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Teacher Burnout and the Good-Mother Mindset

A One-Room School House

Many teachers feel burdened by the expectations to be a nurturing teacher, a social activist, a creative pedagogue, a worker with a limitless work ethic and to do it all with a smile and boundless energy. When much of your free time is spent on planning, marking, creating for school or thinking about how to improve students’ experience, you can lose a sense of your own life. What teacher hasn’t experienced feeling buried beneath countless worksheets from many classes you teach, the extracurricular activities, the multiple school and district committees to sit on, and having hundreds of students to report on?

I remember thinking many times when I was teaching: “If I were a CEO I would have a team of administrative support staff to assist me. But since I’m a teacher I just feel like I’m in a one-room-school house with no one there but me to do all the work.” But I never considered it to be problematic. It was just what you did. That’s what teaching was. That’s what every teacher I knew, had or worked with did.

When I was considering my leave-options to handle my burnout from teaching, I remember going to the district’s employee program. The counselor there sized me up and said, “You know, I can’t ask how old you are, but from how old you look most women your age would already have had a maternity leave and that would help you feel less stressed.” My jaw unhinged. With that comment I understood for the first time how sexist notions of femininity in teaching and the primacy placed on women being mothering had contributed to my burnout.

I saw how the culture of schooling socialized me to be complicit in my own burnout. Even as a feminist, I was embodying sexist norms that I didn’t agree with. Being self-sacrificing. Putting my own needs last. Being in service to everyone but myself. Ignoring my needs for time and support because someone always needed caretaking. These were all the underlying themes of my stress in teaching. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. How was it possible to become complicit with these sexist norms without realizing it? How had I lost myself, when I thought I was doing myself and my career a service? For how many teachers is burnout-prone behaviour normalized through the unspoken norms of sexist femininity that is embedded in the culture of teaching?


The Wounded Roots of In Loco Parentis: When Mothering in Teaching Harms

Although mothering is only one expression of femininity, when working with kids, mothering becomes a feature of the dynamic. Mothers bring life into being. They nurture existence. Ideally mothering would teach love, self-esteem, individuation and communal responsibility to the growing child. It would be a respected role, which respected the woman in it. But historically mothering has been the ground of homeschooling patriarchal values. The role of the good-mother grows out of the norms of sexist femininity.

The ideal of sexist femininity is rooted in the history of teacher development. The earliest influences in the 1800s in North American public schooling came from the social norms of that time. Of course in those days only single women were allowed to teach – so that their full attention could be on their young charges. The single teacher was prohibited from becoming a wife and mother if she wanted to keep her career. In this way the independent woman was deprived of an adult role and relegated to role of the good daughter and patriarchy was not disrupted, only entrenched. This good daughter was encouraged to become a good-mother to her students. In her historical analysis of the feminization of teaching, Madeline Grumet writes: “Catharine Beecher (an early theorist in education) argued for placing educational responsibility in the hands of women, maintain their submissiveness and elevating feminine self-sacrifice, purity and domesticity into moral superiority.” Beecher’s now antiquated argument has impacted the lives of teachers for 200 years. It settled into the culture of teaching and it has never left.

Of course this is 2017. Women have made such social, legal and economic advances we have to ask if this is still relevant today? Grumet thinks it is. She writes, “From those early days of industrialization when the first women took a day at school or summer school session to their majority in the teaching corps today, women teachers have been weighted down by this attribution of passivity and self-abnegation”. You can see the manifestation of this in the 25% burnout rates amongst teachers. Enforced passivity and self-abnegation depletes the self of vitality. To prevent burnout, teachers need to un-school themselves from these ingrained values that shape the expectations, identity, roles and workloads of teachers.

The historical roots of patriarchal femininity expressed as traditional mothering as a model for teacher education shows up in the expectations we have of what makes someone a good teacher. Grumet posited “The education for this cult of motherhood required the mastery of self-denial”. We can see this influence in some of the norms of practice embedded in teaching. These five principles are some unspoken assumptions in what it means to be a good teacher.

