Our goal was to learn how K–12 districts are addressing the burnout challenge through practices that maximize and optimize teacher time for student-centered instruction. These approaches recognize the stress on many teachers from having to serve many academic and nonacademic roles/tasks while often, at the same time, classroom learning is largely dependent on their live, direct instruction.
The research identifies the burnout challenge as enduring and provides fresh understanding of how K–12 administrators are looking to a suite of technology-enabled remedies. These findings come from a December 2022 District Administration (DA) K-12 Teacher Burnout Strategies Survey commissioned in partnership with D2L, of more than 1,000 school district leaders and administrators from across the United States.
Teacher Burnout and Retention Are Enduring Challenges
Our research affirms that teacher burnout, retention and recruitment are not only interwoven and ongoing challenges but also that they are expected to carry into the future. Most respondents indicated that:
- teacher fatigue, burnout and retention were significant issues in their district (per 98% of respondents, including 52% saying they are very significant issues)
- these challenges are likely to get worse (per 74%, including 36% saying they are likely to get significantly worse)
- these underlying issues have a negative impact on teacher recruitment (per 90%, including 37% who believe they will have a highly negative impact)
This is consistent with other research, including a 2022 Merrimack College teacher survey finding that only 12% of K–12 teachers are very satisfied, down from 39% a decade ago. Similarly, nonprofit AdoptAClassroom.org’s May 2022 survey found 80% of teachers reporting they are burned out.
A recent Washington Post analysis of federal labor survey data shows that for educational services (which includes but goes beyond K–12 educators), while meaningfulness of the work remains high (4.7/6, the second highest of 18 reviewed industries), worker happiness is relatively low (3.9/6, the 11th lowest of reviewed industries) and stress is very high (2.9/6, the highest of all reviewed industries).
That the causes underlying teacher burnout are also negatively impacting new teacher recruitment suggests that fundamental changes are needed to reposition teaching as an attractive career choice for this next generation of workers.
Increasing Retention Requires Multiple Strategies, From Increased Compensation to Classroom Reinvention
While many state and local policies are appropriately focused on “increasing teacher salaries, benefits and wellness supports” to reduce burnout and increase retention, most survey respondents (66%) indicated that this approach is just one of many important factors.
A similar number of school district leaders and administrators (69%) identified “reimagining or reinvention of the traditional classroom instructional model to prioritize/optimize high-quality instructional times” as one of the important factors to reduce burnout and increasing retention. A smaller group of respondents identified these strategies of increased salary/benefits (29%) and classroom reinvention (12%) as the most important factors.
These findings are consistent with this question asked by ASU’s Next Education Workforce Initiative: What if we don’t just have a teacher shortage problem but also a workforce design problem?
Teachers are asked to take on many roles and tasks, be experts in them all, and to do so largely solo and in isolation, while their students require more diverse, individualized supports and pathways not always easily delivered by traditional methods and a single teacher.
As described by Kareem Farah of Modern Classrooms Project, “When you are stuck in a teacher-driven classroom environment dependent upon live lectures, [common, ongoing] disruptions to daily plans completely halt the learning environment for everyone.” These dynamics create ongoing teacher stress and burnout. In AdoptAClassroom.org’s survey, 66% of teachers identified “not enough individual attention” as among the biggest student challenge this year.
One D2L survey respondent bluntly stated: “The biggest problem is we have very little time to actually just TEACH.” Another said: “We spend too much time doing things that are not teaching. If we were able to just focus on the education of students … the burnout rate would be much less!”
While we must also address other teacher burnout and retention factors such as student behavior, school politicization and teacher compensation, these D2L survey findings suggest that these solutions will fall short of making teaching a less stressful and a more satisfactory, impactful and attractive profession unless we also address the underlying classroom model.
In July 2022, an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) taskforce concluded, in part, that they “will not be able to attract or retain teachers or staff to work in school systems that do not recognize and provide for the needs of the current U.S. student population. … School structures in all U.S. schools must move from outdated factory models and become modern and professional organizations.”
Here are some related system ideas for redesign and modernization to grow a district’s teacher capacity.
School Districts Are Providing Teachers With Supports That Optimize Their Time While Exploring Even More Extensive Redesigns
The D2L survey also asked school leaders about their interest in, and implementation of, specific practices aligned to this redesign and increasing the time for high-quality instruction.
Respondents were asked which practices they were currently implementing or considering as part of efforts to reduce teacher fatigue and burnout and increase satisfaction, retention and recruitment. Most of the top answers were focused on providing teachers with a variety of supportive resources and connections that optimize their time, including:
- “opportunities for teacher collaboration (e.g., share lessons/curriculum, combine expertise, share courses or team teaching)” (63%)
- “personalized, relevant and flexible professional learning” (35%)
- “blending of technology in the classroom to increase time for 1:1 or small group instruction” (34%)
- “partnerships with community-based and other organizations/agencies to provide academic and non-academic supports” (32%)
The importance of personalized professional learning is consistent with a previous D2L-commissioned teacher survey, which found teacher satisfaction highly correlated to professional development (PD) that is targeted to their unique needs and interests as well as available on a regular, ongoing basis as needed.
