how do you avoid burnout when your work is under-funded and emotionally draining?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I’m in my tenth year of working in an elementary school, not as a classroom teacher but in a role that is still certified and student/teacher/parent-facing. My school and district serve a suburban community of mixed income…we have some very white collar, professional families, as well as blue collar, working-class, and then down into pure poverty. Our school and the neighboring schools are bursting at the seams with enrollment, and as such, the resources we are able to provide our students, ranging from gifted education, academic interventions, mental health, and special education are stretched very thin.

My question pertains to how to avoid burnout amid working conditions that are beyond our control. We desperately need more funding for personnel in our school to provide our students with the instruction they need, but with the way school funding is tied to local tax base, state, and federal funding, etc., everyone’s hands are pretty tied, even up the chain of command. My administrators and I constantly feel down about how we cannot meet all the needs that walk in our door. We do our best to prioritize what resources we have to those who need it most, but to work in a field where we are constantly feeling like we lack the resources we need to do our jobs well is just demoralizing.

I imagine this question may feel timely to people dealing with the shutdown as well — as well as a whole bunch of other professions that are under-funded and emotionally draining. Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 174 comments… read them below }

  1. The Cosmic Avenger*

    For me, when I’m feeling some regret or remorse or FOMO, I like to do a detailed, realistic analysis of my alternatives. Usually it helps remind me of why what I’m doing is the best alternative, but if that isn’t immediately clear, I actually start to research in depth some alternatives. This can also bring up the reality of what you think you want, showing that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.

    1. Could Earn More Elsewhere*

      This. I work in a field where I could take my skills to a wide variety of organization types (from Fortune 500 through nonprofit, education, government, family business, etc). I choose to work at a type of organization where I get about 70-80% of what I could easily make by switching general employer types.

      When I have gotten down in the past about pay, resources, etc, I start the preliminary stages of a job search. I write down what I need in a job, I look at listings (both for duties and for salary), I look at where the opportunities are physically located wrt where I live, I look at the values of the places I’d be applying.

      So far, this usually results in a validation of the choices I’ve already made. Yes, I get paid less and we have some strain around resources. For me, this is balanced by commute, organizational culture, benefits, flexibility, the people I work with… there are a number of things. I end up being much happier at an unchanged job for several months after this exercise.

      If it resulted in more unhappiness, I’d probably have switched jobs. That of course wouldn’t help the organization I’d be leaving though — so tricky with education (OP’s example) which is so important but also underfunded in general.

      1. Writelhd*

        I am so glad y’all posted this, because I went through the same thing a year ago and that’s just what I did. I applied for an awesome job, did not even get an interview, but the process of loosely searching still seemed to help me get serious motivation back at actual job for a while. I’m going through it again, and I’m doing the same thing again, and I hope it’ll help this time, too.

  2. JokeyJules*

    I did an internship with the guidance dept for an inner-city high school that ran the gamut of issues. Teen pregnancy, racism, gang violence, drugs. It was a LOT to deal with.
    The most valuable advice I got from my mentor is to not be afraid to take a few days for yourself. If you never take a day off, you’ll only be running at 50 or 60% every day. If you take a day for yourself every once in a while, you’ll be running at 80 or 90% every day. He also reminded himself (and me) that a lot of what these kids need doesn’t require money. Sometimes it’s a shove in the right direction or a very blunt conversation or just a listening ear. Obviously this isn’t the case for everyone, but it does relieve a LOT of the pressure.
    Working in consulting, I experience almost none of these adversities now, but it is not lost on me how much this must weigh on you and your colleagues. But remember, the best way for you to help these students and their families is to be at that 80 or 90%, however you need to do that.

  3. Rezia*

    Kudos to you for the work that you do. I’m sorry you’re in this situation.

    I’ve found some comfort in setting very reasonable goals that reflect the resources at hand, so I’m not always stuck feeling like I’m short of the ideal, and I feel like I have something actually attainable to work towards. Recognizing small wins and calling them out can help keep morale up.

    Otherwise, make sure you take vacation and take care of yourself outside of the work place, so that you have as much energy as possible to give to your students when you are in school.

    1. That One Person*

      I would definitely second this and would like to add a little. It may sound and feel a little silly, but try to break down the overall desired achievements into smaller steps/goals to the point that they’re manageable – even to an extreme if needed. Even something as small as “get all of activity X’s papers printed for the whole class.” There’s something to be said about the positive feeling of having accomplished something and its a trick I’ve been on and off about using in my work life. When I’ve used it, even if I couldn’t get everything done I could walk away feeling proud and happy about what I DID get done. When I don’t then I just tend to walk away feeling very jaded and depressed with the thought of “What’s even the point?” I really wasn’t cut out for retail, but it at least helped create more positive pockets when I managed to practice it (and then there were days where I kept getting shifted around so everything was some percent done, those days were admittedly harder to practice this).

      The other positive side to it is that you get to mentally check mark off a step towards an overall goal (be it for the hour, day, week, etc). That is suddenly some percent you no longer have to worry about that feeds into the overall 100. Things I’ve found, personally, are also more approachable when you can view them in a listed format rather than looking at the whole picture since the whole picture can become very overwhelming. When you look at the steps it becomes easier to go “oh this portion will be very easy so I can devote more time to the other tasks when I knock them out” or “those can wait a little longer as I know I can get them done quickly so I’ll devote some time to this, knock those out, then finish the other task.”

      Over time you can lump some things into a larger lump sum if you want/if or when things become less strained, but even then I wouldn’t completely let go chopping up tasks into bite-sized pieces to deal with if for no other reason than your mental well-being.

  4. Justme, the OG*

    You personally cannot meet everyone’s needs, but do you have other resources locally that can? Maybe compile a list of alternative resources that you can suggest (although no guarantee that they are not in the same situation) so you don’t feel as though you’ve done nothing for those who need your help.

    Make sure to take time for yourself. Participate in some self care, whatever that means to you.

    1. Chai tea latte*

      I want to reply by plugging local 211 services. They are a great service that helps connect people to local resources, so that you don’t have to compile your own resource list. Often times, they have information on resources you might not even know about.

      1. automaticdoor*

        YESSS seconding. Please encourage people to call 211 (or your local equivalent). If they don’t have the answer, they can likely point you to someone who does.

    2. Mrs_helm*

      THIS. There are often community resources, charities, and churches that would love to help. They may already provide what you need but not know the school needs it. Or they may be willing to help, but not know what is needed. From school supplies out to extra eyes on the bus lines, teacher helpers, enrichment opportunities, even tech supplies. It can take a little work to make the connections, but one you do you can continue to go to that well. It won’t happen if you don’t ask.

      1. Parenthetically*

        This is just what I was coming here to say! My church’s community arm partners with a local elementary school that sounds very similar to OP’s school to fill some gaps the school’s budget can’t reach — food, clothing, and transportation needs are top of the list, but we provide lots of volunteers for their mentoring, after-school, and tutoring programs as well.

      2. DrTheLiz*

        In general I’d agree, but I’m super wary about recommending churches to people who haven’t already asked. I’m not Christian and I’ve been put off services that recommend churches to people the service can’t help, whether to me directly or when I’ve heard they do so to others. The churches in question were doing good, non-proselytising work but I… don’t want to be helped by a church. Vulnerable students shouldn’t be put off going to school resources because somebody on a street corner has exhorted them once too often to find Christ.

        1. Parenthetically*

          This is an interesting perspective, thank you! I’m thinking of things from the other way around, since the church I’m part of provides volunteers, funds, food, bus tickets, and services for our local elementary school. The school doesn’t send anyone to us, we provide resources to the school’s programs and the school provides them to the students and families. Aside from the legalities, which we strictly adhere to, there’s not really an opportunity for proselytizing since the school is the liaison.

        2. Jasnah*

          I agree, I think it’s great that churches and other religious institutions help people but I don’t want to be helped by a religious group either. And I think it’s not right that secular, government services are underfunded so we have to resort to private, religious ones. It’s one thing if a person who happens to be Christian volunteers as a school chaperone, but as a non-religious person I’d feel uncomfortable with my kids getting “school supplies, sponsored by Jesus!”

          1. JSPA*

            Granted, many states play fast and loose with separation rules — but many don’t. Plenty of churches (and other religious and non religious groups, including Kiwanis, scouts, unions, sports teams, sororities,
            neighborhood groups etc) do “coat drives” in winter and “backpack and school supply” drives in fall and food pantry drives year – round (food pantries, notably, often provide food to anyone who is looking for some, not only those who can document their need and their residency).

            I agree that having a minimum wage comparable in buying power to the minimum wage of our parents’ or grandparents’ generation and a less dysfunctional and better funded social safety net would prevent so much misery. But there’s nothing intrinsically proselytizing about the coats that are dropped off by a church, rather than by any other community group. It’s the gathering of items that’s used to cement community ties and make people feel good about doing good. Not the disbursal.

          2. Parenthetically*

            This is never, ever the case with church groups in my area. There are no “school supplies, sponsored by Jesus,” just supplies/coats/food quietly funneled to kids who have needs.

      3. Lavender Menace*

        And if everyone on your team is feeling similarly (or even just a few people), you can create an informal v-team so you can all work together to get these resources. Don’t feel like you have to take all this work on yourself, because that’ll just be one more thing on your plate. But if you can split it across people who are all concerned or even passionate about this, that may make it feel more achievable.

    3. GreenDoor*

      I work in public education, too, and I don’t think this is where the OP is coming from. Public schools are allocated a limited budget (most states limit how much you can levy a tax for) but if the needs of your students – for the services your school district MUST provide (like the OP said – special education, programs geared toward gifted and talented). those are part of a child’s actual education. You can’t just refer them to a community organization for that. This is why the OP is burnt out – the services that her school district MUST provide, the overwhelming demand, but the lack of resources.

      1. Parenthetically*

        I get the budgetary limitations of public schools, but OP named a range of services that were stretched thin, some of which could benefit from community support, even if it’s just to work around the edges of those things to remove burdens from the teachers and staff — volunteers to run copies or collate materials, to be office runners/messengers, to set up/transition classrooms, to act as liaisons. The money itself might not be fungible (though that’s absolutely worth addressing with the school board, city council, or state government), but OP’s time is, and any tasks that she can hand off to competent, committed volunteers can be part of her overall burnout mitigation plan.

        In addition, things like food packs, transportation vouchers, after school tutoring/care, and mentoring programs meet real needs among her students, which can make OP’s job easier as well — both by practically improving her students’ lives so they’re more able to receive the services she provides and by reducing her level of overall anxiety and worry about them.

        Teacher strikes are so important and they are absolutely right to demand better funding for education. But there are things short of strikes that OP can do in the meantime, IMO.

        1. bikes*

          Volunteers must be thoroughly vetted with fingerprinting and accompanying background check. There’s a fee attached to that, which the school would have to pay. It’s not as easy as “hey, come in and make our copies.”

          1. Parenthetically*

            Yes, I realize this, as one of these volunteers in the past. And I paid for my own fingerprinting and background check.

          2. Lavender Menace*

            It depends on the school and the school district. I’ve been volunteering in schools and in youth services organizations for about 15 years. In some organizations and districts, for certain kinds of work, I’ve had to be fingerprinted and background-checked; in others (including public schools!) I have not had to be. Particularly if you are working in the office and not around children, that may not be a requirement. I’ve also volunteered for youth organizations where the responsibility to pay for the background check and fingerprinting was on the volunteers. People are often willing to do it, especially if the cost is low (it’s never been over $25).

        2. Nancy*

          The school may have limited budgets and restrictions, but there are nonprofit organization that can provide grant dollars and programming that could support those services that need help. I work for a nonprofit who has early education as a priority and works closely with schools on programs and other nonprofits to provide services. It’s mainly about forming the relationship and making an agreement.

          Otherwise, I agree with posters above. Really take a look at your work and make sure it still fits for you if there is something else out there that would let you do your work where you feel you can accomplish more with more balance.

