A bright red line of tape forms two lanes of traffic in the hallways of Woodside Intermediate School (WIS) in Cromwell, Connecticut. Unmasked fourth graders walk side by side on their way back to class after lunch, paying no mind to the slightly faded, circular stickers stamped onto the carpeted floor that used to keep them six feet apart and in single file lines. The cafeteria buzzes with the chatter of the hungry fourth graders during their half hour break.
“Initially, they couldn’t talk if their mask was off. They could sit next to each other to eat without a mask, but if they started talking, they had to put the mask on,” reports Melody Wnuk, WIS’s reading specialist and one of the many teachers in my family, as she tucks a strand of blonde hair behind her ear and readjusts her white and blue floral top. “We were the ones trying to police that. It was stressful. I mean, incredibly stressful.”
As someone who comes from a family of teachers, the normal conversation at holiday gatherings has been overtaken by heated discussion about the intense stress they have endured for the past two years as a result of the pandemic. Although the recent rollback of COVID-19 restrictions has eased some of that stress, it’s unlikely that returning to the pre-pandemic way of teaching will be the solution for the impending Great Resignation, a well-reported phenomenon coined after the potential for mass resignation from a wave of U.S. workers who are burned out from their jobs. While the pandemic added a list of challenges to teaching (like relearning how to teach), it has always been a difficult career.
Lauren Barry, assistant principal at WIS, knows that the relaxed COVID-19 restrictions will not be a cure-all. “The little bits of normalcy we’ve seen return are like a breath of fresh air for teachers,” Barry says from across the black conference table in her office, curly brown hair falling neatly onto her pink blouse. “But, even pre-COVID teachers always have that feeling, like there’s so much to do and not enough time. Everyone still has that feeling of juggling twenty-something students and all their different needs.”
So, what is burnout anyway? As explained by Erica Cuni, licensed therapist and former professor at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), burnout occurs as a result of an elongated period of chronic stress. Experiencing prolonged stretches of stress causes the body’s nervous system to be hijacked, and because the nervous system has no flexibility during times of intense stress, even the smallest of tasks seem like mountains.
“When you start to go into the burnout stages, you’re done. You’re toast. You’re fried.”
“It’s like a detachment from your mind and body,” Cuni describes over Zoom. “You’re on autopilot. Your to-do lists get longer and longer, and no amount of coffee seems to help you. When you start to go into the burnout stages, you’re done. You’re toast. You’re fried.”
The symptoms of burnout go far beyond mental fatigue. Whether it’s headaches, muscle stiffness, eye twitches, or even gastrointestinal issues like heartburn or acid reflux, physical signs of burnout appear in tandem with increasing levels of stress. If the levels of stress remain unchanged, the physical symptoms could spiral into an IBS diagnosis or the development of unexplained illnesses that leave physicians puzzled. With physical symptoms of burnout come financial consequences; the sicker one becomes, the more time they need off of work, and for many, not working means not paying the bills.
COVID-19 made people’s burnout worse, a well-documented trend that’s affected numerous professions, from servers to lawyers to teachers. “We were already burned out as a society to begin with. And when the pandemic happened, it just highlighted how much we were burned out,” Cuni explains.
Former Florida teacher Jenn Gilgan recently left her job teaching high school English for this very reason. While Gilgan, like many other teachers, experienced feelings of burnout and exhaustion long before the pandemic, teaching mid-pandemic became unbearable. In November of 2020, three months into the infamous hybrid model, Gilgan began to experience physical symptoms like nausea, vertigo, brain fog, and difficulty sleeping. At first, Gilgan attributed them to a medication she’d been taking. The timing, however, didn’t make sense.
“I started taking the medication in September. All of those symptoms should have started some time in October. But they didn’t,” Gilgan told me over Zoom. “They didn’t start up until our school really started picking up with COVID-19 cases.”
Going off of the medication did not resolve any of her symptoms. Only after being diagnosed with adrenal fatigue did things begin to make sense. “The acupuncturist talked to me for about ten minutes,” Gilgan says, “then told me ‘You have adrenal fatigue; your adrenal glands are not producing the cortisol they need because they’ve been in constant stress mode for such a long time.’” No longer could Gilgan ignore the physical toll her job had taken.
Jumping into the 2021-2022 school year without a long enough break led her back down the same path she’d taken the year before; the symptoms began again. “When they kicked in back in September 2021, I knew I was in trouble. I knew I was slipping back into a dark place, and I didn’t want to do that,” Gilgan explains. And so, Gilgan decided to place her mental and physical well-being first and left her position in January of 2022.
Gilgan’s experience with burnout is shared by educators across the country. A recent survey from the National Education Association found that burnout is the top concern teachers are currently facing, with 67 percent of its members finding it to be a “very serious issue,” and 90 percent a “very serious or somewhat serious issue.” Additionally, the same report found that 55 percent of NEA members “say they are more likely to leave or retire from education sooner than they planned because of the pandemic.” That is almost double the number from July 2020. With 90 percent of NEA members acknowledging burnout as a serious issue within the profession, it makes sense that a Great Resignation looms over the education system.