  1. Good teachers are caring and caring is expressed as being mothering.
  2. Good teachers sacrifice their time and energy for their students to the detriment of the teacher.
  3. Good teachers teach out of service to students and this takes precedence over their career needs and other motivations for teaching.
  4. Good teachers are fully responsible for the actions of their students.
  5. Good teachers can be effective in any environment and are resilient in the face of any problems.

These five aspects of “good teaching” serve a system that requires teachers be complicit in their own stress by dressing up patriarchal norms of femininity and mothering as good teaching practice.


Examining “Good” Teaching

  1. Good teachers are caring and caring is expressed as being mothering.

This principle is rooted in the social construction of teacher roles in the 1800s. Grumet write that “This image of the ideal woman and the ideal mother were extended into the training and work of the ideal teacher” and until today has a tight hold on the culture of teaching. This diminishes the professionalism of teachers by over emphasizing their role as natural caretaker over that of professional educator. The concept of in loco parentis legally requires teachers take responsibility to act in the best interests of their charges in the absence of the students’ parents throughout the day. This is good and no one is rejecting that premise. But acting in loco parentis doesn’t mean to take on the emotional and spiritual responsibilities of mothering and parenthood. There are ways of being caring without enmeshing the role of mother with teacher.

  1. Good teachers sacrifice their time and energy for their students to the detriment of their own wellbeing.

This principle follows from the first. The guilt put on teachers to negate their own wellbeing, time management and personal boundaries for the good of their students is symptomatic of the mother-concept in education. The result is often compassion fatigue, a syndrome common amongst the caring professions, particularly female-dominated ones such as nursing, social work and teaching. A healthy ethic of care, in 2017, should move beyond gendered expectation of women bearing the brunt of emotional caretaking. And I’m not forgetting about the men who serve in our schools. In teaching, men’s experience of teaching becomes influenced by notions of patriarchal femininity as well. Regardless of their gender, the emotional labour traditionally placed on the shoulders of women is placed on all teachers.

It’s interesting that there is some research to suggest that male teachers burnout at a faster rate than women teachers. I think this is because women are socialized to shoulder the sexist expectations and demands of emotional labour in society at large, and teaching being a feminized environment women teachers know how to exist within those parameters, even if they disagree with them. Men are not socialized in the same way. Men are socialized to be the recipients of this emotional labour, even if this is not conscious on the part of men. The male teachers I have worked have been as caring, dedicated, and hardworking as any female teacher I know, but I wonder if in feminized environments male teachers experience a cognitive dissonance between their socialization outside of the school and the demands of emotional labour within the school culture. You could say that any person who respects their sanity would be driven to quit teaching, But women are socialized to align with these patriarchal values and are used accommodating this value of servitude. Men are not and I think this might be why men leave teaching for other careers at a higher rate than women. The 19th century mores encouraging “self-abnegation and sacrifice” have no place in 21st century schools. Good teachers can serve their students with integrity without destroying their own wellbeing.

  1. Good teachers teach out of service to students and this takes precedence over their career needs and other motivations for teaching

This principle echoes the mother-ethic. Patriarchy equates femininity with motherhood. It requires mothers to be of service in a way that denies a woman’s personal agency. Denied of agency she cannot advocate for her needs. Her needs are rendered invisible; her only need is to serve her family through mothering. What if teacher-training were designed as if the teacher actually mattered as a person with goals, aspiration, passions and not just a conduit of educational facilitation and emotional-caretaking for students? This invisibility of the teacher is nothing new. In her analysis Frances Maher states that in Dewey’s treatise Democracy and Education “the curriculum and the students are the main concern, not the agency of the person who brings them together”. Maher describes how this historical omission of the visibility of the teacher has led to education courses lacking a space for the inclusion of both the teachers’ and students’ voice, minimizing teacher autonomy, and lacking intellectually stimulating in-service training.

Making teachers’ needs and desires visible is important. If the teacher burns out who will teach? Teachers are the core of education. Their needs cannot be make invisible. They are too important. Unfortunately their personal and professional needs are very often sidelined.