        3. What’s with Today, today?*

          In a lot of states farming those things out, or even just getting help with them, isn’t legal for the school district.

          1. Parenthetically*

            But in some states it may be, so it’s still good for OP to maybe check into those things. And we aren’t talking about farming out, we are talking about getting support for things she CAN get support for.

            1. anon for this*

              One of the things that burns me out is that I need to raise funds, cultivate relationships with funders, communicate with funders, provide updates to funders about how their funding is being used, and justify use of funding…

              … instead of just teaching math, like I thought the job of math teacher would entail.

      2. Lavender Menace*

        Well…sure you can, in some cases. I’ve volunteered in a nonprofit organization that provided special education for gifted and talented low-income, disadvantaged youth. We had relationships with local high schools and guidance counselors would regularly refer us students to the program. If the district is providing the bare minimum (or, let’s be realistic, below the minimum) it can be tremendous for a student who wants it to get that outside of school.

      3. Blunt Bunny*

        Yes could they ask the PTA to come up with fundraising to specifically fund things like learning aids for students. Or at your regular school events like school fairs could you have fundraising buckets I know they won’t cover stuff like staff cost but may cover smaller things that may be convenient but not critical.

  5. Zip Silver*

    I don’t really know how to tell other people to just accept it as is (because it’s easier said than done), but I’ve just accepted that my department’s underfunded and I can’t do anything about it.

    I suppose be the best you can be with what you’ve got, and quash any “what-if” scenarios when daydreaming.

    1. JokeyJules*

      acceptance truly is the first step in the right direction. i know what you mean though, telling people to just accept things is hard to do.

    2. AnonEMoose*

      My work is sometimes frustrating and a bit demoralizing for various reasons. Learning to do the best I can with what is within my control, and let go of the rest as best I can, has been key in avoiding burnout.

    3. GreenDoor*

      But we’re not talking about paperwork that won’t get filed, or widgets that won’t get moved from one shelf to another. We’re talking about the pressure the OP feels because she deals with children whose education will be shortchanged becuase her colleagues are burnt out from lack of resources. Kids aren’t the same as cogs. OP, is your district run by a school board? Do what teachers in my school district do – go to school board meetings and get angry. Rattle off your list of the problems your kids are facing and how ill equipped yoru schools are to meet those needs. Can you strike? It’s an extreme idea but it has certainly called attention to the serious lack of resources and inequity of services when other school districts have done it.

      1. Lavender Menace*

        I worked in HIV and drug abuse research. Whether it’s widgets that won’t get moved or kids that won’t get properly educated because the entire system is against them…there is still only so much that one human being can do. Yes, in theory, the OP can go to school board meetings and get angry, can strike, can do this or that…but that’s a lot of additional burden for someone who is already demoralized and overburdened to take on. And what if she can’t fix it, or can’t fix everything, which is likely?

        Acceptance isn’t a bad thing. Or accepting that there is a certain amount that you are willing to do in your corner of the world but that’s all you have to give. And sometimes, that “certain amount” might just be being the best damn teacher/counselor/parapprofessional she can be given the circumstances, or it may be simple things like working with a local nonprofit to get some of the kids connected to basic mental health or special education resources, or even just a donation of coats and books or something.

        1. Jasnah*

          Yeah, I really feel for OP. If I was in their or your position, where no matter how much I raise my voice and my vote, I still have to figure out how to make things better for this poor person, right now. And I can’t use plans A-C because of lack of funding, so… what do you do?

          I could not work as an educator and I have such sympathy for people who do. You are doing a truly impossible job.

  6. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Keep a list of the good things you do/your wins/etc. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or down, review it as a reminder that things aren’t always bad.

    1. BeeBoo*

      Second this. I work in a non-profit and when I am feeling down about the amount of work, lack of findings, or like I am not making a difference, I go to an email folder called “feel good” where I have stored emails that a) are from board members and colleagues telling me I dod a good job on something or b) are success stories about how our work has had an impact on an individuals life. Bringing it down to the individual level and remembering those you are able to help and make a difference for is really helpful for days I’m feeling so overwhelmed/burnt out.

      And of course, take mental health days as needed!

    2. Robbie*

      I keep every thank-you note or email I get when someone tells me that our church made a difference in their life somehow. On the days I am planning on running away to the circus, they help me remember that we are doing something important.

    3. TootsNYC*


      Any time you are focused on helping people, there will ALWAYS be more need than you can meet. Even if you have great funding and staffing, the lower-level needs will now be visible.

      So remind yourself often of what you HAVE done, what you CAN do.

      And don’t rely only on outside validation–write notes to yourself about something you did that helped someone, or made a difference.

      Also know this: There is a point at which people have to do something with the help you give them. I have “launching” kids (21 to 25), and I am frequently chanting, “It’s not my life.” I can’t do things for them, I can’t fix it for them. I can provide a safety net, advice, etc. But they must be the do-ers in their own lives.
      So there’s a boundary of what you’re responsible for–recognize where it is.

    4. skpjack*

      I’ve found it incredibly helpful to keep a done list under my to-do list. Every day before I leave for work I write down my wins for the day, along with the random stuff I did. Then I write down my todo list for tomorrow. That keeps me from feeling overwhelmed, while also reminding myself that – even though my work doesn’t tend to have tangible results for months and months – I’m still moving forward.

      I also highly recommend Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. The exercises in the book have really helped me stick with public service, even when the future of civil rights seems bleak.

    5. ursula*

      For real. I work in non-profit and I’m the kind of person who can’t help looking around and seeing all the incredible and needed things we could be doing if not under such constraints. During periods when I am struggling, I do the exercise from positive psychology where at the end of the day you write down three things that went well that day (which for me often means ‘had some kind of concrete positive impact on something’). I am generally skeptical of this kind of forced positivity, but I really do find that it makes a huge difference. I guess it just forces you to look at what you *are* doing with the resources you have, which can be easy to miss otherwise.

    6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      This is so crucial and really helpful (and excellent advice). “Failures” and bad things tend to take up more of our emotional energy and brain space, so being able to identify the good things helps us recalibrate.

    7. Lavender Menace*

      This was going to be my suggestion, and what I did when I was doing that kind of work. I continually reminded myself of the good that I was doing for the community I was serving, and when I got depressed or overwhelmed, it was a small way to lift my spirit a little so I could keep going another day.

    8. Jen Cranston*

      Yes! I’m a teacher, and switching my planner to a “done list” every day did amazing things for my mood.

      Also, I have an idea that really helps me to think about: I’m a good person who helps a hundred kids a day. My grocery checker (bank teller, tile repair guy, whatever) is also a good person who may help zero kids a day. The fact that I don’t work every waking hour and try to solve every problem I know about doesn’t make me a bad person. Otherwise, everybody’s a bad person who has free time and doesn’t use it to volunteer for the schools. If I left, I’d know less about kids’ problems, which would be less stressful, but I’d also help fewer kids.

  7. Quickbeam*

    I was a juvenile probation officer with a crushing caseload for 15 years. It inspired me to change careers (to nursing) but they way I approached the staggering work was to do the best I could with the available resources. I made sure I was up on every avenue of help or funding but knew that was not going to work for every child.

    If I was kind and did my best, I slept well at night.

    1. Mobuy*

      I think this is a great response. Be kind, do your best, then forgive yourself for not being perfect for every child. Good advice for everyone.

  8. Bopper*

    Can you get the community to help?
    Do you have a PTA? Are there things you can ask them to fund?
    Are there local churches that can help? For example. we have a “backpack program” where we send low income kids backpacks of food that they can eat on the weekends when they can’t get the free lunch at school.

    1. Susie Q*

      This! My office runs a back to school supply drive for our county. None of us are pressured to donate but the majority of us who can do (my sister is a teacher so I personally recognize the needs that schools and teachers have). We also have a food drive for furloughed federal employees and contractors right now.

    2. Liane*

      “Are there local churches that can help? For example. we have a ‘backpack program’ where we send low income kids backpacks of food that they can eat on the weekends when they can’t get the free lunch at school.”

      My church has a donation drive (money or items) every month for a different cause. August/September is School Supplies and Uniforms for the elementary and middle schools down the street. So contact the local congregations for the various religions (or other civic groups). Many are looking for ways to contribute to the community, but no person/group can help if they don’t know about what’s needed, rules for donating/volunteering, who to contact to do so.

      Our state’s food bank also does backpack programs. I think our state had one of the first or possibly the first program. So Google and see if this is already available. (I used “backpack food [my state]” as keywords.) This food bank also has a toolkit for schools that want to start their own.

      1. Mrs_helm*

        Oh, that reminds me. A town near us does a car show where the entry fee (for cars and guests) is school supplies. No set $$ amount, but the largest donation is recognized, and prizes are donated. Car guys love to show off their cars, at least around here. You put up a flyer, and they’ll come! So, it is easy and nearly free to plan.

    3. LadyMountaineer*

      I’m so sorry to say this but for someone already burnt out and in over their heads how is starting and coordinating a new program going to offer long-term help?

      1. Lilysparrow*

        I took it as a suggestion of other programs that may already exist near them, not starting a new one.

    4. InfoGeek*

      There’s a facebook group for my state where teachers/school staff can post needs and community people volunteer to supply them. Most teachers are asking for electric pencil sharpeners, kleenex, disinfecting wipes, markers, crayons, scissors, etc. The group is also good networking for other things for schools (free training for teachers, free field trips to museums for classes, etc.)

      Donors Choose is good if you need expensive things — large quantities of specific books, classroom equipment, etc.

      Many of the large school districts in our state have foundations that provide grants to teachers.

      Many local churches have adopted schools. This can range from providing teacher breakfasts a couple of times a year to hosting pre-game meals for sports teams to providing reading/math buddies. Yes, the churches need a liaison at the school, but they do most of the coordination of people and resources.

  9. Amber Rose*

    Therapy, if possible. This is what they’re trained to help you with.

    If not possible, maybe try something else to expend all those frustrated, sad, tired feelings on. Sometimes the best way to cope with mental exhaustion is to match it with physical exhaustion. Or you could try artistic ways of working through them, like painting or aggressive needlepoint. I have a friend who embroidered a dish towel with “F**k all those M********ers.” I love it.

  10. SocialIntrovert*

    As a social worker, I know this feeling well. Self care is so, so important. Sometimes it’s helpful to remind yourself that you are doing the best you can, that the care you have goes a long way to make positive change even when funding doesn’t, that you can’t help everyone, but it is more than worthwhile to help the ones you can. Changes for a few can have a ripple effect!

    Other things that help are making sure you are ramping up your self-care off-hours. Having a good work-life balance is crucial. Don’t think about work when you aren’t there! Do the things that make you feel better: bubble baths, yoga, swimming, working out, taking walks, getting a massage, drawing/coloring, journaling, cleaning house, listening to good music, having a good cup of tea/coffee/hot cocoa, pet some animals, etc. etc., are all things that I have done (and still do) to bring my stress level down. Also therapy, if you can! Having a professional to help you cope is super helpful! Or even having others in the same/similar situations where you guys kind of have your own support group for dealing with this kind of stress is good too.

    Remember that you can’t effectively help others if you aren’t helping yourself.

    1. Increase the self care*

      This is what I came to the comments to say. I ramp up my off duty self care. I also carve out 5 mins to myself twice a day at work. I need these mental health breaks every day.

    2. Kimmybear*

      This is one thing that smart companies (for- and non-profit) have started doing well…promoting self care. Can you lobby for a self care workshop as part of a professional development day? Whether it’s meditation or yoga or stress relief or whatever, it’s something that you can use and also pass along to your students. There are lots of resources online for mindfulness for teachers. Also remember that you are not alone and that there are other educators in your building, district, state that feel the same way. Work together without turning into gripe sessions where you bring each other down. Best of luck and know that you are doing great work.

