School & District Management

How Can Schools Make a Firebreak for Teacher Burnout?

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 10, 2017 3 min read
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New teachers can learn a lot from fellow teachers in their first five years on the job: how to settle a rowdy class, how to move a lesson from mildly interesting to riveting, how to spot a struggling student. They also, a new study suggests, learn burnout from their school environment and peers.

“It’s not a question of how hard you work or how professional you are,” said Kenneth Frank, a professor of sociometrics at Michigan State University and co-author of the study published in the journal Teaching and Teacher Education. “If you just don’t fit the demands of the organization, or you are surrounded by other people who are burned out, it’s an additional burden on you, and you are more likely to become burned out.”

Frank and colleagues at Michigan State and the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education tracked teachers in their first four years on the job in 10 districts in Michigan and Indiana. They looked at the stress and burnout levels of the novice teachers’ mentors and close colleagues, surveying how much teachers agreed with statements like “I feel used up at the end of the workday” or “I feel frustrated by my work.” But they also examined broader structural issues in the teachers’ schools, like the concentration of poverty among their students, but also the school’s professional climate, such as whether teachers trusted their colleagues and leaders and whether teachers generally felt their instructional approach fit with others at the school.

The best predictor of whether a young teacher would burn out in his or her first four years on the job was the average stress and burnout level of teachers in the school. In fact, it was a stronger indicator than the concentration of poverty among the school’s students. While schools that had more low-income students were also more likely to have stressed teachers, it didn’t neccessarily lead to burnout among young teachers if their school climate was strong and healthy.

“One of the key things colleagues can do is to help [a new teacher] filter conflicting demands. If you have to implement reforms A, B, and C while paying attention to standardized test scores and adapting to the Common Core [State Standards], and you are trying to do that all at once, that can be a lot of stress,” Frank said. “Teachers who have learned to integrate and prioritize different elements are less likely to be burned out themselves and more likely to convey [integration skills] to their colleagues.”

Researchers found that many teachers at the start of their careers had mentors, either through formal programs or casual aquaintances, but formal mentors didn’t have as much of an impact on young teachers’ stress levels as did other teachers in their social circles.

“Formal mentors are usually assigned by the district, and it’s not always a really thoughtful match ... sometimes it’s not even in the same grade,” Frank said. “We found after a fairly short amount of time, early-career teachers look for their own mentors among colleagues"—and if their colleagues are too stressed or burned out to give them much attention, young teachers have one less support.

In the end, the researchers concluded, high-poverty schools with few resources may get into a “vicious cycle of burnout and turnover,” as new teachers enter a climate of already-stressed colleagues who can offer less support.

The findings suggest that improving schoolwide climate and resources may be more helpful than focusing primarily on teacher-induction programs to retain new teachers. That may also buffer students against teacher stress, which prior research suggests can hurt student learning and behavior and create another burnout cycle for teachers.

Frank also recommended that superintendents and principals take into account the initial levels of teacher stress in schools before trying to implement a new program. “It would be strange to say we are going to do professional development on how not to become burned out,” he said. But “it’s really a question of being attentive to the potential for burnout when you are trying to do other things in your school.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.