Reducing Teacher Burnout through Safety, Belonging, and Esteem

As students, teachers, and families prepare to head back to school this fall, stories of teacher shortages are filling headlines in the U.S. and around the world. 44% of U.S. public schools reported vacancies this spring according to the National Center for Education Statistics. What really is a teacher shortage, and why is this happening now? 

There are many different reasons – even definitions – of a teacher shortage, and we are seeing them all right now! Districts may have received additional funding through COVID-relief efforts, so they expanded their teaching staff and have more open vacancies. Districts may have vacancies that are hard to fill because of the specialty content area and available talent pool – special education and ESL positions are a reported challenge in certain areas. But we also know that teachers have been leaving the profession, and that too has created a teacher shortage. 

It’s no secret that the last two years have been challenging to be a teacher. Deciding to leave the classroom is never easy. Examining this phenomenon through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs gives insight into why teachers leave and what districts and school leaders can do to retain staff. How does this hierarchy help us understand why teachers are experiencing burnout, and what might this tell us about ways to solve the global teacher shortage? Let’s look at three basic needs from Maslow’s hierarchy — safety, belonging, and esteem — to identify ways to promote teacher satisfaction and effectiveness as a long-term solution to keeping teachers in classrooms where students need them most.  

Teachers Need a Sense of Safety  

Educators are frontline professionals who provide essential services with high rates of face-to-face interaction. They serve tens, even hundreds, of students each day. Increased risk of life-threatening illness and gun violence in recent years are two factors negatively influencing teacher safety. Teachers’ constant threat of sickness due to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for special educators who have been serving students in-person throughout the pandemic, has led to staffing shortages. School shootings and violence in educational institutions around the world contribute to this sense of insecurity, undermining safety in the classroom.  

Professional safety—a sense of employment security—has also deteriorated. Important and complex global topics have flooded the educational sphere, causing controversies that impact school communities: The rights of transgender individuals, theories of race and equity, and even social-emotional learning have become topics of debate. Too often teachers end up in the middle of these debates, struggling to meet the needs of their students while considering the demands and expectations of their administrators and families in the community.  

In a recent survey by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) conducted in June of 2022, up to 88% of teachers reported that education is becoming overly politicized. As they integrate new curricula and resources into the classroom, teachers need support from administrative leadership in navigating these issues and determining how to facilitate teaching and learning effectively without threat of ridicule or losing their job. School leaders should invest in the career development of their staff, empowering educators to step into leadership roles that give them a voice in curriculum, policy, and community matters.  When school leaders are advocates for teaching staff, they increase a sense of professional safety.  

Teachers Need a Sense of Belonging (and Love) 

Learning is social, but educators often spend their days in classrooms away from colleagues. For certain specialty areas, this can be even more isolating. Former education specialist Melissa Collins, M.Ed. is a faculty member at Moreland University who experienced professional isolation: “When I worked in a middle school as a special education co-teacher, I was extremely isolated as the only special educator on my team. There was a stigma around the special educators who were seen as assistants, not teachers. Most of the time when general education teachers were having team meetings, I was asked to cover other duties because my role was not seen as important.” Teachers need communities in which they have a sense of professional belonging. Creating a sense of belonging and camaraderie amongst staff is essential, not just for retaining teachers but for fostering collaboration and improving teaching throughout the school. 

Teachers must have access to networks of support, collaboration, and friendship to meet the human need of connectedness and affiliation that promotes wellbeing and success. Justine Wilson, Ed.S. is a former principal at both the Pan American School of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil and GEMS American Academy in Al Wakrah, Qatar who serves as a faculty member at Moreland. Her experience with two recent cohorts in the TEACH-NOW Teacher Preparation Certificate Program exemplifies the power of community: “The last two cohorts I taught would regularly stay on for 30 minutes after [virtual class] sharing stories, empathizing, and connecting on personal and professional levels.” One candidate was so connected to her cohort that, at the end of the program, she was determined to find ways to continue collaborating. Teachers need to feel connected, both to their colleagues and to their professional learning communities.  

The psychological need for belonging transcends the workplace as humans foster loving relationships with friends and family. Work-life balance is a challenge for educators, many of whom throw themselves so fully into their work with students that they struggle with self-care. According to Fayth Silveus, Ed.S. who is Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Moreland, “When entering the classroom, teachers find themselves juggling multiple roles and responsibilities. Creating balance amid a busy schedule is a determining factor between pressing forward or halting progress.” (Click here to learn strategies to create balance in school, work, and life.) Teachers must have opportunities—and be encouraged by school leadership—to prioritize interpersonal relationships of love and connection with their families and friends outside of school. Adequate time during the workday for meetings, preparation, and grading outside of instructional hours is essential to promote teachers’ ability to cultivate belonging within personal networks while fostering a sustainable workload and meeting their students’ needs.  

Teachers Need a Sense of Confidence, Pride, and Esteem  

A sense of expertise and mastery of professional competencies is an essential component of teachers’ esteem. As educators prepare to be instructional leaders in the classroom who respond to the diverse needs of students of all backgrounds, they must have access to tools, resources, and training on best practices to leverage in instruction.  

Dr. Lynn Beal, Ed.D. is an Academic Specialist at Moreland University who supports faculty and participates in curriculum development. A researcher of teacher burnout and passionate proponent of teacher wellbeing, she explains, “Teachers who develop essential classroom skills (classroom management, relationship-building, instructional planning, differentiation, and assessment) will maintain a significantly lower stress level, have greater self-efficacy, and experience lower burnout.” By empowering teachers with mastery and pedagogical expertise, highly effective teacher preparation and continuing education help promote teachers’ overall sense of esteem.  

Finally, teachers must be regarded as professionals and treated with dignity and respect. Teachers’ psychological need for esteem necessitates adequate compensation, independence, and recognition. 93% of AFT teachers indicated that salaries do not meet cost of living, and a further 90% indicated that there is a lack of respect and support. There is a critical need for educational pay scales that reflect the rigor of the required degrees and certifications teachers undergo prior to employment. Teachers would benefit from access to high-quality professional development, access to professional organizations and associations, and even tuition reimbursement for additional coursework toward master’s degrees in education. Increased dignity and respect are core components of esteem which may contribute to solving teacher burnout.  

Efforts must be made now to meet teachers’ need for safety, belonging, and esteem as a long-term solution to teacher shortages around the world. When their human needs are met, educational professionals increase in their overall effectiveness as it relates to tolerance of uncertainty and high creativity in the classroom. Educator preparation programs (including the TEACH-NOW Program), continuing learning opportunities, and school administrative leadership all have a role to play in bringing teachers into the classroom and keeping them there year after year.   

Joseph A. Pearson, M.S.Ed.
Professional Development Officer, Moreland University

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