Commentary

Teacher Burnout Or Self-Immolation?

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A leading educational magazine adopts as its motto "No one ever said teaching was going to be easy," and emblazons it on mass-circulation posters with cartoons showing teachers in various stages of physical collapse.

A state affiliate of the largest teachers' organization in the nation prints bumper stickers and buys roadside billboard space proclaiming, "If you can read this, thank a teacher."

Countless educational journals publish articles exploring the nature of the phenomenon now known as "teacher burnout."

These messages are intended partially for members of the profession, a reflection of a justifiable need to create a supportive environment in which to share the rigors of contemporary teaching. But a significant amount of this media campaign is aimed at the general public as a public-relations ploy intended to gain sympathy and support for the plight of today's public-school teacher.

The trouble is, these public messages are likely to fall on deaf ears, or worse, to be counterproductive. All the writing about burning out could lead to a phenomenon more akin to self-immolation.

The first problem is that the slogans intended to promote understanding of the difficulties that teachers face are likely to be construed in a negative manner. For instance, "burnout" has a number of connotations. One of the most familiar of these has nothing to do with professional motivation and stress. Rather, it conjures up images in the public mind of a spent space rocket, an expensive item that made a significant contribution to the success of a mission, but is now worthless. We can't expect the public to be any more willing to pay good money to keep burnt-out teachers in the classroom than it is to keep spent rockets in space.

Second, other professional groups--doctors, lawyers, and social workers, for example--who might be thought to be in sympathy with public messages about teaching, actually react incredulously to the publicity given "burnout" in educational circles. Renewal and burnout are professional conditions with long histories, and other groups wonder why it took educators so long to discover that they, too, were subject to them.

Third, with the lack of public confidence in our schools, and the associated beliefs that many teachers are incompetent and that little harm can come from curtailing tax support for public education, publicizing such problems as burnout tends to denigrate further the public image of our schools. The average taxpayer has difficulty understanding why persons so dissatisfied with their jobs remain in them, unless, of course, they are unqualified to do anything else. (The old saw that "Those who can, do; and those who can't, teach" is not dead yet.)

"Burnout" by any definition is a negative phenomenon. The label counters those positive characteristics of the teaching profession in which we have long believed and rightly publicized: the sense of mission, the love for young people, the stimulation of developing intellects, and the opportunity to receive unparalleled personal satisfaction in return.

What teachers need to do now, more than ever before, is emphasize the positive and indicate that even greater educational achievements would be possible with increased financial and moral support from the public. They need to stress that teaching continues to be an exciting, challenging occupation. Given new research findings on the nature of the teaching and learning process and the innovative, instructional strategies and curriculum materials that have followed them, success in the classroom is more likely than in the past. The public must be made to understand, however, that successful schools are not possible without adequate community support and funding.

At the same time, teachers need to follow the lead of other professional groups and mandate a more rigorous program of pre- and in-service education. They need to eliminate once and for all the erroneous notions that teaching is somehow inferior to the other professions, that it requires fewer skills and less knowledge, and that "keeping up" in the field of education is less important. They need to take control of the process of regulating both professional entry and retention, with special attention to weeding out the few incompetents who do so much to hurt the profession's public image.

More attention should be given to Thomas Jefferson's time-honored maxim that "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free ... it expects what never was and never will be." Similarly, if the United States intends to compete successfully with our international economic and political competitors, we ought to devote greater, not fewer, resources to public education. The idea that the American standard of living can sustain itself indefinitely, even with a nation of functional illiterates, should be ridiculed as the myth that it is.

Finally, teachers must not belittle their accomplishments. If all that public-school graduates can do is read a sentence in which eight of the nine words are monosyllabic, then teachers have indeed failed.

Instead, teachers should advertise the accomplishments of the profession: how handicapped children are provided with equal educational opportunity; how the challenges of bilingual and bicultural education have been met; how the school has willingly undertaken roles and functions that the American family now refuses to perform. In short, how, despite admitted failings, the American teacher is educating a broader spectrum of youth to a higher level of education than is true anywhere else in the world.

Surely Americans can be convinced to support their public schools to an extent commensurate with their importance, and that, in turn, should make teacher burnout an increasingly rare phenomenon.

Vol. 01, Issue 23, Page 19

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