  1. Good teachers are fully responsible for the actions of their students.

This principle shows up when teachers are blamed for all manner of issues within education. Whether it is student behaviour, or test scores or the state of schools, the implicit understanding is often that teacher who has anything go wrong must not be “raising the kids right”, because of course, mothering and teaching so often are conflated. Mothering within patriarchy is an unsupported exercise. Historically relegated to the hearth, the mother figure is cut off from other forms of personal agency and social connection, and when she struggles she is blamed for her inability to cope with the strictures imposed on her. Maher’s feminist analysis blames this patriarchal narrative of the mother-like teacher isolated in her classroom with her kids as reinforcing “the false assumptions of individual teacher blame and responsibility. Teachers need to be supported and respected rather than ignored or solely blamed for the conditions of their work”. When the toxic guilt instilled by this principle is internalized, emotional distress increases. The teacher has influence to be sure, but the sphere of influence on each student is far wider than any one teacher. The many political, systemic and social factors that influence the classroom hold far more power than any one teachers’ resistance to them. You can only take responsibility for what you have control over. To frame your teaching practice on a false assumption of total teacher responsibility is a recipe for frustration.

  1. Good teachers can be effective in any environment and are resilient in the face of any problems

This principle sounds so positive on the surface, but it is an excuse to blame the teacher rather than do the political and systemic work required find effective solutions to the issues facing students, teachers, and schools. And doesn’t that just sound like what a good mother does? In a throwback to 1950s ideas, the good mother takes care of her kids, is always smiling and can handle any crisis without complaint. As Grumet notes, “the cult of maternal nurturance prohibited those who stayed behind the desk from confessing their rage, frustration and disappointment to each other”. This principle denies the teacher an avenue to express dissatisfaction. It shows up when voicing personal struggles with stress is equated with professional incompetency or a lack of dedication and care.

Burnout is still an issue that not many teachers want to openly admit to suffering from. It labels you a teacher who “can’t handle it”, rather than being understood as a natural reaction to a working within a system that has been molded by historical norms and assumptions that are detrimental to a persons’ mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. To reclaim our wellbeing as teachers we have to stand against the forces that would have us be complicit in our own disempowerment. Teaching is a profession dominated by women. Imagine what could happen if we all stood up and claimed    non-patriarchal femininity as the norm for defining good teaching. Would teacher burnout even exist?



Grumet, M. (1981). Pedagogy for patriarchy: The feminization of teaching.

        Interchange, 12(2-3), 165-184.

Maher, F. A. (1999) Progressive Education and Feminist Pedagogy: Issues in Gender,

Power and Authority. Teachers College Record, 101 (1, Fall), 35-59.





Do Caring Teachers BurnOut Faster?

Do they?

They might – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Caring teachers often suffer from compassion fatigue – a deep physical and emotional exhaustion from working hard from a deep level of care.

Read my latest article in Education Canada about preventing compassion fatigue in teaching.



What teachers do and how to say it

WE know what it takes to be a teacher – the hours, the workload, the emotional commitment, the frustration and the benefits.

How is it that the general public out there really has no idea what it is that we do?

Teachers as a whole don’t have great PR.  Because teachers care, we tend to just take on the work and do it to the best of our ability to serve kids.  Given the sometimes vitriolic public response to teacher job action, we need to better communicate what we do.

What if we kept caring, but communicated from a vocabulary of professionalism? Maybe people would start to get a clearer idea of the importance and workload of what we do.

Here’s what I mean:

The caring teacher in us says: I’m coaching the kids’ grade 7 basketball team.

This is what we say because this is what we do. But society at large doesn’t seem to respect or understand what we do. So, being teachers, we need to educate them.

We could say instead: I’m volunteering without pay  5 hours a week on top of my job to coach basketball, that at market value would cost $50/hour for my time $100 per hour for the space rental, and $100 per hour for security detail, and $20 activity supplies fee per child.  I believe sports are an excellent way for students to develop team building skills and lifelong fitness and so I choose to take away the cost from society, and volunteer my time to do this.