  11. Mike C.*

    Have you spent time talking to your local and state representatives? I know a number of people who have been able to significantly improve their situations by talking to them, encouraging others to talk to them and advocating for these sorts of causes at the local level. Oftentimes you can work with a PTA or teacher’s union for a more collective effort.

    While fixing the problem is a long term solution, I’ve always found that working towards these sorts of efforts go a long, long way towards warding away that feeling of hopelessness and emotional drain.

    1. Doodle*

      Good example of this in LA County recently.

      Involvement in collective effort also gives you a like-minded community.

      And thank you, OP, for doing the work you do. Many of us are indeed grateful to you.

    2. ursula*

      Yeah I actually think there’s some benefit to making the severe constraints you’re under visible to parents and other community leaders. (Not in a blamey, over-politicized way, but very matter-of-fact.) This is the consequence of decades of voting for bad policies, and sometimes I think people need help in seeing that on their home turf.

    3. epi*

      Yes. We are in the middle of a national wave of teacher strikes. Several, including a high profile one in my city, included demands that specifically related to the learning environment and services for students; and pay and professional advancement for paraprofessionals.

      I believe the OP that getting more resources for their school is not straightforward. But the lack of resources is also not some law of nature. And I don’t want to attribute deliberate bad faith to the people the OP has spoken to about this, but they are management relative to her. Their perspective is different. One of my best friends was involved in the strike I mentioned, and all I can say is she was very surprised and disappointed by what she learned about her principal’s (false) statements and beliefs once they started organizing. Educators are in a tough position. They make it work with no resources because they care about the children they are helping. What others, who don’t do the work and don’t feel the pain, see, is that the system still works even with no resources. You have to start pushing back, or even letting people know that some operations will start to fail, or those around you will continue to behave as though the situation is sustainable.

      The OP may feel more empowered if they can get involved in their union or other groups seeking to improve the school system. They don’t need to even feel open to anything adversarial at this point. This is just an opportunity to get more information and maybe a new perspective on how the school system could be improved, what the barriers are, and what others are already doing. If any of those activities appeal to OP, it could be very empowering to get involved in those. If they don’t, the OP has a lot of options. Anything from getting involved to push their own idea, to learning more about the union’s rationale until they are satisfied, to getting tips or resources from other professionals, to getting more information that will help them decide if they want to stay in this field.

      1. anon for this*

        “They make it work with no resources because they care about the children they are helping. What others, who don’t do the work and don’t feel the pain, see, is that the system still works even with no resources.”

        This. This is the great scourge of jobs that people do because they feel it’s vital the work happens even if they’re under-resourced. In the corporate world, you go to your boss & say “I have X, Y, and Z on my plate. I’d be happy to add A and C but will have drop one of X or Y. Or maybe a significant pay raise would make it worth it to me.” And the boss will say something, and then you’ll take it or leave. In education, you say that and all you get back is, “Well, no one else is going to do it. Those children are going to suffer!” And it’s true — in the short term, no one else is going to do it, and those kids are going to suffer.

    4. Lilysparrow*

      Or request this kind of advocacy from well-meaning folks who offer to volunteer in ways that you can’t really use.

      I don’t know about you, but every service-oriented or community-engaged organization I’ve ever been involved with had a group of people who would offer not-very-helpful help. Here’s something they could do instead.

  12. HappyWriter*

    I’m actually in the process of writing a handbook for teachers related to this issue as it relates to the larger issue of social and emotional learning. The advice above to recognize and accept what you can and cannot change is huge, as is making time for self-care. I’m going to post some links below this with some articles you might find helpful.

  13. Kita*

    I wonder if there’s two kinds of burnout at play:

    Emotional burnout because the kinds of problems you’re seeing every day are very human, and we feel so bad when we can’t help someone. I don’t know a lot about dealing with this kind of burnout, since having empathy with your clients is probably an important part of your work. My bet is that the advice from other commenters about giving yourself time to recuperate and reset would help.

    Professional burnout because you have a vision of what doing your job really really well looks like, but you don’t have the staff capacity to perform the work at that level. I’ve seen this in my work, in part because our customers’ willingness/ability to pay is much lower than what it would cost to provide the best version of the service we provide. It gets disheartening when I want to provide service XYZ but don’t have time for anything but X. It might help as a team/with your supervisor to be really clear that you’ve got the resources to do X consistently, so that’s what you’re going to do and feel proud of.

    1. RandomlyGenerated*

      Yes to the professional burnout: I feel like a lot of comments are focusing on the emotional burnout, but for professional burnout of not enough hours in the day or money in the world to do the job as well as your vision, it may help to ruthlessly refine the vision into several levels of achievability.

      So having an Ideal State vision, where you provide XYZ to everyone, and a Base Vision of Just X, which should be something achievable, gives you wiggle room to play with Y and Z when time and money allows. It may also be possible to prioritize Y and Z to the people who need them most, and provide Y and Z in that order until time/money runs out. That will allow you to point to a plan that everyone agreed to in principle, and the job-well-done can be that you followed the plan and therefore used the time/money in the way that everyone agreed was the best possible use.

    2. Muriel Heslop*

      This is really insightful. When I was working in an under-funded, understaffed urban high school, I could have spent 24/7 on social, economic and emotional issues with my students. Frequently I never even got around to teaching much academic content once everything else was addressed (hunger, stress, pregnancies, parole officers, truancy paperwork, etc.) I worried so much about my kids, plus I was so frustrated not to actually be teaching (but was still held to rigorous testing standards.) It was a vicious cycle of double-barreled burnout from which I emerged only by transferring to a school with a more stable student population. There wasn’t enough self-care in the world to help me by the end and once I got married and started a family my husband and I agreed that I needed a change. I’m teaching special education students who struggle, but they have more support and resources as does the school. I’m a happier and better teacher and person.

      That said, the following self-care helped me manage: vigorous cardio + yoga, plant-based diet, no alcohol, no coffee after noon, and monthly mental health days/half-days. Also, my numerous friends in more lucrative corporate jobs were given the opportunity to sponsor me: granola bars, dried fruit, jars of peanut butter, loaves of bread, colored pencils, copy paper, etc. The last three years I didn’t pay for any of the food or classroom supplies I needed – my friends did. It was really great for me both financially and emotionally. I invited people to visit my classes all the time so they could see what was going on and after one visit people were usually happy to give me $50 for granola bars or school supplies.

      Hang in there, OP!

    3. Snark*


      This is a major issue for me lately, as one of my programs simply received zero dollars this fiscal year and I need to do surveys and inventories to be compliant with our regulations and with the law. While I would absolutely love to be inventorying facilities and surveying the entire property, that. will. not. happen. this. year. The earliest it could concievably happen is next summer. It may not even then.

      But! I can do the absolute best I can to limp along till then. I can work with the regulators, I can work with my reachback support, and I can do piecemeal field surveys as needed. And I can do all of that to a very high standard. And when I walk out at the end of the day, either way, I have done my job well, and I am going home to cook dinner and discuss owls with a four year old and drink beer.

      The point being, if you’re overly hung up on the vision of perfection that would result from unlimited manpower, funding, and resources, you are going to be endlessly frustrated and overwhelmed, because you’ll never get there ever. At some point, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good, or maybe even just the adequate.

    4. Remote Worker and Dog Lover*

      I love this advice. When I’ve been in this situation before, I’ve worked with colleagues to get on the same page about key priorities and then we focus on those.

    5. Nynaeve*

      Yes, I think this is a good point! I read an interesting article by Doris Santoro recently that argued that the key problem teachers are experiencing is not burnout, but demoralization. (Link to follow.) Her description of demoralization tracks with what you describe as professional burnout.

      What you describe as emotional burnout could probably also be called compassion fatigue (an Internet search should yield tons of articles on this). And then there’s regular burnout, where the work gets too hard or takes over your life, and eventually you’re just done.

      So the advice really depends on which of these you’re facing. If it’s a systemic issue, all the yoga and mindfulness meditation in the world won’t solve it.

        1. anon for this*

          Thanks for this. It is not just a problem in education: I have a family member who serves veterans of the armed forces in a health-care capacity, and recent changes in funding priorities mean that even though his section is down 20 health-care providers and is the subject of a federal whistle-blower investigation for being so understaffed, they’re being asked to shed another 20 FTE. (Yes, they’re being asked to do the same work with 40 fewer providers than federally mandated — by federal mandate.) Yoga can help you deal with the stress — but it is not a solution to being set up to fail.

  14. Wake County kid*

    I attended a middle school and high school that were similar. I can’t offer professional advice to teachers, but I can offer sympathy. I hope your conditions improve soon whether it’s through finding a new job or something else. While you’re in this role, try to focus on taking care of yourself and your social life outside of work. Get support where you can. Would it be feasible for you to look for other teaching roles, possibly in a different school system?

  15. Robbie*

    I am a minister in a large city, and churches are notorious places for burnout. While my advice may not apply in all situations, I find that it does help me maintain myself-
    Really focus on not doing anything related to your job at least once a week. No emails, no texts, no lesson planning/sermon writing, nothing. Let it be guilt-free, because you need to be in working order before you can help others.
    Support groups are great. I meet with other ministers in my area on a monthly basis, and we get it out of our system. Therapists, mentors, others who you can talk with without worrying about judgement are wonderful.
    Write down the moments you really enjoy your job. When you help your student get a concept, or when a class spent the afternoon without going up in flames. I hang on to those moments and savor them when I need a reminder of why I do what I do.
    Also, remind yourself that you are, no matter how awesome, simply a human, doing your best. Your best will vary day-to-day, but you are not Wonder Woman or Jesus, and can’t save the world on your own. But every thing you do to help someone adds up.

    1. Laura H.*


      We all have a little “I want to help the world” in us.

      And I think we also have trouble letting people help us. It’s ok. You’re doin the best you can with what you’ve got, right?

  16. Posey*

    I work in a similar-ish circumstance (not a school, but people-facing, emotionally draining), and one thing that has really helped myself and my colleages is a once monthly “peer supervision” group. If you google that term, you can find a lot of examples. But it’s an hour once per month where we’ve taken turns picking a topic and leading the group. It can be about a difficult case, a difficult set of circumstances, troubleshooting, etc. A couple of topics we’ve done recently have been about finding joy in the workplace, aligning our work with our values. We carefully structure them so they don’t become open vent sessions- but has been a place that we have to process all of this, and feel recharged afterwards.

  17. anon today*

    are you in Texas? (kidding not kidding). I’m sure it’s similar in a lot of places! I don’t have any advice, but from the perspective of a parent with kids in a title 1 school with a very mixed set of attendees (everything from very well off to poverty), I see how challenging it is, and how few resources the teachers and administration has, and how much is expected of you. I have so much respect and admiration for the job all of you do! Especially the dedication of people who want to help ALL the children but realistically you can’t. In our area, mental health resources is the largest fail (IMO).

    Do you have a great PTA and involved parents? They are the best at helping with resources and advocating for teachers, and sometimes just doing something to show they are appreciated. Sadly, the PTA and various other community groups and non-profits are stepping in and helping with funding for things the school district cannot. Computers, programs for the kids, software, and even salary for an intervention specialist are all things our PTA has funded. If you have them, maybe you can ask for things that will bring you concrete help that you need (whatever that may be?). And reaching out to community organizations can be helpful. I realize that is more work, but when you have a specific ask I find that (personally and I have noticed as a group), people are very willing to have a specific goal.

    I’m sorry there’s no magic fix, I wish there was! And adequate funding still doesn’t fix all the problem but would sure go a long way towards helping the problems seem more solvable!

    For you, I hope you know that the work you do is so valuable and appreciated (even if it doesn’t seem like it all the time). Those people you are educating are our future.

