One enthusiastic educator's exciting journey to teaching mastery
One enthusiastic educator's exciting journey to teaching mastery
First, let’s acknowledge that burnout does not happen overnight. Rather, it is an exhausting process in which an individual is gradually drained of energy, progressively develops distant or cynical attitudes, and ceases to feel as if they are making a difference in their work. Wright (2003) would add that “it is a problem born out of good intentions because it happens when individuals try to reach unrealistic goals and end up depleting their energy and losing touch with themselves and others.” (as cited in Espeland, 2006). Teacher burnout is a serious and complex issue with no easy solution. However, there are a lot of things we can do help prevent it from happening, whether you are an at-risk teacher, or a school leader.
The best defense is a good offense; the old sports adage can also illustrate that the best intervention for burnout is indeed burnout prevention. By remaining vigilant and remaining attentive to the warning signs of burnout, it may be possible to alter an individual’s path before things get too complicated. Espeland (2006) cataloged a collection of strategies to help nurses find their way out of burnout. Having experienced burnout myself, I know that I would not have been receptive to these strategies by the time I needed a leave of absence. However, they may have been helpful at the beginning of my downward spiral. With that in mind, here are a few of the strategies suggested by Espeland (2006) (also known as things I would tell my younger self):
to err is human, to forgive, divine. Remember also that forgiveness does not mean approving of a harmful act: you forgive a person not the act.
Principals & School Leaders
In order to prevent job burnout among your staff members, many options are available. By even making the effort to take care of your employees’ mental health, you are taking a step in the right direction. Coates & Howe (2015) determined a few key aspects in the design and development of staff wellbeing initiatives. An integral component of any wellbeing initiative is to involve the staff members in the development process as much as possible, as their needs and issues are the objective.
Coates, D. D., & Howe, D. (2015). The design and development of staff well being initiatives: staff stressors, burnout and emotional exhaustion at children and young people’s mental health in Australia. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 42(6), 655-663.
Espeland, K. E. (2006). Overcoming burnout: how to revitalize your career.The journal of continuing education in nursing 37(4), 178-184.
Grandey, A., Foo, S. C., Groth, M., & Goodwin, R. E. (2012). Free to be you and me: a climate of authenticity alleviates burnout from emotional labor.Journal of occupational health psychology, 17(1), 1.
Teaching: truly one of the most stressful jobs!
Teachers may often claim that they have one of the most stressful jobs. Yet this is not just another baseless complaint- it is actually grounded in academic research. Papastylianou & Polychronopoulos (2009) found that most studies demonstrate that teaching is one of the most high stress social professions, as it necessitates close relationships with other people and quick decision-making skills that may have serious repercussions on those involved, whether economic, social or other.
In addition, when compared to other professions, school teachers show higher levels of exhaustion and cynicism, which are significant predictors of job burnout (cited in Hakanen, Bakker & Schaufeli, 2006). In the same study conducted in Finland by Hakanen, Bakker & Schaufeli (2006), results showed that teachers had the highest level of burnout compared to workers in all other human services and white collar jobs. These results are not limited to Finland. In a comparative study by Pithers, & Soden (1998), results showed that a third of teachers in Great Britain, Holland, Scandinavia, the United States of America, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and other countries report that teaching causes stress or excessive stress.
Ask any teacher what stresses them in their job and you will no doubt get a huge variety of answers. Stresses vary day-to-day depending on interactions with parents and administration, student behaviours, changing job conditions, availability of resources, relationships with colleagues, etc. In a review of literature, Papastylianou & Polychronopoulos (2009) identified the following factors as causes of teacher stress:
This laundry list of factors can be a lot to digest. Most likely, one cannot grasp the whole of it by simply reading the words. I have chosen to explore two of the reasons identified by the academic scholarship that I have experienced, in order to provide a more meaningful understanding of these stressors.
It is important to note that all workers in the field of people-work face important stresses. Hochschild (2003) famously characterized these stresses as “emotional labor”, as employees are required to self-regulate their emotions in order to properly do their work. This may lead to workers employing emotionally draining strategies, such as “surface acting”, meaning that they will display the expected or appropriate emotion, while actually feeling something else on the inside. Others may resort to “deep acting”, wherein employees will both display the appropriate emotion, while trying to mimic that emotion on the inside.
A better strategy would be to aim for “emotional consonance”- in other words, truly feeling the emotion that is portrayed. However, many training programs and many workplaces encourage emotional detachment (as cited in Coates & Howe, 2015), making emotional consonance an unpopular and infrequently used strategy. I experienced this first hand before I took a leave of absence from work due to burnout. Friends, family and colleagues would often advise me to “leave work at work” and not to carry that stress home with me. However, I very strongly believed (and still do) in creating and maintaining strong relationships with my students. How could I have those relationships and invest myself emotionally in my work, yet disconnect when the dismissal bell rang?
I felt pressure to remain professional, and emotionally detached, all while being encouraged to maintain close bonds with my students. Through the lens of Hochschild’s work, I can see that I was encouraged to be “surface acting”- the most damaging approach to emotional labour, as it is so emotionally demanding.
