Student Well-Being Opinion

Teachers and Leaders: Stress and Burnout Can Be Ameliorated

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 24, 2015 5 min read
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Stress and burnout affect educators just as they do others in the serving professions. . For some, like emergency room nurses, stress has been noted as a major contributor to burnout. Day after day, dealing with illness and injury and accidents to the extreme, the manner in which it impacts their energy and states of mind is noted. Police also develop stress and burnout. Author Dean Scoville of Police Magazine writes:

Dr. James T. Reese, a former federal agent cum psychologist, characterizes burnout as a “self-inflicted attitudinal injury” that most often occurs when demands exceed resources. “Burnout is often the case of an over-commitment to your job, which ironically results in an under-commitment to it,” he says...

Burnout is likewise a byproduct of unreasonable expectations or demands on the parts of both the burnout candidates and the people they work with. People who identify strongly with their jobs are susceptible; more so when they try to achieve or maintain unrealistic performance standards. They become so wholly invested in the job that whatever pleasures or distractions external activities may have once provided are largely gone.

Sound familiar? SchoolMentalHealth.org published an article, Coping with Teacher Burnout. The article quotes Professor Chris Kyriacou (2001) who presented ten main sources of teacher stress. Over a decade old, we think these 10 sources remain true. Here we speak to each of the 10 and our thoughts on countering their negative effects.

Teaching pupils who lack motivation requires the highest level of skill and commitment. It can be tiring and fear producing when one has internal accountability accompanied by external accountability both focused on student achievement. Pupils who lack motivation are often those who have gaps in learning skills, reading, writing, and math, but also who live on the sidelines of the school as a whole. Creating connections for those children in every school will reinforce working harder to teach. Pushing forward is facilitated by building linkages and resolving barriers.

Maintaining discipline in classrooms is a skill that can be learned and is rooted in fairness, consistency, and student engagement. The more students can be engaged in the learning, the less likely discipline issues will arise. Controlling behaviors sap energy. Planning and offering engaging learning opportunities also sap energy, but teachers are energized when their students are engaged and learning. The energy is restored.

Time pressures and workload are sometimes related to contracts and policies, but those are decisions that can be reviewed. We all live with time pressure in some way or another but is how we handle those pressures and workloads that make a difference.

Coping with change is difficult for everyone and some of us are more resilient than others. As a matter of fact there is a lot written about how the children in our schools will best be prepared for their futures if they learn how to cope with change. While we attempt to develop their resilience, we need to build our own. While leading change and creating the environments in which all feel safe enough to innovate is the leader’s challenge.

Being evaluated by others is most stressful if it feels like judgment day. If the evaluation process is one in which the evaluator and the evaluated have continuing conversations about behaviors and targets and the relationship is built upon trust and encouragement, improvement can happen and the stressors diminish. Trials and mistakes are part of the process.

Dealings with colleagues can be also challenging and they become more essential as interdependence grows within a school community. We try to create environments that are open to diverse, and maybe uncomfortable new perspectives while simultaneously engendering trust. It isn’t easy work as suspicions abound. The manner in which the environment is led must hold opportunity for interactions between colleagues to be positive, encouraging, respectful, and rewarding.

Self-esteem and Status comes from how we feel about ourselves and how others treat us. These 10 sources of stress and a variety of events in personal lives have the potential to gnaw away at self-esteem and confidence, diminishing the way folks feels about themselves. This may be primarily personal work but thoughtful, respectful communication within the organization can preserve a foundation that will help keep teachers and leaders contributing their best. Our intuition says that teachers and leaders who are suffering low self-esteem and status are most likely to be easily triggered, by disrespectful becoming a large discipline issue or a cold remark causing irreparable alienation. The same may be true for our students.

Administration and management are part of every role in a school building. Each classroom, school and district implements requirements that may be difficult to manage. The manner in which these roles and tasks are handled make them focal points of work or the gridding around which the real work happens. That makes a difference.

Role conflict and ambiguity make the work water even more difficult to navigate. Tamara J. Erickson, authored The Biggest Mistake You (Probably) Make with Teams in the Harvard Business Review in which she said,

The leader’s role ... is to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of the team members are clearly defined for the specific project at hand (members’ roles may change from project to project to provide variety and broaden experience).

There are many roles teachers and leaders take on. Some are found in job descriptions and others are not. Both can cause confusion if ill-defined.

Poor working conditions may be impacted by all of the above but there are also places where facility issues and physical environments make learning impossible. We have seen closets as classrooms, heat turned off until an arbitrary point in time regardless of temperatures outside, and the absence of the resources that allow teachers to work well.

How many of these sources can be impacted by teachers and leaders? We think all. The matter of stress and burnout in education is as important as it is in health care and police work. Based on Kyriacou’s 10 sources of stress and our reflection on them, it appears that if attention to creating and maintaining a safe, welcoming, encouraging and disciplined environments in which roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, engaging teaching and learning is taking place, respect and consideration for others is the norm, stress and burnout is in our control and can be ameliorated. It has to happen for adults before they can make it happen for our students. That is, after all, most important.

Kyriacou, C. (2001). Teacher stress: Directions for future research. Educational Review, 53, 28- 35.

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