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When We Become the Giving Tree

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

When I was much younger and naïve, I felt like The Giving Tree was a wonderful book about selfishness. As I grew, I realized that I had become the tree in the story. Always giving and giving while little was given back in return from some sources in my life. As a mother, I expect to give selfishlessly to my children but I never realized how much I would give over and over again in my career until I felt like the stump in The Giving Tree at the end of the book. As I experienced these feelings, I began to realize what I was experiencing was worker burnout. I know many professionals, especially those in helping professions may feel this time to time. But many factors are increasing these feelings in teachers as they express feelings of burnout at epidemic levels as we battle a pandemic. Teaching was difficult before Covid but factors that caused the burnout before the pandemic were not addressed and then the added stressors of this year have further exacerbated the issues.

Teachers, like other professionals with high emotional labor jobs, experience burnout at high rates. The emotional toll of teaching can be exhausting and many leave the profession within the first five years of teaching. Many who stay often do it because they love helping young people and invest a lot into their work. Yet, the other factors creep up. Often when one asks a teacher why they are leaving the profession, most often they will not say it was the students that drove them out of the classroom (in fact, they may be what kept them there), but it is the other factors in a teachers day to to day job. Factors that may contribute to burnout include: a lack of autonomy, an overwhelming workload, low pay to possible student debt and classroom difficulties. The situation may be worsened if there is an unsupportive administration or a toxic work environment- this will vary from teacher to teacher.

From my observations, a big part of the burnout comes from job dissatisfaction. According to Locke (1976), job satisfaction “results from the perception that one’s job fulfills or allows the fulfillment of one’s important job values, providing and to the degree that those values are congruent with one’s needs.” If teachers work to improve the lives of the students in their care, it makes sense that they are not the ultimate source of dissatisfaction, but rather the other variables that impose barriers to teachers fulfilling their values. The greater the discrepancy between values and perceived ability to fulfill the more dissatisfied the employee will become. Other factors also impact job satisfaction, employees like to see things get better for themselves over time and within an adequate period of time. Perhaps, this is a major issue affecting many teachers today- they have not seen major gains in the classroom that impact them on the job within a reasonable amount of time and therefore, their dissatisfaction grows. Additionally, workers may make comparisons between themselves and fellow employees, when one makes contributions to an organization as their fellow coworker, but they reap fewer rewards than the employee working in the same manner, dissatisfaction will result. Finally, a major factor of job dissatisfaction is hinged upon the justice theory- if one perceives that they are treated unjustly in their workplace, they are consequently, likely to become dissatisfied (Pinder, 2008). Hence, an employer would want to carefully examine if their employees are treated equitably to ensure job satisfaction.

Happy workers are going to produce better work, so allowing for such job dissatisfaction for teachers isn’t just harmful to the teachers and the teachers around them, but to the student’s in their care. In education since No Child Left Behind, people are obsessed with numbers and measuring student success. What if one of the most assured ways to ensure student success was to make more satisfied teachers? This is the piece of the puzzle that is often left out. There are many dire consequences of job dissatisfaction. First, the employee may experience poor mental and physical health conditions which in turn has an effect on their job performance. Next, absenteeism increases when one experiences job dissatisfaction and frequently high turnover will occur. Turnover is an expensive proposition for an organization, but it also has dire consequences in education, when good educators are lost. In a research study conducted on over 13,000 teachers, positive attitudes towards their work were significantly correlated with student performance (Pender, 2008). Hence, if we want to see students perform better, we must invest more into the people who are educating them before they are burned out and leave the profession.

So what should school and district leaders do? Employee engagement is not the same as job dissatisfaction, however, satisfaction is an important component of engagement. If an employee is fully engaged in their work they are producing top quality work, whereas the satisfied employee may just merely complete their work adequately. To improve the working life for teachers, one would be smart to examine employee engagement in their institution. Leary, Denson, Schoenfeld, Henley and Langford (2013) reported a significant relationship between leadership behaviors and “moving away dispositions, employee engagement, job satisfaction and burnout.” Hence, they argued it is of the utmost importance to select leaders with few dysfunctional predispositions. This can be accomplished by administering personality tests and by providing leadership training that focuses on interactions between school leaders and their teachers, an area that is often overlooked as schools shift much of the focus on how they interact with students. By improving the interactions of leaders and their subordinates, employee engagement and job satisfaction increase, while burnout decreases (Leary et al., 2013). Finally, federal, state, district and school leaders must provide more autonomy for teachers whenever possible. So many teachers complain that many decisions are made without considering how teachers might be impacted. A small way of bringing some autonomy and engagement to teachers is implementing an effective goal-setting process that is shaped by the educator with consistent feedback related to that goal. This would increase employee engagement and provide more autonomy. Additionally, a needs analysis should be conducted which shapes the basis of professional development over the course of the year- this is a simple way to provide teachers with some choice and autonomy while also helping them develop their skills where they are at. However, if employees are not fairly compensated, treated unfairly or have a bad relationship with their supervisor, these tasks of enriching their environment may be futile and these conditions must be rectified before job enrichment can fully be maximized which is an arduous task, but one that would reap more rewards in the long run. With careful planning and training, teacher burnout could be reduced and in turn, more teachers might more happily stay in their classrooms educating their students.

For me, I have plugged back in to my passions connected to education. I am hoping that advocating for better practices for our students and teachers will help provide a place to channel my passions to continue to fuel my passions in education. Teachers have begun to observe the importance of passion projects for their students, but the value was first observed in employees. I have circled back to my books and articles while I was studying I/O Psychology, connecting these ideas to education and ruminating on these ideas. This has helped me focus my energy and refuel so I feel less burned out. What can you do for yourself or for others in education?

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