- K-12 teacher burnout and stress remain high, despite the pandemic’s end
- Only three in 10 U.S. K-12 employees are engaged at work in 2023
- Measuring engagement is essential for creating meaningful change
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected K-12 schools, making them one of the most disrupted workplaces. While many U.S. classrooms have returned to “normal” schedules, the lingering impact on educators’ workplace experience remains.
According to a recent Gallup analysis of more than 1,600 K-12 teachers in the U.S., four key elements of engagement experienced the greatest decline -- and subsequent stagnation -- after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This finding may not be surprising for anyone who works in education, is currently enrolled in school or has family or children attending a K-12 school.
What matters more than the hard facts of teachers’ current working conditions is what to do about it.
Q03. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
Problem: The percentage of K-12 educators who strongly agreed that their work allows them to do what they do best every day decreased by 17% compared to early 2020 before the pandemic began.
The job description of a K-12 educator shifted both quickly and dramatically during the pandemic. A snapshot in the same classroom would look wildly different across 2017, 2020 and 2023. Teachers’ responsibilities evolved in a way that distanced them from the students, colleagues and career they signed up for, moving away from the role where they could once use their talents and strengths in the “typical” classroom setting.
While the benefits of a strengths-based culture that uses teachers’ innate talents are too important to miss, many of America’s K-12 schools still need to improve in this area. But education leaders should embrace strengths because employees who know and use their strengths are six times as likely as other employees to be engaged and to say they do what they do best every day. And employees who say they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day are 57% less likely to frequently experience burnout.
Solution: Start by asking, “What do you do best in your current classroom?” to help teachers rediscover their strengths in a new school environment. Help your educators find more ways to incorporate their natural strengths into what they do every day in their classroom and encourage them to share examples in conversations with colleagues.
To successfully integrate strengths into your school culture, leaders need to model this behavior by making time to have organic grade-level and school-based conversations about their teachers’ unique talents.
Q01. I know what is expected of me at work.
Problem: Only four in 10 educators strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work -- a rate still significantly lower than before school began shutting down for the COVID-19 pandemic.
In unprecedented classroom conditions, many educators had to reinvent their own expectations for what the new classroom would look like. But even after returning to “normal,” America’s K-12 educators are stuck in a rut of unclear expectations.
How can an educator know what’s expected of them when they aren’t sure whether their classroom is going to meet in person, online or at all during any given week of the school year? Now that things have seemingly gotten back on track, what are you doing as a leader to reset those expectations?
Solution: Re-establish clear expectations for what is and, more importantly, isn’t an educator’s job right now in your school. Acknowledge where they are surpassing expectations and appreciate them for that extra effort. You might think that teacher expectations are easily understood and don’t need discussion, but overlooking this critical component of engagement is a problem. Teachers need clarity and reassurance of what they are and aren’t responsible for.
Q05. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
Problem: The percentage of K-12 educators who strongly agree that their supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about them as a person decreased by 22% compared to before the start of the pandemic.
Just as teachers’ roles changed dramatically during the pandemic, so did their managers’ and supervisors’. School leaders also faced a shift in their attention to focusing more on how to keep students safe and/or guide and advise the school environment to keep up with policy changes.
Regardless of school leaders’ efforts, there was still a decline in teachers’ perceptions of being cared about at work. Contributing to this decrease was concerns for personal safety, increased job demands, and burnout without increased compensation and a lack of support managing increased student behavioral issues across grade levels.
Caring for others directly correlates with both retention and performance in the workplace. In fact, when employees strongly agree that their employer cares about their overall wellbeing, they are three times more likely to be engaged and 69% less likely to be actively looking for a new job.
Solution: Reflect on how you can authentically show K-12 educators that you care for them, and be sure that your efforts are aligned with your strengths so that doing this will come easily and naturally for you.
In an endlessly busy K-12 environment, it’s important to remember that you don’t need to do anything elaborate to show others that you care. It doesn’t always have to be an expensive gift or a time-intensive conversation. In some cases, care can mean checking in with authenticity and curiosity, remembering an upcoming milestone or personal event, or expressing gratitude for the time and attention someone gave to an initiative that usually feels thankless.
By understanding and appreciating what each person contributes -- through both their work and their presence -- you provide quick, meaningful connections that show someone you truly value them.
Q08. The mission or purpose of my organization makes me feel my job is important.
Problem: Historically in Gallup’s research, teachers strongly agree that the mission and purpose of their work makes them feel their job is important at a rate much higher than employees in other industries. And while many workers’ agreement with this item deteriorated during the pandemic, the decline among teachers’ was even steeper.
Many teachers joined their profession because they believed in the mission and purpose of teaching children. People want to know that the work they do each day matters -- teachers are no different. But in many schools, teaching over the past few years has evolved from “let’s get students ahead” to “let’s try to get them to keep up” because of the instability in schedules, attendance and teaching modes.
Solution: We all inherently desire to be a part of a community or something bigger than ourselves.
To help rebuild educators’ belief in a shared objective, it’s vital to express recognition of and appreciation for their roles in the broader mission of America’s K-12 education system. By acknowledging the various ways educators are educating America’s youth, you help them see how their work is having an effect, even amid the busyness of the classroom.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to recognition, it’s essential to recognize educators in ways that are fulfilling, individualized, authentic and fair. It will look different in every school, at every grade level.
As schools start to resemble their pre-pandemic state, it’s important to reflect on teachers’ unprecedented work conditions during the pandemic continue to influence their employee experience. To help you do this:
- Use an employee engagement tool, such as Gallup’s Q12 survey, to measure educators’ engagement and help them to share what is working and not working at their school at the local level.
- Help principals and district leaders move from being a boss to a great coach by developing their own strengths and learning how to have genuine conversations with teachers.
- Have district leadership teams and local-level school leaders identify exactly what each team needs and provide a sense of purpose and community using Gallup’s Q12 employee engagement survey.