Although the pandemic has worsened teacher burnout, the burnout existed long before. Despite eventually entering the classroom, Gilgan saw burnout firsthand from her mother, also a high school teacher. “I had never intended to be a teacher. I was flat out against it. Why would I want to do that? I saw what it did to my mother.”
Both Gilgan and her mother’s experiences with pre-pandemic teacher burnout do not come as a surprise when considering all of the regular challenges to the profession, like low pay (causing many to need second jobs), large class sizes, intense hours, supplying their own classrooms, low administrative support, political controversy over the curriculum, paperwork, keeping track of IEPs and 504s, or caring for students’ emotional health, just to name a few.
So if the job comes with such difficulty, why do teachers choose to stay? A 2018 study from the Utah Education Policy Center answered this question. Of its nearly two thousand responses, 84 percent of teachers said the number one reason they stay in the profession is because of the “desire to make a worthwhile difference in the lives of children.” Additionally, 70 percent of folks credited the “sense of purpose” the job brought to their lives.
But, due to the important–and necessary–restrictions introduced as a result of COVID-19, many teachers lost the one thing that gave their job meaning: the students. When the pandemic first struck in March 2020, everything went online. In addition to climbing up the learning curve of new platforms like Zoom or Webex, teachers dealt with detached students who, in many cases, became nothing but a name across a small black box. Many spent more class time working out tech issues than teaching.
“When you lose the energy of that interpersonal classroom space, you lose anything that’s going to trigger the dopamine in your brain. You lose anything that’s going to make you feel like you accomplished something that day,” says CCSU Professor Dr. Amanda Greenwell from her office at the New Britain campus.
When the time came to transition to the hybrid model, teachers then had to divide their attention between the students in the classroom, masked up and socially distanced, and the other half of the class on the computer. Going back to a socially distanced classroom with plastic barriers and spread-out desks forced teachers to rethink something as simple as the way they moved around the classroom. Looking over a student’s shoulder to help them through a question became an unsafe practice.
“Even the most basic, teacherly move became potentially dangerous,” Greenwell says, retucking a strap of her KN95 mask behind her ear. “Like, life-and-death dangerous. And I think it’s difficult to climb out of that without any kind of break.”
Building on all of the pre-pandemic stressors, teachers then became responsible for remembering which students were quarantining or which students had COVID-19, as well as dealing with increased behavioral issues and growing student anxiety.
Despite the sharply increased workload and levels of stress, teachers were still responsible for educating their students, which, much like everything else, only became more difficult during the pandemic. “In some places, there was a tightening of administrative control and curricula, where teachers were basically told ‘Here’s what the lesson is. You can add 10 percent of your own flair, but you really need to teach it this way,’” Greenwell says. “That’s deadening for teachers.”
Combining the pre- and mid-pandemic stressors that teachers have faced, it should not be shocking that 55 percent of NEA members report planning to leave or retire early. While a mass exodus would negatively impact schools across the country, teachers might not be left with much of a choice.
“The education model, as it currently stands, is not about to change,” Gilgan says. “This has been building for years. Decades, I would say. The pandemic just amplified the pressure that we feel. Over the years, teachers have been taking on more and more and more, and it catches up to you.”
Greenwell agrees that the build up of teacher responsibilities leads them down a tough path. “Whenever a new thing comes up, like ‘Act this way,’ or ‘Take this into account,’ the question we always have in return is how?”
Although a Great Resignation has the potential to largely disrupt the education system, such a disruption might be the catalyst that causes the overdue change to the system; how many educators and other staff can the profession lose before the education system is forced to restructure itself? Although COVID-19 restrictions have nearly disappeared in schools, the pandemic-induced burnout that teachers have experienced over the last two years might be enough to jumpstart some meaningful change.
“The Great Resignation is really the Great Awakening.”
“We really need to understand that productivity isn’t that hustle twenty-four seven anymore. We don’t have to push through at all costs to be successful or thrive anymore,” Cuni states. “The Great Resignation is really the Great Awakening. People are waking up and saying, ‘I don’t deserve this kind of life.’”
Despite feeling better after taking time away from the classroom, and renewing her Florida Teaching Certificate for another five years, Gilgan doesn’t see herself going back to teaching until changes are made. “I was also trying to model for these teenagers that work shouldn’t push you to the point that you’re sick,” Gilgan says. “So leaving was an act of self-care, and also a way to say, ‘I’m going to show these kids that it’s okay to take a step back.’”
Of all the teachable moments to come out of a classroom, that might be one of the most valuable lessons for us all.
Header Photo Credit: Getty Images
Julia Wnuk is a Staff Writer for Blue Muse Magazine