The Secret to Surviving Teacher Burnout: A framework shift, not productivity tips and tricks

I sometimes feel guilty when others complain about their workload: taking home a plethora of papers each night, writing letters home to 100+ parents, and making absurdly detailed lesson plans.

10 min read
The Secret to Surviving Teacher Burnout: A framework shift, not productivity tips and tricks

When I go home, I do very little related to my classroom. At least, I don’t feel required to (we all have the bug of thinking about the new “thing” in education.) I sometimes feel guilty when others complain about their workload: taking home a plethora of papers each night, writing letters home to 100+ parents, and making absurdly detailed lesson plans. And it is my view that this practice is unsustainable. Either the educator will quit or they’ll become so soulless in the work that their students will suffer.

In Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay, Doris Santoro highlights why teachers are quitting:

  1. There is the obvious salary issue, which deserves political attention and organization.
  2. There’s an increasingly political nature of this job and how attacked we feel.
  3. And finally, there is the “rigorous” nature perceived in this profession — how we have constant pressure to work and meet “expectations” of the district.

I believe it is fully possible for every educator to solve the third problem. It isn’t through installing a new app, organizing a schedule differently, embracing meditation, or taking medication. There isn’t a certain script to read off of and all of the sudden, you’re relaxed and calm! No, there’s a pathway we can take to lessen our workload that happens to also be what’s best for the student. In my opinion, embracing progressive education (namely gradeless learning, experiential learning, student voice and choice, and critical pedagogy) minimizes time spent outside the classroom on work.

Instead of focusing on the why (which you can read about in any of our posts at the Human Restoration Project), the following is about the how and its benefits.

Gradeless Learning

This is the easiest to enact. District policies may exist that require a teacher to report grades at certain intervals. But that policy likely doesn’t mention that students can’t self report their grades. Or maybe the grade is decided as a team? Through manipulation, any educator can find a way to utilize gradeless practice.

Much of the learning happening in my room is “measured” through formative assessment. Students meet with me at various intervals to discuss what they’re doing and I provide feedback on what to do next. This isn’t a stressful endeavor and students are constantly reassured that this is not a place of judgement. Instead, we are mutually moving forward together and I am serving the role of mentor.

From a practical standpoint, I write this feedback in our gradebook (which parents and students can access, and I use to “report out” to administration.) Further, I write a “grade” (which is not viewable to anyone but me) for district policy reasons. Ultimately, none of these grades matter as a student will self-report their real grade at the end of each semester. They defend this grade through two summative assessments: a sharing of their portfolio, which we’ve built together the entire year, and presenting at our annual celebration of learning.

In other words, all of my assessment happens at school. I certainly feel more busy at work than I used to. There’s never a dull moment as there’s always someone new to speak with. Yet I rarely, if ever, look at a student’s work outside of class. Of course, I reciprocate this behavior… I don’t expect students to work at home either. Homework may be linked to slightly better test scores, but I want my students to embrace their home lives, hang out with their friends and family, and do things that they love. Relaxing is good too for the both of us.

In fact, we see time and again studies that link less working hours with more productivity (CNBC, 2019). I reflect often on how poorly we utilize our time. Between the early mornings at school and insanely long expected “learning hours”, filled with assessments and activities, I find it hard to believe that all of it is needed. We could do more with less.

This alone is a giant chunk to knock out of a teacher’s schedule. We get wrapped up in believing that more work = the more we care. “If I get all of this done, my students will be more prepared!” The toxic framing of “superhero teachers” destroys the humanity of the educator itself. We aren’t robots and there’s a necessity to practice self-care. The more rejuvenated and content we are, the more we can relate to and be happy with our students.

What’s a better use of our time?

  1. You go home and grade every single student’s paper. It takes a few hours (you gave a lot of feedback.) A student looks at said papers at school. Because we have so many students in each class, they spend but a fraction of what you spent mulling over the marks.
  2. You arrive at school and check in with as many students as you can. You work with them to provide feedback and improve their writing. If you can’t reach every student, you teach them to provide feedback to each other. In other words, a “teach a man to fish” moment.

Yes, this means there will be less time to introduce new content. But realistically, are students actually prepared to move on to the next topic with just your written feedback from home? Are they honestly prepared just because you checked that topic off the list?

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Pictured: Someone marking on a checklist.

Experiential Learning / Student Voice and Choice

The second chunk of time to address is lesson planning. I used to be guilty of spending upwards of 2 hours on a sweet, well-formulated game to demonstrate a topic. Every now and then I still do this (it’s honestly fun every now and then), but I recognize that masking our lessons with bells and whistles is negating the truth: if a topic is interesting to students, they’ll naturally want to learn it. If it isn’t and we have to “make it fun” — are they really going to retain that much? The best lessons I’ve ever had are simply organic discussions that tend to relate to students’ lives. Sometimes they’re one-on-one, other times they’re as a class. Regardless, we’re killing ourselves by seeking out ways to validate standards that don’t connect to our students.

I recognize that there are topics that all students should learn. The serious ideas: recognizing our inequitable society, the history that’s brought us to this place, or how to code-switch and make our way in this world. Yet these topics are the ones that don’t require “tricks” to teach. They’re inherently interesting. Students understand why obviously important things are well, important to learn about.

There’s a place for a teacher to inspire importance — but this isn’t too hard if you’re honestly working with good intentions. If you listen to your students, let them choose what they want to do, and guide them on a path toward their learning, they won’t feel jeopardized when you want to introduce a new topic.

