ERIC Identifier: ED477726
Publication Date: 2002-12-00
Author: Wood, Teri - McCarthy, Chris
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education
Understanding and Preventing Teacher Burnout. ERIC Digest.
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 environment.
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 for burnout.
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 to teaching.
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 resisting stress.
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
* 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 palpitations
* Incapacitation and an inability to function professionally in severe
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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