Seems like a mouthful.  But it is! That is what we do! Why shouldn’t people know it directly?

Instead of:  I’m just helping some kids with their math afterschool.

We say: I’m working privately with a group of 5 students to assess their understanding of math concepts and structure programming so they can clarify and reinforce their understanding. I’m doing this during the time I normally reserve for preparing the next day’s lesson.  There are commercial tutoring services that charge $40/hour to take your child through generalized math concepts and who do not know your child, but from me you get personalized, specialized service and with a connection to a network of people who can further help your child if need be.

 Instead of:  I’ve just got some marking to finish up at home.

We say: I have 60 papers to assess using this rubric with specialized criteria. It will take me 10 minutes per paper, for a total of 600 minutes, or 10 hours.  This only represents 2 of the 4 classes I teach. I used my preparation time at school to prepare the next lessons and activities. I used my time after school until 5 to run a rehearsal, meet with parents or 2 students in need and participated in a school success committee.  This 10 hours of marking will need to be completed either after 8 p at night when my own kids are put to bed, or during the weekend.

Instead of:  I’m looking forward to summer vacation.

We should say:  I’m looking forward to a well-deserved break. It’s fortunate that my district pays my 10-month salary over 12 months, because I know some districts don’t and you need to be quite mindful with your money if you are trying to save for 2 months of unemployment where you can’t collect EI.  It will also be nice to be able to go to the washroom whenever I want for the next two months.

I’m being facetious there.  But you get the point.

Society in general isn’t going to look seriously at what we do for a living, until we explain it more seriously to them. We should be proud of what we do every day and let people know directly.

Putting students first doesn’t mean putting teachers last


Exactly!  This is a great article.

Read it here.



Why do we do this to ourselves?

It’s mid-term reporting season in many districts.  We all know how much time and effort report cards consume – everyone knows this whether you’re a novice teacher, an experienced teacher, an administrator….so why do we pile on extra work during an already busy time?

Whether or not you are writing report cards this week – I wanted to share a few experiences of the kinds of workloads I’ve seen piled on teachers during this already stressful time – and workloads we pile on ourselves ….and see if we can do it a bit differently…

Why would a Arts Team at a school choose to schedule the school musical (in which the whole school and all teachers take part) so close to the report card due date that dress rehearsals and finalizing reports happens in the same week? Does any teacher really need to be doing two high stress activities in the same week?

Why not schedule the school musical a couple of weeks after reports are finished so teachers can focus on one thing ‘big ticket item’ at a time?

Why would an administrator choose to have the goalsetting and paperwork for a novice teacher mentoring program be due the day before report cards are due?  Isn’t report cards enough of a steep learning curve for a beginning teacher?

Why not let the paperwork be due the week after  – that way some of the learning around a teacher’s first reporting experience can be used in their long term learning plan.

Why would a teacher choose to begin teaching a prep-heavy and marking-heavy section of a unit during the crunch time of report cards? Couldn’t that kind of intensive teaching be saved for another time?

Why not arrange programming so that during reporting crunch time (high teacher work load)  the important pedagogical pieces of group or individual presentations, peer and self-assessment, or independent student research (activities that require less intensive prep and teaching) is covered. Then during times of lower teacher work load (i.e. – outside of the report card crunch) program lessons and classes that have more intensive prep, assessment, and instructional face time. That way you will have time and energy to put the extra effort into the prepping and teaching of these lessons, but won’t have to run yourself ragged by doing in during a time of year when you are already extra-busy.

I’m not sure if teaching can ever be totally stress free, but we can make it more stress-less.

Work is for the sake of life

I was listening to a Keynote address at a holistic educators’ conference by Dr. Gregory Cajete. He was talking about the Tewa Nation’s, which is his heritage, view of life and work and education and spirituality. It is a whole philosophy where everything done is done for the sake of life. There is not artificial division between work, leisure, spirituality, functionality, art, etc. All is one, all is life – all is done for the sake of life.

What would it look like, within your own life, to approach your work as something done for the sake of life?

I ask this because our relationship to work is often so negative. How many of us, brainwashed by the predominating western world view, see work for the sake of life? With high levels of burnout in many profession is seems we are working to destroy our spirits and lifestyles and not to support our life.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t work hard or put strong effort into what we do. I’ve had people accuse me of promoting laziness. How is encouraging people to work in a way that prevents burnout equated with promoting laziness?

Working hard, the satisfaction of a job well done, putting in energy and seeing the rewards of our efforts, seeing the positive effects of our work in the lives of others are all positive benefits of work. That is work for the sake of life.

But doing the business of ‘work’ in a way that leaves us exhausted and grumpy, unfulfilled, drained, feeling that ‘work’ has eaten away at other aspects of our lives and relationships is hardly work for the sake of life – it is work that is sucking the life out of us.

If, as a society, we truly valued life, we would value work and organize it in such a way that it fed our spirit and nurtured and worked in harmony with the other spheres of our life.

I can’t tell you what that would look like for you. I can only ask you to ask yourself: if I worked for the sake of all life – what would my work look like for me? What would it feel like? What priorities would I set? What attitudes would I adjust or adopt? What outcomes would be important to me and all who my work affects?

These are good questions for developing a healthy relationship with our work, our lives and ourselves.


What you put into it is what you get out of it? Really?!

When it comes to job satisfaction people throw around the phrase “what you put into it, is what you get out of it”.

If that’s true, then why do I hear so many teachers tell me: “All I’ve been doing is putting my heart, soul and effort into this job   – and getting back nothing but stress and irritation. How can I be feeling this bad about something that I thought I was putting such a positive effort into?”

Sound familiar?  Sure it does – who hasn’t been there?

It’s that that we shouldn’t put heart, soul and effort into our jobs – its’ that we have to look at the outcome of what we want and see if what we’re “putting into it” is congruent.

In a year, or 2 or 5 – what do you want out of your teaching life and non-teaching life? How do you want to feel emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally?

If, for example, you want to have energy to enjoy with your family, time to do a hobby, feel fulfilled, busy but not frazzled, excited not worn out….then you can’t be running 4 extra-curricular activities a week, working through every lunch, taking home marking and prep for 3 hours a night, and planning 5 field trips, 2 fundraisers and tutoring – and that’s before you get to your own personal life.  It doesn’t match up.

You might do it all with passion – but what you are putting in is work without boundaries, limitations or an understanding of what your body and spirit needs for recuperation – so what you’ll get out of it is passion running on empty –otherwise known as burnout.

Think of the outcome, and plan what you do in the day-to-day to meet that outcome. And check in with yourself – is your plan working? Are there times you can give more – or less – or differently? Truly commit to putting into it what you want to get out of it!

Too Much Responsibility?

Teachers are never just teachers.

At different times throughout our teaching day we are mother or father, counselor, social worker, first aid attendant, driver, motivational speaker, law enforcer, healer, guide, activist, advocate, political player, lunch provider, snack provider, provider of jackets and shoes, shoe tying assistant, nurse, parent advisor, mediator, crisis manager, health advisor, fitness coach, life-coach, mentor, role-model, researcher, instructional leader, school-success visionary, curriculum expert, pedagogy specialist, fundraiser, event organizer, clean-up crew – and then we also plan, prep, teach, deliver and grade curriculum expectations to a classroom of students.

There’s an African proverb that says “it takes a village to raise a child”. True. But in our schools it seems that the responsibility of the villages rests with the teacher. Is this fair or realistic?

It’s not that teachers resent these roles, it’s that how do you maintain any sanity when so many roles are downloaded onto one person responsible for a minimum of 30 kids?

We just do it. We do it because we feel we must. We are responsible.

But are we responsible for everything? Or is this just what we tell ourselves?

Responsibility in the dictionary looks like this: blame, liability, accountability, job, duty, task, dependability, conscientiousness.

None of that sounds very inspiring or empowering.

Deepak Chopra, among others, has defined responsibility as the ability to respond.   Now that’s something. What are we responsible for? Not shouldering blame or guilt, but the power to use our ability to respond to situations that require our skills in ways that don’t wear us down. How can we use our power of response to make healthy choices for ourselves and our students? We could say:

“I choose to have this job and staff meetings are a part of the job description, therefore I choose to show up in a pleasant mood and to bring food to make it enjoyable.”

“I choose to use a ready-made activity, rather than create one so I can save 1 hour of time and use it to spend time with family.”

“I choose to drop one extra-curricular activity a week so I can have that time to do another important task on my long to-do list.”

“I choose not to become emotionally entangled in the problematic aspects of my students’ lives beyond that of my professional and ethical obligations, and refer them to competent counselors in trust.”

When we take back our ability to choose, responsibility is feels freeing, not burdensome. …and that is a step towards wellbeing.

Stressed and Silent

Everyone’s doing it but no one wants to talk about it…

It amazes me how many times in private conversations teachers will tell me about their extreme anxiety in dealing with situations that the most well-adjusted person would have difficulty coping with. I suggested to one such person that they take some time off to recover and get their health back. She said “I can’t do that. If I take leave for mental health, I’ll ruin my career within the district.”  I didn’t think that was true, but that belief felt very real for her – and it is very real to many teachers.

This stigma makes many teachers suffer in silence.

Everyone who teaches knows how stressful it can be – so why the stigma?  Why are we, as a profession, reluctant to name the issue and heal it in our selves and in the schools?

It is seen as a weakness to not be willing to deal with very real stress and dysfuction and affirm one’s own wellbeing, but a strength to endure in silence in situations that lack any sense of wellness or health?  A strength to go along with all that is wrong, a weakness to stand up for what is right?

Why do we accept stress as normal? Why do we resist finding a less stressful way to live?

This nonsense just makes it all the harder to deal with stress. It makes you feel isolated to begin with, feeling stigmatized prevents you from seeking help or connecting to people who also think the stress is ridiculous.

And do you know how many people that would be if we were to be honest? I’d guess that a lot of the very people who stigmatize those who suffer stress are the most stressed of all. Maybe there is a bit of the ” I had to deal with this same stress and no one helped me, so suck it up and deal with it” syndrome…

I always try to encourage people to not give into the stigma and stay silent. But to surround themselves with supportive people, make a case for their wellbeing and pursue their right to heal from stress.

Job stress takes up a big part of life – how do you want to be living your life?

Self Acceptance and stress

Self-acceptance is not complacency.Wanting better for ourselves, aspiring to move from stress to well-being and accepting our imperfections are not mutually exclusive states of mind. Of course, strong, educated, confident people find a way to live amongst societal pressures and uphold their own self-worth. Empowered, conscious living requires us to actively create the life we aspire to. Most of what is presented to us as the ‘ideal’ way to live requires us to uphold images and behaviours that are dysfunctional.

These images need to be interrogated so we are clear as to what we are aspiring to. It is important to evaluate our shortcomings, but within a larger picture of what we are trying to accomplish. Life is not only about achieving our aspirations and getting “a bit better everyday”. It is navigating the highs and lows of the road of aspiration. There are times on the path to go forward, and there are times to stop and rest. Wisdom and self-reflection allow you to discern that for yourself. Our quest to “do a bit better everyday” can’t be done in the same paradigm that drives workaholicism, overwhelm and stress.

Admitting to having days where everything falls apart and we don’t reach the summit we were aiming for is not begrudging those who can handle adversity better than us or who are better off. It is pointless to compare ourselves to others because the only one who is going to live your life is you. Finding within ourselves some humility and gentleness to accept that not everyday is going to be heroic, is not wallowing in self-pity — it’s accepting the moment for what it is in that space of time. If we can’t admit to having an “off” day without being told we might be wallowing in self-pity or begrudging others their wellbeing, we are setting up for ourselves an impossible standard of living and wellbeing to aspire to.

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