Wood, Teri - McCarthy, Chris
Understanding and Preventing Teacher Burnout
Many teachers find the demands of being a professional educator in
today's schools difficult and at times stressful. When work stress
results in teacher burnout, it can have serious consequences for the
health and happiness of teachers, and also the students, professionals,
and families they interact with on a daily basis.
THE NATURE OF THE STRESS RESPONSE
When a potentially threatening event is encountered, a reflexive,
cognitive balancing act ensues, weighing the perceived demands of
the event against one's perceived ability to deal with them (Lazarus
& Folkman, 1984). Events perceived as potential threats trigger
the stress response, a series of physiological and psychological changes
that occur when coping capacities are seriously challenged. The most
typical trigger to the stress response is the perception that ones'
coping resources are inadequate for handling life demands. According
to current models of stress, we are constantly taking the measure
of the daily demands we experience in life and comparing this to the
resources we possess for dealing with them. If our resources appear
equal to the demands, we view them as mere challenges. If, however,
demands are viewed as exceeding our resources, they become stressors
and trigger the stress response. Accordingly, teacher stress
may be seen as the perception of an imbalance between demands at school
and the resources teachers have for coping with them (Esteve, 2000;
Troman & Woods, 2001). Symptoms of stress in teachers can include
anxiety and frustration, impaired performance, and ruptured interpersonal
relationships at work and home (Kyriacou, 2001). Researchers (Lecompte
& Dworkin, 1991; Farber, 1998; Troman & Woods, 2001) note
that teachers who experience stress over long periods of time may
experience what is known as burnout.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE BURNOUT CONSTRUCT
Matheny, Gfroerer, and Harris (2000) noted that earlier research into
the phenomenon described burnout as a loss of idealism and enthusiasm
for work. Freudenberger (1974), a psychiatrist, is largely credited
with first using the term. Maslach and Jackson refined the meaning
and measurement of the burnout construct in the 1980s (Maslach &
Jackson, 1981; Maslach & Schaufeli, 1993) to include three sub-domains:
(1) depersonalization, in which one distances oneself from others
and views others impersonally; (2) reduced personal accomplishment,
in which one devalues one's work with others; and (3) emotional exhaustion,
in which one feels emptied of personal emotional resources and becomes
highly vulnerable to stressors. In particular, depersonalization may
be expressed through poor attitudes towards students and the work
Teachers may be at greater risk for depersonalization because
their daily work life often includes large doses of isolation from
their professional peers. While teachers do interact with others on
a regular basis throughout the workday, the majority of such interactions
are with students, and not with other teachers or professional staff
members who might better understand the demands teachers face. Factors
such as the physical layout of most campuses, with teachers working
alone in their classrooms, and scheduling constraints that make finding
time to meet with peers virtually impossible, can cause teachers to
feel disconnected (Bennett & LeCompte, 1990). This depersonalization
may act as a protective mechanism, as evidenced by the descriptions
of "worn-out" teachers, whose cynical views towards students and teaching
allowed them to continue to remain in the field, even in a diminished
capacity (Farber, 1998). While depersonalization may act as some protection
for teachers, it also may encourage isolation, strengthening the risk
An important finding from early studies was that teachers at risk
for burnout came to see their work as futile and inconsistent with
the ideals or goals they had set as beginning teachers (Bullough
& Baughman, 1997). Other early studies cited role conflict and
role ambiguity as significantly related to burnout (Dworkin, 1986).
Role conflict occurs when a teacher is faced with conflicting expectations
of the job. For example, role conflict may arise from discrepancies
between ideals of what it means to be a good teacher. Role ambiguity
relates more to a sense of confusion about one's goals as a teacher
including a sense of uncertainty about the responsibilities related
LeCompte and Dworkin (1991) developed a more extensive description
of burnout as an extreme type of role-specific alienation with a
focus on feelings of meaninglessness, especially as this applies
to one's ability to successfully reach students, a finding also
supported by Farber (1998). LeCompte and Dworkin (1991) identified
powerlessness in defining professional roles as being instrumental
in creating stress. Additionally, a sense of both physical and mental
exhaustion exacerbated by the belief that expectations for teachers
are constantly in flux, or in conflict with previously held beliefs,
has been cited by numerous researchers as influencing teacher burnout
(Bullough & Baughmann, 1997; Brown & Ralph, 1998; Hinton
& Rotheiler, 1998; Esteve, 2000; Troman & Woods, 2001).
