Teaching Profession


By Jeff Meade — September 04, 1996 13 min read
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Robin Turgeon is toying with the idea of physical therapy. She thinks it might be the cure for what ails her. Unfortunately, what ails Turgeon is teaching--27 years as a New York City junior high school science teacher. And so, after taking early retirement last year, Turgeon is now out of the classroom and considering a new career in physical therapy.

For Turgeon (who, like several of the other teachers in this story, asked that we not use her real name), the decision to leave teaching did not come easily or suddenly. Nor did it stem from any single problem or issue. Rather, Turgeon’s departure was the culmination of several years of steadily growing frustration.

It came to a head with a transfer to a new school, where hard-to-control special education students were mainstreamed into her regular classes. She felt isolated and powerless to determine what and how she taught. There were more frequent class periods--even the bell schedule was different. It was at that school that she earned the first and only unsatisfactory rating in all her years as a teacher.

Finally, after a year of hard work and the restoration of her satisfactory rating, Turgeon came to realize that the next year, and the year after that, probably would be no easier.

“I knew I was going to have the same difficult kids I had the year before,” she says. “I just didn’t have the energy to spend another year struggling with them. That tipped the balance.”

In short, a hard-working, well-educated, child-centered professional cleaned out her desk and said farewell to an often distinguished 27-year teaching career because of a psyche-sapping phenomenon known as burnout.

As with so many other psychological definitions, the term burnout is often misunderstood, misused, and even discounted. But burnout is real, and it’s more than just a rough patch. It can be, and often is, a career-ending crash. Since some stay and some leave, and since victims suffer to varying degrees, it’s simply not known how many teachers experience burnout. We do know that among teachers there is a 10 percent annual dropout rate. Almost half of all teachers leave the profession within 10 years.

How much of this is due to burnout? Hard to say. But research suggests that a substantial number of teachers may be driven to despair--if not out of teaching--by the symptoms of burnout. In one five-year study of more than 500 teachers in a rural school district, an average of one out of every 10 teachers reported symptoms. In the study, conducted by Stephen and Christine Nagy at the University of Alabama, elementary teachers were most likely to be affected, with 15 percent reporting burnout. (The authors suggest one possible explanation for the difference in grade levels: By high school, most of the truly incorrigible students are no longer in the system.)

Not surprisingly, experts regard burnout as an occupational hazard in people-oriented professions like teaching. And aside from the very personal toll burnout takes on the individual, the broader fallout is often at least as devastating. When a good teacher burns out, everyone--students and the community at large--pays a price.

“You’re talking about good people, people who used to be on fire, and they gradually become embittered,” says Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the first to use the term “burnout” in psychological studies to describe the complex set of emotions that characterizes the syndrome. She is the author of the widely used test known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which measures the three primary indicators of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment.

Emotional exhaustion, perhaps the leading predictor, frequently gives way to exhaustion of a more physical variety. Teachers become sick more frequently, have trouble sleeping, and suffer headaches and all manner of gastrointestinal disturbances. Some studies show that they attempt to ease the pain by using prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

Burnout is a common affliction among teachers, driving the best and most caring from the profession. Is there anything you can do to beat it?

Teachers suffering from what Maslach refers to as depersonalization often experience a negative shift in their feelings and attitudes about other people--students, administrators, even fellow teachers. “It’s a shift toward the more cynical, negative point of view,” Maslach says. “You really start to feel that they’ve crawled out from under a rock. It’s not simply being impersonal or cool to other people. It’s worse than that: You despise them and wish they’d go away.”

Lack of personal accomplishment speaks for itself.

Over time, these symptoms, left unrecognized and untreated, take their toll. “Burnout is costly in so many ways,” Maslach says. “We lose too many good people unnecessarily, or they stay on but don’t do the high-quality work they used to do. But we don’t have to have that kind of cost; we can do better.”

Maslach is right. In fact, the symptoms of burnout are well-known. The conditions that bring it on are understood. And although it may not be possible in all cases to change the job conditions that lead to burnout, teachers can learn to recognize the early warning signs and develop coping strategies. Sometimes, with help, teachers hovering on the edge of burnout can instead rekindle the fire that sparked them to teach in the first place.

As the old saying goes: The bigger they are, the harder they fall. But when it comes to teacher burnout, we might instead say: The more they care, the harder they fall. This is the tragedy of burnout: More often than not, it afflicts the most committed.

Claire Cohen can attest to this. She’s the coordinator of the Peer Intervention Program run by the United Federation of Teachers to assist UFT members in New York City schools. The program often attracts teachers with impeccable personnel records who suddenly find themselves threatened with an unsatisfactory rating. Robin Turgeon was one such participant.

The program teams troubled teachers with experienced, highly regarded mentor teachers. The intervenors, as they are called, work with teachers in crisis, coaching, critiquing, and even videotaping them in the classroom. The intervenor can be paired with a teacher for up to a year. While the goal is not necessarily to keep the teacher in the classroom, most participating teachers stay. Still, more radical career surgery is an option: Some leave teaching altogether.

The tradegy of burnout is that, more often than not, it afflicts the most committed teacher.

About 36 New York City teachers get this assistance every year. The program is so successful that in 1994 it received an Innovations in State and Local Government Award from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Ford Foundation. In Cohen’s view, a teacher on the edge is characteristically one who cares deeply. “The ones who come to us for help buy into the notion that teaching is an honorable profession, deserving of their very highest level of skill,” she says. “They became teachers not to get rich or because there were incredible opportunities for lateral movement, but because they wanted to have an impact on the life of a kid. The people who don’t give a damn don’t come to us.”

