The Most Important Thing They Don't Tell You About Teaching

Becoming a good teacher is a bit of a catch-22.

In order to become good, you have to care enough about your students that you’re willing to put in the hard work (and long hours) required to help them succeed. But this poses a problem: Research says that the more you care, the more prone you become to burnout.

This sounds a little backwards – doesn’t it seem more logical that teachers who are less prepared or committed to their work would be the likeliest to throw in the towel?

On the contrary, experts say that teachers who graduated from the most selective universities were actually more likely to quit than their peers, so questions of basic competence — or laziness —don’t really enter into it.

The truth is, teachers tend to be a smart, passionate, mission-driven lot, which means that they’re especially prone to the burdens of perfectionism. And that’s what they never tell you: your enthusiasm can become your undoing under the wrong circumstances.

Don’t give up, adapt

Contrary to what you might be thinking, the solution to the problem of teacher burnout is not to simply care less. The real key is to place your own mental health at the top of your priorities and make sure it stays there through thick and thin.

Some education researchers estimate that overall mental health is a stronger predictor of career longevity than a teacher’s knowledge of their subject, or the specific methods they use in the classroom.

In other words, teachers need to make sure they care for themselves before they can properly care for others. The only question is how.

For starters, check out the great resources from Hey Teach, our new online publication just for teachers. If you follow even just a handful of these tips, you’ll find that you have more energy and endurance than you did before.

Beyond that, it’s important to seek out teaching opportunities that allow for more choice and autonomy. Richard Ingersoll, an education expert and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, summarized the situation in an interview with NPR:

I've worked with these data a lot going back last couple of decades. Where nationally, large samples of teachers are asked, "How much say does the faculty collectively have?" And, "How much leeway do you have in your classroom over a series of issues?" It turns out both levels are really important for decisions whether to stay or to part. And what's interesting about this finding [is that] this would not cost money to fix. This is an issue of management.

Given that the teachers who are most likely to burn out are the ones who care the most, this actually makes sense: What could be more frustrating than feeling like you don’t have the freedom or resources you need to achieve the results you’re after?

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to start looking for a position with a new school (though for some it might). The important thing is to talk to your current administration about finding more ways to empower you to make decisions and shape your own classroom – especially if you are already feeling stifled.

The same lesson applies if the problem you’re having doesn’t involve autonomy, but perhaps something else that has you at the end of your rope. Making your own needs a priority, and pursuing them with the same level of commitment you bring to your classroom, is essential if you want to build a long and successful career.   

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