No one becomes a special education teacher for money, fame, or glory—and they don't leave the profession in pursuit of it, either. But many special educators do leave. According to an analysis by the Education Week Research Center, the number of special education teachers has dropped by nearly 20 percent over the past ten years, while the number of students with disabilities between the ages of six and 21 has only declined one percent.
So, why do they leave? A 2012 study of rural special education teachers found that only 6 percent of professionals cited salary, benefits, location, or paperwork as their reason for leaving the field. Some of the far more common pressures they face include stress, pressure, and lack of support from principals, various supervisors, and their peers. In other words, burnout.
I contemplated leaving the field a few years ago. After years of working in the same school and classroom type, I finally experienced what many special educators typically come up against in their first five years of teaching. I woke up dreading the thought of going to work. I was irritable around to my co-workers and family. At work, I found myself day-dreaming of all the other things I could be doing.
To be clear, I didn't want to leave because of my students. The idea of not advocating for them and working with their families every day truly hurt my heart. I wanted to leave because I no longer felt supported. I was exhausted. I was burnt out.
Instead of leaving the profession altogether, I opted for a change of scenery. I moved to a special education classroom in another school where I had a clear picture of my educational philosophy and felt excited about the new opportunity. I'm glad I did.
Maybe you're fighting the symptoms of burnout in your career or looking for ways to shield yourself from the effects of stress, negativity, and brain fog. In either case, follow these burnout "don'ts" to increase your chances of staying engaged and inspired—and avoid seeing work as a constant sequence of horrible days.
Keeping a journal or blogging can be a type of therapy, but nothing is better than opening up in the presence of someone who knows you. Whether it's your spouse, significant other, best friend, or a veteran colleague, find someone who can listen to your struggles with an open ear.
Think of it like turning on a faucet and relieving some of the pressure that you're putting on yourself. By vocalizing your doubts, you'll be more able to explain what's going on in your head and clarify what's making you feel anxious or stressed. Plus, sharing your experience with someone outside your immediate situation will open up possibilities for you to hear solutions you wouldn't have otherwise thought of—and see your situation from a new or different perspective.
When my burnout was at its worst, I composed music to combat feelings of helplessness and gain a little control back over my life. I also blogged about my experiences and shared my thoughts with other educators. When I received feedback from the things that I created, I felt validated and heard. These passions didn't overhaul my situation, but they were enough for me to have something to refresh my mind and feel better prepared to return to my classroom.
I know I'm not alone in this thinking. A study from the Department of Psychology at New England University, Australia, found that people who engaged in enjoyable leisure activities experience lower blood pressure and cortisol (the primary hormone involved in stress), and higher levels of positive psychosocial states. In other words, even low-movement hobbies like scrapbooking or playing poker connect to improved health. What passion can you focus your attention on?
I held my students and co-workers to a high standard as a special education classroom teacher. When I saw an injustice happen, like a teacher underestimating a student, I made it my mission to correct it. Ultimately, my need to help everyone led to exhaustion, which contributed to burnout. I slowly began to realize that not everyone felt as strongly as I did about the importance of inclusive education for students with disabilities. In reality, we have to do the best we can with the resources we have.
It is easy to get to the point of despair when thinking about how, as educators, we are often required to do as much as we can with the very little we have. For many teachers, you can see the feeling of helplessness on their faces.
Special education teachers face many demands, which makes mindset one of the most critical factors to head off burnout. A fixed mindset tells us that when we fail, we will keep failing. A growth mindset reminds us that challenges help us grow. Since there are no shortages of challenges in special education, do your best to remind yourself that there will always be room for growth.
Wellness doesn't seem like a groundbreaking factor in avoiding burnout, except that it is. A study from the U.S. National Institutes of Health links cardio and strength-training specifically to a greater sense of well-being and accomplishment, as well as less psychological pressure and emotional exhaustion from work.
You can't take care of your students when you don't take care of yourself, right? These days, my goals include getting seven hours of sleep a night, running every week, and eating food without preservatives. Am I always successful? Of course not. But if one this is for sure, these lifestyle changes have made an incredibly positive impact on my mood and outlook on my profession.
You may have heard that it is essential for teachers to consider the "student voice." By listening to students, they feel enabled to share who they are and what they believe in with their school community and ultimately, realize that they can make a difference. What you likely haven't heard is that it's just as crucial that you listen to the "voice" of other teachers and find your own.
Years ago, when the school board was considering a teacher pay cut and reducing school staffing support, I wrote a letter to the editor of my local newspaper. To my surprise, they published it. Chances are, the board did not make their decision to apply furlough days to teacher contracts solely because of my letter. But I did feel heard, and that felt pretty damn good.
While it's sometimes necessary to work on lesson plans and enter grades over the weekend, it's unhealthy to answer emails and work on projects late into the night. Professional boundaries are essential, and we need to do our best to plan for them. Pick one night per week to work on your classroom or lesson plans. On other nights, find some "you" time, by exploring a hobby or enjoying your favorite TV show.
Maybe you need to change where or who you work with. Human behavior is funny, after all. Our work environment has a strong influence on our work habits and overall mood. If you work in a school where the morale is low, it is not going to get better by itself. Often, it takes a change in leadership.
Don't be afraid to consider changing your location of work. As a special education teacher (especially one that has worked for longer than five years) you are a highly sought-after commodity. Get out there and jump into the job-seeker pool. The water is fine.
When I was in college, I took the Myers-Briggs personality type test as part of my Bachelor's in Psychology. It was supposed to help me determine my overall strengths and give me insight into self-improvement. Flash forward to today, and you'll see another personality scheme that's getting a lot of attention. It's called the Enneagram, a model that attempts to understand the human psyche through a typology of nine interconnected personality types. I'm proud to proclaim I fall under the type 9 category, which encompasses people who are highly receptive, reassuring, and agreeable. Like Myers-Briggs, it may be something that you can use to help you learn more about yourself.
It's also crucial to reflect on what you are good at, which is a practice I started during my teacher training. I will think of a moment that made a significant impact on me and then ask myself, did I handle that situation with professionalism? What could I have done differently? What was successful in that situation and what did I learn? Knowing your strengths and observing how they grow is critical for feeling confident—and knowing that, no matter how small, you're taking steps in the right direction.
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