We also asked which practices they believe would be most helpful.
The practice identified that would be most helpful was a “4-day school week, which could include a flipped classroom model,” chosen by 53%, while only 11% said they were using this four-day schedule, suggesting an opportunity for improvement by closing this gap.
This flexibility can enable increased time for teacher planning and PD, as well as more opportunity for student engagement and individualized supports. The flipped classroom model can shift some initial lesson delivery and content acquisition to that fifth day out of school in an asynchronous, self-paced approach (such as readings, teacher video lesson, etc.), while classroom time is shifted more from direct instruction to discussion and practice, small-group and one-on-one instructional support, and personalization of learning.
Similar opportunity gaps were identified in several other areas, where there is a significant difference between the number of respondents identifying that a particular practice would be helpful and the number reporting that they were actually implementing or considering the practice. These include:
- While 40% cited that “automation of administrative, communication and instructional tasks to free teacher time” would be helpful, just 14% indicated that they were currently doing so.
- While 40% cited “flexible curriculum enabling more teacher/student agency, creativity and engagement” as helpful, only 18% were currently implementing it as part of this effort.
- While 29% identified as helpful “resources and supports for parents/guardians to provide instructional support at home,” just 16% were implementing or considering this practice.
Most of these practices have in common the opportunity for teachers to more effectively use their time for student-centered instruction by saving teachers’ time, enhancing teacher collaboration and team-teaching, and enabling partners and families to support student academic and nonacademic needs.
Technology Is Important To Reduce Teacher Burnout When It Makes Teachers’ Jobs Easier and More Effective
The D2L survey next asked about the role of technology.
Three-quarters (74%) of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that “the effective use of education technology should be a critical component of efforts to reduce teacher fatigue/burnout and improve engagement, satisfaction and retention.” Only 8% disagreed.
This is consistent with other survey findings as many of the practices identified as most helpful to reduce burnout and increase retention are, in fact, often enabled by technology. These include:
- the flipped classroom for a four-day school week
- automation of instructional and other tasks
- teacher sharing and collaboration
- personalized professional learning
- enablement of parents/guardians to provide instructional support at home
Yet it is also understandable that only 28% identified that the “blending of technology in the classroom” would be most helpful to reduce burnout, given that unsupported or poorly implemented technologies can too often themselves be a cause of teacher fatigue and frustration. We have seen this during the pivot to often poorly conceived models of emergency remote instruction during the pandemic with a lingering hangover effect.
Respondents were also asked which five supports from education technology such as a learning management system (LMS) would be most helpful to teachers to help reduce their fatigue/burnout and increase their engagement, satisfaction and retention.
Responses were largely consistent with the broader question about most helpful practices, including:
The survey thus identifies that, where technologies are well designed, implemented and supported, the value to reduced workload and increased teacher impact can exceed the implementation curve and ultimately reduce burnout.
Opportunity To Reimagine Traditional Models To Increase Teacher Impact and Satisfaction
There are many causes of teacher burnout, many of which have been propagating for too many years, impacting not only teacher retention but also interest in becoming a teacher. For example, teacher preparation completion rates are down 35% from 2008, from about 250,000 to 150,000 annually (Center for American Progress, 2019). These enduring challenges will require a multifaceted response.
Increases in salary and benefits are necessary but insufficient solutions. Creating a more positive learning environment is critical. The AFT taskforce report framed the underlying dynamic this way:
“We cannot continue to educate students with outdated strategies and norms. Students will struggle without understanding their purpose for learning and without being treated as individuals. Teachers and school staff need the freedom and flexibility to adapt to the needs and interests of their students.”
The survey findings show that there is significant opportunity to help increase teacher satisfaction and reduce burnout by recentering the classroom around students and enhancing teacher collaboration, supports and technology tools to better maximize and optimize their time to meet individualized student needs.
We hope these research findings will prompt your school community to engage in the deep discussion and planning needed to further reimagine traditional approaches, better engage teachers and students, and create a teaching and learning environment that reduces teacher fatigue and burnout and, in so doing, better sets up teachers (and students) for satisfaction and success.
Mark Schneiderman is Senior Director for the Future of Teaching and Learning at D2L. Mark curates research and strategic partnerships to support the K-12 education sector in identifying and implementing best practices. He previously held senior roles in the technology and nonprofit sectors where he built public-private partnerships to help imagine and advocate for public and school policies that enhance student success through the use of technology and digital learning.
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