Is preventing teacher burnout the answer to addressing better outcomes for students?

The ‘COVID hangover’ remains for the teaching profession.
Rochelle Borton
May 18, 2021
The fallout from a strange year lingers in teaching above other professions

If 2020 taught society anything, it’s when a crisis hits, there are some professions we need more than others. Our frontline workers stepped up during a time of crisis and they have continued to do so. Even now, twelve months after the initial shock of lock downs and global pandemics, many of our frontline workers have maintained an increase in responsibilities to ensure basic needs are being met.

Throughout all of this time, there has been ambiguity around the definition of a frontline worker, with the term “essential worker” being more readily used throughout Australia. As the initial weeks of the COVID-19 crisis moved into months and beyond a year, it seemed that many settled on the idea that a job role was ‘essential’ if there was a responsibility for helping to provide basic physiological human needs.

These roles, when analysed, fall into several categories and include, those who keep people healthy and alive, those who are keep us clean, those who keep us fed, those who look after our families and those who keep us safe. The role of teacher and educator fit squarely into the group who are tasked with looking after families – a role not new to them, however a role that during the midst of a pandemic significantly changed.

Not unlike others in the essential and critical worker category, teachers experienced and reported significant increases in emotional and psychological stress throughout the year. Frankly, our essential workforce is not trained to take on the increases in responsibilities and demand that the pandemic brought. Twelve months on, whilst some essential workers and professions have settled back into a new normal, the ‘COVID hangover’ remains for the teaching profession.

Principals are currently reporting a significant increase in requests for reduced work hours and days, sick leave, long service leave, referrals to employee assistance programs, unexplained absences and mental health and wellbeing adjustments for staff members. All of this while many battle with their own wellbeing issues, without appropriate support mechanisms in place.

For the profession to rise above the current crisis, a crisis which has been significantly enhanced by the fact that there is a shortfall in the number of teachers across the nation, there must be a robust conversation that includes all stakeholders as part of the solution.

In the first instance, we need to acknowledge the value of the teaching profession and partition government to align policy and expectations. These changes could help to retain and motivate the current workforce to stay engaged and passionate about their craft and to attract new graduates to the profession.

We must also work alongside community and parent groups to align expectations of the profession and collaborate on partnered solutions that include sharing the responsibility for student needs that extend beyond teaching and learning.

We should also consider providing essential support in the area of wellbeing both in schools and in communities to meet the growing mental health needs of young people both with reactive and proactive strategies.

We also need to continuously engage the profession, continue to call on them to provide insights into the day-to-day demands of education, listen to their concerns and actively work with them and others on solution-focused resolutions.

To do this, we need to begin by building positive trusting environments and professional relationships where sharing vulnerabilities and concerns are not considered a weakness. If more educators felt comfortable discussing the feelings of ‘burnout’ before they occurred, then there would be more opportunities to focus on a solution that was in the best interest of all parties.

During a recent conversation, a past Deputy Principal, who recently left the profession to due to burnout commented, “In my experience the role of school leaders is to take the load on for those under us and to guard their wellbeing ahead of your own and asking for help from those above can be career limiting.”

Another school leader confidentially shared last week that they would take several weeks off at the end of term to help mitigate ongoing concerns regarding personal mental health, and another during an emotional face to face meeting pulled back a long lock of blonde hair to reveal bald patches sighting the stress of the role as the major reason.

We need to do a better job at protecting the profession that spends its days educating and guiding some of our most vulnerable. Many teachers spend more time with children than their own parents do, and have the ability to shape, nurture and grow inquiring minds, but they can’t do their best by students if we don’t do our very best by them.

Rochelle Borton is Founder and Managing Director of Eduinfluencers who provide professional learning to school leaders, educators and school wide teaching/non-teaching teams in the areas of building cohesion, high performance, feedback and resilience. For program information, visit here: