The TUHSD teacher plague: burnout


Ila Rees

Some teachers fall into a mundane daily routine as they lose passion for the classroom, which leads to burnout.

TUHSD teacher absences have skyrocketed. Despite AWHS administration’s overlook, many teacher absences are due to burnout, a form of exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. This often happens when a person is overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to keep up with their stressful workload.

I need to get away from this place in a way I’ve never wanted to before

— Taber Watson

It is common for teachers and students alike to grow wary as the school year drags out, but this year surpasses others. In a 2022 survey sent out to all TUHSD teachers by The Pitch (with 93 responses), 74.7% of TUHSD teachers reported that 2021-2022 is leaving them more drained than previous years. 34% of survey respondents reported that at least one of their absences this year was due to school/work burnout. Only 5.3% reported their absence as such to the administration.
“​​I’ve really battled to not be out [of school], for my students. But I did have to take a couple of days [off] due to burnout,” said Tam High School (THS) Geometry teacher, Chris Erlin.
While burnout is a relevant topic among teachers, it is not always discussed among AWHS administration.
“I am not aware of any reasons [why teachers are absent] besides COVID-19,” said AWHS Assistant Principal Nate Severin. “I have not had anyone come to me and say ‘I’m so burnt out that I need to take days off,’ but I don’t know if they would tell me [if that were their reason].”
Each TUHSD school deals with these issues differently. While some teachers surveyed stated that they feel that their respective school is caring towards burnt-out teachers, others felt the opposite.
“I’m too afraid of retaliation from admin, who have openly called us “unprofessional”, to leave my contact info, as much as I would love to talk with you,” said an anonymous Tam High School teacher.
AWHS Social Studies teacher and Varsity Baseball coach Taber Watson grew up in San Anselmo and attended Redwood Highschool as a teenager, where he later returned to teach before beginning at AWHS. Watson has always enjoyed working and living in his hometown, but this year he has felt trapped.
“The part that scares me is that [teaching and coaching Varsity baseball] has never felt like a job, this has never felt exhausting… I don’t even think it’s the job so much but this [year] is just different, I am deeply tired,” Watson said. “May is always tough… but this year I was pulling seniors across the finish line in February. Normally, [lack in student motivation] sets in around April and May… but it started so early this year. I think people have just been checked out.”
Student lack of motivation, paired with long workdays of teaching to a new set of COVID-19 safe rules like the (former) mask mandate, and student’s lack of in person class experience from 2020-2021 has been a major component of Watson’s burnout.
“I remember a month ago I was complaining about all of this to my girlfriend and she read me the symptoms for burnout and I was like ‘oh yeah, look at that.’ [My burnout] was like a textbook definition… So that’s why I’m trying to get away this summer. If I get to the point where I miss [teaching] again, then I’m in good shape,” Watson said.
When school ends for the summer, Watson will be quick to exit Marin to decompress. His travels to New Orleans, Scotland, Greece, Portugal, and Washington D.C. will give him something different to focus on away from teaching and coaching. Watson hopes that this time away will heal his exhaustion and bring back his motivation and excitement for the classroom.
“I need to get away from this place in a way I’ve never wanted to before,” Watson said.
Redwood High School (RHS) Photography and Graphic Design teacher Anna Farley is in her sixth year at TUHSD, the same amount of time as Watson. As a mother to young children, Farley is deeply affected by COVID-19 quarantine protocol and has had to miss work to care for her children. For the first time in her life, Farley has surpassed the allotment of days off she is provided by the district. These days are a combination of sick days, extra COVID-19 sick days, and personal necessity days.
“Because there’s so many rules for COVID, I’ve had to take a lot of days off for my kids… The substitutes aren’t trained on how to use technology, so I’ll spend all this time on a lesson that accesses technology and the substitute [does not know how to properly do the lesson]. Then when I go back to work I lose the [teaching] momentum with my lessons because of that,” Farley said.
This loss of momentum in classroom routine is no help to students who are already lacking in motivation.
“I have four classes of freshmen and I’ve noticed a significant deficit in skills, whether it’s socially or academically… Seven periods is too much for many ninth-graders. Many [students] don’t care about their electives and it’s hard to constantly be met with apathy [from students] in the classroom. Teaching art is the thing that I love to do but many students don’t care about it,” Farley said.
The lack of student passion for her class gives Farley less motivation to teach. This, along with struggling to balance family life and work-life during a pandemic, has drained Farley. In the 2020-2021 school year, the school day’s schedule was altered and combined with zoom classes which allowed teachers to stay home; Farley felt it was easier to navigate work and family life during this time.
“I couldn’t place my burnout on any one
thing. It’s a build-up of workload and going back to a full-time schedule, which has been very hard for students and teachers. Last year’s truncated schedule was really liveable… and everyone kind of had a breath of fresh air, it just feels like the day is too long now,” Farley said.
Science teacher Skip Lovelady has worked at RHS for 27 years and has had only 13 absences over those 27 years. Lovelady has never experienced burnout or had any desire to take a mental health day, despite teaching six classes, which gives him one less free period than his colleagues.
Virtual teaching shifted how many teachers worked, but Lovelady aimed to keep his practice stable during the pandemic.
“When we came back virtually in fall of 2020 I taught every single class in my classroom, [but] most teachers stayed home… I think that’s part of me not having burnout. I came to work every day, I didn’t go into a lazy mode,” Lovelady said.
Lovelady has noticed a spike in absences recently and believes that aside from sickness, many teachers have been negatively affected from the aftermath of virtual learning. However, teachers calling in absent for mental health days is nothing new.
“It is a cultural norm in this district to take a lot of days off… It is not unusual for a teacher to be absent just to catch up on their grading, they call it a mental health day. I would never dare do that,” Lovelady said. “I have seen teachers that I would have pre-COVID rated as pretty strong… break down a little bit.”
COVID-19 changed the school system and teaching as teachers once knew it, from altered work hours to the way they interact with students. Online classes strained the in person relationships many teachers once cherished with students. Now, they are met with new high-tech and COVID-19 conscious teaching methods and inattentive students. Teachers hope that summer will be bright and pull them out of their burnout.