The Most Overlooked Reason for Teacher Burnout

The topic of teacher burnout continues to be at the forefront of education issues. Every day we hear stories of the teacher retention crisis and the subsequent Band-Aid solution of having unqualified teachers in our classrooms.  We also hear about causes for this burnout, namely class sizes, violence in the classroom, teacher workload, working conditions, lack of support, and funding.

While all of this is true, I believe there is another, often-overlooked, reason for teacher burnout: change fatigue.

Change fatigue is a form of mental and emotional exhaustion that is caused when too much change takes place in an organization, or when significant change follows immediately on earlier change. In my experience as a teacher, I found this to be true.  I quickly learned early in my career that the only constant in education is change.

Where does this constant need for change come from?


There are many reasons that education in general, and teachers more specifically, are inundated with change.  As an institution it is imperative that we continually evolve to meet the needs of our learners and prepare them for life outside of school.  The problem is that this is multi-faceted and involves many different stakeholders – all with their own version of how schools need to evolve and why their interests are most pressing. 

Add to this the ongoing evolution of social and cultural norms, advances in education-related research, and the volatile political landscape, and we can easily see how teachers are on the front-line of constant change.

Further exacerbating this situation is the fact that teachers are typically not consulted about the changes being made.  Rather, these changes are handed down from others who have never been the teacher in a classroom .  This -- on top of change fatigue itself -- leaves teachers feeling devalued as professionals and disengaged from the process.

Subsequently, teachers can become weary, indifferent, or even resistant to change, which lowers both morale and productivity.

How does change fatigue lead to burnout?


According to a study by Maslach and Jackson (1981), burnout happens on a continuum and has three progressive stages:

Stage 1: Exhaustion – characterized as emotional and physical fatigue from having too many demands and not enough emotional resources to meet them.

Stage 2: Depersonalization – characterized as an increase in apathy, decrease in empathy, and feelings of resentment for others in the educational endeavour.

Stage 3: Lack of Accomplishment – teachers perceive that the job is impossible and no longer believe they can teach successfully.

As a retired teacher, I’m certain that all teachers can see themselves somewhere on this continuum.  For those outside teaching, perhaps this conceptualization can help them better understand how teachers get to the point of burnout.


What can teachers do to protect themselves from the burnout of change fatigue?


As teachers, we are not able to stop this inundation of change that we constantly endure in our role in education.  However, for our own physical and mental health, it is important that we actively take steps to reduce the effects it has on us personally.

Here are some suggestions for navigating and managing change:

  • Expect and anticipate that change will always be on the horizon.
  • Ask questions and seek to understand why change is happening.
  • Never consider anything set in stone.
  • Avoid becoming attached to things
  • Get very clear on what you can and cannot control.
  • Prioritize tasks and set realistic timelines for yourself when implementing change.
  • Connect and collaborate with colleagues who are also affected by change.
  • Ask for help or guidance when needed.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate progress along the way.
  • Advocate for manageable change

Change is hard.  Whether welcomed or not, it has its challenges.  Continuous change over an entire teaching career can take its toll. Understanding what change fatigue is and where you are on the continuum is the first step in proactively protecting your mental and physical health.  From there, you can identify strategies that work for you to lessen the effects, and advocate at the school level for change to be streamlined as well as more manageable for teachers.

The teachers I know love teaching.  It is the “other stuff” that slowly begins to steal that joy. While there are other catalysts to teacher burnout, I believe that change fatigue is one that is most prominent and least talked about.

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