Lindsay Clandfield looks at the reasons why some teachers experience burnout and makes suggestions for how this can be avoided.

What is burnout? | Why do teachers burn out? | What can teachers do to avoid, or fight, burnout? | Further reading

Hi, my name is Lindsay Clandfield and I used to be an enthusiastic teacher. It sounds like the beginning of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, doesn’t it? But it’s true. When I started teaching I had very noble ideas about what I would do with students.

I think back to those very first days of teaching, and the things I did. For example, I used to prepare grammar lessons (then we called them structure lessons) with care and great diligence. It took me ages, partly because I wrote all my instructions out by hand (after one trainer told me I had 'a problem' with instructions – she was right).

At the time I was working two jobs, at a university and a high school. I used to do big projects with the high school students, putting posters and other projects they had made up on the wall (I even purchased the extra material for this with my own money). I organized singing in class with my university students (I can’t sing to save my life). We sang North American folk songs and the occasional pop song. We even produced a class poetry magazine one year.

Yes, I was an enthusiastic teacher.

But a few years later I found my feelings about teaching, about students, even about English begin to change. Here’s what happened:

  • I started cutting corners on the lesson plans, until I stopped making them altogether.
  • I found myself getting a bit annoyed with my students, some of whom didn’t seem to be progressing at all.
  • I had some cynical co-workers, with whom I finally participated in a staff room 'moan' about work one day after a difficult class. Mostly we moaned about difficult students. The collective moans became contagious and addictive.
  • I was working lots of hours (some 28 contact hours a week) and many of my classes were in businesses. So I had to travel around on buses most of the day.
  • I also went through a stage of seriously beginning to wonder what on Earth I was doing teaching English. Did my students really need English? Some did, but for many I wasn’t sure. I started wondering if I wasn’t contributing to some imperialist plan to colonize the world with English.
  • But most of the time I just felt exhausted. Trying to fight this with strong coffees before each class just made me wired. I collapsed into bed every night at 11:30 (after a hurried dinner, having arrived home at 9:30 or 10pm).

I think now I was burning out. Recently the whole area of teacher burnout has been interesting to me, and in this editorial I’d like to share a couple of the things I’ve discovered.

What is burnout?

Scholars define teacher burnout as a condition caused by depersonalization, emotional exhaustion and a diminished sense of accomplishment. One tool that is often used in the United States to measure burnout is called the Maslach Burnout Inventory. It’s like a questionnaire. Here are examples of the kinds of questions it asks. You may want to think of your own situation and how you would answer:

On a scale of 0 (never) to 6 (every day), rate the following sentences.

  1. I feel frustrated by my job.  
  2. I feel fatigued when I get up and have to face another day at work. 
  3. I feel students blame me for their problems.  
  4. I don’t really care what happens to some students.
  5. I feel exhilarated after working closely with my students.  
  6. I have accomplished many worthwhile things in this job.  
  7. I feel I’m positively influencing other people’s lives through my work.  
  8. I can easily create a relaxed atmosphere with my students. 

Basically, if you are scoring high on the first four statements and low on the last four, then there is a good chance you are burning out.

Obviously, when teachers are burned out the quality of their teaching suffers. But burnout also affects their quality of life. Burnout can cause stress-related illnesses, such as hypertension, insomnia, back pains and gastrointestinal disorders. For example, a 2000 report from the Head Teachers Association of Great Britain found that 40 percent of respondents had visited doctors with stress-related illnesses. And a staggering 37 percent of head teacher vacancies were due to ill health and burnout. That is only one example, but in studies across Europe and in the States the message is the same: teacher burnout is dangerous to one’s health, and it’s a real problem.

Why do teachers burn out?

Teaching is one of what researchers into burnout call 'at-risk professions'. The 'at-risk professions' are helping professions. They include social workers, nurses, psychologists and police officers. According to early writers on the professional burnout syndrome, “People who go into the helping professions often have high needs of approval and heightened expectations of themselves.” When these are frustrated, burnout is likely to occur.

Speaking from my own experience, I think I fit the bill. I once heard a speaker on burnout say that “burnout requires a susceptible host: a highly idealistic individual”. I was pretty idealistic about my work, myself and my place in the world. Currently I work on teacher training courses for new teachers, and I encounter the same sentiments time and again. Why do people want to become English teachers? The three most common answers I get are:

  • because they loved languages
  • because they felt it was their calling, their vocation
  • because they want to give something of themselves to students (to make a contribution to a better society – that kind of thing)

So, what happens? Why do we burn out? I believe that when the reality of the job doesn’t match the expectations, you’re at risk of burnout. The teacher and writer James Baldwin once said that the “price one pays for pursuing any profession is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side”.