  18. deesse877*

    I’m in education as well, though not elementary. The best advice I ever received in a similar situation was “no individual solutions for systemic problems.” In other words, don’t try to “fix” specific bad things personally, when you know hat a larger problem is going to keep happening because of the general setup of the school/district/etc. You will bleed yourself dry, you will impose on coworkers, you will only create minor, impermanent change for people in need, and you will actually enable the larger institution to keep treating everyone badly. You end up enabling what you hate, basically. This is harsh knowledge, and in fact it was initially communicated to me as a rebuke, but it’s valuable to know what is truly possible and not possible, and to rethink your efforts on that basis.

    Sometimes systemic solutions turn out to be available if you just take a step back and think about it that way; more often, you have to either fight to create a real, permanent change, or you have to disengage. The latter can feel cruel, but it’s a legitimate choice, especially where fighting will threaten your job. It’s valuable to remember, too, that not being able to do thing X does not invalidate the good work you can do on thing Y.

    You can also take the fight different places–for example, through charity or political involvement. The most important thing to remember, though, is that guilt and shame and burnout are benefits to one’s enemies. Every day you hurt yourself by doing too much is another day that someone in a position of power can continue to exploit.

    1. Muriel Heslop*

      That is wonderful advice! I wish someone had given that to me when I started out in education – it could have changed my career!

  19. Sam Seaborn*

    I worked for a large, public hospital system for many years. While we did receive a lot of Medicaid reimbursement dollars, we were always, always operating a deficit. The environment was stressful and chaotic and tense. Management was awful. Morale was low. It was hard. What helped was my colleagues: finding mission-driven, enthusiastic colleagues who wanted to do good and who wanted to be there everyday; who wanted to try out new ideas and who were always motivated. At a point, I had to move on. There was so many changes and I was severely burnt out and that was okay. If/when that happens: you have to give your self permission to move on. It is okay to do that. You are not abandoning the constituents you serve. There are other missions that need you.

    1. B*

      I do feel like management (supportive vs disorganized and unrealistic) goes a long way towards contributing to burnout vs resilience, especially when resources are limited.

  20. Doodle*

    You might like to read Tracy Kidder, Among Schoolchildren, from the late 1980s, which follows an elementary school teacher and her students for a year.

    1. sheepla*

      Great book. (Really, read all Tracy Kidder’s books…and I don’t even usually enjoy nonfiction).

  21. Reject187*

    I also work in education, and I’m the idiot who says “Oh, you need help! I’m good at helping!” At the same time, there are places and responsibilities that I can’t back out of for need-based or contractual reasons.
    What I try to do, like JokeyJules mentioned, is to make good use of my sick/personal days. The school will not fall apart if I take a three-day weekend. I fill any off-time with things I enjoy, that revitalize me – crochet, watching Netflix, going for a walk on nice days, writing, spending time in church.
    I joke with my students and tell them “I love you, but only until 3:30.” We all know that’s a lie. We worry about these kids late into the night, and wake with concerns if we’re doing enough early in the morning. My mantra that I rely on is “There is only so much I can do, and I am doing my best to take care of them and me.” I find I can relieve a lot of my stress by realizing that I am doing all that I can, to do what I can. You may not have control over the budget, but if you’re doing your own job the best way you can with what you have, I’d say you’re doing spectacular.

    1. Corruptedbycoffee*

      This works for me, too. I work with a lot of homeless, some children, and a lot of people who are in crisis. I try to reset my goal posts from “did I fix everything for everyone?” to “did I do the best I could?” Because ultimately, our best is the best we can do.

  22. Hiking in Heels*

    I work for a conservation nonprofit, and when things get bleak I try to list the accomplishments and wins we’ve had. Rather than focusing on an area we lost to an open pit mine, I try to focus on the good we’ve done so far by looking at beautiful pictures of places that are permanently protected thanks to our work, and it renews my hope that we will have more wins in the future. Perhaps you could compile positive testimonies from people whose lives you’ve had an impact on, so you can review them when things get dark and seem hopeless.

    And remember, you are doing a world of good in your community and the world is a better place because you are in it!

  23. EddieSherbert*

    I have so much respect for teachers and staff at schools. Your job is hard! Thank you for what you do.

    This is a totally different area, but I do part-time work at an animal shelter and one thing that helps me deal with the frustrating things I (and everyone else up to the Executive Director) can’t change is kind of a journal. Every day, I make a note of something positive that came out of the day’s work. It can be something I did, another staff member did, something that happened between two cats (students in your case?), or something with an adopter or volunteer (parent? or something?). But I write something positive for each day. And I can read through the positives when I’m really upset about a negative.

    That being said, there is also nothing wrong with deciding the negatives outway positives and you’d like to find a new gig.

    1. Muriel Heslop*

      I keep a “Victory Calendar” in which I record at least one “win” everyday. I need to reread mine more often!

      1. HappierSC*

        I am a school counselor at an elementary. One of the things that really has helped me is keeping a detailed log of my day. I break up my day into 15 minute chunks and record what tasks I have worked on 2-3 times throughout the day. It is excellent documentation, but it is also great for my morale. At the end of the day, before leaving the office I briefly review it. This has really helped me shift my focus from looking at everything I didn’t get done (I totally understand that!!), to asking myself “Did you use your time to the best of your ability today?” Once you recognized that that answer is a resounding “yes” every day, it really helps you change your perspective. You’ll be absolutely amazed at all you cram into a day. It has really helped me boost my view of what a good job I am doing *with what I have*. (You can also schedule tasks/meetings in pencil for the future and record past activities in pen so that it doubles as a planner).

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      Gratitude journals and other positive-vibe tracking are great ways to train your brain to look for the good thing for the day, rather than the negative.

      I’m thinking that if you’re kid/public facing, you could even have a flipchart or white board where you invite folks to add their own gratitude or “win” of the day. I’d think that walking past that validation every day could be pretty awesome. And after dealing with some big or little drama, it would be a really powerful “close” to the interaction to ask the kid to walk up and write a few words, or even just a smiley face to acknowledge that the interaction worked.

  24. MechanicalPencil*

    I work in a creative field, which is much different than what you’re facing, but maybe you can adapt this a bit. I have a happy folder in my email of compliments on my work that I’ve received. Maybe you can take things that your students have given you like cards or whatever and put those in a folder, so you can pull those out and remember that hey, Fergus was kind of a snot in class but he thought enough of me to make me a card. Take the time for yourself to remember that you’re doing the best you can for these kids and families.

    A lot of these kids want to be seen as who they are. They don’t want to be seen as Wakeen’s kid brother. They want to be Fergus. So get to know Fergus and his likes/dislikes. Not Wakeen’s kid brother, and oh are you gonna play basketball like him? How’s Wakeen doing? Fergus is Fergus, not Wakeen’s answering service. And I might have some residual issues with being the youngest sibling.

    1. Rainy days*

      When I worked in a public school each teacher was expected to teach 180 students every semester. Not sure about the teachers you are referring to, but you might try having more empathy for the difficulty of managing an enormous caseload, given the situation OP is describing. Getting to know each student more indivially is a fine ideal, but not one that is likely to help in this situation.

      1. MechanicalPencil*

        I see your point. But I don’t see how it’s difficult to ask a student how he/she is doing instead of how the sibling is doing instead. If you get a minute of time to interact with a student on a more social level (very generously), spend it focusing on that student rather than on their siblings. That’s my point.

        1. Indie*

          I think Rainydays, like many of us, got into education for the express purpose of taking an interest in students as people and then you realise to your dismay it isn’t very often possible; but it is so vital and central to the job it is something you have to grasp around for and do for whichever lucky few you can. Not having many opportunities to connect with struggling students is what causes much of the burnout. It’s a bit like telling a carpenter to ‘cut some wood when you get a minute’. Except she has no saw.

        2. Jasnah*

          I think teachers wish they could spend more time with each student, but it’s hard to chit chat with 40 individuals, and teach them 5 subjects, and prepare materials for the next day, and grade materials from yesterday, and attend a 3 hour meeting about budget cuts, and now try to rework tomorrow’s lesson because you can’t afford to buy new markers so you have to use the ones you have as little as possible, and then have a meeting with Fergus’s mom and dad.

  25. FFHP*

    I am so sorry, OP. I work in public education in a support role and the students frequently make me cry happy tears (when we observe progress/success) and sad tears (at the heartbreaking situations students face).
    Great suggestions from commentators on getting help from PTA, local elected officials (our EOs have discretionary funds that they frequently donate to schools) and community resources. Since you do have some parents who are higher-income, could you start a fundraising campaign where they can make donations to the school? Or sponsor particular projects/needs?
    In our state (Gulf Coast area), enrollment actually dictates how many administrators, teachers, etc., are assigned to a school. For example, in our district, 2018-19 faculty/staff numbers were based on 2017-18 enrollment. If your enrollment is increasing, it is very odd that your faculty/staff numbers are not increasing. This is typically something the principal would stay on top of.

  26. I'm A Little Teapot*

    I have a teacher friend in the same position. I asked her once, and she said that she takes comfort in knowing that even if she can’t meet all the needs, at least she can be a bright spot for that kid. So maybe she can’t help with whatever the real problem is, but she CAN try to make sure that the kid is treated kindly and compassionately in school. I know she does have a list of local resources that she shares as appropriate, and makes sure she sends home the info for free lunches, etc at the beginning of the year.

    1. GG*

      This right here. I used to be a teacher in a rural district with low funds. For one girl, it was letting her vent during homeroom every day. For another student, it was tying his tie for him on days they had to dress up for basketball because he didn’t have someone at home to help him. Being the bright spot for these kids and looking back on those little times do really add up.

    2. Can Man*

      Makes me think of the story where a kid is throwing starfish back in the ocean to keep them from drying out, and an adult tells them there are too many starfish on the beach to make a difference. The kid responds “it made a difference to that one” as they throw another.

  27. GradStudent*

    Before grad school, I taught in a low socioeconomic district and some of the challenges did leave me feeling hopeless. But, as JokeyJules said above, a lot of the kids don’t need more money. They need more support and for someone to notice them on an individual level. I cannot stress enough how important self-care. Sometimes you just need to say “f*ck grading” and let the pile sit there for a day. Self-care means something different for everyone but the things I do: workout (I never let anyone encroach on my workout time and I explicitly put it in my public calendar so people know I am not free), have a consistent planned outing with friends (I do trivia and now D&D weekly), turn on some mindless TV and cuddle with the cats, play with my coloring or sudoku app, and taking a nap if I can. Basically anything that makes me stop thinking about the things currently stressing me out.

    1. GradStudent*

      I forgot one thing. I have a “Happy Folder” at home and in my email. These folders contain every nice email/note, everything a student has made for me, every event or project I consider a success, etc. When I’ve hit my limit and think I can’t last another day, I can go look at these things and see that I am making a difference even if it’s only for a handful of people. This usually leads to a good cry (sometimes crying is the healthy option!) and then the next day things don’t seem so bad.

  28. Intrepid*

    I am not the LW, but I could be. My advice is to remember the suggestion from the serenity prayer “to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.” (Wise words!) It can go against our nature as teachers to decide to ‘not give a fuck’ about something, but doing so frees our energy for those things we can care about. For example, I do not give a fuck about our school improvement plan because a) no one actually cares about my opinion on it, and b) the energy we are asked to put into it does not reflect its usefulness in my classroom. Therefore, I have more fucks to give to my student who needs help with an upcoming assignment. (Obviously, don’t make a big deal of the lack of fucks given to the SIP – admin doesn’t need to know how I feel!)
    Also, remember the difference between sympathy and empathy: the former allows us to be caring and understanding, while the latter is sometimes so emotionally draining that we lose objectivity and perspective. We are neither our students’ parents nor their clergy (despite the rhetoric of teaching as a vocation), and we are clearly limited in the help we can provide. The challenge is to be ok with that! Be kind and caring, but leave as much at school as possible. This is not easy – I am 15 years in and still have to say this aloud to myself sometimes! Good luck – you’re not alone.

