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Heartbreak becomes burnout for teachers when work is turbulent

We talk about exhaustion and burnout, but not heartbreak.

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Teaching is often known as a “trial by fire” profession.

In many countries, well-prepared teachers leave the profession at alarming rates, including in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

School and educational system leaders have to invest significant time considering how to retain teachers because keeping them is necessary to provide stability to the system.

What’s happening in schools that is causing educational professionals to leave a dream job with seemingly great perks such as summers off, good pay and a short work day?

Many factors influence teacher exhaustion and burnout, but I’d like to discuss a more personal reason: heartbreak. Stressful environments, where teachers’ agency is highly restricted and their resources and supports are strapped can create crushing heartache. This distress can influence educators’ well-being, willingness to innovate and the formation of warm relationships with other people.

Occupational heartbreak

People decide to become teachers because of love – love for subject matter or love for children.

For the past four years, I have worked with young people studying to become teachers. In our class discussions about why they chose the teaching profession, two reasons have consistently emerged: students either love a subject area (such as physical education, biology, math or English) or they love working with children and youth.

Some of my students have even spoken eloquently of feeling a calling to be a teacher, and have expressed their eagerness to join the profession. They cannot wait to finish their education degree and get into their own classrooms.

Sometimes with my students, I think of myself at 17. The final scene of Dead Poet’s Society inspired me to follow my dream of becoming a teacher.

I wanted to be as engaging as the teacher, William Keating, and bring the beauty of literature to my adoring yet slightly troubled students.

Students make their stand.

Flash forward three university degrees and 20 years of classroom instruction later and the wiser, slightly more cynical me thinks:

“Mr. Keating really pushed the boundaries of professional teaching relationships. I’m not surprised that he lost his job after he destroyed school materials and convinced impressionable young men to make a secret society.”

Today, I understand that growing as a professional requires acknowledging that the everyday job of teaching entails embracing the mundane duties of grading papers, attending curriculum meetings and supervising recess.

I also understand that inspiring young poets, and seeing them thrive in the world, requires more than simply reading them works by Thoreau and urging them to carpe diem (seize the day). But I still cry during the last scene of this movie when the students “make their stand” on desks for Mr. Keating, embodying their willingness to embrace a new perspective on life and remain loyal to his lessons.

Experienced teacher educators hope that when new teachers arrive in classrooms and face the system’s complexities, they will become buoyant educators who have the resilience to rebound from challenges.

But what if those challenges are regularly overwhelming teachers’ capacities to respond and rebound?

Educational turbulence

Educational leaders need to watch out for job-induced heartbreak when teachers are forced to navigate educational turbulence — the destabilizing of professional practice by policies or reform outside the educators’ control.

Some turbulence can be positive, as it can shake up people or practices that are no longer useful or productive. But successive changes to curriculum, financing or workload can cause ongoing turbulence to everyday work.

This disruption can create frustration, confusion or stress for the educator, but these emotions are generally repressed in school settings. These situations create emotional labour — that means people have to regulate their emotional expressions in a way that is considered acceptable at work.

In my own study of six educators’ experiences of emotional labour, my participants reflected on why they stayed passionate about their work.

They all inadvertently placed their hands on or near their hearts when discussing their passion for health promotion in schools. One participant stated that teaching was her heartwork, a pun on “hard work,” as she described how she felt while doing her dream job.

She explained this commitment drove her to implement positive change to improve the school culture. But when educational system priorities shifted, and financial cutbacks erased her job and projects, she felt personally devastated her “heartwork” was no longer required.

Teachers highly value building healthy relationships with their students and when educational turbulence undermines this process, the educators can feel frustration, stress or anger. The management of these emotions in defense of the teacher-student relationship can create a toxic level of emotional labour for educators.

At risk for heartbreak

Here are a few ways I believe educators can find themselves experiencing occupational heartbreak:

  1. If authorities create new curricula without providing educators the necessary time and tools to implement it, teachers’ love for subject matter could be disrupted.

  2. If systems don’t prioritize class-size limits, the classroom teacher’s ability to respond quickly to emerging mental-health concerns is compromised.

  3. When funding decreases interfere with connecting students to necessary services, committed educators might sacrifice their own well-being to fill the gap.

  4. When new teachers realize that the system that they are entering does not value their emotional or financial investment, they might choose a new profession.

Preserving the love

Keeping competent and passionate people in education should be a societal goal. This requires understanding that for many educators teaching is their dream job. Preserving the love in educators’ hearts is a necessary part of keeping educators in schools.

True connection between students, teachers, and content happens during the daily grind of the school year.

Somewhere between grading assignments, extra supervision during freezing days, cleaning up art project bits from the floors, inputting student data into reports and blogging about curricular progress, most educators still long to inspire students to pursue a lifetime of learning.

And some teachers, even old cynics like myself, still await the day they hear “O Captain, my Captain.”

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