Teacher alert: Beware burnout

| March 17, 2014 | 0 Comments

Teacher burnout has always existed but has only recently been recognised by teaching and medical fraternities as a real traumatic stress disorder.

Cary Cherniss’s book, Beyond Burnout (Routledge),1 is considered one of the modern definitive texts on the subject. Cherniss says that burnout can affect new and veteran teachers who may frequently hide the symptoms created by the following factors:

1. Inadequate support and preparation for the kinds of emotional and behavioural student problems teachers encounter in today’s classroom. When staff aren’t told why Tommy is rude and aggressive, it can play havoc with everyone’s mental state.

2. No sense of autonomy. Teachers generally consider themselves to be professionals but they’re often not treated this way by students, other staff members, parents, administrators and managers. Even teachers’ own families may not understand the burdens that come with teaching.

3. Loneliness. Growing expectations of teachers – in the use of technology as a teaching tool, for instance – increases their stress, which incrementally decreases their likelihood of sharing ideas and meaningful exchanges of ideas. It’s a widely accepted fact that teachers feel they will be punished if they ‘complain’, so they’re more likely to keep quiet until conflict occurs. Creating safe spaces for teachers to voice their real opinions is not something many schools get right.

4. Routine. Any teacher who’s taught Hamlet for 15 years straight is bound to be a little jaded. ‘Teaching to the test’ is also why many teachers will complain that there are few opportunities for doing new and interesting things. Teachers need to feel real support from principals, parents and colleagues if they’re going to commit to making their classroom’s learner-centred spaces.

Spot the signs

Surviving your first term in a school can be as onerous as making it through term three of year 20. If the following questions lead to you to confront your daily school experience in a new and negative way, then you need to do something about it, soon.

1. Do you feel exhausted and totally drained of physical or emotional energy?

2. Do you find that you leap first to negative conclusions about job-related decisions?

3. Do you find that you are callous with colleagues when perhaps you needn’t be?

4. Do the routines of each day, like assemblies, frustrate you because they feel like a waste of teaching time?

5. Do you feel put upon and misunderstood by everyone around you, or perhaps that you’re being victimised, singled out for criticism or unappreciated?

6. Do you feel that you have no one to talk to?

7. Do you feel that people have unrealistic expectations of you?

8. Do you feel that you are in the wrong career, should move before it’s ‘too late’ but don’t know how to move out of your comfort zone?

9. Are there bureaucratic aspects of your job that you are really starting to resent?

The culture and climate of the school matter

Like all stress-related problems, there is nothing to be ashamed of if you’re feeling over-stressed. Chances are the teacher sitting next to you in the daily staff meeting is feeling just the same way. School heads and management teams need to find creative ways to retain quality staff members by recognising their needs and providing real and lasting support.

Says Professor Maurice Elias, who lectures in the Rutgers University psychology Department in New Jersey in the US, “Teacher burnout is most often an organisational problem and it is insidious because it can remove dedicated teachers from the field of education, sometimes even before they physically leave their jobs. Its solution is found most often in creating a positive, supportive school culture and climate, where teachers are treated as professionals and given the opportunity to collaborate, problem solve, and get needed, reasonable supports in timely ways.”


1. Cherniss, C. (1995) Beyond Burnout: Helping Teachers, Nurses, Therapists and Lawyers Recover From Stress and Disillusionment. New York: Routledge.


Category: Autumn 2014

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