any teachers find the demands of being a
professional educator in today's schools difficult and at times
stressful. When work stress results in teacher burnout, it can have
serious consequences for the health and happiness of teachers, and also
the students, professionals, and families they interact with on a daily
The nature of the stress response
When a potentially threatening event is encountered, a reflexive,
cognitive balancing act ensues, weighing the perceived demands of the
event against one's perceived ability to deal with them (Lazarus &
Folkman, 1984). Events perceived as potential threats trigger the stress
response, a series of physiological and psychological changes that occur
when coping capacities are seriously challenged. The most typical
trigger to the stress response is the perception that ones' coping
resources are inadequate for handling life demands. According to current
models of stress, we are constantly taking the measure of the daily
demands we experience in life and comparing this to the resources we
possess for dealing with them. If our resources appear equal to the
demands, we view them as mere challenges. If, however, demands are
viewed as exceeding our resources, they become stressors and trigger the
stress response. Accordingly, teacher stress may be seen as the
perception of an imbalance between demands at school and the resources
teachers have for coping with them (Esteve, 2000; Troman & Woods, 2001).
Symptoms of stress in teachers can include anxiety and frustration,
impaired performance, and ruptured interpersonal relationships at work
and home (Kyriacou, 2001). Researchers (Lecompte & Dworkin, 1991;
Farber, 1998; Troman & Woods, 2001) note that teachers who experience
stress over long periods of time may experience what is known as
Development of the burnout construct
Matheny, Gfroerer, and Harris (2000) noted that earlier research into
the phenomenon described burnout as a loss of idealism and enthusiasm
for work. Freudenberger (1974), a psychiatrist, is largely credited with
first using the term. Maslach and Jackson refined the meaning and
measurement of the burnout construct in the 1980s (Maslach & Jackson,
1981; Maslach & Schaufeli, 1993) to include three sub-domains: (1)
depersonalization, in which one distances oneself from others and views
others impersonally; (2) reduced personal accomplishment, in which one
devalues one's work with others; and (3) emotional exhaustion, in which
one feels emptied of personal emotional resources and becomes highly
vulnerable to stressors. In particular, depersonalization may be
expressed through poor attitudes towards students and the work
environment. Teachers may be at greater risk for depersonalization
because their daily work life often includes large doses of isolation
from their professional peers. While teachers do interact with others on
a regular basis throughout the workday, the majority of such
interactions are with students, and not with other teachers or
professional staff members who might better understand the demands
teachers face. Factors such as the physical layout of most campuses,
with teachers working alone in their classrooms, and scheduling
constraints that make finding time to meet with peers virtually
impossible, can cause teachers to feel disconnected (Bennett & LeCompte,
1990). This depersonalization may act as a protective mechanism, as
evidenced by the descriptions of “worn-out” teachers, whose cynical
views towards students and teaching allowed them to continue to remain
in the field, even in a diminished capacity (Farber, 1998). While
depersonalization may act as some protection for teachers, it also may
encourage isolation, strengthening the risk for burnout.
An important finding from early studies was that
teachers at risk for burnout came to see their work as futile and
inconsistent with the ideals or goals they had set as beginning teachers
(Bullough & Baughman, 1997). Other early studies cited role conflict and
role ambiguity as significantly related to burnout (Dworkin, 1986). Role
conflict occurs when a teacher is faced with conflicting expectations of
the job. For example, role conflict may arise from discrepancies between
ideals of what it means to be a good teacher. Role ambiguity relates
more to a sense of confusion about one's goals as a teacher including a
sense of uncertainty about the responsibilities related to teaching.
LeCompte and Dworkin (1991) developed a more
extensive description of burnout as an extreme type of role-specific
alienation with a focus on feelings of meaninglessness, especially as
this applies to one's ability to successfully reach students, a finding
also supported by Farber (1998). LeCompte and Dworkin (1991) identified
powerlessness in defining professional roles as being instrumental in
creating stress. Additionally, a sense of both physical and mental
exhaustion exacerbated by the belief that expectations for teachers are
constantly in flux, or in conflict with previously held beliefs, has
been cited by numerous researchers as influencing teacher burnout (Bullough
& Baughmann, 1997; Brown & Ralph, 1998; Hinton & Rotheiler, 1998; Esteve,
2000; Troman & Woods, 2001).
