ERIC Identifier: ED340812
Publication Date: 1991-07-00
Author: Farber, Barry - Ascher, Carol
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.