Can Catholic Education Counteract Teacher Burnout?

SPOILER ALERT: What I will say ends on a bright note. The overarching thesis of what follows is that Catholic schools at all levels offer those who work within (and attend) them solutions to work-related burnout that no other institution can. However, if what I have to say is going to reach those readers who need it most, particularly at the beginning of a semester, it also has to be honest.

With this said, I begin with some sobering statistics. In 2021, approximately 50% of K-12 teachers reported burnout. Likewise, a 2022 statistic from the National Education Association revealed that 67% of educators, including teachers, staff, and administrators, feel that burnout is a “very serious issue.” At least 90% believe it is “somewhat serious.” Not surprisingly, with these statistics in mind, 27% of teachers in 2021 reported having depression. In 2022, another study found that depression in teachers is steadily on the rise, with rates averaging 30.7%.

Indeed, more than half of educators are considering leaving their profession earlier than planned; 35% are planning to leave in the next two years. If you are wondering if this situation is normal, you might compare this statistic to 2009, when 17% of teachers said they planned to leave. Historically, Catholic school educators have left their profession at a higher rate than those in public schools, usually citing pay as the number one reason.

The American Psychological Association describes “burn out” as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself or others.” Last year—when I felt at the height of my own burnout—simply reading this definition felt like a checklist of my feelings.

It is possible that you are reading this article because you have felt, or are feeling, as I did then. You might be wondering if you have made a good decision to return to teaching this year. You might be contemplating whether you should have left the profession before the beginning of a new semester—or earlier at another time in the recent or not-so-recent past when you had considered it.

I can assure you that if you are over forty and reading this, you are likely planning to stay because of another statistic: “The greatest rate of attrition [for educators] takes place prior to age 40.” Beyond this statistic, you probably have some things figured out about the intrinsic benefits of Catholic education—because you likely do not work in Catholic education for the money . . .

I turned forty last year. I do not have everything figured out, but I do have some thoughts from my experiences working at a Catholic school. And because I am an English professor, I have some theories, personal experiences, and stories to share with you as we go forth into this new year together, including some ways to think about how to approach burnout.

First, I was among the statistics for depression in 2020. I would like for you to recall the first months of 2020, if you can—the pre-pandemic. Where were you? What was your life like? I will share a little bit of my story from that time forward, and I suspect it will align with the stories of many who are in Catholic education. Before we go further into that, here are the top reasons why teachers burnout:

  • Feeling underappreciated
  • Lack of planning time
  • Paperwork
  • Poor school funding
  • Unattainable goals
  • Dealing with challenging students…and parents
  • Pay

I would like you to keep these in the back of your mind as you read what I share about my burnout experience. The COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, and all of us in education had to adjust our teaching practices. I had two small children at the time, ages four and six, and I had to homeschool them as I figured out what in the world “Zoom” was and awaited a tenure decision (I had gone up in the fall and was waiting to hear back in the spring).

I am the youngest female faculty member in my department, and I teach romantic literature—the touchy-feely stuff. Not only was my job on the line in a specific way because of the tenure clock, but I also had students who were suffering. Students stated they felt they could talk to me about what they were going through because of the emotive literature we were reading and because I was “a mom who could understand their problems.” I suspect some readers can relate to this.

Another statistic that I have to share is that about 75% of Catholic school teachers are women. In sum, what matters here is that in 2020, I was stressed, making sure my students were okay, learning new technology, and staying up late not simply to teach writing and literature but also to email, chat, and Zoom with students.

No matter how much I worked that year and the next, though, there always seemed to be more grading, more emails, and more Zooms. My health, and that of my husband, who is also an educator, began to decline.

I was working overtime. I felt like I was working all the time. I felt like I never had enough quality time with my children, who also needed me. As a Catholic convert, my faith was tested. I felt alone. I was diagnosed with depression. My husband’s job gave him a t-shirt that said, “I AM RESILIENT,” across the front of it.