Prevention of burnout
Albee (2000), one of the pioneers of prevention research, points out
that, “It is accepted public health doctrine that no disease or disorder
has ever been treated out of existence” (p. 847). It is far better if
the roots of teacher burnout are identified and eliminated before the
syndrome develops, rather than treating it after it has already
occurred. Across the various medical professions, a distinction has been
made between three levels of prevention interventions: (a) Primary
prevention, where the goal is to reduce the incidence of new cases of a
disorder, (b) secondary prevention, where the goal is early
identification and treatment of symptoms before they turn into a
full-blown disorder, and (c) tertiary prevention, where persons who have
recently suffered a disorder receive some type of intervention to
prevent relapse (Conyne, 1991). Such preventative interventions may
either be done at the organizational level, with changes in the school
environment, or at the individual level, in which the goal is to
strengthen teachers' resources for resisting stress.
Primary prevention of teacher burnout
Organizational practices that prevent teacher burnout are generally
those that allow teachers some control over their daily challenges. At
the individual level, self-efficacy and the ability to maintain
perspective with regard to daily events have been described as
“anxiety-buffers” (Greenberg, 1999). At the institutional level, other
factors may help mitigate teacher stress. Chris Kyriacou (2001), who
draws from an Education Service Advisory Committee report (1998), offers
the following advice for schools:
Consult with teachers on matters, such as
curriculum development or instructional planning, which directly
impact their classrooms.
Provide adequate resources and facilities to
support teachers in instructional practice.
Provide clear job descriptions and expectations
in an effort to address role ambiguity and conflict.
Establish and maintain open lines of
communication between teachers and administrators to provide
administrative support and performance feedback that may act as a
buffer against stress.
Allow for and encourage professional development
activities such as mentoring and networking, which may engender a
sense of accomplishment and a more fully developed professional
identity for teachers.
Secondary prevention of teacher burnout
Efforts at secondary prevention focus primarily on early detection
of problems before they emerge as full-blown disorders. Symptoms of
teacher stress as contributing to burnout may take many forms (Brown &
Ralph, 1998). Studies by several researchers (c.f., Brown & Ralph, 1998;
Hinton & Rotheiler, 1998; Kyriacou, 2001; Troman & Woods, 2001), report
the following as early symptoms of teacher stress and burnout:
Feeling like not going to work or actually
Having difficulty in concentrating on tasks
Feeling overwhelmed by the workload and having a
related sense of inadequacy to the tasks given to them
Withdrawing from colleagues or engaging in
conflictual relationships with co-workers
Having a general feeling of irritation regarding
Experiencing insomnia, digestive disorders,
headaches, and heart palpitations
Incapacitation and an inability to function
professionally in severe instances
Tertiary prevention — ameliorating burnout
Once teacher burnout has occurred, a decision must be made as to
whether the teacher can or is willing to continue their work. Troman and
Woods (2001) acknowledge that a series of stressful events or a single
major event may lead teachers to make what they term 'pivotal
decisions.' Although teachers go through many such events over the
course of a career, the teachers interviewed by Troman and Woods rarely
viewed decisions made in response to high levels of stress as
transformative in the positive sense. Personal factors also figure into
a teacher's decision to stay in a school, with the current labor market,
personal financial and family obligations, and years in the field all
being instrumental in the decision making process. In hard economic
times, teachers may stay with the relatively stable profession of
teaching due to a lack of outside possibilities for a career change. The
promise of retirement benefits that increase with added years of service
is a draw to teachers who have already accumulated more than a few years
of service. In looking at teachers and stress, Troman and Woods (2001)
used interviews and observational data collected from teachers teaching
at The Gladstone Primary School and from teachers who had left the
school in the aftermath of Gladstone being designated as poorly
performing during an accreditation inspection. Interviews were analyzed
using theme analysis and the constant comparative method. Data gathered
suggests that teachers generally fall into three categories when
reacting to stress and burnout. Some teachers simply end their careers
as professional educators. Others seek relief from stress by
"downshifting:" taking a less prestigious or demanding role, redefining
their job as a part time instructor, or by having previously held duties
assigned to other teachers. Some teachers choose to reframe their sense
of identity as educators; for these teachers, this may involve
developing outside interests, placing more emphasis on family and
friends or relocating to a more favorable school environment.
Burnout results from the chronic perception that one is unable to
cope with daily life demands. Given that teachers must face a classroom
full of students every day, negotiate potentially stressful interactions
with parents, administrators, counselors, and other teachers, contend
with relatively low pay and shrinking school budgets, and ensure
students meet increasingly strict standards of accountability, it is no
wonder many experience a form of burnout at some point in their careers.
Efforts at primary prevention, in which teachers' jobs are modified to
give them more control over their environment and more resources for
coping with the demands of being an educator, are preferable over
secondary or tertiary interventions that occur after burnout symptoms
have surfaced. However, research reviewed here indicates each type of
prevention can be useful in helping teachers contend with an occupation
that puts them at risk for burnout.
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