This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Why do good teachers always end up with too much workload? I’m talking to Shawnta Barnes about this phenomenon and the different ways you can stand up for yourself.
Today on the Truth for Teachers podcast, you’ll get to listen in on a conversation I had with Shawnta Barnes. I heard Shawnta on the Educator’s Room podcast — which is a really fantastic show — and I was really struck by the level of honesty and transparency as she shared her story. She’s done an episode with them talking about burnout and self-care, and also one about students sexually harassing teachers. Shawnta is not afraid to talk about the things that are happening in schools which, a lot of times, we don’t hear much public discussion about.
I wanted to do this episode because I have experienced this situation myself, where my class list was loaded up with the most challenging kids because the administration said, “You can handle it.” I know this happens in schools all across the country. I’ve also seen firsthand how many schools have one or two teachers who are viewed as being really good with discipline, and other teachers will send their students out anytime they misbehave and put them in that coworker’s room.
It’s almost like being punished for effectiveness — other people know you’re good at what you do, and rather than being rewarded for that, you’re expected to pick up other people’s slack. That’s the kind of experience that will create burnout very quickly. So, I wanted to center the experiences of the teachers it’s happening to. I wanted to validate those who feel like they’re carrying more than their fair share of the workload.
Shawnta and I don’t uncover any instant solutions, but you’ll hear us talk about some specific things you can do to advocate for yourself, and I hope this episode will make you feel validated and seen.
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Shawnta shares how her experience nearly led to burnout
Around the second year of my career was when people started saying that I was a good educator, which I kind of found crazy because I still felt like I was trying to get it together. At that time, I was teaching sixth and seventh grade English and ninth grade creative writing. I had a really good footing at the school and after being there for two years, I was going to start my master’s program and I felt like I really needed to be in a school with more English language learners because that’s what I was getting my master’s in. So I moved to a different school and once again, I was doing a great job, and the kids that I was doing a great job with were the kids that had difficult behaviors.
But the problem occurs when you’re doing your job well and then there are other people in your building who aren’t doing so well. And instead of helping that person get better, it’s like, “Oh, Shawnta can handle those kids, just transfer that person to Shawnta’s class.” That’s where I started to notice and would say, “You know what, no big deal. If the kid was struggling in that class, they can come to my class.” I didn’t even make a big deal of it, but then it got to the point where on one hand as an educator, they make you feel guilty. When you don’t want to work with those kids anymore, you don’t want to do your fair share, and it’s like, “Well that’s not what I’m saying. This is not fair. Your solution to the problem is just to remove them, not deal with the problem of someone else not owning their weight, and just let me take it on.” That’s when I really started to feel burnt out.
I was at the point that if I didn’t do something differently, I was going to walk away from education, and I did not want to do that. So I said, “What can I do to stay in education, refocus, get myself together, and not walk out on the profession?” Because I did what I tell teachers to do, such as to advocate for yourself. And it didn’t really get me anywhere, so the one lever I had was to leave.
And what I found interesting was when they realized that you’re going to leave, that’s when they’re like, “Oh, Shawnta, what about you being the team leader? Or what about you do this?” All along I had been asking to do different leadership things or be sent to different opportunities, and I was always passed up for other people. The moment I was about to walk out the door was the moment that they got concerned about my needs and my feelings, which confirmed to me that they didn’t really value me as a person, because if they valued me they would have asked me, “What is it that will get you to stay? What can I do to lessen your load?” Maybe, “Here’s a leadership position to help these other teachers that are struggling.”
After I worked with English language learners, I went into coaching teachers for three years. And part of my drive to do that was my experience with the teacher next door who is struggling because no one’s helping the teacher next door, and never gets better because they just take their kids and give them to someone else. To be known in my building as a kind of disciplinarian or people making that comment was frustrating to me because I wanted to be seen as a teacher who was good at teaching English or building reading achievement, not at managing bad behavior.