At one point, I threatened to shred it with scissors. I recall being Zoomed into a school-wide meeting specifically where there was a talk about resilience, and I was lucky I was on mute because I audibly gasped in horror. “How much more resilient does this world expect me to be?” I wondered. Angry at the situation. Angry at God. Even—and I will say it now because I was eventually granted tenure—angry at my school’s administrators, who, for us teachers, can sometimes feel scarier than God.

During this time, I began to contemplate the why of my position as an English professor at a Catholic school. Thinking not only of my own why, I began to think about the why of Catholic education writ large. What could it offer during times of suffering—to me, to my students, to staff, yes, even to those administrators I just mentioned—that other institutions could not? Why was I staying, and what would compel others to stay?

I mentioned that I am a Catholic convert. I mean this not only in terms of my personal faith but also in terms of the Church and its broader mission. This feels important for me to mention because there is a growing tendency in our contemporary world to say things such as, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Integral to being religious is being part of a community and, in the Catholic faith, of working toward the common good. It means we look out for others, especially those who are suffering, and we appreciate those who look out for us when we are suffering.

In this way, seeking the common good is reciprocal. We discern how to grow individually, and together, and this brings about human flourishing. In an address about world healing following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis said that, “Renewed contact with the Gospel of faith, of hope and of love invites us to assume a creative and renewed spirit. In this way, we will be able to transform the roots of our physical, spiritual and social infirmities and the destructive practices that separate us from each other, threatening the human family and our planet.”

What Pope Francis focuses on here is transformation. Through the suffering that the pandemic may bring, he says, humans will have a “renewed spirit.” This renewed spirit transforms humanity not at a mere surface level, but at the roots. Physically, spiritually, and socially, we can be transformed and ordered toward love through suffering. This is the transformative story of Christianity. It is also the story of the type of schools those of us in Catholic education work for.

In the Christian story, Jesus came to demonstrate the ultimate form of love and self-sacrifice. He exemplified the idea that true love involves being willing to suffer for the sake of the well-being and salvation of others. He died for the common good of all.

As a literature professor—someone who studies how humans make meaning of their lives through story, and as a Catholic—someone whose existence is shaped by belief in Jesus’s sacrifice—the meaning behind what I do is founded in redemptive love. That is, it is not the easy times that form us and make us better, although experiencing those moments is lovely. No. It is the burnout, the depression, the late nights when I wonder why I am teaching and if any of it matters.

By willingly enduring suffering and death, Jesus demonstrated the depth of God’s love for humanity. His sacrificial offering reconciled humanity with God and opened the way for salvation. The suffering of Jesus is understood as demonstrative of the selfless love that Christians are called to emulate.

In the context of the common good and human progress, the Christian story of love through suffering holds profound implications. This perspective encourages Christians to work toward positive change on individual and social levels, believing progress is possible even in the face of extreme challenges.

Here, I remind you of my thesis: Catholic schools at all levels offer those who work there (and attend them) solutions to work-related burnout that no other institutions can. When we grow, we can change the world outside because of our mission. This is not to say that public schools are not good or that they cannot make changes, only that they are aimed at a different telos, or end-goal. The mission of Catholic schools is explicitly based on the Christian narrative of progressive growth through suffering.

In May of this year, the Federal Public Health Emergency expired, marking this the first post-COVID-19 school year. Now we can think about what our growth through suffering means for us personally, for our school communities, and for the world. We are at a precipice of meaning-making.

In 2021, I read a book that spoke, unexpectedly, to my soul. This was not a novel or anything romantic like what I usually teach. It was a book that came up on my Audible app, rather randomly (that is a pun you will understand in a moment). The book was called Antifragile by economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Its subtitle is “Things that Gain from Disorder.”