    1. Humble Schoolmarm*

      I completely agree! And thanks for the reminder, I needed it after my principal announced yesterday that we shall be fixing the growing social behavioural issues in our building with… A New Mission Statement!

      1. Owler*

        Time to make and share Mission Statement Bingo cards!
        (My old school just rewrote theirs and every alumni joined together for a collective “…what the f—?” It was so awful.)

  29. ToS*

    Lots of great ideas so far, especially perspective-taking. Update your resume to remind yourself of the great work you are getting done.

    Employee Assistance Programs can sometimes help in a pinch for no-cost counseling with getting through a rough patch. They will help find support for longer-term strategies.

    I’m also dusting off a memory of training/professional development. Trish Brown at Temple? had a training/seminar called CRETE: Conflict Resolution Educator Training E….. It was designed to help new and experienced teachers navigate conflict more deftly so they would be more likely to stay in the profession longer. There may be more downstream developments since then. A lot of the techniques scale to other industries, but education has the aspect of serving young clients with a big layer of parents who are not shy about second-guessing, well, just about everything. Don’t be shy about beefing up your conflict resolution toolbox as part of your professional development.

  30. Al who is that Al*

    Sometimes you have to realise that you, yourself, cannot do any more. You’ve done as much as you can and if you carry on you will indeed burn out. And when you do, you and the people around you will suffer. So you have to decide whether or not you are prepared for this to happen to you. From what you are saying it is going to happen soon. Do you have the support network – familial, emotional and financial to cope with this ? If not, for your own sake you need to escape and do something else. Having very recently started to recover from burnout myself, remember that often you are the last to see what is happening to you. Also remember that if you pull off miracles and actually achieve the impossible, people will assume that the level of work is fine. Sometimes you need to look after yourself more. Some people have the attitude that you should do everything to save the situation, I don’t believe that anymore, I think the best way is to let everything crash and burn and then turn round and say “What did you expect us to do ?” The issue I have is that if people cope, then the people who forced the situation on them turn around and say “see, nothing is wrong, they coped”.
    I know this will be controversial, but you know all the air traffic controllers who are currently not being paid ? Personally I would get all of them to walk out. How long do you think the Shutdown would last with no planes being able to fly ? That should force an agreement. And that goes for most other jobs too.

  31. Sara without an H*

    Much good advice given upstream. I will just add a couple of things.

    1. Do not EVER skimp on sleep and exercise. I know OP isn’t a teacher, but in education, there is always more stuff (paperwork/planning documents, etc.) that will tempt you to sit up much too late. Be fanatical about getting 7-8 hours sleep every night and 20-30 minutes of exercise every day. No exceptions.

    2. Be alert to what you use to fuel your body. I’m not a nutrition fanatic by any means, but the unholy trinity of caffeine, sugar, and alcohol take much more than they give. Make sure these are occasional treats, rather than staples.

    3. Find a support group. Can you network with others in your district who do this kind of work? I don’t mean just kvetching — you need to find a place to share ideas and brainstorm, as well as (very occasional) commiseration.

    4. Professional development: Stay current in your own field AND consider occasionally how those skills might be applied to a new career in some related field. Changing careers is always better done BEFORE you’re fried to a crisp.

  32. Rainy days*

    I used to teach in a public school, and one thing that I think leads to significant professional burnout is the fact that teachers and other school personnel are not treated as professionals in the truest sense of the word. The “professional development” I at least was forced to attend was often condescending, irrelevant, designed to sell a new product, or just designed to check a district box.

    With that said, I think it can help combat burnout to cultivate a sense of yourself as a true professional. Get together with like-minded folks once a month and discuss an article relevant to your field. I find this helps me reconnect with a feeling of larger purpose, of being having a profession and not just a job (not that there is anything wrong with just a job, but for me it helped).

    Also, make sure that these folks you are getting together with once per month come with a shared sense of curiosity and wanting to learn. Again in my public school experience, a lot of the teachers who had been there longer only seemed to want to complain when we got together. Some commiserating is good, but quite often it ended up making me feel worse and adding to the problems I was experiencing rather than alleviating them.

  33. SometimesALurker*

    I think that having a group of colleague-friends, from your school or other schools, who you can talk with is really helpful. I’m not a teacher, but I’ve worked in a draining, public-facing, never-able-to-do-all-that-we-should-be-doing-for-our-public sort of job. People who you can laugh with, share successes with, and share a healthy amount of complaining or AAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHing with, but not people who are so burned out and bitter that they make every conversation about how bad things are.

    You may already have that group of friends, and if you don’t have it, you won’t be able to find it overnight, but I bet there are others in your school who need it too.

  34. That Redshirt.*

    The world is a broken and illogical place. Though the mission of my line of work is to put the pieces back together, there will always be the Big Brokenness. So, I focus on the people that are on my caseload. I pay attention to the small, measurable goals and stuff that goes right. (My people are fantastic! They do very impressive things!) In terms of funding, I keep pointing out (when appropriate) that society should provide more funding because the Results Are Fantastic. This may be a futile effort, because we’ve never been granted a funding increase lol. In terms of mental health, I place a high value in self care and a balanced work/life ratio. If you’re in an emotionally draining field, you HAVE to take care of yourself. Take care of your energy level, so that you can give a frakk about others. This is a marathon, not a sprinting race. If you burn out, you’re no good to your people.

  35. From the High Tower on the Hill*

    I worked in the government for a long looonnnggg time and the burnout was absolutely awful. A lot of my work was in helping citizens and the “thank yous” were few and far between. Something that I found to be helpful was I would print out nice emails that I received, made a note of the nice calls, and would put notes of times where I went above and beyond into a folder named “For The Day I Hate My Job.” It was a great way to look back and remember the times that I loved my job and to keep pushing to get that illusive “Thanks” from a citizen.

      1. From the High Tower on the Hill*

        Were you also emotionally abused by your boss? Mine loved going through my trash and accusing me of violating ethics laws.

  36. BadWolf*

    I don’t know if this helps for teaching, but I was working in a role where we were doing a lot of overtime (salaried, exempt). It was really easy to push off my hobby meet up night because work is important and a hobby is extra right?

    After too many evenings on working on “important” overtime stuff that honestly wasn’t that important, I started making my hobby meet up a “hard stop/important thing.” For example, if someone tried to hot potato something to me at the end of the day, I would check on its priority (we do have a strict definition on something that’s an actual all hands on deck not just a general OMG Important!) and then say, “I can work on it until 5:30 and then I have a hard stop.” And the world didn’t fall down. And I felt better. And it helped me generally adjust my overtime working or not.

    It won’t help in hiring people, but would using the Donor’s Choose program/website be helpful at all (I think teachers have to put in a fair bit of work, so perhaps the return isn’t worth the additional effort).

  37. KitKat100000*

    One thing that has helped me since I entered the workforce is to leave work at work. When I leave at the end of the day, I decompress during the drive with music and podcasts – and then when I get home, I do my absolute best to put all work issues out of my mind and to focus on myself and my hobbies.

    From your letter, it seems like the funding issues at your job aren’t going away anytime soon. So I would recommend focusing on yourself, rather than your job. What can you do for yourself during your off hours to make sure that when you are at work that you can give your best efforts? Take the time you need for you on evenings and weekends and I hope that it will help you during the week!

    1. Rainy days*

      I absolutely agree that this is a key to surviving stressful public-service jobs. It’s what the people I know, and admire, who’ve lasted the longest do. Sadly, one thing that helped me realize I needed to not work in public education any more was the realization that I personally am not really capable of leaving work at work when the work relates to human needs. This has shaped the type of work I now do–the more I can interact with spreadsheets rather than people, the better I sleep. It is much more boring quite frankly and does not require the same creativity I brought to my work in public schools, but I’m much healthier.

  38. LinesInTheSand*

    Apologies if I missed this somewhere in the comments.

    Define for yourself what “enough” looks like in a given day/week/month. There will always be more problems to solve, more people to help, and not enough resources, and it’s easy to fall into a trap of feeling like you could always be doing more. So decide in advance what’s reasonable to achieve consistently (so, not a stretch goal), do that, and then if you want to do more, great! If you want to be done, also great!

    For illustrative purposes: I cook dinner 2 nights per week. That’s the goal. Sometimes I cook more if I want to, but if I’ve gotten two nights in, everything after that is gravy.

    Basically, it lets me turn off the worry about how every little thing I’m doing could always be better (a common affliction among my generation).

  39. Cordoba*

    The world runs on money and there is never enough of it.

    I’ve never met anybody who felt they had all the resources they needed to do their job well; or said they had plenty in their budget to accomplish all the things they wanted to do. It seems to me that fiscal shortfalls are a normal feature of employment, even at successful organizations.

    I actually find this helpful to remember as it means that a perpetually not having sufficient resources is not indicative of incompetence or malice at a higher level, and is probably not something I’m going to be able to change unless I start robbing banks and giving the proceeds to my employer.

    So don’t worry about it. Do the best you can with what you have, and try to remember that almost everybody everywhere is playing whack-a-mole with problems because their needs exceed their resources too.

  40. Brett*

    Both my wife and I have been in this situation (public schools for her, local government for me).
    Both of us found the best thing to do was to leave. We both have our regrets that we were leaving the organizations in worse shape by leaving, but new people did come in behind us. They might have been less experience, but they were also initially cheaper and better fit the budgets the groups had to work with.

    In both cases, we made ourselves available as resources (for free) for a few months, but we really were not needed after that. For my wife, she actually took a pay cut but moved on to an organization where her work was oriented around the specific mission she wanted to champion (and they had less resources, but enough resources to do meaningful work around that specific mission).

    For me, I found out that my departure led towards a reexamination of how resources were funded and prioritized, resulting in better pay and a better distribution of the workload for my old co-workers. Also, in the bigger scope, I was part of a wave of people leaving for better opportunities, resulting in public opinion shifting towards supporting tax increases pegged to pay increases for employees. (Unfortunately, the first of those increases approved was used for a funding shift, where the tax increases went only to employee pay, but then the general fund budget for employee pay was cut. The public is pretty ticked off about that one.)

  41. ragazza*

    Not a quick fix, but I think it’s important to remind yourself that you’re working in a system that is unequal and often unjust. Burnout is a normal response. So do everything you can to take care of yourself and recognize that you can only do what you can do. You can also speak to others about the reality of the situation and encourage them to vote and take actions in ways that will benefit your students.

  42. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    It turns my stomach when I’m going through resumes and have seen a huge uptick in the amount of former school teachers and school staffers who are now trying to leave it behind them.

    I can’t speak to you as fellow educator but I can tell you that you’re needed. Sometimes I find burnout is due to everything out of your control, you stress about kids you see slipping through cracks and can’t help properly. You stress about the angry people who treat school staff like “professional babysitters” instead of highly respected educators.

    You need tp find something perhaps a support group to lean on. You are important and your mission to educate our youth is essential to our entire society.

    I don’t even have kids but you’re all amazing to me. Even the ones who I don’t necessarily agree with their communication styles and such, I had some wretched teachers growing up. But the teachers and staff who cared, they helped shape the person I am today and I love them all still very much. You touch more lives than you’ll know until much later down the road.

  43. Minerva McGonagall*

    My husband is in his 4th year of teaching instrumental music. First two years were in private schools and the last two have been in a public school. He wanted to make the move to public school for a variety of reasons, and is in a district very similar to yours by your description. I cannot count the days when he comes home wanting to make change but feels he isn’t doing enough because there isn’t enough time in the day/money in the budget/etc.

    He has found some outside solutions for various issues (starting a musical instrument drive to add to the number of school instruments, finding companies that will pay out for unrepairable instruments, learning how to repair as much as he can himself to save on a bill from the music store, partnering with other clubs and teachers on fundraisers), but again, time is a huge huge issue! Since he’s a young teacher he’s also doing a master’s degree to make his certification permanent, and he feels so burnt out.