Stoeber & Rennert (2008) describe perfectionism as: “a personality style characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting of excessively high standards for performance accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior.” (p. 38). The value placed on others’ evaluations leads to increased pressure to perform, and meet both one’s own high standards, as well as others’ perceived high standards.
I did not know I was a perfectionist until I suffered from burnout. It was much later that I learned that it can be very hard for perfectionists to change their ways, because it leads to so many benefits. For example, it was my striving for excessively high standards that pushed me to succeed academically, be recognized with awards when I was in the army, run so many marathons, and so on. How could this drive be a bad thing?
Over time, I saw that my high standards and drive for perfection were both
preventing me from enjoying my success (I always wanted something bigger and better) and leading me down a road of exhaustion and despair. In fact, perfectionism has thus long been linked to high levels of stress and job burnout (Stoeber & Rennert (2008). Flett, Hewitt, & Hallett, (1995) authored one of the few studies exploring the link between perfectionism and job stress in teachers. As was predicted, results of their study demonstrated that teachers who indicated a higher level of perfectionism (compared to teachers with low levels of perfectionism) experienced higher stress.
This is a lot to think about, I know. While emotionally heavy, it is essential that teachers regularly take a moment to evaluate how they are feeling emotionally and professionally. We are in a helping profession, and so often, we place the needs of others first, both because our job demands it, and because it's in our nature. Just remember,
you can't pour from an empty cup.
Coates, D. D., & Howe, D. (2015). The design and development of staff wellbeing initiatives: staff stressors, burnout and
emotional exhaustion at children and young people’s mental health in Australia. Administration and Policy in Mental
Health and Mental Health Services Research, 42(6), 655-663.
Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., & Hallett, C. J. (1995). Perfectionism and job stress in teachers. Canadian Journal of School
Geving, A. M. (2007). Identifying the types of student and teacher behaviours associated with teacher stress. Teaching and
Teacher Education, 23(5), 624-640.
Hakanen, J. J., Bakker, A. B., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2006). Burnout and work engagement among teachers. Journal of school
psychology, 43(6), 495-513.
Hochschild, A. R. (2003). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Univ of California Press.
Papastylianou, A., Kaila, M., & Polychronopoulos, M. (2009). Teachers’ burnout, depression, role ambiguity and conflict. Social
Psychology of Education, 12(3), 295-314.
Pithers, R. T., & Soden, R. (1998). Scottish and Australian teacher stress and strain: a comparative study. British Journal of
Educational Psychology,68(2), 269-279.
Stoeber, J., & Rennert, D. (2008). Perfectionism in school teachers: Relations with stress appraisals, coping styles, and
burnout. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 21(1), 37-53.
While I was in university working on my B.Ed., working to become a teacher, my professors would (seemingly) constantly remind us of the “4 by 4 rule”: 40% of teachers will leave the profession within their first four years of teaching. At which point, students would look around at each other, trying to figure out who would stay and who would go, and leaving every individual wondering “will it be me?”. High teacher turnover and teacher burnout may often be talked about, but like most mental health issues, they are shrouded in prejudice and misinformation.
I will be the first to admit I once had many prejudices about teacher burnout. Until I suffered from burnout and depression a year or so ago, there was a lot I didn’t understand and know about the subject. Over the next weekend, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned, through both personal experience and through research.
Why should we talk about
Coates & Howe (2015) have described job burnout is a state of exhaustion and emotional depletion that leads to reduced productivity, poor job satisfaction, increased sickness, growing absenteeism, high staff turnover, and mistakes caused by physical and mental fatigue. (p.655)
Skaalvik & Skaalvik (2009) characterize job burnout as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. (...) Another aspect of burnout is depersonalization, which in teacher burnout refers to negative, cynical attitudes and feelings about students or colleagues. Reduced personal accomplishment refers to a tendency that teachers evaluate themselves negatively as well as general feeling that they are no longer doing a meaningful and important job. (p.518)
Grayson & Alvarez (2008) elaborate on the three aspects of job burnout in the following manner: Emotional Exhaustion occurs when teachers are unable to physically and emotionally provide for students due to overwhelming feelings of fatigue and stress. (...) Depersonalization includes cynical attitudes toward students, parents, and the workplace. In turn, indifferent, cold, or distant attitudes are displayed through generalizing, derogatory labels, or physically distancing actions. Finally, diminished feelings of Personal Accomplishment are found when educators feel as though they are no longer contributing to students’ development. (p.1350)
Teachers have good stories, there's no doubt about it. I've only had my own classroom for a few years, and I have a million hilarious, surprising and embarrassing stories to share! Yet if you're sharing your stories every day, good and bad, it can get a bit heavy.
Every time you re-tell a story, it's like you're re-living it. You are going through the emotions again, and you get to re-analyze everything, again. Read: it's like you are still in school. So if you never turn "off", it's like you spend every waking hour at school.
My name is
and I am a
French teacher in Montreal.
I am passionate about teaching, and
I love to learn and grow!
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