The Specter of Teacher Burn-Out

The Specter of Teacher Burn-Out | Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

In my credential program, it seemed that every professor warned us of the high rate of burn-out for new teachers.  “Most teachers don’t last past five years,” they would say in somber voices.

I don’t know for sure what my classmates were thinking, but I imagine that they, like I, sat straighter in their chairs and vowed to their future students, “I won’t be one of those teachers.  I’m going to stick it out.  I know I will, because I have passion and I’m dedicated to making the students’ lives better.”

Enter: The Real World

A few days ago, I had an unfortunately fairly typical day substitute teaching.  The teacher had asked me to read aloud while the students followed along in their book, then work through comprehension questions with them.  However they may behave for their regular teacher, they saw my presence as an opportunity for laziness.

I tried every strategy taught to me, and every strategy I’ve discovered through trial and error this year.  Nothing worked.  All but two students refused to be quiet and read.  They kept calling out questions that proved just how little they were paying attention to the article.  Eraser fragments flew across the room too fast to pinpoint the culprit who threw them.

A student even flipped over a desk.  Not in anger.  Just because he was bored.

In dealing with this, I felt like I had a brief window into the future.  I’m not saying this is an accurate vision, or that the students’ actions should be interpreted this way, but at the time, this is the future that I saw us hurdling toward:

Specter of Teacher Burnout |

I saw a future where these students made the same foolish decisions as us and our predecessors.  I saw a future where the strong still prey on the weak, and children go hungry, and humans can somehow murder strangers—or even their friends.  I saw the world growing worse and worse, and it was hopeless.

Loss of Hope

I was doing everything in my (albeit limited) power to give these students a better future and equip them to make the world a better place.  I’m sure their regular teachers and parents are doing even more, as best as each of us knows how.

And ninety percent of these students were squandering our hardest efforts.  They didn’t care about improving their neighborhoods, their county, their country, their world.  They only cared about getting a laugh out of their peers and not having to think for themselves.

I’m sure my vision was a bit extreme.  As an historian, I’m fairly confident that humans have always shirked hard work unless they had to do it, and that the world will keep on with people being basically the same for years yet.

Still, there was a moment, standing in that class, when I thought, “If they don’t care, then why do my efforts matter?  Why am I doing this—pouring my heart into this work—if it’s not actually making the world better?”

Specter of Teacher Burnout |

That moment scared me, and sobered me.  I feel like it was one of the landmark moments in life that marks a passage from innocence to knowledge—and not the good kind of knowledge.  I carry the memory of that question like a scar.  And, if I’m honest, a little bit of that question remains.

Is this why teachers burn out?  Is it not apathy or laziness that dooms them to leave the profession so soon after joining it—is it the very passion and devotion that they think will sustain them?


I’ve been seriously asking myself how I can keep teaching in light of this.  Is there anything that can sustain me in the darkest of days, when being in my own class, with my own students, makes the question of “why it matters” so much more personal?

Who Really Changes the World

The only answer I’ve found is that I need to cling to two truths.  One is this: No matter how much I want to, no matter how much my friends and TV tells me that I can, there is only one who can actually change people’s hearts.  At the end of the day, I can only change my own heart–and even then, most of the time my efforts fall short.  However I try, however I plan and strategize and use fancy pedagogy, if I’m trying to change hearts myself, I’m going to be disappointed.

Only God can do that.  God alone can call my students by name, reach inside of them, and transform them into people who care about their neighbors as He does, who give all of themselves for good.

Specter of Teacher Burnout |

This is a tremendous relief.  When I’m pulling my hair and crying, “Why can’t I just make them understand,” the answer is this: That is not my job.

When people do atrocious or foolish things, I don’t need to grimace and say with guilt, “Their teachers failed them.”  No.  It’s not their teachers’ faults–it’s not my fault.  Every person is born sinful, and makes their own decisions on whether or not to be the person God created them to be.  And when my students act like the sinful people they are, that’s okay, too.  I don’t need to give in to hopelessness, because God is still at work in them whether I can see it or not.

God is the one who changes the world.

My Real Responsibility

The other truth is this: My responsibility is and has always been to love God and to become more like Him.  Admitting that I can’t change my students doesn’t mean that I should quit teaching, kick up my heels, and wipe my hands of the world.  No.  Because I love God, and He cares deeply about each student I’ll come across.  His heart is for them to be good, loving, wise people.  His heart is for them to think well and recognize truth, and in doing so hopefully find Him.

As God works in me to mold me into His image, my passions change to align more with His.  If He cares about these students, then so shall I.  If He puts up with their disrespect and continues seeking their best without complaint, then so shall I.  If He placed Himself between them and death and sacrificed His life so they could live, then I will do the same, to the greatest extent that I can.

In the end, I guess remembering these two things may not change the things I do.  But it does free me of crippling guilt and give me hope.

Specter of Teacher Burnout |

God, who promised to make all things new, wipe away every tear from our eyes, give us new hearts, and live in our midst, is in charge of making the world better.  Through my love for Him, He allows me to partner with Him in this work–but, praise be to God, He doesn’t blame me anymore for the failures of my efforts.

I hope this can encourage you.  I hope you can find strength to persevere and keep loving your students this week.

Have you encountered something that made you feel like quitting?  How did you face it?  Please share your advice and experiences in the comments.


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