"Antifragility" refers to a quality where something not only withstands shocks, randomness, and disruptions but thrives and improves as a result. When exposed to stressors, an antifragile system becomes stronger, more adaptable, and more efficient. It benefits from variability and unpredictability. Taleb argues that antifragility is a more advantageous property than mere resilience or robustness, as it allows systems to evolve and grow in the face of uncertainty. If something is fragile, it breaks. If something is antifragile, it experiences difficulty—and it grows.

Remember, if you would, the t-shirt that my husband’s company gave him, the one about resilience, the one I still imagine cutting to shreds sometimes. Taleb contrasts his concept of antifragility with that of resilience specifically. I think this is why the book might have spoken to me so much in those months when I was enduring the worst part of the pandemic for me, that part of the pandemic when my eyes were bleary from screens, my mind was addled from learning new educational systems, and I had been in my house so long that sometimes I was not sure of the time of day.

At that point I did not want to hear someone tell me to be resilient: I was being resilient. I was doing the work. I was surviving. What I wanted was for someone to notice my suffering and help me. I wanted someone to see me as part of the common good who needed help flourishing because, boy, was I foundering internally at that time. I also wanted to know how to adjust to these changes, this chaos that upended my life, and I didn’t want to be defined by survival. Even as I “bounced back” and was “resilient” on the surface, my internal barometer was plummeting. My soul was hurting.

As an English professor who considers herself a meaning-maker, the meaning I was coming to was rather depressing. When defining resilience as opposed to antifragility, Taleb relays that resilience refers to the ability of a system or individual to recover, or “bounce back,” as they say, from adversity, stress, or disruption. To be resilient would mean a person can absorb shock, maintain basic function, and return to their original state after being affected by a disturbance. From my descriptions thus far, you may have ascertained that after the COVID-19 pandemic and the stressors I endured, I knew I would never return to being as I was. There was no “bouncing back.” I was not the same person. My identity, my mothering, my teaching, and my understanding of life had radically changed.

On the other hand, Taleb writes that “antifragility is beyond resilience . . . The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”[1] I realized that. I did not want merely to survive: I wanted to improve. I am going to take this argument a step further and tell you that, upon reading this book, I realized it was my duty as a Christian to figure out how to improve and help others around me do so.

Remember what I said about Jesus and the narrative that undergirds Christianity? Jesus suffered to demonstrate divine love to the world. His crucifixion and resurrection can be interpreted as an antifragile response to suffering. His sacrificial death on the cross and subsequent resurrection are transformative events that turned a moment of extreme adversity into a source of hope, salvation, and growth for humanity. The story of Jesus’s resurrection embodies the idea of gaining strength and renewal through challenges. Moreover, despite facing rejection, persecution, and eventual crucifixion, Jesus’s influence and impact grew exponentially. This enduring impact could be seen as a form of antifragility—his teachings gained strength and relevance through adversity.

The story of Jesus’s life is a personal one, that of a human who revealed God (and his divinity) to the world through suffering. It is also a systemic one: the Catholic Church, born out of his suffering, shares his love and vision of the world with others. By working at Catholic schools, we share this redemptive, loving vision for the future.

We have undertaken a risk as Catholic educators, beyond the pandemic, that others have not. One of my favorite books about Catholic education is by the Italian priest Luigi Giusanni. Giussani believed faith should not be compartmentalized but should permeate every aspect of a person’s existence. He emphasized the importance of cultivating a sense of wonder, reason, and engagement with culture as part of a holistic approach to faith and teaching. In The Risk of Education, he describes the project of education at every level as a risk. He suggests that the teacher and the student must risk parts of themselves to engage in an authentic learning encounter.

What we are doing in Catholic education is a risky project, wherein we take part in salvation history. As Taleb might suggest, it is a project always on the brink of disorder. Yet, just as important, we can also always gain from that disorder if we are successful. For those of us who work in classrooms and offices, who interact with students, parents, and colleagues alike, the risk to our jobs is always at the forefront of our decisions. We work to form young people’s minds, hearts, bodies, and souls. We work with the future of the world. We might be talking about metaphors in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Or how to do long division. Or if so-and-so can leave the classroom to get a drink of water. But in each interaction, we are cultivating, and hopefully improving, the world.

