Five-step plan on how to avoid teacher burnout

By Grace Shangkuan Koo, PhD
Associate Professor of Educational Psychology
University of the Philippines

Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer
3 August 2009

Recently I was invited to speak in one of the teacher workshops organized by the Jesuit Basic Education Commission in celebration of the Ateneo Sesquicentennial year. The session was titled “Thriving in an Exciting Vocation: How to Avert Teacher Burnout.”

Even the best of teachers suffer occupational stresses. An informal survey of stressors among this group of participants (mainly teachers and administrative staff of Xavier High School) revealed the top five for them were time pressure, workload, red tape and bureaucracy, pupil misbehavior, and role ambiguacy, which tied with inadequate resources.

Causes of stress

Research has shown that teachers also experience stress because of poor working conditions, low remuneration, staff conflicts, lack of recognition, lack of involvement in decision making, lack of communication, lack of support, inequity and lack of reciprocity.
Only one participant indicated low remuneration among his top five stresses. On the other side of Katipunan Avenue, if the faculty of the premiere university were asked, the survey would most probably produce very different results.

The Equity Theory says people pursue balance between what they invest in a career (such as relationship, time, skills and effort) and the benefits the gain from it (status, appreciation, gratitude and pay).

Disturbance of this balance is expected to result in negative outcomes.

There are at least three relationship exchanges in school: Teacher and students, teacher and colleagues, and teacher and institution.

Teachers who do their best for students who do not care experience lack of reciprocity. Teachers who give a lot of effort to common department work while their colleagues are loafing will experience inequity. Teachers who have been doing an excellent job in a low-paying institution that does not recognize their efforts are carrying the brunt of inequity.

Inequity, whether experienced or perceived in any of these relationships, will result in strain and withdrawal that turn to burnout when extended for a period of time.

Major components

Burnout has three major components: Exhaustion, depersonalization and lack of personal accomplishment.

Exhaustion happens when one has the feeling of being emotionally overextended – deplete of one’s emotional resources and experiencing frustrations. I have observed these quite commonly among pre-school, elementary and high school teachers overloaded by the mere number of hours each day they face a large number of students.

As a protective mechanism, these teachers go through the depersonalization mode: Becoming indifferent to and detached from students, treating them as numbers; becoming emotionally hardened and negative; not wanting to care too much; becoming cynical, negative; and with diminished commitment to institution.

Thus the more teachers are not giving their best – functioning at the minimum level – the less the productivity and eventually the lower the self-efficacy. Research shows that teachers who have been on the job 13-24 years are the most likely to burn out.

Consequences

Burnout results in low quality of teaching. Research has shown that the difference between being taught by a highly capable teacher and being taught by a less-than-capable teacher can translate into a full grade level of achievement in a single school year.

Furthermore, burnt out teachers have low tolerance of student misbehavior; experience job satisfaction; suffer work alienation; physical and emotional ill-health; have reduced commitment to the institution; think a lot about quitting and leaving the profession; and suffer from depression.

5-step plan

How do you prevent burnout? Try this five-step plan:

Step 1 – Identify what stresses you each day. Reconstruct the situation, be aware of what you were feeling before and after that situation, and analyze how you handled yourself.

Step 2 – Learn what you can control. What can you change? What can’t you change? In what areas do you refuse to admit that you can do something to bring about change? In what areas do you refuse to admit you have no power to change? Being more on the obsessive-compulsive side, this is a lesson to learn repeatedly.

Step 3 – Begin to change what you can. Is it the schedule, workload, classroom, office space, teaching method? Do it one small step at a time. List your small successes.

Step 4 – Change your perception. What feelings are hindering you? What feelings are helping you? Are there assumptions that are wrong? Changing beliefs can change feelings. An example for me was, “excellence does not mean perfection.”

Step 5 – Seek support. Who are your supports? Can you find help among your colleagues, friends, family and mentors? How is your support system working? Who can you turn to for tough love and advice?

What else may be helpful? Saying to myself some of the following lines has been helpful when I’m beginning to feel stressed:

“Life is not always fair.”

“I cannot control everything in a situation.”

“I am responsible for how I react to situations and to other people.”

“I do not always have to be right.”

“I do make mistakes and can handle them.”

“I should not expect to meet everyone’s expectations.”

“I do not always have to be loved and approved of by everyone.”

“Running away from problems does not solve them.”

“Let go of the negative and move on to the future.”

“I am capable of change.”

Change we can. Fellow teachers, look up!

E-mail the author at grace@koo.org

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2 Comments

  1. Something to add: We have spheres of control. We have to accept that we can’t control anything beyond those, but we also have to realize that -we- are completely under our own control. Thus, how we react to stressful situations is our responsibility. My pastor once said that when we are confronted with difficult situations, do we react [instinctively] or respond [conscientiously]?

  2. I added your post to my favorites. This is a tough time of year to be a teacher. Complete burnout.

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