A few months ago, I wrote a piece called The Rules of Teacher Engagement which discussed teacher engagement and what it means when teachers become disconnected from their profession like I did some years ago, and how I took control and turned it around. Educator disengagement is stronger than just not being interested in what your learning or teaching at the time. It’s the complete disconnection to the why behind teaching. It gives people’s minds the opportunity and permission to do things like incessantly complain about students’ laziness, roll their eyes at the teachers who are excited and still engaged, and either do anything they can to work against the administration or just do nothing exciting to fly under the radar. And sometimes the teachers who are the most disengaged expect the highest level of engagement out of their disengaged students, even though they don’t feel that connection themselves.
This came to my attention a few years ago when I disengaged. It was a terrible feeling. I hated my job, looked forward to the end of the day or end of the week, took only what I had home and rarely found interest in anything education-based. I like to tell myself that my students didn’t notice because, for me, it wasn’t the students but the politics of education that disengaged me, but that’s probably not true. They probably knew. And even though I had the sweetest, most hard-working class I had ever had my last year I was in the classroom, I couldn’t pull myself back into the groove to even really appreciate it. It’s seriously one of my biggest professional regrets. Because when the students don’t feel like we care even when they’re struggling (especially when they’re struggling) we have truly failed as educators.
I feel like many of us can think about someone who fits this description. And, like with everything, there’s a continuum of feeling this way. On one side, there is the completely engaged educator, and I feel like I am almost there today (some of the tactics I employed to get there can be found in The Rules of Teacher Engagement). So, the first question is: how do people get this way? I think there are a few possibilities to what brings this on, but part of the difficulty of “solving” the issue is that it’s so deeply personal to whoever is experiencing it. That’s why the best prevention is self-awareness and knowing if you’re beginning to fall into the trap.
Sometimes, I think what emotionally removes people from education has nothing to do with education at all. It is a personal trauma or adversity that needs a person’s full attention, and it is either so deep or takes so long that people don’t know how to get back into the education groove and find that happy place again.
One of the biggest takeaways I had from Rick Jetter and Rebecca Coda‘s book Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank was that when we suffer adversity in the workplace, it emotionally hurts us. We become a little more disheartened with every time it happens. Sometimes, it’s simply about having more put on our plates than any one person can be expected to do. It could also be workplace bullying (which can come in the form of colleagues, parents, administration), an administrator or colleagues who are against risk-taking, or policies that are compliance-based and stifle creativity and innovation. Even a lack of trust for the people around you can cause hurt. And depending on their level of resilience, everyone will have a maximum that when they reach it, they may give up. Even the most resilient people have a breaking point, and reaching that point may cause them to become disengaged.
Sometimes, we overuse the term burnout. We say things like, “I’m so burnt out after the tough week.” But, professional burnout is absolutely a real thing, and one of the feelings that true burnout can lead to is detachment. In 2016, Psychology Today posted the article The Teacher Burnout Epidemic (Parts 1 and 2) on teacher burnout which included data that said:
About half a million (15% of) U.S. teachers leave the profession every year (Seidel, 2014).
More than 41% of teachers leave the profession within five years of starting, and teacher attrition has risen significantly over the last two decades (Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey, 2014). This provides clarification to Ingersoll’s (2012) oft-cited estimate that 40%-50% of new teachers leave within their first five years on the job.
TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) reported almost 66% of the nation’s best teachers continue to leave the profession for careers elsewhere (Chartock & Wiener, 2014).
It is clear our teachers are struggling, but we should refrain from placing the blame on them. Rather, consider the demands and unsustainability of the job.
…teachers are less likely to be able to deliver high quality instruction when they are not able to decompress (Neufeldnov, 2014). Stressed, overworked, frustrated teachers are less able to connect in positive ways with students and to offer students the best instruction. (Rankin, 2016)
Some of the symptoms of burnout include:
- Consistently being emotionally and physically exhausted accompanied with dread of what might happen the next day
- Impaired concentration that can get worse the longer it continues
- Weakened immune system (ie you get sick easier)
- Other mental health issues like anxiety or depression
- In the beginning, constant irritability and later, angry outbursts
Many of the symptoms of burnout can affect both a person’s personal and professional life. I thought one of the most interesting ways to handle burnout was found in this article by Mayo Clinic. Among other suggestions to handle burnout like seeking support and identifying stressors, it said:
Adjust your attitude. If you’ve become cynical at work, consider ways to improve your outlook. Rediscover enjoyable aspects of your work. Recognize co-workers for valuable contributions or a job well-done. Take short breaks throughout the day. Spend time away from work doing things you enjoy.
Burnout or not, something I think we could all remember this.
Secondary Traumatic Stress
Secondary traumatic stress (STS) (also known as compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma), as discussed in my book The Fire Within, is when people who hear of other’s trauma and who work with others who have experienced a trauma and exhibit trauma behaviors begin to develop the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) even if they have never suffered a trauma themselves. I included this chart in my book from the US Department of Human Services as the symptoms to look for:
Preoccupation with trauma
Elevated startle response
Increased heart rate
Muscle and joint pain
Impaired immune system
Increased severity of medical concerns
STS and burnout have both similar symptoms and ways to handle them. For both, it’s important to recognize when you need professional help.
Regardless of the reason for disengagement, the most important step to take is developing self-awareness and being mindful of how you feel in order to catch it in the early stages. I want people to understand that these feelings are real, and they are not weird or terrible teachers for having them, but there is an underlying cause to their disengagement. Many times I find that educators who are disengaged aren’t necessarily truly happy people, at least not in their profession. And I do believe that it is so much more rewarding to love your job and what you do, and in turn, the students you teach and love will be better people for it, and that’s really why we got into education in the first place.