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Addressing Systemic Burnout: A Two-Pronged Approach for Leaders and Teachers

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
April 3, 2023

We are at a pivotal point in education as teachers are facing unprecedented levels of burnout. A recent Gallop poll shared that 44% of teachers in K-12 education said they very often or always feel burned out at work (Marken & Agrawal, 2022). The combination of increasing workloads, feelings of being undervalued, and issues of inequity have led to a systemic problem that impacts both teachers and the communities they support. As teachers struggle to meet the demands placed on them, communities and leaders are struggling with how to react. In order to address this issue, schools must shift to a more holistic approach that focuses on the needs of not only students but also the teachers that serve them. 

As Nicole Tucker-Smith (2023) shares in ESchoolNews, “We rely on the teacher’s desire to make a difference to keep them in the profession, but we’ve maintained a system that makes it increasingly elusive to make that difference. Systemic burnout forces teachers to leave the profession, while stagnant pay and the plummeting reputation of the profession prevents promising educators from joining in the first place.” 

The crux of the matter is that people want change but feel too buried, burned out, or overwhelmed to know where to start. What often happens is that in an effort to help, leaders will schedule one-off training sessions to begin addressing the issue - but the efforts aren’t followed up on and fall flat, further perpetuating the problem that teachers don’t feel heard or valued. So what is the solution?

Leaders: Build Systems that Support Teachers and, for Goodness Sake, Model Best-Practices

A key step for schools to take to address systemic burnout is by building a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS). MTSS is not just about tiered interventions but rather how all the systems in a school or district fit together to ensure a high-quality education for all students. To realize this success, multi-tiered systems must be supported by leadership, competency, and implementation drivers to ensure that district resources and efforts are focused on supporting all students and the teachers who serve them, who can and will learn and succeed with support. And without making teachers feel like they have a million more things to accomplish without more time or pay. 

We can’t emphasize enough how important these drivers are in addressing teacher burnout and giving them agency as we shift our systems to be more equitable and inclusive. Shared responsibility and collaboration mean we must, as leaders, hear the voices of our teachers and act on them. We must communicate with them that we are all part of the change, and that includes us as leaders. Teachers cannot feel like changes are being done to them. Too often, we ask teachers to share their feelings and opinions and then decide that we will continue on our path to reach certain goals as leaders, even when those conflict with what teachers have shared. I have worked in too many districts where teachers are required to attend professional development sessions, but their leaders aren’t in attendance. This often comes up in feedback forms where teachers share their frustration that leaders don’t commit to the same professional learning they require from their staff. 

We must participate in change on a daily basis - not just direct others on what to do.

So, how can we do better as leaders? We must participate in change on a daily basis - not just direct others on what to do. That takes practice and a tremendous amount of consistency. As Simon Sinek has famously said (feel free to watch a clip for the full experience), “It isn’t about intensity. It is about consistency…going to the gym for 9 hours does not get you into shape. Working out every day for 20 minutes gets you in shape. So the problem is, we teach leadership with intensity - we have a two-day off-site, we invite a bunch of speakers, we give everyone a certificate, and [clap], you’re a leader! Those things are very important…they’re good for reminding us, for getting us back on track, learning new lessons, but it is the daily practice of the monotonous little boring things like brushing your teeth that matter the most.” 

To shift your practice on a daily basis, commit to spending time in teachers classrooms every single day. Make sure that you are visible and that you are observing teacher practice and the challenges and barriers they face. Also, as much as possible, attend common planning meetings, PLCs, and data meetings and take time to listen. Follow-up via text, email, or phone call and share that you hear teacher concerns and that you will work to address them. Strategic change takes an incredible amount of time, but change is possible when teachers feel as though they are supported, listened to, and praised for their efforts. 

By implementing MTSS, schools can create a more comprehensive system of support that addresses the needs of all students. It is about a combination of all of the little things consistently done over time that make for real change - the adoption of high-quality instructional materials, ongoing feedback, coaching, and professional learning sprinkled throughout the year.  Teachers can feel supported and empowered - even when working toward rigorous goals, when the systems and structures and leadership drivers are in place to make them feel valued and heard.

