The Seven-Year Itch: Fighting Back Against Teacher Burnout

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Tucked in somewhere between the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed brand-new teacher and the “I’ve only got two years until retirement” seasoned professional, there’s another milestone, one that can signal the end of many a teaching career: the seven-year itch. This term used to be reserved for that feeling of restlessness in a marriage, an awkward phase when you’d been together for a long time but you were still young enough to wonder if there wasn’t something better out there for you.

And yes, that’s exactly how it feels as a teacher facing burnout.

You spent at least four years in college training to become the professional you are today. You weathered those first two years of mistakes and feelings of being overwhelmed. You might have even sprung out of that third year with a tenure contract, if your school system still does that. But then, somewhere around year five, things started to change.

You were no longer the “new teacher” that your colleagues checked up on. People stopped asking how it was going, your principal stopped popping in to see if you had things under control. Older teachers stopped offering helpful hints or loaning you their resources, fairly certain that you had your own by now.

By year six, you might have even earned your Master’s and enjoyed the little pay boost that goes with it. Of course, all these years of experience and further degrees only mean that you get to have more responsibility: you’re not only supervising student teachers now, you’re also in charge of the student council, the cheerleading team, and the yearbook.

Then somewhere in year seven—give or take a year—it hits you. You wake up one day and think, “Why did I put myself through all that hard work if this is all there is?”

Congratulations, you’ve just hit your first bout of actual teacher burnout. No, not the desperate, panicked sensation in year one when you told yourself pretty much daily that this was a mistake, that you can’t do this. No, this is a different feeling.

You’re Not Alone

There’s been a massive debate raging in education concerning how many teachers quit in the first five years. One long-standing statistic says as many as 50% of teachers quit by the fifth year, but new research shows it’s now closer to just 17%. What could have possibly made such a dramatic difference?

We have to look at the history of teaching (you know, that one semester class where you learned about one-room schoolhouses and Horace Mann). When many individuals of the past became teachers, there were some cultural truths at work. First, there weren’t a lot of options for women who went into professional work, so a high number of individuals became educators whether they’d really planned to or not. From another cultural standpoint, even for educated women there was a certain expectation that their careers were only temporary, a place holder until marriage and family came along.

Obviously, that was only true for families who could afford to live on one income, even back in the idyll times of the Donna Reed era. All “good old days” myths aside, a great many women worked outside the home after marriage and motherhood, in both trade and professional careers.

Sure, some women quit teaching to have a family. But also leading to the “dropout rate” was the abundance of opportunities. As more career fields opened up for both men and women, teachers took advantage of the chance to branch out. The mad rush for the exit wasn’t teachers who’d rather live under a bridge than spend another day in the classroom, but rather the chance to work in even more satisfying, engaging careers.

As recent studies show a drop in the teacher exodus, a number of factors are at work. First, it might come down to money. The average salary of a US teacher in 1970 was just under $9,000; even accounting for inflation, that’s a really pathetic salary.

Today, while there is still much work to be done and teachers around the country are voicing their need for a living wage, things have improved. Even ten years ago, the average salary for a US teacher was over $50,000 per year. This increase has made teaching a viable career, one that you can reasonably expect to sustain.

But I Still Feel Dead Inside

That doesn’t mean that teacher burnout won’t happen, but look at the bright side: all individuals, regardless of their careers, can feel this same “stuck in rut, I can’t do this for another twenty years” weight on their shoulders at some point.

How do you fight back? Ask yourself the following question: do you really want to fight burnout, or do you want to do something else? There’s no shame in moving forward with a different yet fulfilling career. If teaching is your burning passion, though, then you’re going to need to do some self-evaluation.

  1. Why am I a teacher?
  2. Why did I decide to do this in the first place?
  3. What would I be doing if I wasn’t doing this?
  4. How can I stop this from being the same old job every single year?
  5. How can I start looking forward to the next twenty years as an adventure instead of dreading it as a death sentence?

Here’s a little secret: more than a few teachers got into education by mistake, an unintentional “fall” into teaching. But that’s okay. It’s also okay if you got into education for any reason other than I want to change the world through children! As long as you’re fulfilled and your students’ needs are exceedingly met, it really doesn’t matter how or why you became a teacher.

I Want to Do This… I Really Want to Be a Teacher

Now that you’re sure (again) that teaching is right for you, here are a few helpful hints to fight back against the dull, empty feeling that can lead to burnout:

  • Change It Up – Are you able to go back, add some courses, and teach a new field? Of course you are. It might not be feasible or even desirable for everyone, but yes, you are able to do it. Barring that, explore with your principal what other courses you could teach with your current degree and certificate. Is there enough of an interest for a drama class, journalism class, a class on how to code computers? Can you develop an elective course? Is there a club or activity that needs someone, just to give you a little shift in focus and energy?
  • Fix Up Your Space – At the risk of sounding overly simple, look around at your classroom. You spend more of your awake life in this room than anywhere else on Earth. Is it really inviting? Or have those same posters been on the wall since you took the job? Completely reimagine your classroom, all the way up to a fresh coat of paint, furniture, and giant area rugs. What can you do to this space to shake things up and make you glad to be at school every day? And yes, budget is a major factor, but look at it this way: if a quick renovation is the thing that keeps you happily employed, it just might be money well spent. (You can also explore donation options, having students help with the work, sharing costs with another teacher, etc.)
  • Overplan Your Lessons – But wait, lesson planning is part of my burnout! That might be because you’re doing it wrong, or at least doing it in a way that makes you want to hit your head against the wall. Instead of planning each lesson for every class for every day, take a weekly lesson plan approach. These are the skills you need to cover and the standards that have to be met, but that doesn’t mean they have to happen exactly the way you planned them every day. Instead, plan six to eight activities PER DAY that can meet those requirements, and adjust on the fly. If the students aren’t engaging with one of the activities, push through to the next activity. By structuring every class into mini-lessons, you’re never doing the same old thing for more than a few minutes at a time.
  • Stop Killing Your Gradebook – Find out your administration’s requirements for this before you try it, but there’s a quiet movement afoot to stop assessing students so much. The mark of a “good” teacher used to be one in which the students were constantly working and turning in assignments, but now we understand that genuine learning isn’t happening when students are copying their spelling words ten times each or answering fifty math problems. Instead, the real learning is happening when those students get to experiment with words or have a race to see who can find three other ways to solve that math problem and still get the same answer. Make sure you’re doing all you need to do for accountability—and sure, to keep your job—but your classroom and your sanity will be much better off when you stop teaching just to get grades and start teaching to get your students excited about the topic.

Finally, there’s one more piece of advice that can make all the different while still seemingly almost stupidly simple: laugh. Seriously, just laugh. Make your classroom a place where structure is still in place and the work is still getting done, but where everyone is just happy to be there. It might be something as simple as a daily joke on the board (the cornier, the better) or a comic projected on your smartboard while the students file in. It can also be student-driven—with strict rules for appropriateness—with a piece of candy for the kid who brings in the most hilarious joke each day. But think back to when you were in school… who was the teacher with the crazy laugh, the one you could hear all the way down the hall way, the one who made other teachers roll their eyes because their class was obviously having too much fun? Be that teacher. Make your classroom a place where your students want to be, and more importantly, where you want to be.

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