaching a well-designed job right now or not? Does it allow fun?


        Posted by Chad Sansing | October 29, 2010, 11:05 pm
    • If we are looking at a career designed to be fun, then mastering the wireless challenge would be a task with which we would willingly engage as many times as necessary to let us progress in the work of teaching and learning.

      I’m coming from here, here and here.

      Fun = choice, customization, collaboration, adaptive challenge, and freedom to engage differently, in different types of tasks, or in different tasks without becoming stuck in a frustrating situation in which you feel powerless.

      If we design such opportunities for students, I can’t help but think that’d we’d behaving fun, also.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | October 29, 2010, 11:03 pm
  5. love this guys.

    choice seems to be ringing loud and clear. choice means to me – relevant, personal, challenging, meaningful… etc.

    fun is great – everyone should have some..
    my kids studying human trafficking right now – are just experiencing discomfort when in the thick of it.
    they are however incorporating, spaces for fun, relaxation, renewal.
    balance for sure.
    a balance most adults don’t give themselves permission for.

    i wish we could trust more – esp in how each of us would treat freedom if we truly had it. our lack of trust brings in so many rules.. and meetings and paperwork and programs and labels….

    few of us really know how to tap into freedom… but if we were given time to figure it out… i mean really given time to wander around a bit…. i’m wondering what we would all be like.. wondering if trusting would come easier… because people would be making choices and truly tapping in and others would be going – wow. (all ages, no labels)

    Posted by monika hardy | October 29, 2010, 12:23 pm
  6. Hi Mr. Spencer I am from Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed this post and as a future teacher I couldn’t agree with you more that what teachers need is freedom. I try not to think about how much standardized testing and “unreasonable expectations” are soiling the profession of teaching. I hope that some type of freedom can be restored to the education field. Thanks for posting!!!

    Posted by Haley Riviere | October 29, 2010, 1:37 pm
  7. John, this was an exciting and interesting post to read. I’d like highlight your statement right as you drawing the link between your students and teachers, “they were able to work both independently and interdependently with a high degree of autonomy.”

    I think this provides a really good description of what I love about teaching (when I’m teaching in a happy and safe place), and does so better than just talking about freedom.

    For me, a healthy educational environment for the teacher is one in which there are peers and supervisors/admins who are there to work with you on techniques, on problems, on successes, on joint projects– but that also provide you the autonomy to build your own challenges and address them in your own way. In effect, having your own space where you have a lot of latitude to do you own thing, with a healthy community of people with their own spaces to work together to make your own thing better.

    Posted by Kevin | October 29, 2010, 10:04 pm
  8. You are echoing my cry. Two months back a friend was going to be meeting with community leaders interested in improving education in our area. I told her to tell them that my one bullet point for improving education is this:

    Manage teachers and students for the highly-skilled, creative work we want them to do.

    To understand what I mean, I refer you to Daniel Pink, author of Drive, who has done extensive research on motivation and concluded that what motivates us to do good work is AUTONOMY, MASTERY, and PURPOSE.

    [11-minute video]
    [19-minute video]
    [~1-hour podcast choose link for full elluminate session]

    Also, I’ve just been listening to the last half of an elluminate podcast featuring Charles Fadel from CISCO, speaking about 21st century skills and STEM (science, technology, engineering, & mathematics). I believe his position to be in harmony with my bullet point.

    Anyway, it is nice to know I’m not the only one thinking this way.

    Posted by Kay Endriss | October 30, 2010, 6:07 pm

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