Teacher Burnout: Death by a Thousand Papercuts

by guest author Katie Niemczyk

I recently wrote an op-ed for the HuffPost about why I became part of the mass exodus of teachers from the profession, and the response has been tremendous. Elizabeth McKissick reached out to ask me to be a guest on YouTurn Health’s podcast to discuss teacher burnout, which is why I’m writing this blog. The piece was featured by the National Education Policy Center at CU Boulder. I’ve also gotten hundreds of messages from current and former teachers thanking me for saying how so many feel, and I continue to get more every day. This last part is incredibly bittersweet. I’m glad so many educators feel validated and well-represented by my piece, but I hate that it resonates with so many of them in the first place. We have to do better for teachers (and, by proxy, kids).

The Toxic Culture of Education

In reflecting on the elements of teacher burnout that have pushed me and so many other teachers out of the classroom, I started thinking about the troubling aspects of education culture: how teachers are discouraged from showing vulnerability, not just in front of their students but in general, and therefore start to internalize the idea that we aren’t allowed to struggle. This not only makes it easier for some administrators, school board members, and private citizens to forget that we are indeed human beings with feelings and families of our own, but it also enables them to pile more and more on our plates and then get frustrated when we speak up about feeling overwhelmed and unsafe. (Administrators and school board members are also increasingly victims of this kind of treatment.)

I think it’s hard for people who have never been teachers to wrap their heads around, which makes it even more isolating for those experiencing it. For those who don’t understand (and for those who do and need the validation), I want to share a video by another former teacher that came up today in my TikTok feed. It begins with the question, “Why is [leaving teaching] like trying to get out of a gang?” This sounds ridiculous, and yet it so perfectly sums up what is both alluring and toxic about the culture of education (and many other helping professions, like nursing, social work, public defense, motherhood…it’s not a coincidence that these are or have historically been female-dominated fields).

There is an ethos surrounding these professions that encourages and even expects martyrdom. They are often viewed as “callings,” which implies that one’s whole identity must be wrapped up in them. But we know that to be healthy, people need time and energy to be well-rounded, to have fulfilling personal lives, to pursue passions unrelated to their profession. These two states of being cannot coexist.

Ignoring the Root Problem of Teacher Burnout

The response to teacher burnout I’ve seen from most school districts has been to slap band-aids on top of the problems. More mental health support for teachers is great, but it doesn’t address the roots of the problem: teachers are expected to do too much, and they don’t get enough time, money, or professional respect to do it. We’ve been saying it for years, and what we’ve mostly gotten from well-meaning people in positions of power is gaslighting, toxic positivity, buck-passing, unilateral decision-making, and “solutions” that create additional expectations and/or take up more of our professional time, rather than giving us smaller classes, more prep time, and fewer professional hoops to jump through.

It’s one thing to be at your breaking point, but then to feel like you are screaming into an abyss when you finally get the courage to speak up? No one should have to feel that helpless. (By the way, teachers, stop enabling this treatment by saying yes to too much and/or shaming your colleagues who push back!) Then there are the decision-makers who aren’t so well-meaning, who exploit teachers, ignore them, and guilt them for needing time off. A teacher reached out to me just today to tell me her story about this past year, when she was “diagnosed with a pseudoaneurysm […] and was shown zero empathy, compassion or grace.” Instead she was told by administration that she “inconvenienced them by calling out last minute” and that she was “emotional and not ‘holding it together.’” Meanwhile, she was “in a hospital bed with an EKG connected and an IV, busting out sub plans and emailing the office and texting [her] sub…all because of fear of repercussions.” She’s still on medical leave and currently looking to transition out of teaching.

I wish this example were an extreme outlier, but a former colleague, a teacher friend from another state, and my son’s former preschool teacher all have similar stories from this past year. If you need us so much, why do you treat us like we’re expendable?

Interpreting Neurodivergence as a Weakness

ADHD

I realize not every teacher feels this way: everyone has a different level of stress tolerance. For me, a combination of introversion, Sensory-processing Sensitivity (SPS), and ADHD (which has historically been chronically underdiagnosed in girls and women) made being a teacher extra challenging. But I’d be willing to bet that a LOT of teachers–females especially–struggle with these same neurodiversities without even realizing it. If you identify with the following, you might want to do a little research on ADHD: “Neurodivergent women often slip through the cracks of diagnosis because they can appear smart or gifted. This is because we’re more likely to be perfectionists or suffer from low self-esteem, so we work extra hard to prove ourselves (see also: burnout). […] We’re also experts at masking symptoms. We form habits by mirroring the social behaviours of those around us. […] As I discovered, burnout is what happens when the mask slips.”

Sensory-processing Sensitivity

OK, so maybe you already knew that about ADHD. Let’s talk more about Sensory-processing Sensitivity. A person with SPS tends not only to have heightened senses and a stronger reaction to external stimuli due to a more sensitive nervous system, but also “feels emotions very strongly—so little things have a massive impact on emotions—both positive and negative.” As you can probably guess, this type of neurodiversity (it’s not a disorder!) leads to feeling overwhelmed a lot. 

Dr. Elaine Aron explains in her book The Highly-Sensitive Person, a term she coined for people with SPS, that successful societies need two kinds of leaders: “‘warrior-kings’ concerned with expansion, freedom, and fame,” must be balanced by “royal advisors,” people who think more about long-term effects, especially on the vulnerable members of society (ahem…children). You can probably guess which type of leader teachers usually are: “Highly sensitive people tend to fill the advisor role. They are the writers, historians, philosophers, judges, artists, researchers, theologians, therapists, teachers, parents, and plain conscientious citizens. What they bring to any of these roles is a tendency to think about all the possible effects of an idea. Often they have to make themselves unpopular by stopping the majority from rushing ahead. Thus, to perform their role well, they have to feel very good about themselves.” This is the kind of person we want in the classroom, isn’t it??