Giusanni conjectures, “The educational method with the greatest capacity for good is not the one that flees from reality in order to affirm what is good separately, but rather the one that lives by advocating for the triumph of good in the world. ‘In the world’ means in relationship with the whole of reality, a ‘risky’ relationship if you call it that.”[2] If we are advocating for the “triumph of good in the world,” then every relationship we form—every interaction, every email—matters. The Catholic mission of our schools would say we are all involved in delivering, and receiving, God’s grace in every moment, in this moment. We must meet head-on the difficulties and risks of the world—the tough academic problems and their moral implications for the world we live in—or else we are not seeing God in our students. They are worth the risk, worth whatever suffering we have felt. According to Pope John Paul II:

Education cannot be rooted in mere sentiment or empty wishes. Its purpose cannot be ideological or political. It must not be based on a rejection of the modern world or a vague desire to return to some ‘paradise lost.’ Instead, a true education in responsibility entails a genuine conversion in ways of thought and behavior.

This genuine conversation includes acknowledging burnout, that of ourselves, and our students. We cannot pretend the difficulties of the last few years have not occurred. Catholic education demands more from us because it is holistic: it seeks the common good. Let us be honest: educators have risked themselves and sacrificed for the betterment of the institutions they serve. Every day, as Giussani points out, we risk ourselves for the students we serve.

Taleb would argue that we have “skin in the game,” another concept in Antifragile. “Skin in the game” refers to a principle where individuals or decision-makers have a personal stake, accountability, or exposure to the consequences of their decisions and actions.

In other words, having “skin in the game” means that a person’s interests and well-being are directly tied to the outcomes of their choices. Jesus had “skin in the game” in the most profound way possible. By willingly enduring suffering and death, he invested his whole being, including his skin in a very tangible way, into the grand mission of redemption.

One of my favorite quotes from Antifragile is simple, but it is one to which I frequently return. Taleb writes, “To me, every opinion maker needs to have ‘skin in the game’ in the event of harm caused by reliance on his information or opinion.”[3] While this may not sound profound at first, what I appreciate is Taleb’s terminology of the “opinion maker” having skin in the game. Often, in discussions of the book, this idea is linked with leadership, and Taleb does believe leaders ought to have “skin in the game.” If they are putting others at risk, they need to be at risk themselves. However, the term he uses to make his point about who should feel they have “skin in the game” is not leader, but “opinion maker.” I suspect that anyone taking the time to read this article has an opinion on what Catholic education ought to look like, how it ought to be shaped, and what we ought to be doing day in and day out. We all have “skin in the game” as educators. This is our life’s work.

Realizing we are the “opinion makers,” my next question is this: how will we make ourselves, and our institutions, antifragile? We all have a stake in the outcome of Catholic education worldwide because we are enacting it. We are talking to parents and students, creating lesson plans, reconceptualizing our whole selves after education worldwide has been ruptured and is now being rebuilt. My question is: how do we gain from the disorder that we all went through together? How do we transform ourselves and our institutions and move forward, becoming stronger in the process? How does Catholic education progress?

At the start of this essay, I opened with some sobering statistics. I will now bring in some additional ones. In 2022, the National Assessment of Academic Progress showed that Catholic “schools outperform[ed] their counterparts in almost every category.” The data from that report underscores that Catholic schools excel in learning outcomes, particularly for students benefiting from free and reduced-price lunch programs. This highlights the system’s dedication to serving underprivileged students. Moreover, Catholic school students’ average scores remained fifteen points above the average scores achieved by their public school counterparts in the same grade.

