Caring Too Much: Burned-Out Educators and Disengagement in Our Schools
A 2013 Gallup research poll across the USA reported that before the end of high school, 60% of students are checking out. Alarmingly, by 2015 that number jumps to 66%. Worse, 50% of their teachers are disengaged, and another 20% reach the level of “toxic.” It seems obvious that without engaged teachers, we cannot cultivate engaged students. Whatever it is that we’re doing is simply not working.
In the 2017 Quality of Educator Work Life Survey, 61% of teachers reported being stressed out, and 58% said their mental health was not good. And, according to a 2017 Harvard study, teacher turnover in the USA is double that of nations like Finland and Singapore. Even worse, half of teachers quit within their first five years. These numbers describe public schools, but after visiting over 100 schools over the past six years (including Christian schools), most of the Christian educators we met told us about similar challenges.
A lot of today’s material focuses on student engagement. If you Google “student disengagement,” you receive nearly 1.8 million hits. But, if you Google “teacher disengagement,” you receive one-third the responses. What if efforts to solve disengagement in schools has taken us down the wrong path? Are we putting the cart before the horse? I’ve gotten in the habit of asking principals to describe their strategy for improving the health and well-being of their teachers. No one has yet provided one. We need to ask ourselves, “How do we hope to win the battle of the hearts and minds of our kids—when we send in tired and wounded warriors to fight the war?”
Battle Fatigue Looks Like Disengagement
Take a moment to browse the diagnoses and remedies you find in your Google searches for teacher engagement. If we follow motivational experts like Dan Pink, then providing more autonomy, mastery, and purpose lead to engagement. But when I’ve spoken to Christian teachers out on the raw edge, they don’t feel any lack of mastery or purpose. When we released Humanizing the Education Machine (Wiley, 2016), we began to hear from teachers, especially those on the front lines. Most were caught in some blend of exhaustion, stress, and feeling overwhelmed. Story after story had a common theme that sounded more like battle fatigue than not caring. In fact, most clearly suffered from “caring too much.”
We got some scientific evidence of this when we visited Next Jump Leadership Academy. Next Jump is an e-commerce company headquartered in New York City, with offices in Boston and London. Its success and unique culture have been studied by Harvard and described in several books. That success allows them to offer pro bono leadership training to invited groups. In 2017, I attended a Next Jump training program designed for educators. Next Jump’s director of wellness, Peter Chiarchiaro, gave each participant a resilience test. The test included a simple blood pressure measurement by laying down, and then standing up. The second test was a more sophisticated tool, measuring how much (and how well) someone carries stress. Peter explained the different assessments and what they reveal. For example, the blood pressure test measured heart resilience. For a person in good health, going from reclining to standing causes blood pressure to increase to compensate for gravity. But for those who are worn down, burned out, or in poor health, the blood pressure will drop. That simply means that when your body signals to the heart that it needs more pressure, it can’t respond immediately. This condition is called orthostatic hypotension.
At the beginning of day three, Next Jump’s senior leadership team greeted us, along with their Director of Wellness. They asked for our permission to go off the agenda. Since this was the first academy for educators, the results of the previous day’s assessments had caught their team off guard. The outcomes were so contrary to any previous leadership academy, that they went late into the night analyzing the results to make sure they had it correct.
Next Jump measures three levels of resilience: survival, sustaining, and thriving. Every educator in the room was in the survival range, running on empty. The conclusion from the two tests was that the educator group was experiencing battle fatigue. And that condition looks and feels like disengagement.
The Caregiver’s Dilemma
I was on the edge of my chair taking notes and recording Peter’s presentation and commentaries from the senior leaders. When Peter shared how this group compared to others, I heard a collective exhale of despair. They cared too much. Charlie Kim, the founder of Next Jump, explained what he called the caregiver’s dilemma: “Because your role is to care for others, and the work is endless, you fall into the trap of not taking care of yourself.”
For the first time, these dedicated and highly professional educators saw evidence for why they felt so tired, overwhelmed, defeated—and in some cases, depressed. That led to deeply emotional stories and confessions, a powerful time of catharsis. I had certainly made the intellectual connection between well-being and engagement but had never felt it emotionally. That day, the whole topic pushed beyond the conceptual for me.
“In Case of an Emergency”: Steps for Restoring Resilience
Let me share six simple lessons that our teams have found to be helpful for restoring educators’ resilience and engagement.
- Make your wellbeing and health a priority. Charlie Kim explained to the group of educators that one of Next Jump’s core philosophies is: “Take care of me, which allows me to take care of you.” He illustrated the point with the application of the simple flight attendant instructions: “In case of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks above your seat will deploy. Please place your own mask on first, then assist your child or other passengers.” The clear lesson: if the caregivers are not healthy, then no one else will be helped.
- Get enough sleep. Personally, improved sleep is the one changed habit that has contributed the most to my health, happiness, and effectiveness. Life’s distractions, long days of stress, watching screens before bed, and other interferences make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Whatever amount of sleep you are currently getting should be slowly increased another 30-60 minutes, while decreasing your screen time before bed.
- Take breaks during the day. You can’t run a marathon like a sprint. Teachers are “on” all day long. That is simply not sustainable. New research confirms that we all have a daily work rhythm that is similar to our sleep rhythm at night. Your brain maxes out at 90 minutes of cognitive load (as in teaching) before it has to rest. Otherwise, you damage it, like pulling a muscle. Your brain won’t signal the pain because it has no nerve endings. When you rest, you need a full 15-30 minute break—which doesn’t mean simply switching tasks. It means a walk outside, quiet contemplation or prayer, or a power nap—and always drinking a large glass of water on your break.
- Take your Sabbath seriously. Taking one full day a week for rest, reflection, family, and worship represent an ancient (and still essential) recalibrating of our relationship to time and work.
- Change your space; change your culture. That is the title of my 2014 book, and it describes the need to carefully and intentionally design the spaces of our lives and work. For example, the dean of education of the University of North Texas (UNT) developed one of the first curricula to support teachers with emotional health, as well as social and emotional literacy. And to support that approach, UNT is adopting a practice found in Singapore: a room for true recovery for teachers. They call it “The Living Room.” It’s a comfortable and restful place, not the dismal utilitarian break room that most teachers know so well.
- Find meaningful social connections. UNT is adapting a second practice from Singapore, which is a room for teachers called “The Pulse.” Teachers office together in this room. In fact, they are not permitted to office out of their classrooms. Why? Social connection is restorative. Isolation leads to poor mental health.
Every workplace—especially K-12 education—must recognize that the stresses of life and work will wear people down. In our work, we’ve learned this is literally a life and death issue. Yet our cultural voices whisper, “Run a little faster, work a little harder.” We must all try to resist these voices. Better yet, educate them! We know a vital and well-documented truth. In your own setting, start a conversation about the need to restore health and well-being in our schools, our families, and our communities.
About the Author
Rex Miller is the lead author for Humanizing the Education Machine, which tells the story of what great 21st century learning looks like—and how to bring that dynamic into schools. His company, MindShift, has tackled numerous large and complex problems, including the waste and adversarial culture of the construction industry, and the chronic problem of workplace disengagement. His two books from these projects have both won international awards for innovation and excellence. His current project examines ways to create a healthy workplace in schools (www.rexmiller.com). He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.