Lindsay Clandfield

The dream and reality of becoming a teacher

When I decided I wanted to become a teacher, I had big ideas about what my life would be like. I imagined myself and my students going on wonderful journeys of discovery into the English language. I pictured all sorts of great projects that my classes would do (this was pre-internet days so in my imagination these projects were always on big poster-sized pieces of paper). I was very enthusiastic about my future.

Of course, as any teacher can tell you, I was in for a bit of a shock. While I did have some great experiences teaching, I also had a fair share of bad ones. After a couple of years I noticed that my enthusiasm was waning. I noticed I had stopped making my lesson plans as nicely as I did in the past. I was getting annoyed with my students more and more. I had some terrible classes I could not cope with. I also 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. At this time in my teaching life 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. The result? 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 was probably suffering from what occupational psychologists would call burnout.

What is burnout

Burnout is a response to chronic, everyday stress, rather than to occasional crises. It is a condition caused by depersonalization, emotional exhaustion and a diminished sense of accomplishment. To determine whether a person is suffering from burnout there is a tool called the Maslach Burnout Inventory. It’s like a questionnaire and has been widely used in the United States. Here are examples of the kinds of questions it asks, which I have adapted for teachers. You may want to think of your own situation and how you would answer:

For each of the following sentences rate how true it is for you on a scale of 1 (always) to 5 (never)

1 I feel tired when I get up and have to go and teach.

2 I feel frustrated by my job.

3 I feel students blame me for their problems.                                                    

4 I don’t care what happens to some students.

5 I feel that I have accomplished many worthwhile things as a teacher.               

6 When I work closely with students I feel exhilarated by my job.                     

7 I feel that as a teacher I am a positive influence on people’s lives.                   

8 It is easy for me to create a relaxed atmosphere with students.

How did you do? If you scored high on the first four sentences and low on the last four sentences then you are probably close to burnout!

Burnout – a teacher’s occupational hazard?

Teaching is a profession with high turnover and burnout. It’s interesting that teachers share this characteristic with social workers, nurses and firefighters. Why? These are all examples of ‘helping professions’. People who choose these kinds of ‘helping professions’ often have a high need for approval and high expectations of themselves. Additionally, the intense nature of classrooms in terms of relations between people means that teachers are vulnerable to emotionally draining and discouraging experiences.

The English teaching profession is no exception. In many senses, it could be worse. Relatively low wages, unsociable hours, lack of communication or sense of community with others, the feeling that one is not a “real teacher” can all aggravate a sense of failed achievement and lead to burnout.

Research on teacher burnout in Greece has been limited. In a study of primary and secondary teachers Koustelios and Kousteliou (1998) found they were quite satisfied with their work but not with their salaries and their work prospects. Other studies (Kantas and Vassilaki 1997) have concluded that Greek teachers experience less burnout in comparison to their colleagues from other European countries. However, these studies are all now quite old and it would be fair to say the situation has changed considerably over the past ten years.

When does burnout set in? It depends on individual teachers. For some it can happen after one year, for others after fifteen years. For some it never happens. But can one avoid it? And if so, how? The answer to these questions is yes.

Preventing and recovering from burnout

So, what does this mean for teachers suffering from burnout? Do we just have to give up for our own health? Or do we have to suffer through it in silence? Fortunately, the answer is no to both questions. There are two broad approaches to fighting burnout: an individual approach and an organizational approach. An individual approach means by starting with what you, the teacher, can do. 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.

Ten ideas for fighting burnout

The following ten ideas are a mixture of individual and organization suggestions for fighting or preventing burnout. Hopefully there is something in here for everyone!

  1. 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.
  2. Try to reduce the amount of work 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.
  3. Work on professional development. This could mean observing colleagues, or having colleagues observe you. It’s an excellent way to break the routine. 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 or blogs available now for teachers or engaging in classroom-based research are other ways.
  4. Contribute to the profession. Write something for a local journal or newsletter. Do a workshop. Start a blog about teaching. Contributing will make you feel more connected to a wider teaching community. With technology today this is easier than it ever was.
  5. Get healthy. Obviously this could be your physical health (don’t drink too much coffee, get more exercise, eat better). But your mental health and life attitude is also important. Many books on managing stress and burnout talk about learning to meditate, or deep relaxation techniques.
  6. Lobby and pressure for basic needs. Teachers never became teachers to get rich, but decent wages, smaller class sizes and not having additional administrative burdens are all things worth fighting for in our profession.  I know, I know, sometimes this is wishful thinking but nevertheless important. It’s hard for teachers on their own to bring about these kinds of changes. Collaboration is necessary.
  7. Take time off. This is 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 so is the concept of taking leave to recharge one’s batteries.
  8. Be a mentor or be mentored. Schools that set up mentoring programmes, or peer observation schemes or other developmental programmes keep staff happier. They have less turnover of teachers too. Another possibility is to have senior teachers. These teachers would be responsible for monitoring staff development.
  9. Share with colleagues. This 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. This comes back to the point about contributing above. And it’s so much easier now!
  10. Participate in a workshop, conference or professional development event. If it’s not organized by your school, then seek out an opportunity to link with other teachers and find out what’s going on in your local area. Conferences are great places to refresh yourselves and find support from each other. Take advantage of these wherever you can!