    A few things we have done in the last few months to make it easier have been:
    -Lots of easy to make dinners with veggies/fruit sides. We’re trying to stay away from take out because it makes us feel more sluggish and dinners that are easy to make and fast leave us with more time at night together.
    -Exercise. He’s an anxious person who has trouble sleeping and working out at home has helped burn off some of that nervous energy. We got a stationary bike and free weights and are looking at some yoga videos to save money there.
    -Schedule time with friends in advance! We look at our calendars months out and put stuff on them to make us look forward to things.
    -Keep a physical and digital folder of notes/cartoons/little nice things you’ve gotten from kids/parents/admin. Look at them when you feel down.
    -Try really hard to leave work at work. That’s so much easier said than done, and there will be times when it is impossible. But set a time limit on how late you will check email. Do not check your email right before bed.
    -Professional development. Honestly, sometimes commiseration/collaboration can help reboot. I’m pushing for him to go to the big music teacher conference this spring for a bit of a recharge.
    -TAKE. A. PERSONAL. DAY. Recharge yourself when you feel super down. My husband gets a lot of sick/personal days per year and felt guilty at first using them…but honestly he’s only using one every two or three months during the ten months he’s in school. Take time for you and your self-care!

    You are doing your best and you are trying so hard and I appreciate you so much. Hang in there!

      1. Minerva McGonagall*

        He teaches band-his district doesn’t want to start a string program for reasons beyond. But thank you for the thought!

        1. Brett*

          Even with band, often you can find organizations who collect donated instruments (often not in great shape). Gofundmes can be effective for instrument repair funds; arts grants also look favorably on instrument repairs. Best thing he can do, especially if he teaches lower grades, is put out the word to private teachers that he is seeking instrument donations when their smaller students outgrow their instruments. These are tax deductible for a significant amount and often will be in better shape than typical donated instruments.

  44. Babs*

    Teachers and staff can only do so much alone, they need the community. In my own personal experience parents are feeling this way too. One of the biggest supports for a low income, overcrowded school that I witnessed were the volunteers and local church groups that supported their neighborhood school. It takes some staff time, and can be designated to a volunteer coordinator (unpaid volunteer) to schedule volunteers. My husband had the fortunate event to become layed off when my son was starting 1st grade, we changed from a private school to the local low income overcrowded intercity school. He began volunteering in the classroom and quickly made friends with other dads. They wanted to brand themselves and found that there was already a national support for dads in the classroom called Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students).

    The dads, uncles, step dads, granddads were there to generally just high five kids at the start of their day, monitor safety, and give kids a break who were having behavioral issues. They walked the halls, lunch rooms, organized the safest drop off/pick up areas (they had walkie talkies and had the kids line up, raise their hands when they saw their pick up person and then were escorted to the cars. 600+ students were on their way in less than 25 minutes.) These dads dealt with everything from tracking a 6 yr old autistic boy who ran from the school until school personnel could reach him, paying for lunches, extra gym time monitoring, organizing afterschool activities, giving teachers a quick break to use the restrooms. They scheduled themselves in teams of two. They picked up the slack so that teachers could get back into the classrooms. The sweetest story: it was Saturday and my son was playing in a baseball game at the school. A kid from the playground comes up to my husband…”Mr. Babs I found this lighter.” The kids recognized the dads as another resource that was not intimidating but supportive.

    The local church organized weekend food for kids. These bags of donated foods (stuff that was easily prepared or already made, like snacks, cans of fruit, lunchables etc.) were snuck into kids’ backpacks without other students knowing so that there was no singling out kids who needed extra help to make it at home over the weekend.

    My husband organized (it really took one phone call and setting up a voucher form) for a local children’s clothing resale shop to take vouchers. So anyone could donate items for resale and the credit would go to the schools account. Then the school would issue a voucher for say $25 worth of clothing and the parent/grand parent with the voucher could go pick out what their child needed. They got a local shoe store to donate 50+ pairs of shoes and snow boots.

    Empower and support parents that are showing up, encourage them to peer pressure more parents to show up.

    1. A Non E. Mouse*

      My husband organized (it really took one phone call and setting up a voucher form) for a local children’s clothing resale shop to take vouchers. So anyone could donate items for resale and the credit would go to the schools account. Then the school would issue a voucher for say $25 worth of clothing and the parent/grand parent with the voucher could go pick out what their child needed.

      Wow that’s a really neat idea. Holy crap. I’m going to pass that along! Tell your husband someone on the internet thinks he’s a freaking genius.

  45. A Teacher*

    Veteran high school teacher. Urban environment. This feeling is totally not uncommon, I empathize with you greatly. I look at it as I’m doing the best I can and if I can really reach even a handful of my students then I’ve done my best. Most of the kids are able to be reached in some capacity but for a rare few, I really connect with, I know I’ve made a little impact in their lives. I also like to think about how I can change the negatives or make them work for myself–some things are truly outside of your control but how can you make the best of a bad situation. Its also about understanding you can only do so much and sometimes that’s the hardest part. Kids will succeed and kids will fail and know that can make education so hard. Remembering that they are more than a walking statistic and trying to connect with the kids–even giving them the very basics can help when you’re burned out. At our school, we try to celebrate small successes.

  46. Jennifer*

    Do you have any non-essential personal obligations outside of work that you can let go? You don’t have to agree to help every friend or family member that asks for a favor. Try and free up your non-work time as much as possible so that you can recharge. Best wishes and thank you for all you do!

  47. Wendie*

    This reminds me of an article my god daughter sent me about a child who was killed by her parents in LA. The child was known by social workers and his teachers as being in a bad situation but the system was so over extended that he ended up murdered. All of his social workers thought they were doing right by him and focused on the small gains but in actuality they are now being held accountable in the court of law. The story is chilling and I think tells you to remember the big and the little picture. It can be hard to not burn out but sometimes a protest or quitting is better than a perspective that warped.

    1. Lavender Menace*

      I don’t know, I have mixed feelings about this sort of response. People who work with kids – social workers, teachers, counselors, paraprofessionals, and others – already have such an overwhelming sense of guilt about not being able to do more for the children they serve, especially children in low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds/environments. I don’t know the details of the particular case you’re referencing. Sometimes, the system is screwed up…but sometimes, it’s not really the individual workers’ fault, and no individual(s) but the parents (and the systemic issues that contributed) are to blame. In a case like that, what would we really expect the teachers and school personnel to do?

  48. Manders*

    Does anyone have advice for the partner of a teacher who’s struggling with burnout? His school’s in the middle of a huge institutional shakeup that’s pitting the old guard against the young new teachers, and the founders of the school didn’t really do much to maintain professionalism and structured the departments so everyone’s all up in each other’s business while team teaching. So it’s considered normal for teachers to cry and insult each other in meetings or to be manipulative to get their way/circumvent the broken system/get the share of limited resources they feel they deserve. He’s never been particularly good at playing office politics and sometimes I’m surprised at the hills he’s willing to die on, but everything feels fraught to him because he wants what’s best for his students.

    I try to be supportive but I don’t feel “called” to my day job the way he does to his, and I’ve spent most of my career at for-profits that I could walk away from at any time. If I were in an environment that dysfunctional, I’d be aggressively planning to make a move to a different company or a different industry, but that’s not what he wants. So I’m not sure what I can or should do besides listening to him vent.

    1. Minerva McGonagall*

      Your partner’s school sounds toxic. My husband teaches elementary and I work in colleges, so we at least have the mutual calling understanding but also mutually believe that we could never do the job the other does.

      When he vents, I listen, and try to offer ideas. I don’t always frame them as suggestions, but I try to give another POV. I also encourage him and remind him of positive things students/teachers/admin have said about him. I try to make sure he’s off the email at a good time so he can relax and unwind. It also helps that we have a lot of friends who are teachers and we try to get together with them so they all can vent together. But based on your description it may be a good idea for him to polish up his resume and portfolio. I totally get how he wants to do the best for his students but the administration doesn’t seem to want to let him.

      1. Manders*

        Ah yes, the getting off email thing is a good point! Sometimes he doesn’t sleep well because he reads an email that puts him in a bad mood right before bed. I think I’ll start reminding him when I see him checking his phone at 10 pm.

        I do think the best thing for him to do in the long term is to find another school. He actually did get most of the way through the hiring process at a very reputable school in our area, but pulled out when he heard that the work/life balance was notoriously bad. He can only teach at private schools (our state requires an M.Ed. for public school teachers, which would be prohibitively expensive to get right now) and he doesn’t want to work at a religious school unless it matches his religion, which is a small minority in our area.

        Oddly enough, the administration LOVES him. Parents rave about him, he never screams or cries in meetings, he runs multiple student groups, and he doesn’t try to run roughshod over the admins. But since the school is a “flat hierarchy” and pay is based on degrees and seniority, no one really has the ability to punish the bad actors and reward the good ones (and I suspect that’s why there’s so much bad behavior–if you have no real power to resolve a dispute but all decisions require a consensus between 4 or 5 people, all you can do is make the other side miserable until they decide it’s not worth continuing to fight). I just can’t wrap my head around any career being worth staying in an environment like that, so I’m afraid I’m making the wrong suggestions when he asks for advice.

        1. Humble Schoolmarm*

          I swear, the best piece of advice I ever got was “It’s ok not to be on call 24-7”. I don’t check my email after I leave school and I don’t give kids or parents my contact info. I do miss a few homework and test questions from students that I would really have liked to answer, but having home be an angry email free zone has really helped me take time for myself.

  49. English Teacher*

    Cheesy and very short-term solution but:
    As a teacher, when I’m having a rough day/week/month, I seek out and try to spread some joy. Often, I’ll write a positive email to a parent/guardian (Short and sweet: It’s so great to have your kid in class because of _____!) Sometimes I’ll switch up a lesson to allow for some more human conversation or to watch a silly video (Usually baby monkey riding on a pig). Or I’ll seek out a way to help out or build up a colleague.

    None of these things provide the solutions we all want and need, but they do make me feel more connected to the people around me–which, for me, is a large part of what drew me into this profession–and give me a smaller reminder of the positive effects I’m able to have, whether through a grateful parent email or a previously stressed out kid laughing.

  50. HSLibrarian*

    I work in a similar position to yours (certified, but not a classroom teacher) in a Title 1 school and feel your pain. We had a workshop last year that really helped me reframe the problems I was seeing and focusing on what we could change. They had us write on post-its all the problems and issues that came up in our daily work. Then on a big sheet we drew three circles. The middle was what we had no control over. The second was what we could influence, but not change right away and the outer one was things we had direct control over. Then we put the post its in each circle.

    It helped me let go of the things I could not control and instead move forward with the things I could. I don’t do the circle thing all the time now, but when I get frustrated, I stop and think – is this something I can change? If not – let it go. If it isn’t something you can let go, maybe that’s a sign it is time to find somewhere else to be. I haven’t hit that yet.

    Example: An ongoing lack of budget is always frustrating, but I put that in something I could change and applied for many grants, got some of them and now actually have some of the things I was lacking. It’s not permanent, but helped me feel like I was making progress. Dealing with an administrative issue, I can’t change now but I hope to influence. I recorded down some ways I thought I could influence it- documenting evidence, collecting stats and I have hope that I can change their opinion.

    Working non-profits and in education is always going to be a constant battle for budgets, but know that you are making a difference by doing the small things to make kids lives better.

  51. School Inclusion Specialist*

    First off, I think the economic diversity of the school is a huge asset and the kids are benefitting just from being in that environment. I also think it is amazing that your school has a gifted program, special ed, AND mental health resources.

    I was in your shoes 6 years ago. I was running a department at a school with upwards of 90% free/reduced lunch. I ended up leaving that position and have worked at several different schools/organizations in the intervening years. I have learned a ton from those experiences.

