‘Running on empty’: 5 fresh ideas for battling burnout from the Deep South

A recent study suggests that allowing curriculum decisions to be made at the local level could be a helpful toward stemming teacher shortages.

Is every school in every state experiencing teacher burnout and shortages in every grade and subject? No, and some nuances are emerging as K-12 leaders scramble to staff up for the year ahead. While the labor pressures and flagging morale are real, a look at conditions in individual states provides a fuller picture of the challenges.

One recent analysis describes shortages as a local rather than statewide problem. In about 9% of the schools in Alabama, for instance, one in 10 teachers are on emergency temporary certificates, according to research by The Alabama Commission on the Evaluation of Services. But in a little more than half of the state’s schools, there are no teachers using these certificates.

It’s that first batch of schools that are facing the toughest road ahead—teachers with non-traditional certifications are retained at much lower levels, the Alabama report found. Only about one-third of the teachers who began work with an emergency certification in 2018 are still working in public education. The state’s student-to-teacher ratio has dropped slightly over the last 15 years but enrollment has fallen sharply at the same time. Also troubling is that the number of college students graduating with education degrees has fallen by 20% since 2003. Finally, the number of teachers who are teaching subjects in which they are not certified has been climbing steadily since 2015, the report found.

In neighboring Georgia, educators identified the three biggest pressure points that are constraining the K-12 workforce: staff shortages, student loan debt and the amount of support provided to new teachers. For example, nearly three-quarters of teachers who graduated from college in 2005 or later carry student loan debt, and over 40% of them owe more than $40,000, according to a recently completed survey by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

More than one in five Georgia teachers said they did not have a mentor during their first years of teaching while more than 65% reported having no input on their district’s plans to spend American Rescue Plan funds. Perhaps most concerning is that more than half of the nearly 4,600 teachers surveyed would not recommend a career in education.

Finally, three in 10 of the teachers surveyed in Georgia said they were unlikely to remain in education for another five years. Only a little over half said they expected to stay that long. Burnout, salary and student behavior were the top three reasons teachers gave for expecting to leave K-12. Professional satisfaction from helping students, retirement benefits, supportive colleagues and positive work environments are the reasons they said they said they would stay.

What these states are doing

One of the most effective ways to rebuild classroom morale is to reduce the amount of high-stakes exams and other tests teachers must prepare students for, according to a June 2022 report by the Georgia Department of Education. Fewer tests mean more instructional time and less repetitive instruction as teachers shift to more consistent measures of performance, the report said.

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“The teachers I know don’t want to walk away,” Cherie Bonder Goldman, Georgia’s 2022 teacher of the year, said in the report. “Their motivation for becoming a teacher, their aspiration to make that dream come true, their heartfelt passion for making a difference in the lives of students—none of those things have changed. But too many of our teachers are running on empty.”

State and federal policymakers should allow curriculum decisions to be made at the local level, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators report says. In Alabama, officials are also being urged to provide teachers with a queryable database of K-12 job vacancies by grade and subject and give districts lists of newly certified teachers whom they can try to recruit.

Here are some more recommendations the two reports offer administrators for reducing burnout:

  1. Minimize learning disruptions for students by increasing pay for substitutes.
  2. Make up for the lost in-person instructional time by eliminating excessive meetings and other activities so teachers have more time to plan.
  3. Set realistic post-pandemic academic expectations. Student learning and achievement will not return to pre-pandemic levels without giving teachers the time, support, resources and compassion to meet students at their current academic levels.
  4. Engage teacher voice by making evaluation systems less punitive, personalizing professional development, and including them in district decision-making and leadership opportunities.
  5. Strengthen or launch mental health support programs for teachers and staff.
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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