PREVENTION OF BURNOUT
Albee (2000), one of the pioneers of prevention research, points out
that, "It is accepted public health doctrine that no disease or disorder
has ever been treated out of existence" (p. 847). It is far better
if the roots of teacher burnout are identified and eliminated before
the syndrome develops, rather than treating it after it has already
occurred. Across the various medical professions, a distinction has
been made between three levels of prevention interventions: (a) Primary
prevention, where the goal is to reduce the incidence of new cases
of a disorder, (b) secondary prevention, where the goal is early identification
and treatment of symptoms before they turn into a full-blown disorder,
and (c) tertiary prevention, where persons who have recently suffered
a disorder receive some type of intervention to prevent relapse (Conyne,
1991). Such preventative interventions may either be done at the organizational
level, with changes in the school environment, or at the individual
level, in which the goal is to strengthen teachers' resources for
PRIMARY PREVENTION OF TEACHER BURNOUT
Organizational practices that prevent teacher burnout are generally
those that allow teachers some control over their daily challenges.
At the individual level, self-efficacy and the ability to maintain
perspective with regard to daily events have been described as "anxiety-buffers"
(Greenberg, 1999). At the institutional level, other factors may help
mitigate teacher stress. Chris Kyriacou (2001), who draws from an
Education Service Advisory Committee report (1998), offers the following
advice for schools:
* Consult with teachers on matters, such as curriculum development
or instructional planning, which directly impact their classrooms.
* Provide adequate resources and facilities to support teachers
in instructional practice.
* Provide clear job descriptions and expectations in an effort
to address role ambiguity and conflict.
* Establish and maintain open lines of communication between teachers
and administrators to provide administrative support and performance
feedback that may act as a buffer against stress.
* Allow for and encourage professional development activities such
as mentoring and networking, which may engender a sense of accomplishment
and a more fully developed professional identity for teachers.
SECONDARY PREVENTION OF TEACHER BURNOUT
Efforts at secondary prevention focus primarily on early detection
of problems before they emerge as full-blown disorders. Symptoms of
teacher stress as contributing to burnout may take many forms (Brown
& Ralph, 1998). Studies by several researchers (c.f., Brown &
Ralph, 1998; Hinton & Rotheiler, 1998; Kyriacou, 2001; Troman
& Woods, 2001), report the following as early symptoms of teacher
stress and burnout:
* Feeling like not going to work or actually missing days
* Having difficulty in concentrating on tasks
* Feeling overwhelmed by the workload and having a related sense
of inadequacy to the tasks given to them
* Withdrawing from colleagues or engaging in conflictual relationships
* Having a general feeling of irritation regarding school
* Experiencing insomnia, digestive disorders, headaches, and heart
* Incapacitation and an inability to function professionally in
TERTIARY PREVENTION--AMELIORATING BURNOUT SYMPTOMS
Once teacher burnout has occurred, a decision must be made as to whether
the teacher can or is willing to continue their work. Troman and Woods
(2001) acknowledge that a series of stressful events or a single major
event may lead teachers to make what they term 'pivotal decisions.'
Although teachers go through many such events over the course of a
career, the teachers interviewed by Troman and Woods rarely viewed
decisions made in response to high levels of stress as transformative
in the positive sense. Personal factors also figure into a teacher's
decision to stay in a school, with the current labor market, personal
financial and family obligations, and years in the field all being
instrumental in the decision making process. In hard economic times,
teachers may stay with the relatively stable profession of teaching
due to a lack of outside possibilities for a career change. The promise
of retirement benefits that increase with added years of service is
a draw to teachers who have already accumulated more than a few years
In looking at teachers and stress, Troman and Woods (2001) used
interviews and observational data collected from teachers teaching
at The Gladstone Primary School and from teachers who had left the
school in the aftermath of Gladstone being designated as poorly performing
during an accreditation inspection. Interviews were analyzed using
theme analysis and the constant comparative method. Data gathered
suggests that teachers generally fall into three categories when reacting
to stress and burnout. Some teachers simply end their careers as professional
educators. Others seek relief from stress by "downshifting:" taking
a less prestigious or demanding role, redefining their job as a part
time instructor, or by having previously held duties assigned to other
teachers. Some teachers choose to reframe their sense of identity
as educators; for these teachers, this may involve developing outside
interests, placing more emphasis on family and friends or relocating
to a more favorable school environment.
Burnout results from the chronic perception that one is unable to
cope with daily life demands. Given that teachers must face a classroom
full of students every day, negotiate potentially stressful interactions
with parents, administrators, counselors, and other teachers, contend
with relatively low pay and shrinking school budgets, and ensure students
meet increasingly strict standards of accountability, it is no wonder
many experience a form of burnout at some point in their careers.
Efforts at primary prevention, in which teachers' jobs are modified
to give them more control over their environment and more resources
for coping with the demands of being an educator, are preferable over
secondary or tertiary interventions that occur after burnout symptoms
have surfaced. However, research reviewed here indicates each type
of prevention can be useful in helping teachers contend with an occupation
that puts them at risk for burnout.
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