Teaching class online.

Burnout and Trauma

Part 1 of our Coaching for Teacher Resilience during COVID-19 blog series discusses the potential for increased teacher burnout throughout the pandemic. In less than two months, the work of teaching has been transformed, moving from the physical school campus that has existed for hundreds of years to the virtual world that is still in its relative infancy. These conditions associated with COVID-19 have impacted educators’ lives both personally and professionally.  Teachers who are accustomed to in-classroom instruction must adapt their curriculum to an online platform, and feelings of inadequacy and disempowerment can arise when trying to provide support to students in this challenging space. Conducting class virtually from home can augment feelings of isolation, especially for educators who are used to daily interactions with students and colleagues. Burnout and traumatic stress connected with COVID-19 can have implications on educators’ capacities to teach effectively and provide emotional support for students. Despite the adversity and trauma that many people, particularly educators, are enduring as a result of COVID-19, the work of teaching must continue.

Teaching - like nursing, social work, and hospice care - is a caring profession, and caring professions are highly susceptible to burnout - even in the best of times. The American Federation Quality of Life Survey, for example, showed that in 2017, “Educators and school staff [found] their work ‘always’ or ‘often’ stressful 61 percent of the time,” compared to 30% of the general public. The same survey found that educators who reported “seven or more days in the past 30 that their mental health was not good” increased from 34 percent in 2015 to 58 percent in 2017. If teaching is hard during regular times, what happens when we find ourselves in a pandemic - when the world has been turned upside down and schools have been turned inside out?

Teachers are used to being in contact with dozens if not hundreds of students a day. Now, teachers across the nation - and the world - are separated from their students as well as their colleagues. The sense of isolation and loneliness that may arise from this current condition is one known cause of teacher burnout. Burnout, according to Christina Maslach, is “a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do ‘people-work’ of some kind. It is a response to the chronic emotional strain of dealing extensively with other human beings, particularly when they are troubled or having problems” (2003, p.2). In addition to feelings of isolation, other causes of burnout aligned to current COVID-19 conditions include feelings of inefficacy and a lack of control, or disempowerment (Hock, 1988, Friedman and Farber, 1992, Maslach and Leiter, 2016 , Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2014). Not only are teachers now working alone at home, but they are working on tasks about which they may or may not feel competent. Teachers who are experts in in-classroom instruction are learning that different skill sets and methods are required for delivering instruction online. Not only are teachers learning new platforms for teaching - Zoom, Canvas, Google Classroom - but they must also design this new learning to ensure that students most concerned about GPAs continue to receive authentic feedback on their learning, that the most social students have opportunities to share their thoughts and engage in authentic and relevant discussion as well as collaborative work in a virtual space, and that they use best practices including culturally responsive teaching and create a safe online learning environment. They must design this new learning while knowing that many of their students are struggling at home with challenges including loss of food, loss of security and structure, and loss of community. For many, these changes represent a steep learning curve and a daunting task and can lead to a sense of failure and possibly even feelings of inadequacy as teachers attempt to reach and make a difference for students in this challenging space. Finally, rules and policies about life, work, socializing - and education - are revised, added, deleted on a daily basis leading to feelings of helplessness that likely increases teachers’ feelings of disempowerment. Given that the conditions caused by COVID-19 are directly related to conditions that are known to cause isolation, the rate of burnout for teachers might increase exponentially over the course of the pandemic.

Secondary Traumatic Stress

Now, consider this: the emotional strain of working with people is exacerbated “particularly when [those people] are troubled or having problems” (Maslach, 2003, p. 2). COVID-19 guarantees that everyone - not just the impoverished, not just the marginalized, but everyone - is in crisis. For teachers, experiencing this pandemic means an increase in traumatic stress - both primary and secondary. There have been murmurs that before the pandemic subsides each one of us will have known someone whose health has been impacted by the COVID-19 virus, whether as a primary witness or within our six degrees of separation. Thus, many of us will have experienced trauma through sickness and the loss of lives, but sickness and lost lives are not the only traumatic result of this pandemic, and primary trauma, trauma experienced firsthand, is not the only trauma that will impact teachers. Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional distress that results when a teacher hears about and is witness to the traumatic experiences of other individuals, such as their students. As teachers hear about their students’ experiences with a lack of food,  inequitable or intermittent access to the internet, learning loss,  inactivity,  and homelessness and as teachers search for homeless students who now have become “lost” to the system, their desire to demonstrate their care and commitment can lead teachers to experience secondary traumatic stress, also known as compassion fatigue. When teachers are engaging with and supporting dozens of students all experiencing various types of trauma teacher stress is compounded leading to cumulative effects which can accelerate burnout.

Impact of Burnout and Trauma

Together, the burnout and primary and secondary trauma connected with COVID-19 have the potential to further exacerbate the challenges we are sure to have when schools re-open. Burnout - in the best of times - has detrimental impacts on students. Burned out teachers are more likely to “blame the victim”  (Maslach, 1978), blaming students for challenges they may be experiencing that are out of their control, and more likely to exhibit a lack of enthusiasm (Yong & Yue, 2007) and be cynical and detached (Maslach, 1978; Hock, 1988). These results certainly have implications for the emotional support and well-being of our students. Care and empathy are cornerstones of a safe and joyful school community and burned out teachers do not have the emotional capacity for care or empathy.  Further, impacts will extend beyond social and emotional realms to academic outcomes. Students who have already missed days, weeks, even months of academic instruction will fall further behind even once schools re-open. Burned out teachers are more likely to be absent from their classrooms (Ansley et al., 2018; Greenberg & Abenavoli, 2016) leaving students to be taught by substitute teachers or unlicensed teachers. Disengaged teachers who feel a lack of self-efficacy also result in students who themselves have lower levels of engagement, lower achievement outcomes and lower self-efficacy ("The Path to Winning Again," 2014; Hargreaves & Fullan, 1996; Klusman, Richter, & Ludtke, 2016).

Adding trauma to burnout only increases the devastating effects of COVID-19 on students. Primary and secondary traumatic stress can have lasting impacts on our brains. When we endure constant levels of high stress that eventually overwhelm us, cortisol levels in our brains can soar, keeping us on high alert, or descend, depleting our energy resources. In each of these cases, behaviors which manifest as a result of the trauma include irritability, diminished concentration, and detachment from work, family and friends.  With constant demands on teachers to innovate, create, negotiate and mobilize for all students no matter the context, there are potential unintended consequences of fatigue, emotional stress, and apathy. Imagine a teacher experiencing secondary trauma on the brink of burnout working with students who depend on that teacher to be the same day in and day out.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the temporary closure of stores, restaurants, and businesses, but the work of teachers in K-12 schools goes on through online classrooms. Teachers have had to quickly shift their curriculums to fit a virtual platform while also experiencing the impacts of the pandemic on their own lives. Trauma stemming from personal situations as well as witnessing the stressful experiences of students can negatively impact educators, potentially leading to burnout. We have all seen the television ads and Google shout-outs thanking our most essential workers for their dedication to helping those in the United States navigate these difficult times. We would like to end by sending heartfelt thanks to the teachers and other educators throughout the nation who continue to work to support our students.

Check out the latter two segments of the Coaching for Teacher Resilience during COVID-19 blog series, Part 2 on the Power of Coaching and Part 3 about Coaching for Resilience

If you need more information on Teacher Coaching or want to request Coaching, please visit our COVID-19 Resources page and let us know!



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