Barry - Ascher, Carol
Urban School Restructuring and Teacher Burnout
Urban schools have long been troubled and have endured
many waves of reform. Consequently, staff exhaustion and cynicism
often affect how, and even whether, these reforms are implemented.
While school restructuring, the latest reform measure, can break
down bureaucracy and empower teachers, it also can seem distant
from the day-to-day problems of most teachers, and even increase
burnout among some (Corcoran, Walker, & White, 1988).
Burnout--the reaction to prolonged high stress--commonly
results either in withdrawing and caring less, or in working harder,
often mechanically, to the point of exhaustion (Farber, 1991).
This digest considers the impact of several components of school
restructuring on burnout.
School-based management (SBM) offers greater participation
in decision-making to teachers, parents, and others at the school
level. In the best case, SBM empowers teachers to develop the
process and goals of education, and enhances their sense of professionalism.
For some, the chance to exercise administrative and negotiating
skills may be a welcome challenge (Lichtenstein, McLaughlin, &
But SBM may also involve teachers either in long meetings
about insignificant decisions or in making important decisions
for which they lack resources, support, and expertise. In troubled
schools, SBM teams can get bogged down in daily crises, resulting
in frustration as long-term goals recede from sight (Richardson
& Sistrunk, 1989). At the same time, by raising the school
board's and the general public's expectations, SBM may increase
pressure on teachers.
Furthermore, reputedly empowered teachers may not
relish their authority, feel more effective in their classrooms,
or experience themselves as professionally enhanced. In fact,
teachers' sense of empowerment may arise less from controlling
what goes on in a school than from their knowledge about their
fields, their professional community, and educational policy (Lichtenstein,
McLaughlin, & Knudsen, 1991).
Finally, SBM may increase frustration if teachers'
new control doesn't lead to clear educational benefits, and if
the new bureaucracy is as intransigent as the school principal,
acting autonomously, has been (Gomez, 1989).
When accountability systems help teachers identify
and serve their students' needs, these systems can reduce burnout.
However, burned-out teachers already exhausted may not participate
in the extensive thinking necessary to develop an effective system,
and then may experience the system as an externally imposed and
inflexible interference in their classroom.
By inviting scrutiny from new sources, even good accountability
systems increase teacher stress and can promote covert competition,
as teachers strive to make their classroom "the best" (Trusman,
1989). Finally, insofar as accountability systems are based on
externally imposed criteria, they are antithetical to teacher
empowerment, which has long been considered one of the strongest
antidotes to burnout (Friedman, 1991).
Career ladders show respect for experienced teachers
demonstrating particular excellence by offering promotional opportunities.
They enable teachers to earn more money, take on new roles (mentoring
novice teachers, for instance), and gain more prestige and professional
However, as with any system that rewards only some
individuals, competition increases. Bitterness and cynicism may
also result if the criteria for promotion are ambiguous or are
tainted by political considerations. Promoted teachers may experience
added stress and burnout if extra pay and prestige are not accompanied
by sufficient resources or administrative support.
Breaking down large schools into small communities
is an easy way to improve the quality of life for both teachers
and students. Schools-within-schools enable better communication
among teachers, parents, and students; enhance the staff's sense
of control; and promote a generally warmer, more intimate atmosphere
(Bryk & Driscoll, 1988).
Of course, a small community can also promote increased
scrutiny and greater group tension, exacerbating jealousy, favoritism,
and competition for scarce resources. Sometimes the minischools
within a larger school also compete for recognition and resources,
and add a layer of bureaucracy and stress to an already oppressive
Because minischools are small, intense communities,
only one or two burned-out teachers can sabotage the high energy
needed by the group. However, since it takes a fair amount of
energy and enthusiasm to work in one, burned-out teachers are
apt to decline an assignment there.
Curriculum initiatives such as multidisciplinary
units, new approaches to math or reading, and multicultural education
can give teachers a renewed sense of excitement, and draw faculty
together in collaborative ventures. Insofar as these initiatives
are tailored to students' needs, they may improve performance,
and, thus, teachers' sense of efficacy.
Ideally, curriculum changes should be accompanied
by extensive staff development, mentoring, and peer coaching,
but these are often in short supply. Thus, teachers may suffer
from the additional stresses of having more work but not additional
FLEXIBLE SCHEDULING AND TEAM TEACHING
Flexible scheduling and team teaching promote sustained
contacts both among teachers and with students, lessening the
possibility of teacher burnout by improving collegial contact
and support. Yet, collaborative activities will not foster collegiality
if the school sets up a competitive ethos. Nor do these reforms
address the major obstacle to collegiality: heavy workloads due
to large classes and undue clerical work (Corcoran, et al., 1988).
SCHOOL RESTRUCTURING AND BURNOUT
The components of school restructuring reviewed
above have the potential of improving the context of urban teaching.
Each can make possible a greater sense of efficacy and control
among teachers, and stronger teacher-student connection. However,
none affects such district policies as pupil assignment, professional
development, or evaluation, all of which are critical to teachers'
well-being. None ensures that teachers will be involved in decision-making
or work with their peers--or that they will feel empowered by
their added responsibilities. Except for the curriculum initiatives,
none necessarily improves teaching and learning, the best way
to decrease burnout (Farber, 1991).
Bryk, A., & Driscoll, M. E. (1988).
The high school as community: Contextual influences and consequences
for students and teachers. Madison: National Center on Effective
Secondary Schools. (ED 302 539)
Corcoran, T. B., Walker, L. J., &
White, J. L. (1988). Working in urban schools. Washington, DC:
Institute for Educational Leadership.
Farber, B. A. (1991). Crisis in education:
Stress and burnout in the American teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Friedman, I. A. (1991). High- and low-burnout
schools: School culture aspects of teacher burnout. The Journal
of Educational Research, 84(6), 325-333.
Gomez, J. J. (1989, October). The path
to school-based management isn't smooth, but we're scaling the
obstacles one by one. The American School Board Journal, 20-22.
Lichtenstein, G., McLaughlin, M., &
Knudsen, J. (1991, January). Teacher empowerment and professional
knowledge. Draft. Stanford: Stanford University, Center for Educational
Richardson, G. D., & Sistrunk,
W. E. (1989). The relationship between secondary teachers' perceived
levels of burnout and their perceptions of their principals' supervisory
behaviors. (ED 312 763)
Trusman, C. (1989, March). Ways to
fight teacher burnout: An interview with Ivan Fitzwater. School
Administrator, 46(3), 30-35.