Breaking the Burnout Cycle: How AI Can Change the Way Teachers Work

These days, the number of articles trying to predict the impact that ChatGPT will have on education is almost dizzying. Will it eliminate critical thinking? Will students ever have to write again? Or, will it save the world?

The truth is, we just don’t know yet. But, the panic speaks to a deeper truth: teachers are already overwhelmed and burnt out and adding a new technology to learn, or worry about, may be a daunting prospect.

What’s happening?

The burnout that today’s teachers are experiencing is being caused by a variety of compounding factors. Lack of resources and support from school administrators, long hours, heavy workload, and low pay are all contributing to the crisis. This burnout is having serious implications for the wellbeing of teachers, as well as the learning environment of students.

Now, the advent of new AI tools like ChatGPT are stirring up fresh concerns for teachers, particularly whether students are using it to cheat, and finding ways to work around these tools could further increase workload and stress. However, this new technology can actually help mitigate at least some of factors causing teacher burnout. AI can help automate administrative tasks, aid in creating personalized and differentiated lessons that address individual student needs, and it can provide quick, in the moment feedback. By making the tedious tasks easier, teachers can dedicate their energy to teaching.

Understanding Teacher Burnout

The current teacher burnout crisis cannot be understated. And even though many of the issues fueling the crisis have been around for years, the pandemic has only exacerbated them. The sudden shift to remote learning and the need to quickly adapt to new technologies and teaching methods added to the workload and stress of teachers. Additionally, the pandemic resulted in isolation and a lack of support from colleagues, further contributing to burnout. Then, when in-person learning returned, concerns about health and safety protocols, staffing shortages, and consistent absences added new stressors to the job. All of this, combined with the uncertainty and unpredictability of the pandemic, has taken a toll on the mental health and well-being of teachers. On top of this, the teaching profession and the content being taught are under scrutiny like never before due to the national political conversation around race, racism, and gender. The sources of burnout cut across almost every aspect of the job.

Obviously, this is impacting students. Burned out teachers cannot bring their best to the job, which can negatively impact the classroom environment and student-teacher relationships, and lead to lower-quality instruction and a less engaging learning experience. Finally, burnout has led teachers to leave the profession at alarming rates. According to the Wall Street Journal, over 300,000 public-school teachers and other staff left the field between February 2020 and May 2022. High turnover rates can disrupt students’ education and limit their access to quality teachers. All of these factors combined can lead to lower academic achievement and a less positive school experience for students.

AI Can Reduce Teacher Workload

While new generative AI technologies like ChatGPT can’t solve every issue causing burnout, they can help with one major stressor: workload. Many educators get into the field because of their love of teaching and working with students, only to find that that is only one small part of the job. Lesson and unit planning, communicating with parents, and grading take huge amounts time and energy. AI might help teachers reclaim some of this valuable time and energy to focus on teaching. Here are just a few examples of tasks that ChatGPT can complete in a fraction of the time:

  • write an email to parents reminding them to sign a permission slip for an upcoming field trip
  • generate vocabulary lists and essay prompts for the next novel you are assigning to read
  • get ideas for adapting a lesson to accommodate English language learners
  • outline a unit plan on DNA that is aligned with NGSS standards
  • draft a college recommendation letter or get instant feedback on one you wrote
  • create a multiple choice quiz on the different types of rocks for your Earth Science class

If you’re a teacher reading this and you’ve never tried it before, ask Chat GPT to do any one of these tasks. We promise you’ll be impressed with the results.

Teachers are Already Using AI

Teachers across the country are already trying out this technology, both in the classroom with students and in their administrative work. The New York Times spoke with a teacher in Rhode Island who fed ChatGPT an article about the war in Ukraine and asked it to create 10 multiple choice questions on the content. In the end, he used six of the generated questions. This story highlights another important point: AI is just a tool, not a replacement for the discernment of a human. Just like you should encourage students to think critically and verify the information garnered by a ChatGPT query, you should do the same.

EdWeek spoke with a language arts teacher and digital teaching and learning coach from Utah that used ChatGPT to write 10 similar paragraphs, each with a different tone, for a class activity. He cited that it saved him over an hour of prep time. And while this example speaks to the capability of AI to quickly generate different versions of particular content for a single activity, it can similarly be used to individualize lessons and materials for students with different learning styles and abilities. Again, the technology is not replacing the teacher’s ideas or intention, simply helping translate them into different formats.

AI can also act as a practice student to try out new assignments. Have an idea for an essay prompt? Type it into ChatGPT and see if you get a decent draft. If not, revise the question and ask again until you are confident that you are asking the best possible question to produce the response you want (Forbes). Using AI to refine or test out your ideas will save time and frustration in the long run and ultimately lead to more creative teaching.

Challenges and Considerations

Implementing artificial intelligence in education can present a range of potential challenges, including privacy and security concerns, financial costs, and ethical considerations.

Privacy and security are of utmost importance when it comes to using AI in education because the technology can gather and store data that may contain sensitive information. It is critical to avoid FERPA violations by not inputting students’ private information into a tool like ChatGPT.

Financial costs can also be a barrier, as AI systems can be expensive to implement and maintain. Because of this, there are genuine concerns that opportunity and achievement gaps will only widen based on who has access to AI technology. However, AI can also widen access to information and individualized help for students who can’t afford a private tutor.

Lastly, ethical considerations must also be taken into account when implementing AI in education because bias and discrimination are inherent in the technology. AI systems can perpetuate biases because they simply pull from existing information. So, if biases exist in the data, then it will generate biased outputs. Teachers and students alike must use a critical lens when choosing to engage with AI.

So what?

This technology is new and rapidly evolving and its full impact on education will not be clear for some time. That means it will also take diligent effort from those in the education community to be involved in driving the future of AI. For now, the tools that already exist have amazing potential to lighten the immense load that teachers are tasked with taking on and help mitigate the burnout crisis facing today’s educators.

So, if we can offer any piece of advice, it would be: don’t fear the chatbots. Like calculators and Google before them, ChatGPT and other tools will undoubtedly change the way students access information and how teachers do their jobs. Learning to leverage these tools to our benefit will ultimately make us even better educators.

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