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Let’s Stop Calling it Teacher ‘Burnout’

This phrase is everywhere in the education world. It frustrates me. It reeks of lack of self-care, with the onus being on the person to avoid it. The internet is full of anti-burnout helpful hints and techniques such as, try leaving work earlier…. (too busy), set sensible email boundaries…. (which means there will be a bigger pile on Monday and I’ll miss something vital). Switch off with a relaxing bath…. (where your to do list keeps going round and round your head). 

I am all for self-care but so many of us don’t have the capacity for this luxury. 

What if we used the word ‘exploitation’ in place of burnout? 

What if we changed the narrative? 

By changing this one word, the onus very quickly does a 180 degree flip. The onus is now on the employer. As a nation, we take exploitation very seriously. As a nation, we brush burnout under the carpet. 

I have researched some popular ‘burnout’ causes in educational settings and reframed them.

Insufficient planning and preparation time (PPA) – You need to use a substantial amount of home/family/leisure time to plan, prepare and assess. You are sometimes up until midnight. You are not getting enough sleep. Your PPA keeps getting cancelled. Your PPA is regularly interrupted. Your leadership team can’t understand why you can’t fit more into your PPA.

It’s not burnout, it’s exploitation.

Lack of staff – Needing to complete extra duties or cover lessons for sick colleagues. Schools not having adequate staff and not doing anything to improve the situation. SLT (Senior Leadership Team) pulling their hair out and considering if they need to shut due to covid absences. Limited budgets meaning unqualified staff are further exploited in being asked to complete a class teacher role on a higher level teaching assistant (HLSA) salary. Trainee teachers are being trained using a ‘sink or swim’ approach and provided with their own class with limited support. Teachers leaving the profession in droves and a lack of supply staff. All these things add pressure to the remaining staff. 

They are not ‘burning out’, they are being exploited. 

Poor workplace relationships – Line managers who are poor communicators or don’t behave in a respectful manner. Micro-mananging and lack of autonomy for teachers who would do a much better job given a bit of trust. OFSTED agendas rather than what is best for the actual children. Stressed senior leaders who forget how to speak to staff professionally (you wouldn’t speak to the children like that…). Teachers being singled out and systematically bullied and gas lit (and I don’t use that term lightly as there are so many instances that I have heard about recently).  It’s often not personal, but it feels it to the individual. 

Workplace bullying does not simply cause ‘burnout’, it creates significant and unacceptable mental health issues that stick with people long after they have left. Workplaces that cause you to have mild post traumatic stress, have failed in their duty of care and should be called out for exploiting their employees. 

Unrealistic expectations – Managers use the threat of OFSTED as a driving force for ‘quick fix’, often data led school improvement at the detriment of high quality embedded systems. You have more work than you can ever fit into the working week and with all the extra bureaucracy, it is the children who ultimately suffer from having a stressed out teacher. You feel ok on day 1 and 2 of the Autumn term and then you are flattened by a tidal wave of new initiatives. 

Over Scrutiny – Endless book looks, learning walks, feedback, performance management, pupil progress meetings etc. etc. in what other profession is this normal? Mere mortals do not have the tolerance levels for this amount of constant pressure.

Increased student and parent need – Our students often have additional needs, social and emotional issues (SEMH) or other needs which teachers don’t have the resources to be able to deal with. Parental complaints are more regular as no one has the time or resources to prevent issues with the constant firefighting. Some senior leaders shoot first and ask questions later when a complaint comes in; taking the parents’ side before getting all the facts.

It’s not burnout, it’s exploitation.

Let’s challenge the OFSTED arbitrary wellbeing question to make it higher on everyone’s agenda. No one wants to say their workplace is terrible during an inspection but we could make a start by ensuring we are all commenting on the issues nationally and that this continued exploitation is unacceptable. 

Having worked in a wide variety of schools, I have seen the full range. Having been a member of various educational groups online, I have heard some shocking stories. Even the best schools with amazing leadership have a hard time balancing what is important vs what is expected from above. The nicest schools are still exploiting their staff but are happy to admit that this is the case and due to the lack of wriggle room in staying safe from RI and staying in the black, their staff have a lot of goodwill which they call on time and time again. If there are any schools that feel that they are doing an amazing job with zero exploitation, I’d love to know their secrets – please share if you are one!

I am very concerned that the education system is heading for implosion. At what point will there be so few experienced staff, that it impossible to teach children with the demands of the current curriculum effectively? From what I’ve read, staff are breaking rank left right and centre at the moment. 

I’m convinced that if we stripped everything back to ‘just good teaching’ with an emphasis on wellbeing for all, that they progress and thirst for learning would speak for itself. If this happened, I and many other people would be tempted back to the classroom. 

Happy teachers = happier pupils = better progress = growth mindset = increased employability. 

Let’s change the narrative together.

Join Lynn’s supportive Facebook page here.

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The author

Lynn has been teaching for 20 years during which time she has been an Assistant Head and a Lead Mentor at a Teacher Training institution. Currently, she is working as a SENCO. She loves to write, including research, children‘s poetry and she has an MA in Education, NASENCO and NPQH. Lynn’s particular areas of interest are wellbeing (staff and pupil), SEND, children’s mental health, leadership, mentoring and coaching. She has written for Teacher Toolkit and has her own blog The site hosts a range of articles, resources and info graphics on all things SEMH - including educator wellbeing. She also has a coaching group with free monthly events: In her leisure time, she loves to spend time with her family and in the great outdoors walking and climbing. She is also a Scout climbing instructor and assessor. Her children are 10 and 6 and therefore she can appreciate first-hand the pressure children, educators and parents are under!

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