The types of teachers who tend to get saddled with more than their fair share of the work
ANGELA: I think you’re bringing up a really interesting point here because when I listen to teacher’s stories, I like to look for patterns. And one aspect of this topic that I hear about is that this seems to happen a lot with teachers of color, particularly when the majority of the staff is white. The teachers of color — and particularly black teachers — are often seen as the disciplinarian, as the ones that can maybe relate to some of the kids a little better or maybe control the kids a little more, and they end up getting saddled with more responsibility.
I write for a publication called Indy.Education and in 2017, David McGuire and I wrote a piece called, We Are Black Educators So Why Do You Only See Us as Disciplinarians? Sometimes, I think people assume that because you have the same color that you must have the same everything, and everything’s going to click. And for me, sometimes kids were like, “Mrs. Marsh you speak white.” So they didn’t relate to me.
I wish white educators would see those relationships are not happening because I’m black and the kids are black. It’s happening because I have done some hard work to find something to connect with kids. I told a story about how at another school we went skiing, and my kids couldn’t relate to that because they had never been skiing before. So I have to dig deep to find something that we have in common to build that relationship. Then when we have this relationship, they’re going to respond to me.
Any teacher can do this — and that’s the thing I keep emphasizing — it’s not because I’m black, it’s because I’ve put in the work. People are putting in work, but sometimes they’re just putting in the wrong work to build the relationship. They might say, “You’re going to do it this way, and if not, get out of my class.” By doing that, the kids will do whatever it is that you hate to get out.
ANGELA: I think a lot of times, teachers are looking for someone who they think will be either able to relate to the child better or just maybe have a different management style. So, they might be looking for a teacher of the same racial background or ethnicity as the child. If it’s a male student, they might be looking for a male teacher, thinking that person might relate. They might be looking for an older teacher who they feel like could be sort of like a parent or a grandparent to the child, or sometimes even a younger teacher thinking, “Oh this teacher is kind of cool, maybe this teacher can relate.”
It’s almost like we’re sort of working from stereotypes here about who we think kids are going to connect with and relate to, but the truth is that any teacher has the ability to connect with any kid if you’re taking time to put in those kinds of relationships. And it sounds like you’re saying that’s really what the goal is here, rather than trying to push these kids out of the room and have certain teachers in the school be the ones who in addition to their regular teaching workload, have other people’s teaching workloads pushed on them as well.
Talking to your administration or union
I kind of felt like it didn’t matter what I said because I didn’t think anything was going to be done differently, and I knew I was going to transition out of the school and I didn’t want to start anything. I didn’t think I was going to get a bad reference — I was a good teacher at the school, but in the back of your mind, you don’t know. You don’t know if this is going to be the one thing that will make them say something bad about you in a reference.
ANGELA: Yeah, I totally understand that because, in my situation, I was also hesitant to say anything about it. I brought it up, but I was walking into the meeting knowing that regardless of what they said, I was still just going to deal with it. I didn’t feel like I was in a position where I really had any leverage, or any ability to make sure that things changed.
I never thought about reaching out to the union about it because when I thought about it I was like, “What can they do except remind them?” … and I didn’t think that was going to translate into a difference in my life. Or it would have been like, “She reported us to the union.” So it’s a tricky place to be in.
Letting your coworkers know it’s an issue
I knew my coworkers were going to keep sending me students because they don’t know what else to do. So, I would go to the meetings and say, “On such and such day, I had five extra kids in my class.” I would just start bringing information to the meetings, not asking for anything, but just saying, “Hey, during this period, I had six kids,” just to put it out there. And what would happen typically, the next week that teacher wouldn’t send me any kids. It was almost a little passive aggressive I guess you could say, but what else could I do?
You always should advocate for yourself. I suggest you talk to your colleagues, but you also have to be smart about it. If you get the vibe that they may come after you or do something that may negatively affect your career, then you know you have to choose your battles.
Drawing boundaries with coworkers who take advantage
One of the things I did was insist that procedures be followed: You’re supposed to call before you send the kids, you’re supposed to come with a pass, or the students are supposed to come with work. At first, somebody would just show up and I wouldn’t say anything. If they didn’t call, I didn’t say anything. Then I was just like, “No.” The reason you’re supposed to call is because if you’re sending someone out because they have just blown up, give me a heads up that they may walk in and slam the door. Let me know so I can get to the door and say, “Hey, I need you to stand right here and cool down.”
