Merry Ann Moore January 30th, 2012 |


I found the characterization of teaching shared by Charlotte Danielson during Chalkboard’s recent webinar on evaluating educator effectiveness enlightening–and timely.  Borrowing from educational psychologist Lee Shulman, she pointed out that teaching as an occupation is on par in complexity and stress levels with an ER doctor following a major disaster:

“He noted that teachers have classrooms of 25–35 students, whereas doctors treat only a single patient at a time. Even when working with a reading group of six to eight students, teachers are overseeing the decoding skills, comprehension, word attack, performance, and engagement of those students while simultaneously keeping tabs on the learning of the other two dozen students in the room. ‘The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity,’ Shulman pointed out, ‘would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.’  He concluded that classroom teaching ‘is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented.’” (From “A Framework for Learning to Teach,” by Charlotte Danielson, Educational Leadership, Online June 2009 | Volume 66)

I’d add the fact that teachers also have hundreds of “bosses” (parents), changing every year, some of them (ahem) not so reluctant to weigh in on what’s happening in their classrooms.

And layer this on top of the “productivity gains” that economists are so eager to tout.  Given that the U.S. economy has seen layoff after layoff for going on five years, my opinion is this term is really code for, “we’ve let go as many people as we can and we are squeezing those left behind for all they’re worth.”  (Check out the most recent U.S. Department of Labor stats to see how “outputs” are up, while wages are down.)

This is particularly true in education, since by its very nature people/salaries (the “fat” critics like to say needs trimming in our schools) comprise 80% or so of school budgets.

There are limits to what people will endure in the workplace.  Unremitting, unrealistic work loads take a toll on students, organizations and personal lives.  School systems are left to cope with a costly problem: burnout.

I’ve heard from administrators and teachers at multiple Oregon high schools about the impacts repeated budget cuts are having on education professionals.  Many educators are tasked with instructing literally hundreds of students a day, and are responsible for multiple subject areas, translating into two to five different preps.  In their words:

“The grading is brutal.  My prep is used to return e-mail, update attendance, make parent phone calls, and straighten up the room.  Grading is happening at home.  With 200 students, even taking one minute per paper involves over three hours of time outside my school day.  My ability to teach writing is suffering.”

“I don’t have enough time to visit with students who are struggling or who need enrichment. It’s survival.”

“I constantly have students in my room before school, at lunch, and after school making up tests, wanting extra help, discussing their grades, wanting their homework for the next week because they are going to be gone, etc.  There is not enough of me to go around, so I go home and cry.”

“I feel frustrated for students who need more help and guidance and there just isn’t time.”

“The students are overwhelmed with large classes and find it difficult to get help.”

“We are required to notify any parent whose child is failing.  This is a huge task with 200+ students.  Hours and hours of phone calls and emails.”

“We have five minutes passing time to get forty students out and forty students in.  There is no time to answer questions after class or for someone to get help the few minutes before class.  Don’t even think of using the restroom or doing any type of prep for the next class.”

Workloads at the administrative level are “insane.  I’m working ten hours a day and I’m still behind.  But I guess I’m just glad to have a job.”

“You change your approach from teaching students to teaching content.  It’s just not possible to teach to individuals with these numbers.”

“Love my students.  Wish I had more time to help them.  They are getting smart in figuring out we don’t have time to look at everything.”

“How much can we ask of teachers?  They have to have a life [outside their professional commitments.]”

Predictably, such working conditions have consequences.  Some teachers take leaves of absence to recover.  Some leave the profession entirely.  Then schools have to recruit/orient/integrate new teachers, which costs time and money.

Those wringing your hands about Oregon’s economy and American’s competitiveness in the global marketplace, are you listening?  The business of educating tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and skilled laborers is resting on shaky scaffolding that has been weakened by years of declining investment.  Without well-compensated teachers and support staff–and enough of them—improvements in our country’s economic fortunes will be elusive.

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

10 Responses to “Burnout”

  1. kona says:

    Seriously, I have never heard of any occupation that complains more about their lot in life. I think the reason is that many teachers get out of college and go into teaching without realizing the difficulties of other occupations.

    • jw says:

      You are welcome to try teaching. Do it for five years and then we can talk.

      • kona says:


        I didn’t suggest that teaching wasn’t stressful. Almost all jobs are stressful. My reaction was that I have never known of employees in other occupations who publicly complained more about their occupation than (some)teachers.

  2. kona says:

    Sorry about that, I got in a hurry. Occupations can’t complain.