Teachers: Move toward Change at a Sustainable Pace and Shift Your Practice to a Student-Led Approach

But it can’t just be up to leaders to alleviate all of the teacher burnout. There are some things we, as teachers, can also do to accomplish more with less. Simply put, we are working way too hard as teachers not to see better results, so we need to make a shift. In shifting to a student-led approach, time-consuming, exhausting workflows are taken off the plates of teachers and shifted to the students - allowing students to take ownership of their learning and empowering them to make choices about how they learn. The goal is to cultivate expert learners and to make the work more sustainable for teachers so that they have the time to do what brought them to this profession, connect with their students and feel that they are making a real impact. Taking a student-led approach helps:

  • Build student engagement and agency
  • Teachers to live a balanced life by reimagining traditional workflows and shifting power to the students resulting in less emotional turmoil 
  • Develop expert learners - students need to have these experiences so that they can learn the skills that they need to be successful and be future-ready
  • Provide students with the experiences they need in order to access grade-level learning, that is culturally responsive and linguistically appropriate  
  • Connect to all students through UDL and blended learning practices 

For example, many teachers hold themselves solely responsible for communications with families. In our book The Shift to Student Led, Cat Tucker and I reimagine ten workflows, including communication with families, so students are in the driver's seat. Instead of spending hours emailing and making phone calls, create routines where students share their progress with families. We recommend setting aside class time twice a month for students to send updates to parents. Depending on the age of the students, these parent updates can take the form of an email or an audio recording. If you ask older students to craft a well-written email or leave a cogent audio message using a simple script, like the ones pictured in the table below.

Email and Audio Update Templates 



Celebrating Strengths & Areas of Growth

Hello [name of the person receiving the email or audio update],

In [name of class], I’ve been working on [describe areas of focus]. I’ve demonstrated significant growth in [state-specific skill or area]. I believe [insert tasks, activities, behaviors that led to your growth] helped me to improve in this area. 

I plan to continue [state next steps for development or new area of focus].

If you have any questions or comments, please [insert directions for how parents can reply]. 


[your name]

High/Low Update

Hello [name of the person receiving the email or audio update],

In the last two weeks, my high has been [insert a description of an assignment, task, behavior, interaction, routine, or self-management skill that reflects significant improvement or development]. This high makes me feel [insert an explanation of the impact]. 

A low, or an area where I feel like I need to spend more time growing and developing, is [insert a description of an assignment, task, behavior, interaction, routine, or self-management skill that needs additional work, practice, or development]. To continue making progress in this area, I will need to [action plan for continued improvement and/or request support].

If you have any questions or comments, please [insert directions for how parents can reply]. 


[your name]

Behind on an Assignment & Need Support

Hello [name of the person receiving the email or audio update],

In [name of class], we are working on [insert the name of the assignment]. I am supposed to be [target for the class]. Currently, I am [state progress]. My plan for catching up is [describe the action plan with completion dates]. It would be helpful if you [insert the ways in which parents or guardians can support you at home].

If you have any questions or comments, please [insert directions for how parents can reply]. 


[your name]


By shifting to a student-led approach, teachers can reduce their workload and provide students with a more engaging and empowering learning experience. Students can feel supported and connected to their learning, which can lead to increased motivation and academic success, and happier teachers! To learn more strategies and to access templates for how to shift to student-led, you can check out our book

By implementing MTSS and shifting to a student-led approach, schools can create a more comprehensive system where teachers feel supported and empowered to meet the needs of their students, and students receive the targeted interventions they need to be successful.


We know that building an effective Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) is no easy feat. It requires sharing responsibility, collaborating, and pushing boundaries. Sometimes the work is slow and sometimes it is messy, and that is ok! The goal isn't perfection - it is advancement.

In the course, "Building Success With MTSS", taught by Katie Novak and K.C. Knudson, your team will take practical steps toward building a robust Multi-Tiered System of Support.

Learn More


Marken, S., Agrawal, S. (2022). K-12 Workers Have Highest Burnout Rate in U.S. Gallup Poll. https://news.gallup.com/poll/393500/workers-highest-burnout-rate.aspx.

Tucker Smith, N. (2023, March 15). Pay isn’t the only reason for the teacher shortage--it’s time to rethink the classroom. ESchool News. https://www.eschoolnews.com/educational-leadership/2023/03/15/teacher-shortage-rethink-classroom/ 

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