Then, what I would start doing is sending the kid back. I would say, “I know you’re supposed to be here right now, but I wasn’t aware you were coming, you don’t have a pass, and you don’t have work with you. You’ll have to go back.” And the downside was I had one person that really got irritated with me.
I said, “Look, I’m helping you out by receiving your students, so I need you to help me out by giving me a heads up and sending them with work because I’m making enough work for my class. I’m not making extra packets for kids to be sent here, that’s not my responsibility.” And so sometimes you have to have difficult conversations with your colleagues, but I’m the type of person that if I’m going to have the conversation with you … you don’t have to like it.
Getting comfortable with uncomfortable conversations
I’m going to have that conversation because I thought about the bigger picture. Let’s say you are upset with me — what are you going to do? Go tell the administration that Shawnta sent my kid back that I sent out of the classroom every single day? That’s not going to make you look good.
When people are in this situation where they don’t want to talk to colleagues, I always think about this: If you talk to this person, what would happen next? Will the person not talk to me or just be irritated? Or if they go to the administration, they’ll make themselves look bad. At the end of the day, it’s still not going to affect me, it’s going to make the other person’s situation worse.
ANGELA: Right, it’s uncomfortable in the moment. I mean, confrontation is not a fun thing, but it’s something that needs to be done. What I like about that approach is that it’s empowering, it’s not waiting for the union to step in and save you. It’s not waiting for your administration to change policies or for school culture to change, it’s for you saying, “Okay, what’s going to work for me and my students in my classroom?”
It’s insisting that co-workers who are using your time, your energy, and your skills and talents, respect those boundaries that you set up. I think that’s really powerful. It’s so important to speak up and say what you will accept and what you won’t accept.
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On knowing your own worth
You really have to advocate for yourself and know your worth. I had a couple of different roles over my career, which they all have added value to my experience, but for the last four school years, I’ve been offered jobs that I did not apply to. And so, I tell people, “I know my worth now, and I know that I could walk,” and I make it clear that I could walk. And I don’t just show that up every day like, “Oh, I could leave.” But I make it known that I turned down a lot of jobs before I took my current job, which is a K-6 Library Media Specialist. And I just made it clear, I chose you because I really want to be here. For me to stay here, or whatever job I have, I need to be treated as a professional, because if I’m not, I’m pretty confident that I can find another job. I just wish more teachers in the profession could have that confidence to know that you can get another job.
I think there’s a fear there that people feel like, “Oh, no one would hire me.” Early in my career, I had that fear. I would just do whatever I was told — I wouldn’t question anything, and I wouldn’t advocate for myself. Then, I just got to the point where I was like, “No.” They keep saying there’s this teacher shortage, I have good data, I have good results, and yes, I really could leave. That’s kind of where I’m at. I love my current job right now. I feel like I’m going to be there for some time. I do have my admin license so at some point, I’m going to make that move, but I feel really good and comfortable right now. With one job that I turned down, they were really surprised, but they made me feel like they were hiring me because I was black. They didn’t even know what was on my resume, and they offered me the job within hours.
So that’s what I would tell teachers: You have to know your worth and know when to walk away and make a change.
ANGELA: Schools need teachers more than teachers need schools.
Not allowing yourself to be guilt-tripped into taking on more
In education, we do a good job of guilting teachers. We make them feel guilty about things. “Don’t walk out on your kids … Don’t leave … Don’t you care enough? … You should stay after work.”
And I’m just like, “No. I’m at the point in my career where I’m pretty much a contract start, contract end type of person.” I work my butt off during the school day, and you’ll rarely see me sitting down anywhere. I work, work, work during prep. I’m not socializing, But when it’s time to leave, I transition to mom and wife. I tell people that until the last day of school, there will always be something for you to do once the school day ends, so there’s no point in staying all night.
