Voices

How can teachers avoid burnout?

By Agi Enyedi

08 May 2015 - 10:34

What are the signs of burnout and how can we avoid it? Teacher trainer Agi Enyedi looks at the issues and provides some advice ahead of her related webinar on 15 May 2015.

What is burnout?

All of us feel tired, even exhausted at times, but this is perfectly normal if you have a full schedule. Some of us may also have felt like calling in sick and staying in bed on a rainy Friday morning, just before a lesson with a challenging group. That’s also understandable. But when the sun is shining and you have a lesson with a motivated group of learners, but still feel unable to face the day, then you are probably on the way to burnout.

Professional burnout is not simply the result of being overworked and underpaid. It can be the result of prolonged stress, and emotional fatigue, feeling isolated and not respected. The condition affects job performance and it is contagious; it may even result in physical illness.

It is not a happy topic but one that we need to talk about if we are to fight it.

Why do teachers suffer burnout?

Burnout often affects people in helping professions: lawyers, doctors, social workers, managers and teachers, among others. For teachers, working with students means constantly trying to respond to their needs while simultaneously meeting the various demands of the organisation. When teachers feel that there is a mismatch between all these demands and the available resources they have for coping with them, stress is induced. The usual culprits mentioned are: lack of time, ideas, materials, expertise and support.

While short periods of intensive work resulting in success and acknowledgement rarely lead to burnout, chronic stress does. It undermines one’s self-worth, reduces the sense of accomplishment, and uses up emotional resources. It builds a wall between a teacher and the professional environment that could otherwise energise them and provide the support they need.

It is a vicious circle: the more serious the burnout, the stronger the isolation becomes. The chances of reintegrating into a healthy professional context diminish as a result.

What are the signs of burnout?

The Maslach Burnout Inventory was created to measure the degree of burnout. It looks into three areas associated with this condition: emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, (negative relation to) personal accomplishment.

In the case of a teacher, the symptoms of emotional exhaustion would include frustration, a lack of interest in teaching, a reluctance to try out anything new, and the blaming of students or the institution for the lack of success.

Depersonalisation is marked by cynicism, poor attitudes towards students, colleagues and the school itself, a lack of contact with others, and growing isolation. Teachers on the road to burnout may not greet their colleagues. They might avoid eye contact, choose not to share their classroom experiences or make no time for socialising.

Teachers suffering from burnout view personal accomplishment negatively: they don't set goals, and have low self-confidence. Professional jealousy adds to the frustration. Relationships suffer, not only professionally – a burned-out person often has an empty private life.

However, it is not easy to spot teachers who are beginning to burn out, for the simple reason that they tend to hide their condition, or because they are not themselves aware of what is wrong with them.

Recognising the early signs of burnout can be vitally important in a good school community. Prevention is always a better route than treatment later on.

What are the effects of burnout?

Burnout is not simply a mood or a psychological state. Emotional, cognitive and physical exhaustion is common among people suffering from burnout, often leading to physical and health-related consequences. The loss of sleep is perhaps the most typical example, but there may be more serious consequences that need medical treatment.

The social effect is also important. Burnout is not an individual problem, it is contagious: a burned-out teacher in the staff room will affect others. Moaning and groaning, not getting involved in activities going on around them – this way of behaving can become accepted, influence others and eventually come to define the climate of the staff room. Engagement and burnout are two sides of the same coin: the more teachers positively engage with their work and those around them, the less chance there is for professional burnout.

What can teachers do about this problem?

In business institutions, burnout is clearly a management issue. In well-managed companies, employee engagement is regularly measured and if the results are poor, human resources step in. Employees are rarely left to sort out this problem by themselves. They are offered more support, more involvement in decision-making, a different system of incentives, coaching, training, and opportunities for growth. These are just some of the ways professionals could receive support, but these solutions might seem less feasible in a school context.

The truth, however, is that school management can play an important part. Rationalising administrative duties, creating a time slot for teachers to share ideas and learn from each other, encouraging teacher co-operation, initiating and valuing innovations, setting up a mentor system for new colleagues – all these are possible in a well-managed educational team.

Creating a good staff room climate is crucial for teachers to stay motivated and positively involved. Teaching is a solitary job. Although we are with our students all the time, it is not our students but our colleagues who form our professional community. Their ideas are important and their appreciation counts. So what makes a good staff room?

When entering a good staff room, one feels a sense of energy. Teachers greet each other, discuss classes and other matters. There is co-operation between teachers in various forms: sharing ideas, teaching materials, successes and problems. Teachers pay attention to each other; they listen and give acknowledgement and feedback. A good staff room often has a meaningful message board (personal, helpful messages, not just announcements). Perhaps most importantly, there is a relaxed atmosphere and there seems to be time for people.

Teachers can also do their part by drawing on one of their professional skills, namely an ability to engage with people. If we can manage our students’ involvement in their own learning, and help them set goals and stay motivated, then it should be possible for teachers to help each other in the same way, and, by doing so, avoid burnout. It means practising what we preach, doing what we require our students to do, and using some of our class management skills in the staff room as well.

Take the following instructions which we say in class on a daily basis: work in pairs or groups, ask questions, listen again, revise, check your work, evaluate yourself, and so on.

These are the techniques we use to create a motivated, focused and co-operative classroom environment. Using the same techniques in the staff room can have the same effect.

Understanding professional burnout can help us see the first signs while it is still relatively easy to prevent it at more serious stages. A good professional community is the most powerful tool for helping teachers avoid burnout. Building such communities is the shared responsibility of school management and teachers, and can lead to the benefit of all.

Teachers and education professionals, register for Agi Enyedi's webinar How to avoid teacher burnout, to take place on 15 May 2015.

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