I set up my class with designated days (2–3 a week) for thematic projects. These house big ideas: veterans issues, entrepreneurship, sustainability, to name a few. Sometimes, we work collaboratively on a blanketed project idea. For example, last semester we developed video games, collaborating with the organization StackUp, which is a veterans organization aimed at connecting young veterans through eSports and tournament events. However, at no point was any student required to do this activity. Their voice matters the most and we worked together to develop alternatives. (We like to have one project “on-deck” as part of our planning, as some students love being exposed to creative, new ideas.)

The other days were used to tackle course concepts, usually dictated by what students wanted to learn. More often than not, what students are interested in regarding a course relate to one (or more) of the standards. We did not always cover the standards, however. There was no real effort to align anything. These classes looked traditional from the outside: discussions and lectures sometimes. But because students wanted to learn about these topics, most were engaged.

Prior to state testing, we do “cram.” It’s undeniable that the state report card matters. We aren’t at a place yet where the average person accepts a low school testing average. That said, I communicate this with students. They know the system — they know it’s a game — and they’re more than willing to “put up with” the required content when we’re both on the same page. We receive the highest test scores in the building despite covering the least amount of content. (As a result, administration rarely questions this practice.)

What’s the realistic scenario?

  1. Students retain information from your bell-to-bell lesson plan. They loved the game, activity, etc. Do they remember much of the content or more-so the activity that you planned? How about when you are doing this day-in and day-out?
  2. Students work on their own projects and ideas — and you sometimes introduce new concepts that you feel are important. Are they more likely to remember less content, but more meaningful content?

Therefore, most planning and learning happens with students rather than at students. We spend a considerable amount of time networking and making the “frame” of projects in the summer, but we don’t make a ton of required documents or day-by-day lessons. After the school year starts, any time spent outside of class is assisting students in finding resources for their project, or maybe finding an article based on the previous class discussion. It isn’t rocket science and it shouldn’t be. We’re working together to learn about things we care about, not force-feeding a set of facts.

This learning is rigorous. Students put in a considerable amount of time and energy into things they care about. Learning is a natural human behavior and we love to explore new ideas. The key revelation is recognizing that when we want to “engage” students — and we’re upset that students aren’t doing our work — we’re often grading and frustrated with a student’s lack of compliance. We don’t need to force rigor. If a course is framed with a learner’s interest in mind and we supply the resources a student wants to be successful, we solve the majority of problems that learners have with school.

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Pictured: A student writing on a sheet of paper.

Critical Pedagogy

When we take steps to level the playing field between educator and learner, we develop a system of trust and shared responsibility. Students need advocates, and the teacher is fundamental in fulfilling that role. If a student understands your role as a guide, they’ll take more initiatives on their own. We have to “deprogram” students to believing that their minds are meant to be crafted by us (which isn’t going to serve either of us well in the future.)

This takes responsibility away from the educator in controlling a student’s every whim while preserving our innate role: fostering a community of learners. The only way to teach responsibility is to give it, which involves giving up much of our perceived “power” in the room. And by disestablishing this power, we give ourselves more time to focus on the individual rather than crowd control.

How often do you find yourself in these scenarios?

  1. Year after year, you become frustrated with your students because they aren’t listening to your instructions. They constantly forget the thing they’re supposed to have. They aren’t paying attention to you. They don’t complete their required assignments. You may become upset. Do any of these problems get solved? How rare is it that talking down to students and/or “disciplining” a student’s lack of compliance leads to more learning? Instead, are they just “more compliant”?
  2. You have set the expectations in your room that you’re a forced to be reckoned with. Students are silent and don’t dare to question, speak, or move around without explicit permission. Yet, when a substitute is in— or maybe you’ve stepped out of the room for awhile — the students are the polar opposite. Did we teach students anything about responsibility?
  3. When students are told what to do, they look to a rubric or step-by-step guide on what to do next. Therefore, you spend a large portion of your planning on making elaborate rubrics and instructional guides. Then, you decide to take on a huge project! Students are confused…they don’t know what they are supposed to do day-to-day, there’s no guide. You become frustrated because you want them to try things on their own! At what point is learning a shared responsibility? Is our over-planning actually helping learners?

Further, these responsibilities lend themselves to students having empowered representation. They’re able to focus on what matters to them and stand up for the things they believe in. This is a win-win, students care more about what they’re doing and are (re)developing self-deterministic skills. We’ll certainly need to do more hand-holding toward the beginning of this progress, as students are sadly disillusioned with the role of school — but this process gets easier over time.

Throughout these changes, it’s necessary that we constantly communicate our mission and vision. I always reach out to parents through multiple messages, physical and virtual, to reinstate what the goals of my classroom are. I’ve never had a parent outwardly dissatisfied with these practices (at least, not after further critical inquiry.) This goes for the students as well. We have to reiterate we’re allies and doing this for all our benefits, as the perception can be that the teacher is “lazy” as we’re not doing things as they’ve always been done. This isn’t a message that happens once at the beginning of the year, it’s over and over to the point it feels exhausting.

The point is that progressive practice isn’t just humanizing for students, it’s humanizing to the educator. It helps us fulfill our purpose of educating people rather than numbers on a sheet of paper. It gives us more time to relax at home and contribute to all of our passions and pursuits. It lets us recharge and have the necessary energy to work with learners during the day. And ultimately, it helps us recognize our purpose as educators by reframing the mindset of authoritarian classroom ruler, dogmatic spreadsheet user, and master of standardized testing, to that of a learning companion who recognizes the innate talent in everyone.

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