I used to do that when my husband and I first got married — I had a job where I had to be there at 7 AM and I would leave at 7 PM. After doing this for two school years, I said, “You know what, I don’t even know my husband,” because I’d been at school more than I’d been at home. After this time period, we renewed our vows, and I said, “No. I feel like teaching is my calling, but it can’t just take over and consume my life. There are other things that are a part of me.” As teachers, I think we sometimes feel guilty for wanting to have the other things in our lives.
And I think about my husband who is a database administrator for the state of Indiana, his boss will just say, “Stay at home, you’ve worked hard this week. Take this comp day. Take care of yourself.” With teaching, it’s like, “No, burn the midnight oil. The day doesn’t end when the contract ends.” There’s something wrong in this country with the teaching profession. I went to school for four years just like my husband, but the way his salary has just jumped up, I will never catch up to my husband’s salary in this profession. I’ll never have the perks that he has, and granted I didn’t go into teaching for that, but the way he gets treated is just different … he gets more than a jeans day. He gets treated like a true professional.
On “sticking to the facts” when advocating for yourself
When I was coaching teachers, I would tell them that you need to stick to the facts when you’re going to administration, because sometimes, as teachers we get too emotional. And so, all the principal sees is you’re crying again in their office about the situation. They need to hear you say, “Every day this week, five kids have come into my room. They have come from these people’s classes. What supports are you going to put in place to help Ms. Smith next door?”
And now that I’ve gone through the admin licensing program, I know that it’s all about data and getting results. Sometimes, teachers don’t see the school from the lens of the administration, so when they go to bring a complaint to that administration, they’re not meeting what their administration needs to meet their job and the demands from the district that’s being put on them.
If you don’t come to your administration with concrete data that there’s a problem, they’re just going to listen to you vent, smile at you, and give you some kind of quick, “Keep up the good work,” or something and send you off. When you start bringing concrete facts about situations, that will trigger them to take action. Depending on what type of principal you have, they may not even be getting around to classrooms, so they may not even know it’s an issue.
The downside is if you are saying that Ms. Smith is sending her kids to you all the time, the principal will probably visit Ms. Smith. And so, Ms. Smith may have a problem with you, but you need to think about the bigger picture. Let’s say Ms. Smith gets those supports and then she gets better — it’s great for everybody. Or, Ms. Smith gets the supports, but she still doesn’t get it together — Ms. Smith’s contract doesn’t get renewed and she gets replaced with a better teacher.
So, at the end of the day, either path we go on is better for you in the long run for you to voice your concerns, even if it’s uncomfortable.
On learning to be direct about what you need rather than growing resentful
Teachers don’t want to be uncomfortable with their colleagues. They don’t want to have difficult conversations. I listen to my husband have these conference calls that he’ll occasionally have at the house. There is no worrying about anybody’s feelings in the way that they talk to each other. My husband will say, “No, we can’t do that and I won’t do that, that’s not part of my job responsibilities. You need to send it to this person and they need to do it.”
But as teachers, we’re just stepping on eggshells, we’re worrying about everybody’s feelings. “This person won’t like me. They’ll look at me in a funny way in the teacher’s lounge.” But in other professions, they don’t operate like that. They will make it very clear that this is their job or contract, or this is not their responsibility, and so on. Sometimes I feel like I’m an anomaly because I am that direct with people, and sometimes it rubs people the wrong way, but at the end of the day, I have to worry about my own self-care and mental health.
On the other side, I’ve seen teachers get into arguments at work with a colleague because this has been bothering you the whole school year. And now your kids have been acting up all day, the admin came in and evaluated you at the wrong time, and then you saw this person again, and you just snap.
Sometimes it’s just better to have an awkward moment, and have the difficult conversation, and get it all out there, and move towards a solution before you let things build up the entire school year, or become one of those teachers that gossips about people behind their back in the teacher’s lounge.
