What’s at Stake when Educators Burn Out

Apr 25, 2024 | About L2L, Burnout, Career, Education

by Nick Obando

As a teacher, I was no stranger to burnout. I recognized the physical signs–feeling drained and beyond capacity, the frustration, exhaustion, pressure, and resignation. I believed burnout was a normal part of being an educator, and so I waited for the relief of summer. Then, the cycle would start again with the new school year.

It’s easy to believe that teaching is just that demanding, and you’re either up for it or not. But now, with some distance from my teaching career, I look back and recognize that something else was going on too. Last year, on the Leverage to Lead blog, we wrote this about burnout: 

Burnout is a problem of misaligned values. Even with the “best” working conditions–salary, benefits, time off, etc., we burn out when we’re working out of alignment with our values. That could mean you don’t align with your company’s values, goals, purpose, or mission. You could still be doing great work, but if it’s not in keeping with what you value–whether that’s time, money, vulnerability, collaboration, justice, or climate action–your energy will be drained.

The idea of values misalignment clicked immediately. I hadn’t just been exhausted as a teacher, I had been working in an environment that ran counter to my own values. 

For example, having a voice at work matters deeply to me, as does knowing that my voice is heard and valued. But often, I felt just the opposite within my school. In an environment that was entirely “student-centered,” teachers could be reduced to tools for student success, expected to sacrifice everything, including our own needs and wellbeing. 

In one particular instance, after a colleague stepped away from a program we were co-facilitating, I took on their portion of planning and presenting. The school was happy to have me step up, but would not support me with a stipend to match the additional work I was doing. The justification was that I was still doing the same number of presentation hours. 

Many times, my hours were weaponized against me. My hours were compared to other teachers’ or narrowly defined in an audit to “prove” that I had availability to take on extra duties.

For me, burnout went beyond being overworked. It was emotionally depleting to fight for my own humanity. 

One of my coping mechanisms was putting up rigid boundaries to protect myself. I began saying “no” to anything beyond my essential duties. I didn’t have the capacity or motivation to invest in anything more.

But truthfully, less work did not fully address burnout. I was putting up walls against feeling like my teaching had been made transactional, like my time and energy were being extracted from me.

Creating the Tool I Once Needed 

A key part of the Educators Community of Practice I’m leading this summer is having participants create a Values Narrative. This is what I wish I’d had as a teacher. Not because it would have cured my burnout, but because it would have given me so much clarity about my desires, my choices, and my agency to act in alignment with my values.

The Values Narrative will be a culmination of the entire 4-session program, which runs from late June to mid-August. The narrative includes Identity work on who you are and how you’ve gotten to where you are today. We also build in your strengths and values so you are clear on what you offer, what you do well, and what you hold as your guiding principles and core beliefs.

From there, we build your Values Narrative–the story, which you can easily share with others, of what you need in order to do your best work. 

What can you do with a Values Narrative?

  • Explore what you really want and why
  • Speak with ease and clarity about your strengths and values
  • Set goals that align with your values
  • Examine a situation or relationship to see where your values are aligned or misaligned
  • Share it with a supervisor or colleague so they can best know how to support you and your goals
  • Exercise your agency to make choices and take action that best serve your values

When educators take the space and resources needed to care for themselves, we AND our students reap the benefits. No one is served when teachers are burned out. Our personal and professional development are, at their core, student-centered acts. 

This work has been essential for my own personal and professional development. I can’t wait to share it with you.

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