    My main take aways (which may or may not apply to you, but hopefully one point resonates):
    1. Have goals that you use to guide your decision making. This is one of my takeaways from working at a non-profit and having a strategic plan. It was eye opening–we could try to have a million different programs, but they wouldn’t be good. We had a guiding vision and three focus areas. Everything had to relate to that. We sometimes took on work that wasn’t exactly aligned and we definitely explored it, but the plan was a great reminder that to run our programs well, we had to stay aligned with the organization’s vision. Now, I have a handful of goals that I keep in mind when making decisions about things I will or won’t do.
    2. Know available resources: Staying in my lane was a lot easier when I knew where to refer people to. Again the nonprofit world opened my eyes to the number of organizations who could be resources.
    3. Leverage the community: have a wish list for supplies and volunteer needs. People benefit from knowing exactly what is needed, otherwise you might end up with a “kind soul” who gives you a ton of money for something you don’t need/kids aren’t actually interested in. Also, within your parent community, you may have a parent who has a skill you need and is willing to volunteer. (do you have enough low income students for Donors Choose?)
    4. Supports one student needs likely benefits ALL students: Think about all the areas you feel like you want to help kids more. I bet there is a pattern. See what whole school programs can be implemented (and make sure they align with the goals!) instead of trying to individualize instruction.
    5. Solving problems takes time: a lesson you taught today may not click until the student has more life experience. I remind myself that I’m laying a foundation for the student to build upon.
    6. Stay organized: I use a system based on the resources in Together Teacher (google it for a website with resources). I set 2 goals for the week and the majority of the tasks that I complete must be related to that goal. This especially helps me leave work at work and helps me leave work feeling like I accomplished something. Also, I LOVE the lessons in The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. If different processes have a concrete procedure, then it feels like you are on top of it and making progress (…and are actually making progress). For example: a student has a parental loss, this is who you notify, next steps for the school, and resources.
    7. I don’t check my email after I leave work and students/families only have my work number. I try to do one thing every evening just for me. This is especially helpful that I know myself as a person who exists outside of my work. When I am in touch with my non-teacher self, I have more to offer the students because there is more to me.
    8. Create a culture of thanking. This is always helpful for me to realize when something I’ve done is actually moving students forward. I make a point of thanking teachers and pointing out all the great work they are doing.
    9. Don’t make more work for yourself. Grading is taking up too much time? don’t grade everything or grade things in class or make a quiz online that does the grading for you. Find lessons on Teachers Pay Teachers or Better Lesson. Or ask for a curriculum on Donors Choose. Along with #4, don’t individualize when something might benefit all students.
    10. reasons are ok: Your test scores are low? Well, did you just get an influx of ELL students in this group? Did like half the 3rd grade teachers go on medical leave? It’s ok as long as you’re still pushing forward.
    11. Parents are the expert of their kids, but not the expert on your classroom/school (even if they are a teacher): if a parent says something that really gets you down, it sucks, so take the time to check in with a trusted colleague to get their take. Trust yourself and your experience.

    I hope you figure out what you need to do to keep yourself going!

    1. TeacherNerd*

      The grading thing is a big thing! I had this obvious-epiphany-is-obvious a couple years ago: I didn’t have to grade everything! Students could still turn in work, I could still assess it, but I didn’t have to GRADE it. And there are other ways to assess student understanding. I think so many teachers (and, I suspect, employees in general) equate long (working) hours with job dedication. I mean, I do think the inverse may be partly true, at least up to a point (if you aren’t do ANY actual work at your job, I’m not sure how engaged and dedicated one can be), but breaking yourself because of those internal expectations hurts!

    2. Indie*

      Thank you so much for 5. I am teaching a challenging curriculum to very immature, socially deprived kids and I needed the reminder that they are at least getting exposure to issues even if it is not yet clicking into mature discussion yet.


  52. Jen*

    Can you ask for parent volunteers for some of the tasks? I know my son’s school is always asking for parent volunteers, both with the PTA, but also on their own. The stuff we do ranges from event-planning to tutoring to donating supplies. I work full-time, but I’ve taken afternoons off to help organize the classroom, tutor students on reading, and bringing in supplies for crafts. I realize not every parent can help out, but some will and I think that it does take a little pressure off of school staff so they can focus more on their core jobs.

  53. TeacherNerd*

    Hi, another teacher here. I teach 7 periods out of 8 (6 is considered full time; this means I have one free period every other day); I also teach two college classes as an adjunct, and I’m co-starting a school program (the first in our district). YMMV, but this is what I do:

    — I am VERY possessive about my home/non-teaching & non-work time. I’m a homebody under the best of circumstances, but only under extraordinary circumstances do I grade outside of school. Yes, I still do, especially those college classes I teach, but I am judicious in what “needs” to actually be graded/assessed and when.

    — I make it very clear with my students, right from the get go, what my expectations are; this makes it a lot easier down the road. “No, I don’t accept late work. No, I won’t accept THAT late work, either. You’ve known about it for weeks; you’ve heard about it in class, it’s been posted in these three other places, etc.” This helps because then there’s no “you weren’t clear/didn’t tell us!” push back. I also send home weekly emails telling both parents and students what we’ll be doing (and I tell them if things have changed, like if we didn’t get as far in a novel, etc.), reminders, etc., so, again, there’s minimal pushback and extra work at the end of each quarter/semester/year.

    — When I leave work, I leave work, both mentally and physically. I enjoy my students, and I like teaching, but I LOVE my husband and my marriage, and I am NOT going to sacrifice my mental health or my personal relationships for my work like. I see too many teachers humblebrag about being workaholics, then burning out, or not developing hobbies or interests or lives outside of work, then they retire, and have nothing for themselves. I refuse to believe it’s because they like their jobs more than I do, but I WOULD say our priorities are different. Truly, I am not judging, but I also look at it from the standpoint that I have another 25 or years before retirement, and if I want to make it to that point, I had better think and plan for that now.

    — I also look at the smaller picture; I think sometimes we’re so highly encouraged to look at the “big picture” all the time that we lose focus. I enjoy those personal interactions with the students – as so many of us do! – but I focus more on thinking that emphasizes how I can impact an individual student AT THAT MOMENT. I look for the things that help me recharge – those individual personal interactions with my students. I love to read; that helps me mentally recharge. My husband and I both thoroughly enjoy travel; planning for trips (and then going on them!) strengthens our marriage and helps us both recharge. Again, though, it comes down to your finding those things that allow you to create an identity outside of that burnout.

    Caveat: Yes, sometimes there are times when work does need to come first. Clearly, I do sometimes grade at home, and there are times of the year that are busier than other, like the beginning and end of the year; the end of the quarter/semester, etc., when I really do tend to have larger projects that need longer amounts of attention, but this is not a regular occurrence, nor am I going to do something like leave parent-teacher conferences early to watch TV with my husband or to read, and I’m certainly not going to hoard my personal days to take a 3-week vacation in the middle of the school year. Ditto for related commitments; when I was going through grad school (both times!) there were times I had to prioritize my own homework, and I got nothing but support in all kinds of ways, but that was a short-term situation.

    1. Properlike*

      All of this. A couple other things:

      1. Boundaries. Draw them. Keep them. It is okay to say no. It is okay to say “yes” and then “forget” to do the stupid thing no one needs done, that’s just created to take up time and your energy. It is okay to do only as much as you can do for a day and then leave it behind. Once you let things go, you realize they can be gone and nothing has changed.

      2. Move the needle in the plus section, no matter what that looks like. I teach college students in remedial classes. These are not school-savvy kids in general, and many of them still fail my class despite every resource and assistance we can throw at them. There’s this myth that teachers are responsible for whether kids succeed or fail, and that is profoundly damaging. All I can do is give them a foundation to come back to when they do get things together: affirmation that they can do this, the tools that they will need. And don’t underestimate your influence in the areas that aren’t part of your job description. My “win” for the semester was getting one of my “kids” to vote for the first time. He failed my class, but he’s now a voting citizen, so it’s a win.

  54. Ehm Bee*

    Our nonprofit team’s mantra is “we’re going to leave a lot of good work undone.” We acknowledge that yes, there is good work worth doing and good ideas worth exploring, but we cannot do it. As passionate, driven, caring people, it’s hard to walk away from work you theoretically could do in a perfect world. We find the acknowledgment allows us to let go on what could be and focus on what can be done.

  55. Silence Will Fall*

    Give yourself permission to walk away.

    I was a teacher for many years and the most recent recession was the worst. The school had no money, the families had no money, I had no money, but the need was totally overwhelming. I finally sat myself down and told myself that I could walk away at any point and know that I had done everything I could for my students to the best of my ability. That it was okay to let someone else shoulder the weight for awhile. Then I had a good cry. Then I got up the next day and taught for seven more years.

    I don’t know what it was, but something about saying aloud that I had done my best and it was okay to leave helped. Whenever crummy situations came up, I would ask myself, “Is this it? Is this the point where I walk away?” and for seven more years, the answer was “no”.

  56. A Non E. Mouse*

    Our elementary school is adequately funded (district-wide is well funded, plus the neighborhoods that feed the school are small but well-heeled), so where it falls short is with time commitments. Most of the parents work full time during the day, during the week.

    They’ve had a lot of success with a few things:
    1) Allowing volunteers to self-schedule with a tool called SignUp Genius. So if you have some time issues that could be resolved with volunteers, this might be the way to go. Each event/time slot shows what kind of volunteer is needed (Adult or Adult+child or child – kids in high school in our district must earn service hours to graduate, so they utilize them for some items). They then just send out a “hey everyone look here in case you can help”email, and parents sign up for a time that works for them if they can.

    2) Breaking tasks down into small enough chunks inexperienced or only-available-a-short-time volunteers can help. An example of this is they have a standing invitation for someone to get the BoxTops cut down to the right size for them to send in for credit; another really good one is they will send home the little flimsy paper books that might have tears in the covers with a roll of packing tape for a parent to repair…you just request a few to help with, and they right home in the backpack. Oh! One teacher even requests that for pencil sharpening – she sends you a box home, you sharpen and return, that way if a student needs a new pencil they can just grab and go without losing learning time. Do you have any items that can be handled in tiny chunks by volunteers, during non-school hours?

    3) Donations. For instance the STEM club asked for gently used Legos to be sent in for the club to keep, then a different set of volunteers sorted/cleaned them. Is there anything that you are missing that you could put a call out for, or even approach local businesses and ask for?

  57. Robin Bobbin*

    From my SO who was an elementary classroom teacher for about 15 years and an elementary administrator at the school level for another 15, all in the same district:

    LW, you’ve stated the issue very well. It’s frustrating, but you have to recognize that you have no control over this. I worked in a couple of schools where the situation you describe was very much the case. When and if it gets to be too much, you just have make up your mind to move to a different school or district. We had a bordering school district of greater overall wealth who regularly cherry picked our staff. I don’t fault them for choosing to work in a less stressful position. This isn’t something you can fix.

    My thoughts: I taught middle school for a number of years. These days we’re retired and spend 3 half-hours a week in our grandchild’s former 2nd grade classroom as reading volunteers. (He’s in 5th grade now.) SO, the teacher, and I take 5 or 6 children each and read books with them at their level. ( We trade students with another class which takes the EL kids who need a different sort of support for the half hour.) While SO’s group works on “The cat saw a rat,” my group tackles 3rd and 4th grade level chapter books, and the teacher takes the middle group. SO has a child who is so ADD, but not H, that she can hardly pay attention to anything. These kids vie for who gets to sit next to SO today. I have a kid with CP (I think). He’s a great reader with significant physical challenges that I have the time to compensate for to the best of our abilities. My point here is that some schools do well with volunteers and others just don’t. It’s a school culture thing. If your school is volunteer friendly, promote looking among the retired population who can help the classroom teachers meet their needs. Try to match volunteers and teachers. We volunteered in our grandson’s 3rd grade, but that teacher was so disorganized and laid back that we didn’t feel our being there added much. We tried, and she was really nice and well liked by all, but we weren’t a good match. OTOH, the 2nd grade teacher is seeing us for the 4th year. It might help in your current position enough that you stay put vs moving on.