Moving past the narrative of coworkers as your “school family”
ANGELA: It’s not personal, it’s not a personal attack, it’s not about you personally … it’s about business. And in schools, we’re taught we are a school family. We’re all here for each other, but that is not your family — that’s your employer, and these are your co-workers. These are people who could transfer to another school next year and you will never see them again, that’s not your family.
These are not people who love you deeply and care about you no matter how many jeans days they give you or how many potlucks you have together, that’s not your family. It is business, and it may not be the business of making money, but it’s the business of your career. And you have to think about what is going to make sense for you long-term. If you burn out, then you don’t have a career anymore. And if you run your health down because you’re so stressed out, you can’t work.
I love what you said about just focusing on facts — take the emotion out of it, it’s not personal. This is school, this is work. The facts are I have x amount of extra kids in my room all day, and that is having a negative impact on my assigned students, so what alternatives can we have here? Just sticking to those facts like that is a really powerful strategy. And I think we need to shift our thinking in education to take the personal equation out of it and not prioritize getting along with everyone, being nice, feeling like a family, and just thinking about, ” Okay, what am I going to do here so I can do the best job for kids, and make things function smoothly? And then I can go home and be with my actual family.” Does that make sense?
Yeah, it makes total sense to me. My husband’s friends are tech people because that’s what they do. When I talk to them, I’ll hear somebody say, “I hate so and so, but if I want to have somebody on my team, that person’s on my team.” They don’t even worry about how they feel about coworkers, it’s all about what they are bringing to the table and the team. It’s not emotional and it’s just so funny to me because in teaching, everything’s about all these feelings and things.
Even with me, I try to be cognizant of this — I don’t go to things after work. And I hear, “Shawnta, did we do something to you?” I’ll say, “No, I went home to my real family because you guys are not my family.” There are people at work I like. There are colleagues I’ve been friends with for years, but we built a friendship organically. At school, sometimes they make you feel like, “You’re a makeshift family. We’re all going to get along.”
When my contract ends, I take off the educator hat, and I am a mom and also a wife. If more educators would do that, they would take better care of their health. When I was working till 7 PM, I would come home, eat, go to bed, and go back to work. That was no life for nobody. That’s why I really think we need to go towards this push of just sticking to the facts. It’s not about that person, it’s not about your feelings. We have to do what’s best for kids, and it’s not best for kids or yourself to beat around the bush and avoid situations because it may make someone uncomfortable.
At the end of the day, I think about all the difficult conversations I’ve had. For the most part, maybe the person doesn’t say anything for a day and then we go back to business as usual, which is so much better than me being irritated about something just to bring it to you directly. And even later, because some of these people are a lot of good friends now, they say, “Remember that one time we had that little dispute?” And we all laugh about it, and now it’s nothing. I think we have to get more comfortable and confident in having those difficult conversations when needed.
The most important thing to remember if you’re feeling burned out
This is your career. This is your life. What do you want out of it? If you burn out you will just walk away from the profession bitter — is that why you went to college? That’s not what your goal was. You have to advocate for yourself and take care of yourself because there’s more to life than just teaching. There are other things that make our life so much more fulfilling, and I feel like as a teacher, when I fulfill other things in my life, I bring more of myself to work.
I want teachers to think about this: You have to take care of yourself, and sometimes taking care of yourself means having a difficult conversation with someone, bringing facts to the table, or even changing positions, changing schools, or just going in a different direction. And all of that’s okay, but you have to be aware of the situation, and then be willing to do something about it.
You can learn more about Shawnta Barnes on her website, EducatorBarnes.com. Shawnta is a K-12 Educator & Adjunct Professor, Instructional Coach, Writer & Editor, Urban Gardener, Finance Coach, and Genealogist.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!
This episode was sponsored by Brains On, which is an award-winning podcast from American Public Media. It’s dedicated to inspiring kids’ natural curiosity about the world. The Brains On podcast has over 100 episodes covering real science topics, including everything from why people have allergies to how electricity works. Now Brains On is offering free standards-based curriculum and activities for teachers to go with each one of those podcast episodes. You can learn more and download their free teacher resources at Brainson.org/learn.
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