The Burning Teacher

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How long before teachers feel exhausted and burnt out?

Today, the odds are, that thousands of teachers across the United Kingdom have long-forgotten the summer, and that the end of September marks the point in which time decreases and tasks increase beyond capacity. At the point at which this happens, managing tasks versus the time you have available reaches breaking point. When this moment crosses that line, teachers start to ‘burn out’.

If you do not define your own work-life balance, your employer will. ~ Nigel Marsh


Stress affects us all in the workplace, particularly teachers working in challenging schools, and if ignored, can impact on our long-term health and the teaching and learning of our students. Just take a look at these eye-watering statistics:

  1. almost six in 10 teachers (59%) state that they had seriously considered leaving their current job in the last 12 months;
  2. nearly half (47%) have seriously considered leaving the profession;
  3. two fifths of teachers (41%) say their job satisfaction has decreased in the last 12 months;
  4. teachers’ biggest concern regarding their job is workload (79%), followed by pay and pensions (66%), changes or reforms in the curriculum (59%) and school inspections (51%).
  5. The vast majority of teachers (86%) say that their workload has increased in the last 12 months;

ComRes NASUWT Teachers' Survey

Image: NASWUT Teacher Satisfaction Survey (2013)

The School Workforce Census confirms that between 2011 and 2014, the number of teachers leaving teaching rose from 24,330 to 31,350. Add to this, “the erosion of teachers’ pay in the period 2010-15 has meant the value of teachers’ pay has declined by 13.8%.” (NASUWT: page 4; para. 8)

The Burning Teacher:

It is well cited, that over 52% of teachers are working 45-60 hours just to keep on top of the demands and expectations placed upon them. This is not sustainable.

The Guardian Teacher Workload 45-60 hours per week

Image: The Guardian

It is no wonder, 40% of teachers are leaving the profession within their first 5 years of teaching.

Last week, I co-led an ASCL workload conference: ‘smart steps to reduce teacher workload’ alongside Sam Ellis and Suzanne O’Farrell. I will blog this separately. Claiming to not know everything there is about solutions to workload and stating that many of my ideas were a ‘by-product of the problem’, I was fascinated by the simple graph Ellis doodled and explained to the group. It looked something like this:

The Burning Teacher


Click to enlarge

Well-being versus Workload:

As teachers, we have a responsible to look after our well-being and work-life balance. After watching this TED talk by Nigel Marsh, I second what Marsh says: work-life balance is a fallacy and as a society, we should start to re-define our definition of success. The sign of a good teacher, is not how hard they work or how many hours they work in and out of school; they simply work smarter and more effectively to have greater impact on students

Teachers should not just be defined by student outcomes, which is our current problem in education.  If education is to make any progress with teacher work-life balance, we need a serious debate. Success in education cannot be defined by examination results alone, and the sooner we recognise this at government level, the sooner we will start to rescue teachers who are reaching burnt out levels.

Over the past 12 years, I have considered leaving the teaching profession three times. The first time, was when I’d just achieved a subject-specific OfSTED inspection for my department; had just received a Teaching Award and then one month later my father passed away in 2004. The second time was when I was made redundant in 2010 followed by a long period of debt and job-hunting when I considered leaving London to work and live in Scotland in 2014. I’d be lying to my readers if I did not confess that the third occasion has been on and off over the past year. To be specific: to consider working part-time so that I can balance the demands of leadership and the work of Teacher Toolkit and not necessarily leave teaching altogether. I am at a crossroads and have questioned headship. n.b. not that workload and burning out are the reasons for doing so, but that Teacher Toolkit offers so many other exciting possibilities and demands, that I cannot maintain both longer term.

Therefore, I have some questions we all need to ask:

  • How can teachers support themselves?
  • How can teachers balance more than just teaching?
  • How can school leaders support staff? Their leadership team?
  • How can school leaders model work-life balance?
  • How can we manage the pressures of accountability?
  • How does poor well-being impact on a school’s reputation?
  • How can we control and reduce bureaucracy?
  • What else should policy-makers be doing to ease the pressure?

Folkman and Lazarus (1980) developed two methods of coping with stress: problemfocused where you seek support by speaking to others and trying to take control of the situation. And emotionfocused when you experience different emotions to try to deal with a problem, such as denial, crying or getting angry and in some cases, you may experience wishful thinking.

 An Analysis of Coping in a Middle-Aged Community Sample

Either way, I question how I can sustain 50+ hours every week as a senior leader.

If you are feeling burnt out, contact the Education Support Network who are here to help all teachers.


7 thoughts on “The Burning Teacher

  1. I have seen people feel that the most easiest job is Teaching, Less work and less stress. But the reality is far from this, I agree with your words. In reality it is a challenging and responsible profile where you are responsible to build your students life.

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