Every teacher I know is facing record amounts of burnout; students too. In some ways it feels worse than in 2020, but why?

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I’m struggling to finish the semester. So are my colleagues. So are my students.

So what gives?

I have been struggling to put this feeling into words for a while, which is surprising for a pretty wordsy person. I’m mostly functional on a daily basis, but I’ve been getting really bad decision fatigue. And emotional fatigue. And physical fatigue.

I thought I was staying just ahead of burnout this whole time, but it turns out, I’m probably not.

Are you familiar with the official definition of burnout? The World Health Organization describes it like this:

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

However, that last bit is where I disagree, with a nod to Emily and Amelia Nagoski, authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. They put neuroscience into dialogue with social science, and argue that burnout is worsened for women, in many ways, due to the patriarchy.

And while they do use a standard definition that includes components of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (depletion of empathy), and decreased sense of accomplishment and meaningfulness, they do not limit burnout to a workplace scenario.

So why do the authors posit that burnout is worse for women? They assert it’s due to Kate Manne’s notion of Human Giver Syndrome, wherein:

“Human Givers must, at all times, be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others, which means they must never be ugly, angry, upset, ambitious, or attentive to their own needs. Givers are not supposed to need anything.”

Anyone can experience burnout, but the gender norms imposed on women as human givers make us much more prone to it because we are socially conditioned to constantly put our needs on hold to attend to others. And when emotions get put on hold, they don’t get properly processed, and even when a stressor is resolved, the unprocessed stress can linger in our bodies and cause major problems.

So while my particular experience of burnout is tied to my work of being a teacher, I acknowledge the broader cultural elements at work here. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see large incidences of burnout in caring, nurturing, and subsequently feminized occupations like teaching and nursing. In fact, two-thirds of teachers are burned out enough to want to leave their jobs; this aligns with findings on NPR, with over half of polled teachers stating that they’re looking for new work.

All this knowledge should empower me to figure out what went so horribly wrong this semester, as opposed to the previous four pandemic semesters, but it’s still challenging.

(Hilariously, I wrote about being burned out in 2019, and current me is like, “oh my sweet summer child, you had NO idea what was coming…”).

My working hypothesis is that stress, burnout, and trauma are all cumulative.

This semester has been stressful in unique ways, but it’s the experience of this semester atop all the previous ones, with precious little rest, that is pushing so many of us over the edge. We only really had a month off between fall and spring semesters, and turns out, that wasn’t enough time to recharge.

The other part of my reasoning here has to do with managing uncertainty and empathy.

I have had flexible deadlines for all my classes because it seems like everyone’s lives are messes right now. Some of my peers are skeptical about the need to accept late work when a student could in theory be lying about a family tragedy or illness or other stressor, but I generally don’t worry about it and give the extension anyway. I would usually rather give the benefit of the doubt, even if it means I’m risking being taken advantage of. However, this semester especially, this attitude has led to so many late papers trickling in that I can barely keep track of them all. I can’t tell if this flexible policy is helping or hurting at this point, and that’s a bit of a downer.

Further, in the name of increased flexibility, I’ve been very lenient with attendance policies and such. I give students ways to make up work if they’ve missed class (in large part because I don’t want someone coming to class while sick during a global pandemic). But that, too, has been a double-edged sword. I guess I’d forgotten about the part of the burnout definition that includes lack of meaningfulness in one’s life when making this policy, because let me tell you, it is disheartening as can be to teach a class of 27 students—I let 2 in from the waiting list, since it was capped at 25—when only 8 people have showed up that day. And that’s an extreme case, but not an unusual one for me this semester.

Being a teacher when so few people come to class makes me feel as though my daily life lacks meaning. Why have I devoted myself to a career when less than half of the people I’m supposed to teach show up? I got into teaching because it’s meaningful work in an increasingly crummy world, but even that feeling is slipping away from me now.

To be clear, this is not intended in the tired vein of “educator complaining about their students,” but it does bring me to my next point: emotional exhaustion. I know, rationally, not to take it personally when students don’t come to class. They’re adults and I trust them to manage their workloads appropriately; they’ll get their work done and pass the class, or not, and their calculations have little to do with me. However, I am running low on the kinds of emotional energy that let me comfort myself and say, “It’s okay, don’t take it personally.” That energy is mostly gone, vanished down the whirling vortex of burnout. It’s nobody’s fault, but it still sucks.

Empathy drain is a thing, too. Because of my flexible policies, students write me emails thanking me for being generous and supportive. And then I have to reply to those emails, as well as the preceding emails that share their trials and traumas while asking for extensions and the like. It’s just part of the job, and normally I can handle it. But the degree of tragedies reaching my inbox seems to have climbed recently, and it is unfathomably sad to have to read about and respond to these various situations. I can’t say more than that due to wanting to respect their privacy, but dang, my students are going through a lot this semester!

I know from reading up on trauma stewardship that we need especially high amounts of self-care and social support when we’re engaged in this work, but damn if I’m not too exhausted for that too. Seeing and talking to people just stresses me out these days, so I end up feeling somewhat isolated, which is obviously not great.

As I work to navigate my way through all of this, I hope this is a reminder to be extra kind to the teacher or student in your life. We really, really need it.

Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...