  3. Steve Buel says:

    Kona, are you kidding? What part of these problems do you think are made up or just not true?

    Chalkboard project: After reading this post it is easy to see why using test scores to evaluate teachers and depending on them to straighten out Oregon’s schools (the Governor’s plan)is just plain rediculous.

  4. kona says:


    You asked, “What part of these problems do you think are made up or just not true?”

    This is a start, “Borrowing from educational psychologist Lee Shulman, she pointed out that teaching as an occupation is on par in complexity and stress levels with an ER doctor following a major disaster”.

    I have teachers in my immediate family and many in my extended family.

    I hired many teachers (probably 10-15). Not one considered teaching more difficult (or more stressful) than working for our corporation, especially when the temperatures got over 100 degrees, or under 30 degrees.

    I am not suggesting that teaching is easy. I am suggesting that there are many occupations that are just as demanding, or more so. I just have never heard people in other occupations complain publically about their lot in life as much as (some)teachers. Especially in negotiations when there is the constant demand for less contact with the students.

  5. Steve Buel says:

    Kona, both of my brothers had high stress jobs working for large businesses. We often discussed and compared the stress levels. We agreed that there were periods of stress on their jobs that were higher than mine (teaching), but the difference was that I was under constant stress. I remember one of the early studies on stress that said underwater diving near oil derricks was the most stressful occupation there was. Teaching in inner city schools was #2.

  6. kona says:

    The exaggeration from the post was what caught my attention, “teaching as an occupation is on par in complexity and stress levels with an ER doctor following a major disaster”.

    I googled “10 most stressful jobs in America” and teachers/teaching did not make any list. But, I agree that teaching can be stressful, just as almost any job. It just seems that (some/many)teachers are very publicly vocal that their occupation trumps the chart. I have thought this is because of a lack of knowledge of stresses in other occupations.

  7. Steve Buel says:

    Kona, it depends a lot on which teaching job it is and several other factors. The woman in this post was a high school English teacher. Huge, huge workload. Some teachers have much less stress, usually because of their students and positive, supportive administrators. The last couple of years I taught I had a relatively easy job in terms of work. But there were years when I worked consistently 10 to 12 hour days and I had some classes that were incredibly stressful because of the type of students I had. The highest stress teacher jobs will trump pretty much any job, but this is never acknowledged in the new reform movement. Heck, just up the class loads and eliminate those things that engage kids in school and if you are any good then everything should be fine. Trouble is that isn’t true. And people shouldn’t suggest it is.

  8. I’m writing to Chalkbloggers because (as you’ll see) I’ve included links to your blog on my new blog/website, . I’ve spent many years leading professional development and writing books for teachers about reading and writing. But I’ve grown increasingly concerned as teachers and good progressive education come under more and more attack. I’ve wished that larger numbers of teachers would speak out, not on specific issues, but also to build understanding by the public and elected officials about what great teaching and learning look like, so it might be better supported. When the Susan Komen debacle broke out over a funding decision, great numbers of people deluged them with emails and tweets, and backed them down – and some of us wished teachers were more prepared to speak out like that. Yes, we have our passionate writers, advocates, and bloggers. But we need the widespread, ongoing voices and the education of the public that it will take to re-assert a positive narrative about education.

    Together with a couple of friends I’ve launched an initiative to work on this. The National Council of Teachers of English has helped, and we’ve recorded a webinar available on the NCTE website. A series of podcast interviews will also be coming up, about strategies for getting thoughtful teacher voices out there. And now I’ve tried my hand at designing a blog/website.

    The blog focuses not on any one issue or list of priorities; rather, it’s about the strategies and the thinking needed so that large numbers of voices can influence the issues in the public forum. It needs lots more stories and thoughts, to be contributed by visitors. Members of Chalkbloggers can sign up as commenters on the “Contact Us” page of the site, and you can help to fill in the many blanks.

    I hope you’ll also introduce the blog to other educators you work with. When lots of teachers begin to use the kinds of communication strategies we outline, I think our voices will begin to be heard. It’s shocking that educators like Regie Routman (in \Literacy at the Crossroads,\ 1996) and Cathy Fleischer (in \Teachers Organizing for Change,\ 2000) wrote about this over a decade ago. But now many teachers are realizing it’s past time that we widely and actively build support for our work in our communities and across the country. It takes some skills to do that, however, and that’s what the blog is about.

    I’ll look forward to your thoughts, both in response to this e-mail, and on the blog itself!

    Best wishes,

    –Steve Zemelman

Leave a Reply