Burnout from Negativity

And yet, we live in a society that labels people like this as “snowflakes” and “complainers,” and unfortunately, education culture is no exception. Unsurprisingly, when a person is entrenched in a culture that doesn’t value these unique traits and gifts, they “tend to have low self-esteem” and “they feel abnormal.” Their superpowers, the ability to be hyper-observant and highly empathetic, feel like deficits: “Over time, some HSPs can appear ‘numb,’ ‘distant,’ or ‘shut down’ as a defense from years of shielding or protecting oneself from negative energy.”[1] That sounds an awful lot like burnout.

COVID Stressed an Already Broken System

I want to emphasize that these issues are not new: the COVID pandemic has simply been the proverbial straw to a lot of teacher’s camel’s backs. It’s true that, according to a 2020 Rand Corporation survey, “Among teachers who left [voluntarily and before their scheduled retirement] primarily because of the pandemic, 64 percent said they weren’t paid enough to merit the risks or stress of teaching.” However, in a piece featured by the National Association of Secondary Principals that predates the pandemic, a superintendent from New York addresses what were already high rates of teacher turnover: “In the United States, 8 percent of teachers leave the profession annually, and more than 50 percent quit teaching before reaching retirement.”

Make no mistake. Young people deciding what field to pursue are paying attention. According to the New York Times, “The number of education degrees conferred by American colleges and universities dropped by 22 percent between 2006 and 2019, despite an overall increase in U.S. university graduates.” Since the pandemic, those numbers have dropped even more drastically, with many leaders of education programs citing “the perceived hazards posed by in-person teaching and the difficulties of remote learning, combined with longstanding frustrations over low pay compared with professions that require similar levels of education.”

The trade-off for lower pay in the teaching profession has traditionally been security in retirement, but hardly anyone gets there anymore. How can we expect to attract the best (or even enough) candidates to the profession when we don’t support and fairly compensate teachers? How can we expect the education system to flourish when this is how we treat the educators who are its backbone?

Teachers Supporting Teachers Who are Burned Out

Hustle Culture is Toxic

I’ve been surprised and heartened by the overwhelmingly positive response to my HuffPost piece. Maybe as a society we really are finally starting to shift away from Hustle Culture. But as evidence that we’re not there yet, I’ve also gotten more than a few “stop whining and do your job”-type comments, some of which have been from current and former teachers. It makes me sad, because those are people who have drunk the kool-aid for so long that they can’t even support a colleague’s decision to put her wellbeing and family first, much less to speak out about what is fast becoming a national epidemic[2].

That teacher who had the pseudoaneurysm started her message by thanking me for speaking out and ended by apologizing: “Sorry to have a complete stranger talk your ear off. Lol.” If that is not the internalization of toxic bullshit, I don’t know what is. So I’ll ask you what I asked her: “Who’s going to listen to us if we don’t?!?” Teachers who compete with and turn against each other, you are complicit in perpetuating teacher burnout. Direct that anger upwards and outwards, toward the systemic issues and the politicians and administrators who refuse to address them.

Don’t Apologize for Being Human

And teachers who apologize for being human, stop. You aren’t doing anything wrong by feeling overwhelmed, getting sick or pregnant, dealing with family emergencies, fearing for your safety at work, or trying to keep your own loved ones safe. Hopefully you never experience a major traumatic event due to the many hazards of our profession, such as the former teacher from Parkland, Florida, who shared with me what it was like to witness the murder of two of her students. Still, the daily stress caused by “lack of resources, work-life balance and political issues,” “losing what little time [you] have for planning due to sub shortages,” and students “coming back to school with new behavioral challenges” all take their toll over time. As one teacher recently said to me, teaching today “feels like death by 1,000 papercuts.” Burnout is a trauma response to a toxic work environment that you can’t even escape when you leave school because of the cultural war on teachers being manufactured by political extremists to undermine public education. I’m not saying all burnt-out teachers should leave the profession: you need to do what’s right for you. What I am saying is that it’s time to stop pulling punches and start (or keep!) speaking truth to power, because according to an old saying attributed to this pretty smart guy named Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Finally, to the people both in- and outside education who have the power to influence positive systemic change in support of public school teachers, thereby benefiting the children they teach and the society those children will one day lead, I’ll end this piece the same way I ended the one published in HuffPost: This country needs to start taking teachers seriously, before it’s too late. I am not exaggerating when I say our future depends on this.

About the Author

Katie Niemczyk is a freelance writer and former secondary Communication Arts and Literature teacher hoping to start a shift in the educational system to realize that one of the most important pieces of the system, teachers, have reached a breaking point.

For more information on burnout, please visit our Stress Management and Burnout Resources page.

Katie recorded a two-part podcast on the You Learn You Turn podcast in September 2022. Link to Part 1 is below. Part 2 will be released on September 29.


[1] Or worse, they numb themselves with substances.

[2] You may see pieces that swear the teacher shortage is not really a big deal, but I’m asking you to pay attention to the signs that it’s going to get worse: among them is an increase in strikes, with teachers asking for basics like air conditioning, smaller class sizes, more mental health and special-ed support for students, and of course, more competitive compensation for teachers. People may not realize this, but striking is an absolute last resort for any union chapter. There are many, many steps that must legally be taken before a strike can happen. Basically, if teachers are striking, they’ve reached the point where they’re banging their heads against a brick wall.