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ERIC Identifier: ED340812
Publication Date: 1991-07-00
Author: Farber, Barry - Ascher, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.

Urban School Restructuring and Teacher Burnout. ERIC/CUE Digest, Number 75.

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, & Knudsen, 1991).

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 fulfillment.

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 structure.

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 support.


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).


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 Policy Research.

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.


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