3 Ways Principals Can Help Teachers Overcome Burnout

Focus on three things—time off, recognition, and connections—to help your teachers deal with the challenging daily checklist of responsibilities and overcome burnout.

Topics: Health and Wellness, Teacher Effectiveness

In 2019, the World Health Organization brought increased attention to the issue of employee burnout by defining it: Workplace burnout is a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Enter the COVID-19 pandemic just one year later, and burnout has reached new levels, especially for the nation’s educators.

One of the greatest challenges for principals and school leaders is helping their teachers successfully deal with and overcome the exhaustion, burnout, and workplace stress that they have experienced, according to National Education Association article, “Getting Serious About Teacher Burnout.”

What can principals do to ensure their teachers are healthier, more engaged, and more positive in their classrooms and hallways? Here are three ways schools can help their faculty and staff overcome the stress and burnout that often leads to employee turnover and dissatisfaction. (This advice goes for principals, too, who aren’t immune to burnout either!)

1. Time Off

According to Fortune, in 2020 American workers (not just educators) left about 33 percent of their paid time off on the table. That is over five days of vacation not taken, when taking time away from the daily grind of your job can have significant physical and mental health benefits. When people take vacations, they report having lower stress, less sick leave, and improved morale. Your best teachers might feel guilty about leaving to take time for themselves and investing in their own well-being. The fact that they give so much of themselves is often the reason that they might be feeling burned out.

As a school leader, encourage your teachers to occasionally decompress and get away from the office or escape from the requirements and daily stress of classroom challenges. Time away from work can make educators more productive—and happier—when they return to their students, and that translates into better student performance, higher teacher retention, and a more positive workplace culture.  Even half-day professional development experiences that allow your faculty and staff the afternoon to enjoy and get away can be beneficial.

2. Recognition

One of the main contributors to teacher burnout may be a lack of recognition. A 2021 Global Culture Report found that when there was no intentional and consistent strategy for recognizing the teachers on your staff, the odds of their burnout increased by 29 percent. The reality is that, in most schools, every teaching position is valuable, but not every person feels that their daily efforts are sufficiently visible. We all desire to feel seen.

Great school cultures emphasize timely and meaningful rewards to ensure that the good work you see happening in hallways and classrooms is rewarded—and then repeated in the hallways and classrooms. Build celebrations and recognitions into every meeting. Find a few minutes to highlight the efforts and impact of the people who are positively leading your school and deserve appreciation for their work. Recognizing teachers for their investment and initiative—and acknowledging the progress they have made with their students in the midst of consistent adversity—can be powerful medicine for a group of professionals who have become sick of feeling unimportant.

3. Connections

Educators’ workplace burnout often presents as a deep sense of fatigue and exhaustion, but that perceived emotional strain is not a symptom of workload only. Sometimes burnout can be a symptom of loneliness. Developing meaningful relationships with others at work provides people a sense of belonging and a helpful network of support that makes it easier to cope with challenges.

As a school leader, one of the greatest responsibilities you have is to ensure the quality of connections among your teachers. People are more motivated when they feel connected to a compelling common goal and to the people they are working with each day to accomplish it. Connection to other staff members improves personal resilience and helps your teachers to deal more effectively with unexpected issues.

But deeper connection requires an intentional administrative investment. Improving teacher trust and building collaborative relationships strong enough to support the weight of difficult conversations does not happen overnight. While a catalyst event will ignite awareness and impact behavior, lasting change only occurs with reinforcement and repetition.

To boost connection and inspire more collaboration on your campus among your faculty, work teacher teambuilding activities into your weekly meetings. Invite people to share something about themselves at lunch or in breakout groups. Schedule opportunities for teachers to learn about what they have in common with others that they might not already know or appreciate. The discovery of significant similarities inoculates us from the divisiveness of our differences.

Sometimes just using a few helpful phrases—“I believe in you,” “I trust you,” “You were right about,” “What do you think?” or “Come on in,” to name just a handful—can improve connections and morale.

Notice this list doesn’t include anything resembling “rekindling passion” to overcome teacher burnout and stress. Though a lack of passion and a missing sense of meaningful mission can contribute to burnout, a Deloitte workplace survey suggests this isn’t often the case: About 90 percent of the people surveyed said they still had passion for their current job, despite nearly two-thirds admitting they were frequently stressed.

That’s good news, but it shows that even passionate employees—just like the teachers at your school who truly care about their impact on students—are not immune to the threat and impact of stress or burnout.

School leadership is about service and making a positive influence. Providing your teachers with the psychological safety to take a break, feel appreciated, and create deeper relationships are the keys to reducing stress and burnout.

Sean Glaze is the founder of Great Results Teambuilding, with more than 20 years’ experience as a coach and an educator.