Many of my friends are teachers and they often tell me how they feel less and less motivated by the teaching sector and would suggest the seriousness of a situation where teachers are struggling to find personal meaning in what they are doing. This is especially relevant in an education sector that relies heavily on standardized tests where teachers feel a conflict between what they feel as “good teaching” and the pressure to perform. If this includes a lack of social support from the school, it can leave teachers feeling isolated, anxious, and facing inevitable burnout.
According to educational psychologists Cristina Maslash and Michael Leiter (1997), burnout has been described as ‘a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job’, and is defined by the three dimensions:
- Exhaustion: a state in which the teacher feels they cannot offer any more of themselves
- Cynicism: a distant attitude toward work, colleagues, students and other aspects of the job
- Inefficacy: a feeling of becoming incompetent and ineffective at the job
Recent studies report that between 10 and 20% of teachers could be suffering from high burnout levels, and between 20 and 40% from moderate levels. In the United States 17% of all teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years. Some of the factors associated with teacher burnout are students’ challenging behavior, work overload and lack of time, and role conflict and ambiguity.
Research into teacher burnout has also revealed an important link between perceived working environment and individual burnout levels, that is to say the higher burnout is perceived collectively, the higher the chances that individual teachers will become burnt out. Several studies have also reported the relation between teacher burnout and harmful effects on physical and psychological health, how it negatively affects work performance as well as professional and family relationships. In addition, burnout can influence the way teachers perform their work as well as curriculum-specific contents. In an era where student Social and Emotional Learning is high on the agenda and schools are incorporating it into the academic curricula, Ransford et al. (2009) found that teacher burnout was negatively associated with the promotion of alternative thinking strategies linked to socioemotional curriculum.
Research into prosocial classrooms has focused mainly on the academic outcomes of students and interaction between teachers and students. The development of rapport between the teacher and the student is seen as fundamental as they both enter the classroom with inter-related goals where both rapport and a prosocial climate is co-constructed that actively encourages student participation (Sidelinger & Booth-Butterfield, 2010). According to Schrodt, Turman, & Soliz (2006), participating in rapport-building behaviors has been shown to positively influence students’ opinions of instructor credibility and students’ evaluations of instruction.
This may be where theory and practice clash when we consider that already overworked teachers are now burdened with the added pressure of having to provide warm and emotionally responsive support to all children with the aim of building a rapport. Just take a minute to reflect on what it might mean to you as a teacher to always be emotionally available to all your students. Would you feel extra pressure knowing that students’ opinions of your credibility were linked to your capacity to develop rapport?
With no, or very little training, teachers are expected to cultivate a warm and nurturing classroom climate, coach students through conflict with thoughtfulness and display Zen-like emotional regulation, often in the midst of chaos. Whilst at the same time attending to the demands from parents, school boards and an ever-increasing amount of standardized testing. Very little professional development is spent on acquiring these emotional competencies and it is easy to see how teachers can find attending to students emotional and behavioral needs overwhelming, which if we are to believe the academic literature, will lead to lower academic performance by the students. In this situation a teacher may be tempted to over-compensate and revert to authoritative and punishment styles just to keep a grip on the class and any sense of emotional regulation is lost as the class deteriorates into a self-sustaining environment of disruption. This is what Jennings & Greenberg (2009) refer to a “burnout cascade”.
Warning signs of teacher burnout
True burnout is much more than simply feeling tired or overwhelmed, and can lead to serious depression. That’s why it’s so vital to be vigilant about the warning signs.
- Fatigue and sleep issues: A full day of teaching is enough to make anyone feel tired, but if you’re experiencing fatigue before you even get to school, you may need a break. However, those experiencing burnout often struggle with insomnia, which can turn into a vicious cycle.
- Repeated periods of forgetfulness and intense trouble concentrating: Burned-out teachers may find it hard to complete normal tasks and have trouble concentrating on their work. A lack of sleep can amplify these symptoms even more.
- Appetite and weight issues: Any drastic weight loss or gain should be investigated by your doctor, as this is often a sign that you need to focus on your overall health.
- Depression and anxiety: If minimized or ignored at the early stages, teacher burnout can intensify into feelings of anxiety and depression. Always speak to your doctor if feelings of sadness or anger are affecting your daily life.
How to Avoid Burnout if you are a teacher
The theory says that to avoid teacher burnout, teachers need to build balance into their lives by setting clear work boundaries and managing to find down time at the weekends. Which sounds fantastic, but a busy schedule and a demanding head of department may not be so permitting. If you can do that then by all means go ahead, but most teachers will need to grit their teeth and continue. You may not be able to completely avoid burnout, but there are certain things that you can do to lessen its effect upon you.
- Focus only on your class and try not to get caught up in school politics or gossip. Stay focused on the task at hand, which is teaching kids.
- A change is as good as a rest. Maybe you can change age group, subject or class
- Build a positive community amongst your work colleagues
Burnout is a serious condition that can have grave consequences on physical and psychological wellbeing. If you or a colleague is suffering from stress, overwork or burnout and would like to speak to a psychologist then you can contact me here.
Sidelinger, R. J., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2010). Co-constructing student involvement: An examination of teacher confirmation and student-to-student connectedness in the college classroom. Communication Education, 59(2), 165–184.
Schrodt, P., Turman, P., & Soliz, J. (2006). Perceived understanding as a mediator of perceived teacher confirmation and students’ rating of instruction. Communication Education, 55, 370–388.
Maslach. C & Leiter. M (1997) The truth about burnout: how organizations cause personal stress and what to do about it
Ransford. C, Greenberg. M, Domitrovich. C, Small. M & Jacobson. L (2009) The role of teachers’ psychological experiences and perceptions of curriculum supports on the implementation of a social and emotional curriculum. School psychology review 38(4):510-532
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