Teacher Burnout Research Paper Starter

Teacher Burnout

In the United States, teacher burnout has become a commonly used term. With a predicted teacher shortage, coupled with the increasing attention on the central role of education on the economic future of the country, teacher burnout has become an increasingly important topic. Teacher burnout occurs over a period of time, when the job functions and/or organizational structures of the school introduce stressors that the individual is repeatedly ineffective at handling in a healthy manner. The warning signs of teacher burnout include depersonalization (distancing oneself from others), exhaustion or depression, and a lack of confidence in one's own abilities. Teacher burnout can lead to issues such as a decline in student learning, poor teaching, teacher absenteeism, and teacher attrition.

Keywords Attrition; Burnout; Depersonalization; Depression; Exhaustion; Protective Factors; Self-Concept; Stress; Teacher Absenteeism

School Administration


In the United States, teacher burnout has become a commonly used term. With a predicted teacher shortage, coupled with the increasing attention on the central role of education on the economic future of the country, teacher burnout has become an increasingly important topic. Teaching is traditionally recognized as a highly stressful occupation, associated with high levels of burnout (Hastings & Bham, 2003). Certain factors appear to put teachers at greater risk. For example, Wood & McCarthy (2002) note that teachers are often isolated from their peers, leading to depersonalization (distancing oneself from others such as students, other teachers or administrators, or parents). Other possible stressors include a lack of community and role ambiguity (Gold, 2001). Huston (2001) notes that teaching "benefits" may include "limited opportunities for career advancement, lack of autonomy, poor salaries, non-motivated and unruly students, heavy workloads, demanding parents, and bureaucratic and administrative pressures" (page 70). Another factor that has affected the teaching profession is that women (who have traditionally made up the majority of the teaching force) have more professional opportunities than ever before, and that there are significantly higher salaries available in other fields. These conditions have contributed to individuals leaving or never considering the teaching profession (Huston, 2001).

The concept of teacher burnout was first recognized during the early 1970s, and defined as a stress-related condition (Gold, 2001). Herbert Freudenberger is widely attributed to first coining the term "burnout" in 1974 while conducting research in New York (Wood & McCarthy, 2002). There are various definitions of burnout today, and often the term is used in the same way as "stress." However, while the two are related, they are not the same.

Burnout vs. Stress

In order to understand teacher burnout, one must first understand the concept and sequence of the stress response. The terms burnout and stress are often used interchangeably, and this is an error in understanding the true nature of burnout (Iwanicki, 1983). Lazarus & Folkman (1984, as cited by Wood & McCarthy, 2002) describe the stress response: when an event occurs that is potentially threatening, the body and brain evaluate the situation. It measures the perceived demands against one's perceived ability to fulfill these demands. Those events that emerge as threats that the individual cannot overcome trigger the stress response, a chain of physiological events that, over time, can be harmful. If we feel we can meet the demands of the situation we are able to cope and meet these challenges. Another way to look at life stressors is through the lenses of "good" stress versus "bad" stress. Selye (1974, as cited by Iwanicki, 1983) describes two types of stress: "eustress" and "distress." The former type of stress is considered positive, and occurs when an individual is faced with a stressful situation that they feel in control of. Eustress actually often enhances performance. Examples may include an important athletic event an individual has prepared fully for, or a work presentation that a team has worked extremely hard on. This type of stress is actually healthy and optimizes an individual's performance. The latter type of stress, distress, is unhealthy stress and has the ability to hinder performance. This type of stress, if repetitive over a long period of time, can lead to burnout (Iwanicki, 1983).

