Professional Development

What is Teacher Burnout?

Teacher burnout occurs when educators experience excess stress and are unable to enact positive change. This results in high turnover rates as teachers feel compelled to leave the profession.

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What are the warning signs of teacher burnout?

Although many young professionals are keen to enter the education sector, teacher burnout means schools are often struggling to retain their staff. Affecting newly-qualified teachers as well as experienced educators, teacher burnout is responsible for the high rate of staff turnover in many schools.

All industries experience turnover in terms of staffing, but the turnover in the education sector is above the national average, and this can have a damaging impact on schools, staff and the industry as a whole.

NPR Education recently reported that over half a million teachers are leaving the profession every year. After undertaking extensive training and continuing development programs, what is causing these teachers to abandon the industry they are so passionate about?

Various theories to account for the high rate of teacher turnover have been put forward, but the most likely explanation is a culmination of issues, such as:
  • Limited funding
  • Additional administrative requirements
  • Socio-economic issues
  • Time constraints

As well their job roles continually expanding and having to undertake an ever-increasing amount of administrative tasks, teachers must also assist students with a wide range of socio-economic issues and this can place an emotional burden on educators. In addition to this, on-going teacher evaluations and the requirement to undertake regular continuing development programs adds to the stresses and strains of being a teacher.

Of course, the issue of funding is certainly relevant and it’s likely that this is a contributing factor to the high number of teachers suffering from stress and burnout. With many teachers forced to take on a second job in order to supplement their income, commute long distances to work as they cannot afford to live in the same district in which they teach and most teachers buying classroom supplies from their own funds, the financial issues facing teachers should not be underestimated.

It’s clear there are many reasons why teachers experience burnout and schools should put measures in place to assist teachers wherever possible. One way of preventing teachers from burning out is to recognize the signs associated with chronic stress and workplace burnout.

Teacher burnout stages

People may exhibit symptoms of stress in different ways and there is no set way that burnout occurs. However, there are common signs of teacher burnout which often occur when teachers are feeling overwhelmed or stuck.

Looking out for the following symptoms can help teachers who may be at risk of suffering from teacher burnout:

Stage 1: Inflexibility

When teachers exhibit signs of inflexibility or rigidity they often ignore or reject help and advice from their colleagues. In an attempt to stay afloat, professionals may insist that ‘everything is fine’ but their behavior may indicate increased stress and/or self-neglect.

Stage 2: Anger and tetchiness

Teaching requires a lot of patience and most teachers develop an inordinate amount of patience throughout their career! If a colleague seems more irritable than usual, however, it may be a sign of burnout. If a teacher is snappier than usual or seems to become angry more quickly than they normally would, they may be on their way to suffering from burnout.

Unfortunately, on-going irritability can result in the teacher feeling worse which, in turn, fuels stressful feelings and a sense of inadequacy. Teachers may also notice their moods, emotions and routines being affected at this stage.

Stage 3: Distrust

When teachers are in the throws of burnout they may lack trust in everyone around them. Some teachers may appear paranoid that colleagues are out to undermine them or ‘steal’ their job. In addition to this, teachers may attempt to self-medicate when they are experiencing stage 3 of burnout.

As educators may feel depressed, alone and isolated during this period, it’s not uncommon for people to turn to cigarettes or alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate.

Stage 4: Exhaustion and leaving the profession

If teachers get to stage 4 burnout, it’s highly likely they will leave the profession. Individuals experience physical, emotional and mental exhaustion at this stage and are utterly unable to continue in their role. In some cases, teachers may have struggled to cope with the earlier stages of burnout for months or years and finally feel they have no other option than to quit teaching.

When teachers have experienced the earlier stages of burnout and feel unable to make any positive changes, it is this feeling of being ‘stuck’ with no way forward which pushes may people to leave the profession. Without support from colleagues or management teams, teachers may feel isolated and ignored, which only strengthens the belief that no positive changes can be made.

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How to reduce teacher burnout

As soon as teachers recognize symptoms of burnout in themselves, they should try and increase the amount of self-care in their routine. Whilst time constraints may make this appear difficult, the benefits of increased self-care far outweigh the potential damage caused by untreated teacher burnout.

Self-care means something different to everyone but can include:
  • Creating time for hobbies
  • Practicing relaxation techniques
  • Leaving work at work
  • Spending time with family and friends
  • Committing to an exercise regime
  • Focusing on personal goals

School administrators, principals and teachers should always look out for the signs of burnout in their colleagues and offer support where possible. As well as providing the individual with the essential support they require, early intervention can help to prevent teachers from leaving the profession and reverse the trend of high staff turnover rates.

Although teacher burnout does result in people leaving the education sector, it isn’t simply a straightforward choice to retrain in another career. In fact, teachers who have experienced burnout may suffer physical, mental and emotional illness as a result of the condition.

For many teachers, it will take months or years of holistic treatment in order to recover from the effects of burnout. By taking a pro-active approach to the issue, principals and school leadership teams can ensure their colleagues do not suffer because of their roles and that the education sector offers a safe, supportive and rewarding environment in which to work.