The ugly side of teaching, and of English teaching in particular, is characterized by the following work conditions: long working hours, a lack of job security, few perks and of course the perennial complaint of low wages. Now, I didn’t go into English teaching to make a lot of money (not many of us do) but the combination of all the above can certainly grind one down.

Additionally, teachers burn out when they feel they are no longer educating and inspiring their students. The causes for this are well known, and they are the usual suspects. They are: student apathy, discipline problems in the classroom, overcrowded classrooms, excessive paperwork and/or excessive testing (and demands for standards to be met at all costs).

In sum, I believe that teachers burnout for one or a combination of the following three big reasons:

  1. Teachers burn out when they lack recognition and thanks.
  2. Teachers burn out when they are overworked and stressed.
  3. Teachers burn out when they don’t see the possibility of change or improvement – either in themselves, or their students.

Incidentally, I should mention that my worse feelings of burnout were after only three years of teaching. This is interesting, because I had always thought of burnout only affecting people after twenty odd years of teaching. Research suggests there is a relationship between age and burnout:

Burnout is greatest when people-workers are young and is lower for older workers. Younger people usually have less work experience than older ones, but it turns out that the effect of age reflects more than just the length of time on the job. 'Older but wiser' seems to be the case here.
(Maslach, 2003)

What can teachers do to avoid, or fight, burnout?

There are, in my opinion, two broad approaches to fighting burnout: the individual approach and the organizational approach.

An individual approach means by starting with what you, the teacher, can do to stop burning out. Here are some good suggestions:

  • Reduce the workload when possible (too many hours is a big problem, especially in private sector/freelance cases). Most teachers agree with this, although low wages and high costs of living in some places make it difficult.
  • Try new approaches to working. This could mean changing the book or material you work with, or changing the group/level/type of students you work with. For me, changing from the high school classes to business classes gave me a fresh perspective and challenge in my work. After a couple of years of business English, I went back to teaching younger students.
  • Another suggestion is to develop yourself as a teacher. Observing colleagues, or having colleagues observe you is an excellent way to break the rut teachers feel they are in. I found that I was able to beat some of my burnout by beginning to work as a teacher trainer and observe other people’s classes for instance.
  • Development needn’t only be in the form of observation – getting more qualified, reading many of the excellent books available now for teachers or engaging in classroom-based research are other ways.
  • Also part of the individual approach would involve adopting healthier living habits. This could be in terms of one’s physical health (cutting down on too much coffee, getting more exercise, eating better) or in terms of one’s mental health and approach to life in general. Many books on managing stress and burnout talk about learning to meditate, or deep relaxation techniques.

The individual approach isn’t easy at times, and solutions to burnout cannot stop there. Teaching can be a lonely job and teachers can face isolation at times, even more so if they are isolating themselves because they are burning out. This is why an organizational approach is also important to consider – how colleagues, school and the wider world can help. Here are some suggestions:

  • First, there are the basic needs – decent wages, smaller class size and not having additional administrative burdens.  I know, I know, sometimes this is wishful thinking but none the less important things to struggle for. And it’s hard for teachers on their own to bring about these kinds of changes. Collaboration is necessary.
  • Time off is also of vital importance. Many teachers I have interviewed about fighting burnout say that a real holiday, or a break and doing something completely different helps immensely. Paid holidays are therefore important, but also the concept of taking leave to recharge one’s batteries.
  • Schools that set up mentoring programmes, or peer observation schemes or other developmental programmes stand a better chance of keeping staff happy and reducing turnover. Having senior teachers responsible for monitoring staff development is another possibility.
  • Finally, sharing with colleagues is another excellent way of combating burnout. In the staffroom, in teacher groups, or with a wider group of teachers. Recent studies conducted both in Canada and in Germany have found that social support had both a direct positive effect on health and a buffering effect in respect of work stress.

I started this editorial by saying that I used to be an enthusiastic teacher. I hit a few bumps along the way. I felt burned out at times. But by engaging in many of the solutions proposed above I’m still teaching. And I still enjoying teaching. And I’m still enthusiastic about it.

What about you? Have you ever felt burned out? Was it for the same reasons as me? What has helped you stay in the world of English teaching? Are there any tips you’d give to others to help them fight burnout? Come and share your ideas in the forum.

To conclude, I’d like to share with you an excerpt from a book I read on teacher burnout by Stephen Truch (see further reading below). His advice, which I have personally found extremely motivating, was as follows.

Do what you need to do. It’s never too late. Join the debate now in the Forum!

Further reading

If you are interested in this subject, here are some books and links that I found particularly good and helpful in preparing this article.

Maslach, C. 2003. The Cost of Caring. Cambridge, MA: Malor Books.
Senior, R. 2006. The Experience of Language Teaching. Cambridge: CUP
Truch, S. 1980. Teacher Burnout and What to do About it. California: Academic Therapy Publications