Stress occurs on the way to burnout. However, heavy stress does not always lead to burnout. Burnout most often occurs when stressors occur, and coping strategies are absent. Researchers believe that burnout is a product of repetitive and frequent ineffective efforts to handle stressful situations (Gold, 2001). Teacher burnout is a serious worry, and manifests itself in physical as well as psychological symptoms. It is not unusual for teachers to feel stressed; however, burnout is a much more complex and serious phenomenon that has critical consequences (Iwanicki, 1983). Symptoms of burnout include feelings and symptoms most frequently associated with depression: hopelessness, helplessness, and sadness (Gold, 2001). Freudenberger (1981, as cited by Gold, 2001) found however, that the difference between depression and burnout was that burnout was associated more heavily with feelings of conscious anger. Teachers who are experiencing burnout may also find they are:

• Emotionally exhausted,

• Unable to connect deeply with their students, and

• Have low levels of confidence in their ability to accomplish their goals.

These are the three symptoms that are largely used to diagnose burnout today (Hastings & Bham, 2003). Chronic and frequent stress has also been linked with physical symptoms such as headaches, allergies, insomnia, high blood pressure, and in extreme cases, diseases such as diabetes or ulcers (Iwanicki, 1983).

The impact of teacher burnout on education is critical - teacher burnout contributes to other issues such as leaving the teaching profession, teacher absenteeism, and lower achievement for students (Hastings & Bham, 2003). Chronic negative stress has also been associated with negative behaviors such as alcoholism, drug addictions, obesity, divorce, and personal life conflicts.

Further Insights

Models of Teacher Burnout

There are several models of teacher burnout and why it occurs. Iwanicki (1983) attributes teacher burnout to three sources of distress: societal, organizational, and role-related stressors.

Societal Stress

Societal sources of stress include declining support among the public for public education, as well as declining respect and appreciation for the teaching profession. Furthermore, the teaching profession today faces increased demands from the public. High stakes testing demands teachers obtain positive testing results from their students, to prove their students are learning.

Organizational Pressures

Secondly, organizational pressures associated with the teaching profession also contribute to teacher burnout. Schools are often hierarchical, and teachers may have little or no control over their classroom practices or what they teach. Teachers who do not have control over what goes on in their classrooms, or don't have the freedom to do what they believe is best for their students still face the pressure to succeed through raising test scores. Often, the demands placed upon teachers may come with insufficient resources to meet these demands. Teachers may feel isolated and resentful due to these organization burdens (Iwanicki, 1983).

Role-Related Distress

Third, role-related distress is another source of stress for teachers. This occurs when there is a difference between what a teacher is prepared for versus the environment in which encounter when they teach. Teachers who enter an environment which they are not prepared for often experience this type of stress. For example, a teacher who has performed student teaching in a school that is well staffed and supplies are at hand, but then lands a teaching job in a school with a large majority of underserved students and lack of supplies, may experience this type of stress. Sources of role related distress may also include issues of student discipline, dealing with curriculum issues for certain students, or developing relationships with other teachers and administrators (Iwanicki, 1983).

Other Symptoms/Factors

Wood & McCarthy (2002) note that the first models of teacher burnout included symptoms such as a losing idealism and decreased interest in teaching. However, this definition was later refined in the 1980s. Wood & McCarthy (2002) note three major factors that are widely acknowledged as related to teacher burnout today:

• Depersonalization,

• Devaluing of one's work, and

• Emotional exhaustion.

Depersonalization occurs when an individual becomes emotionally distanced from others. Teachers who experience burnout may have trouble connecting to students and/or their colleagues, as well as parents. Teacher burnout is also often accompanied by a devaluation of one's work - seeing the work one does as inconsequential or meaningless. Emotional exhaustion occurs in burnout, and may manifest itself in physical symptoms. Ironically, emotional exhaustion can lead to increased stress, propagating a vicious cycle.

Teacher Personality

Certain personality types may also be more susceptible to burnout than others. Research has found that individuals who are extremely high achievers (or perfectionists) are more likely to burn out (Gold, 2001). Friedman (1991) also found the following groups were more likely to report burnout: male teachers, teachers with higher education levels, and older teachers (burnout rates peaking at around 41-45 years old, then declining).

These individual characteristics may be increasingly...

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