I Was an AI Optimist. Now I’m Worried It’s Making Teacher Burnout Worse

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June 12, 2024

“When ChatGPT first became popular in late 2022, I was part of the chorus of AI optimists who saw the potential for the technology to reduce the massive workload that our teachers face. Today, the technology is far from making good on what I saw as its potential benefit to educators.

Two years ago, it was easy to see the capabilities of generative AI and hope that educators could use these tools to reduce the time they spent on tasks outside the classroom.

While I still see these opportunities for our educators and remain hopeful that AI can help teachers make time for the most meaningful parts of education, I’m afraid that having to keep up with its challenges represents an added burden for already struggling teachers.

As my company works with educators around the country to help them learn about AI technology and what it means for education, we’ve noticed that a few conditions must be met for us to see the promise of reduced teacher workload realized. These are not insurmountable hurdles, but if we want AI to be our ally and not our foe, we must make clear that the promise is contingent on these factors.

How teacher professional development can catch up to AI

Seemingly overnight, understanding AI technology went from being a niche skill to an essential life skill. While many educators across the country have diligently spent their free time, prep periods, and summer vacations pursuing professional development, an overwhelming majority are rightfully daunted by the prospect of learning how to navigate this new technology.

The learning curve for many educators has been much steeper than is being acknowledged. The prospect of learning a brand-new tool can be overwhelming as you learn its features, capabilities, and limitations, and how it works best for you. Using AI tools also involves learning more than just the user interface of a new tool; it requires our educators to learn how this technology works to feel empowered to use it responsibly and have meaningful conversations with their students about it.

For others, the technology remains unaffordable as major tools begin to paywall their strongest features. Absent support from their district, this often means that many teachers have an additional expense that they must pay out of pocket to use these technologies in the powerful ways advertised. This only further limits the number of teachers who are seeing the benefits of developing AI literacy.

Even those who manage to find the time and money to pursue some professional development or are part of a small contingent of American teachers who receive resources from their schools still face the task of staying current with the developments and rapid changes that the AI space is currently undergoing.

Schools and districts need to acknowledge the challenge AI creates for teachers who want to become active, responsible users of the technology. They must find space in their existing professional development schedules and allow teachers to spend meaningful time learning about and using AI technology in ways that can eventually reduce their workload.

How AI has changed curriculum

Part of the frustration we hear from educators is how many of their assignments need to be restructured, given the ability for students to use AI technologies to complete their homework easily. This has created a crisis for educators who assign out-of-class work, especially those who extensively use independent writing as an assessment tool. Teachers are facing the need to rethink their assessments and pedagogical practices, with very little guidance on how to effectively and sustainably make these changes.

The definition of “AI-proof assignments” shifts so rapidly that it has become a relatively futile goal for educators to pursue. Some “AI proofing” has relied on generative AI’s limited knowledge of recent events and its inability to perform math, while other anti-cheating efforts turned to now-defunct AI detectors or the lack of students’ voices in writing.

As AI programs continue to overcome these limitations, teachers will likely have to move toward different types of student assessments that capitalize on classroom time and use independent time only for preparatory work.

To do so, teachers need more time and guidance to understand how much AI can already do. Teachers should know what alternative pedagogical theories and practices might make their classrooms more resilient to AI developments so that they can spend time adapting their curriculum before AI use among students becomes even more prevalent.

How AI can make good on its promise

While I do not believe that AI can mitigate all the factors leading to teacher burnout, such as low pay rates or large class sizes, I do still share the vision with optimists that AI has the potential to help reduce the amount of time teachers spend on work outside their classroom in the long run. However, schools and administrators must take proactive measures to provide teachers with the time, resources, and guidance they need to integrate AI into their classrooms effectively.

If we all—administrators, policymakers, and external partners—don’t meet these challenges, we will actively contribute to the burnout crisis facing our teachers. We may see educators increasingly stressed by the pressure to adapt to new technologies without adequate support, students struggling to navigate a rapidly changing educational landscape, and a widening gap between the promise and reality of AI in the classroom.

But if we work toward realizing our promises and provide our teachers with the support they need, we can create a future where AI is a true ally for educators—a tool that empowers them to focus on what they do best: inspiring, guiding, and nurturing the next generation of learners.”

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