  58. Public Health Nerd*

    Yeah, nonprofit land can be awesome, but also super draining, particularly with hard populations.

    My fixes were:
    – Maintain contact with people who are not struggling. It was important for me to see that not every child had disabilities, not every parent is grieving, etc. The work can really skew your sense of what is normal if you’re working with clients/students.
    – Put a limit on how much money or time you’re willing to gift your organization or population. I almost think it doesn’t matter what the limit is, but rather that you have one and stick to it. My dad used to allow 10% of his time to go for free to his org (4 hours per week) and I think it helped him feel better about having boundaries. Mine were that families didn’t get my personal cell number, and I didn’t answer non emergency work questions after hours.
    – I decided that fundraising was not my job. Yes, resources are limited. But you cannot fix everything. And it you try, you’ll hate the work and your org.

    I would feel sad that we couldn’t help everyone too. But I tried to frame it as saying no to some needs meant that when we said “yes” it meant we would be doing a good job, instead of helping everyone badly. But it was still hard.

  59. gr8celife*

    Ruthlessly work from the top down.
    Think triage. Have a plan… what is critical, do that first every day.
    What is the one dream thing you want done, do it 5 hours a week.
    Some people thrive in this environment. Focus on what you are doing. Keep a past success list.
    Recognize the stress level and plan your strategy. Laughter, time off, etc.
    Your life is afterschool tv special. What will matter. DO THAT

  60. Fran Lo*

    I work in a private, Catholic school which has a demographic similar to yours, but much fewer resources and lower salaries than you have; some of our students are on scholarship. It’s hard, but not impossible. It helps to look forward to what you can do, not backward to what you can’t do; don’t waste a minute worrying about the things you cannot change because it’s a waste of time and will take up all your energy. In terms of burnout, go home at a reasonable time and do something fun, just for you every.single.workday. And turn off your cell phone; nobody is dying so you do not need to make yourself available to anybody in the school community. You need sanity time; prioritize you or you will have nothing left to give.

  61. Observer*

    Find some stuff out of work that refreshes and fulfills you. Ideally something nothing to with your job and something related to your job that is independent of the actual job.

    My husband is a teacher. Burnout is something he started worrying about years ago when he saw some of the older more burnt out teachers – he wanted to avoid that. He’s employed this tactic and it’s made a huge difference.

    He has a major project he works on that is totally not related to his teaching. It’s something that gives him satisfaction and refreshment and keeps the job stresses at bay.

    He also writes essays related to the topics he teaches, and his students really enjoy them (to the point that he’s had students ask him to email these essays to them on an ongoing basis after they leave his class.) It’s totally not required for him to so this, and the students are free to ignore them, but if they want some enrichment, it’s there. It makes the job itself much more enjoyable and helps keep the material fresh. But because this is something he’s doing on his own, he controls it completely so it’s almost like a part of the job that he can do without all of the bureaucracy and other issues that often come with teaching.

  62. Kat*

    In my opinion, get out. Start looking for work elsewhere. If you’re already asking the question of avoiding burnout I think you’re already far enough down that path otherwise it wouldn’t be a concern.

    My POV is that if you’re doing what you can that’s within your control to maintain balance in your life (eg not working too much overtime, making time for rest, eating well, exercise, spending time socializing or in your hobbies, etc.) and you’re still feeling demoralized then I don’t think you can avoid burnout.

    I burned out after 5 years of working for a municipal government (similar issues of parent facing, insufficient funding for staff, increasing workload). I’m on disability now and even though I’m glad I’m off work to take time to heal, emotionally it sucks to be here.
    Even though I didn’t take the best care of myself physically, mentally, and emotionally, I don’t think my burnout was avoidable. The mental toll of feeling demoralized and like nothing I did was enough to stay on top of it all, or like no amount of effort would be enough to buy myself a reprieve was worse than the physical toll. There’s only so much of feeling like that a person can take before they crack.

  63. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    First, YOU ROCK SO HARD. Equal shout-out to all of the government workers who are still working with no pay, like air traffic controllers and the Coast Guard.

    Now, building on what SometimesALurker said, is there any kind of professional association for elementary school teachers, or low-income are school teachers, or even just teachers in general? If so, do they have any conferences, or no-cost local get-togethers? When I worked in non-profit, it always helped me so much when I met people from other non-profits, because even if we did bitch a whole lot about low pay/ huge stress, it was such a relief to talk to someone who understood. Then we’d start asking each other about what we actually do, and the conversation turns into, “That’s so cool! That a great program! Wow, you must have some great listening skills!” and other stuff that made us all feel better about who we are and what we do.

    If there are no professional association things, maybe right before summer break you could send out an invitation to all elementary staff through the Superintendent’s office, with something like, “hey y’all, come to this public park on June whatever at 2:00 and we’ll talk about what we face”, or some such. Connecting with colleagues who don’t work where you work, but who know the life, never fails to help.

  64. Exhausted Trope*

    Speaking from the perspective of over fifteen years in education, ten in the high school classroom, it’s extremely difficult to avoid burning out no matter what you do. After ten years teaching and burnout so severe that I contemplated walking out, I was presented with an opportunity to work in a non-teaching role and I took it. I was eventually laid off but moved on to working in two universities in support roles. It was the only way I could save my sanity. There is no way now that I would ever consider going back to the K12 arena.
    Perhaps you might consider investigating other avenues in higher education that could benefit from your skills?

  65. Indie*

    This is so timely for me because I am approaching my second burn out in education. I switched to a support role and found the work life balance much better and it made me happy to be so effective within more achievable goals. But I was too effective; I was asked to use some of my ideas to take on a seriously underperforming class, which is above my paygrade but was promised I would be given the time to oversee it and some overtime pay to compensate for the extra responsibility which someone at my level wouldnt normally have.

    It’s proven to be a rabbit hole of social issues, behaviour, and a stressful classroom environment against which my ideas have been a pea shooter in a gun fight. I am back to worrying in the evenings about how on earth I am going to get them any progress at all. I have done it before, but I gave up that role for a reason. The truth is they need someone to take the role on fully, not shuffle it to me because they cant afford to replace a teacher. I have to tell my boss in the morning that it is overwhelming my actual role and I know they don’t have the funds or the staff to take it back off my plate, but this has been a useful reminder to put on your own oxygen mask first.

  66. Definitely a teacher*

    I am a teacher at an under funded, high-poverty HS. About 3 years ago I reached a breaking point and seriously considered quitting. 2 things kept me sane:
    1) I HIGHLY recommend the book “Trauma Stewardship” but Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. She also has some TED Talks online. She talks about the difference between simple burnout and secondary trauma–the long term effects of serving those experiencing trauma–and offers some ideas and strategies for coping. I cried all the way through the book because someone finally GOT it. She also talks about the importance of having a backup plan so that you don’t feel trapped. My district actually adopted this book as a district-wide read in year.

    2) I started to go to therapy for myself. It makes a difference that I can unburden myself to someone who is not my spouse or co-worker and it’s made me a better teacher/spouse/friend. (I also cried at each session for a month because I felt it wasn’t fair that I could afford therapy and my students couldn’t–which is addressed in the Trauma Stewardship book.)

    Some minor changes that also helped were an increased staff and district-wide focus on teacher/staff well-being and implementation of a social emotional learning (SEL) curriculum for our kids.

    Best of luck, I hope the comments provide you with some helpful insights.

  67. BeenThereDoneThat*

    I had to learn this the hard way, thankfully early in my professional career.

    I know it’s not easy to do for everyone, but I made a very conscious decision to stop thinking about work when I was not at work. It helps if you have hobbies or other interests that keep you busy (in a good way).

    It’s just work. It’s not your life.

  68. Humble Schoolmarm*

    Sometimes, doing the depressing math helps my teacher guilt. Recently, our district rolled back everyone’s prep time (when we mark, plan, do administrative tasks) to the contractual minimum of 30 mins per day averaged over a week. Any “extra” time has been assigned to helping out in another teacher’s room (taking the place of trained resource teachers). Recently, I divided my minutes of prep by the number of students I teach, and came up with 2.4 minutes per student per week. As depressing as that math was, it was also liberating. I can’t rationally hold myself to the standard of turning life around for Fergus and Bob and Jane and the Warbleworth twins in 2.4 minutes a week and that makes me feel better about accepting that my best has to be enough, even if that doesn’t mean I succeed in getting Fergus love school…or pass English…

  69. cheluzal*

    18th year teaching middle school in a county in the Top 10 largest in the nation. Title I school. Largest middle school in district. 10 years of ESE experience. Here is what I’ve figured:

    you don’t need a lot of money to educate kids. We say kids only get X but if you have paper and pencil, I can teach you. You don’t need fancy technology….I always hate when they claim we have no money for kids, but then Singapore barely has money and they are still smoking it in education.

    Don’t get me started on the full lunches thrown out that kids are forced to take. Trust me, there is plenty of money but it’s being squandered.

    1. Pinko*

      Singapore has one of the highest per capital GDPs in the world, and about 20 percent of its national budget goes to education. I get what you’re trying to say and I applaud your resourcefulness, but money matters.

  70. Dawn*

    Another teacher here. I’m in my eighth year, five of which were in an alternative school in Baltimore–so urban poverty with a high emotional need–and three years at an 80% FARM school in rural Vermont, so rural poverty and high emotional need. (In my current position, because it’s Vermont, we have more resources than a rural school with a similar profile in a state like, say, Mississippi, but we still have much more need than we have resources to meet it with.)

    My advice is so much easier said than done: You have to accept that you won’t fix everything and go into school each day with the mindset to do the very best in the job you’re in and with the resources you have. For example, I teach humanities. I can’t solve the poverty that is a part of my students’ everyday life. I can connect them and their families to resources when I have the opportunity; I can support candidates and legislation and organizations that help relieve their situations. But I can’t solve their poverty. What I CAN do? Is to teach them every day to the utmost of my ability about reading, writing, cultural literacy, and civics. I remind myself often that my role in their lives is to teach them the critical thinking and skills that they can use to hopefully pull themselves up from their current circumstances. Is it fair that they will have to pull that much harder to get to a place that a lot of other U.S. kids are simply born into? Hell no, it isn’t fair. But I can’t change that either, on my own. I CAN give them the skills, though, to compete with middle-class and privileged kids, to maybe write an essay or cover letter that gets them an opportunity, to teach them the literacy and research skills that let them hold their own in an honors or college class, to understand how our government works so that they can most effectively advocate for themselves, their communities, and their families. So that’s what I do.

    It isn’t easy. My husband–also a teacher–and I have pretty much a weekly rant at dinner about how messed up the system is in which we are supposed to teach and succeed. Educators, along with others in human service professions, have been charged with patching up the holes in our social safety net. But I go back every day with that mindset that I’m highly qualified to give them a specific skill set that will level the playing field just a little bit more, and believing in the value of what I do, that’s where I pour my energy.

  71. CA Therapist*

    Hi LW,
    First, thank you for the work you do. Teachers are so important! and sadly, often under-appreciated. Your question really resonated with me because I have worked in some trauma-heavy mental health settings over the last several years, often underpaid (or unpaid during grad school), with little to no support. I did get burned out, and then I got curious about the research on burnout. One of the things that helps to prevent or address burnout is compassion satisfaction, which is internalizing the belief that the work you do 1) matters and 2) is enough. There is a really awesome book about this called Trauma Stewardship by Connie Burke and Laura van Dernoot Lipsky; the name is a bit misleading because it’s really about how to care for yourself when working in a challenging helping role of some kind (examples in the book range from environmental activists to lawyers and many in between). This is a great resource for learning how to recognize signs of burnout in yourself and what to do about it. The authors provide tons of in-depth examples and use a lot of humor, so it’s an easy read, too. Good luck, LW!

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