Further, while much research has been done about why educators are generally leaving the profession, the few available on why Catholic educators stay are likewise revealing. In a dissertation published in 2022, Megan Fisher found that “Catholic school vocations promote a deep commitment to the Christian development of students, which provides a more fullness of life beyond just the fulfillment of their job description.”[4] This is the key, is it not? This is why, even though I often dream and look at job boards, it is hard for me to imagine leaving my Catholic institution. Plus, the very fact that where I work is Catholic has helped me to progress in ways that I could not have imagined two or three years ago.

As Taleb would say, I am an “opinion maker” about what Catholic institutions can do because I have such a beloved vision of the progress only these places can enact because of their mission.

I imagine that some readers are still skeptical about my thesis; some have experienced difficulty at their workplaces and cannott foresee being rejuvenated for this next year. I offer you this anecdote. I read Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue: A True Story recently. This book is about a boy who moves from Iran to the United States as a refugee. He recounts his life’s journey, weaving together tales of his family, Persian mythology, and his struggle to adapt to a new culture, blending reality and storytelling. Khosrou, the narrator, describes his mother as strong and loving: “If there’s one thing to know about my mom, it’s that she doesn’t stop. And if you don’t stop, you’re unstoppable.”[5] His mom, we might say for the purposes of this article, is antifragile.

Khosrou’s family converted to Christianity and came to the United States for asylum. They attend a small church in Oklahoma, which he describes as filled with problems. At one point, a parishioner, egged on by the youth minister, rips Khosrou’s because he wears a Miami Dolphins ball cap instead of a Dallas Cowboys one. However, Khsorou remains Christian, primarily because of the influence of his mother. As he sits in church one day, listening to his pastor drone on, he describes this experience of being religious this way:

It’s like when you’re hearing a great story from Scheherazade and you’re seeing past the thing to the main thing—past the adventures of the orphans to Scheherazade herself, begging to stay alive another day. The same way, in a small-town church in Oklahoma with a kinda dopey pastor, my mom could look past the thing he was saying to the source of it. She was replenished.[6]

If you are burntout, if you are feeling down about your co-workers, pay, paperwork, administration, politics, or anything else, try to be like Khosrou’s mom—“look past the thing to the source.”

Finding a commitment to mission, despite the pandemic, despite my personal struggles, ultimately led to my replenishment of self and sense of vocation. It is what has helped me put “skin in the game” of Catholic education in ways that I never would have considered before suffering deeply within it. I want it to succeed, for myself, my students, and the world. I want to risk for it. I want it to grow bountifully. That “source,”—Jesus, love—it is worth growing stronger for.

As I conclude what I want to say, which I promised would end on a bright note, I call you to remember this antifragile description of love from 1 Corinthians 13:7­–8: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Love is “unstoppable.” or, as Pope Francis stated in a 2021 address, “Together in love, we Christians can change the world, we can change ourselves, because God is Love!”

Let us see how the world changes because of the love embedded in our Catholic mission—a love that makes us all antifragile, love that gives us, and our work this year, meaning, should we so let it. We are “opinion makers.” Let us put those opinions into right action as we work toward the common good together, as we work toward salvation history in our classrooms.

[1] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (NY, New York: Random House, 2012), 3.

[2] Giussani, Luigi, The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny (Chicago, IL: McGill-Queens University Press, 2019), 63.

[3] Taleb, Antifragile, 381.

[4] Megan Fisher, “Catholic Educators that Stay: An Analysis of Job Satisfaction and Retention Within Catholic Schools of New Jersey,” PhD Diss., (Caldwell University, 2022), 47–48.

[5] Daniel Nayeri, Everything Sad Is Untrue: A True Story (Montclair, NJ: Levine Querido, 2020), 200.

[6] Nayeri, 333.

Featured Image: Image by , Burnout; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0.


LuElla D’Amico

LuElla D’Amico is Associate Professor of English and the Women’s and Gender Studies Coordinator at the University of the Incarnate Word. She is the editor of Girls’ Series Fiction and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Reading Transatlantic Girlhood in the Long Nineteenth Century.

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