This sentiment is echoed by Connie Muther, an internationally recognized educational consultant from Connecticut who leads seminars on teacher burnout. It’s a subject she knows from personal experience. “I had wanted to become a teacher my entire life,” she says. “I wanted to be a teacher so much that when I finally got my chance, it seemed like I taught 24 hours a day, seven days a week. After three years at that pace, I was exhausted. I thought I was a bad person because all my life I had wanted to teach, and yet I was exhausted. How could I be exhausted doing what I loved doing?”

Another participant in the UFT’s Peer Intervention Program--we’ll call her Diane Myers--also felt destined to enter teaching. But after some years in the classroom, she found that her efforts were not appreciated or recognized. “I suppose with any new job, you start out idealistic,” she says. “With teaching, after four years or so, you’ve pretty much got it down pat. But then nothing really changes. I felt like I was growing stale. I wasn’t getting stroked, and no one even knew whether I was being innovative. I started to wonder whether I wanted to do something else. I felt so bad. I had always wanted to teach inner-city kids, and I love the children I teach. But after a while, the ideals just started to wear off.”

Each story mirrors a common theme: early commitment to teaching--even a burning desire--followed by exposure to the real-life struggles of teaching, leading to disillusionment. All ending, almost inexorably, in burnout.

But why? Ronald Burke thinks he knows. Burnout, he suggests, may be the predictable end-result of teachers’ efforts to cope with all the red tape, jammed classrooms, budget hassles, labor strife, and disruptive, even violent students. Think of burnout, if you will, as a form of battle fatigue.

Burke, who is on the faculty of administrative studies at York University in Ontario, has performed extensive studies of teacher burnout, together with colleague Esther Greenglass from the department of psychology. Given the often huge disparity between ideals and real life, Burke and Greenglass conclude, teachers do what they must do to cope. “There’s a gap between what new teachers are taught in schools and what they subsequently experience on the job,” Burke says. “There are increases in class size. They have to teach more students, or more difficult students, without support, in an isolated environment, and they aren’t going anywhere. They have no control over their professional lives.”

After a few years of teaching, a kind of emotional callus builds up, Burke says. Teachers become more detached. They no longer get as close to students as they did in the beginning. They don’t put as much effort into their teaching. They go through the motions. “It’s a way of coping,” he says. “Maybe it shields them from disappointment.”

Given the rapidly changing social conditions teachers now confront--uninvolved parents, difficult students, increasing competition for children’s attention from video games, computers, and the entertainment industry--Claire Cohen says it is hardly surprising that some teachers find themselves asking the hard questions: Do I still belong here? Is this what I want to do with my life? “Twenty years ago, children came to school ready to learn, but these kids need to be taught to want to learn,” she says. “Many of us came from two-parent households where mom was waiting at home after school with cookies and milk, ready to help you with your homework. Kids come to school today with dramatically different lifestyles. Many good teachers come to us saying the skills they used 20 years ago don’t work anymore. They have a hard time motivating, individualizing instruction. Learning styles and readiness levels are all completely different.”

Many teachers come to feel deeply frustrated, Cohen says. “There is nothing so destructive of one’s self-worth as a teacher as being in a classroom full of kids you know you are not reaching.” Some quit; others stay but are incapable of doing what it would take to succeed. As Ronald Burke puts it: “Physically or spiritually, they leave.”

Maybe some or all of these signs and symptoms seem familiar to you. If so, getting help might not be easy. The key, according to experts, is finding a way to fight isolation.

Programs that team teachers in crisis with mentor or star teachers are growing in number, but formal programs specifically targeted toward identifying and eradicating burnout are not widespread. Some are available, though, such as Connie Muther’s workshop at a meeting of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development last July. Muther and other consultants also call on school districts around the country. A central feature of Muther’s approach is peer support to combat the isolation that tends to breed burnout. “That’s the foundation of success,” she says. “Teachers have to help each other succeed.”

Because teachers frequently lose sight of the dream that motivated them to enter the profession, Muther urges them to get together in small groups where they can identify and discuss personal and professional goals. She encourages them first to set short-term, achievable goals geared toward the accomplishment of larger aspirations down the road. The groups, she says, should meet each week to track progress, propose and consider ideas, and provide encouragement.

“There is nothing so destructive of one’s self-worth as a teacher as being in a classroom full of kids you know you are not reaching.”

Ronald Burke,
Professor of administrative studies,
York University, Ontario

Something like this dynamic is at work in the UFT Peer Intervention Program. Claire Cohen says the program often focuses on curricular issues and classroom management. “Some people need a very defined set of skills,” she explains. “Maybe they’ll get some coaching in cooperative learning, and off they go.”

Cohen acknowledges that the degree to which teachers are isolated still startles her. “It’s amazing to me that they’ve never seen themselves on videotape,” she says. “They’ve never seen other teachers, so we take them into other classrooms. We also bring them new curricular material. We send them to conferences.”

One of the teachers who benefited from this intervention is an elementary school teacher we’ll call Beth White. After a dozen years of success, she earned an unsatisfactory rating. She attributes some of her problems to changes in administration, but she also notes that her school is under city and state observation since it has not met state benchmarks in reading and math for more than three years. But White’s problems seemed to start with a shift from 5th grade, which she had taught for 10 years, to 4th grade. In her first year of 4th grade teaching, she fared well. She worked with a paraprofessional and a pullout teacher, providing individualized help to the children. The next year, she said, she had a group that needed special attention even more, but she lost her paraprofessional.

“That took away the harmony that I had,” she says. “My problem was not with the kids. It was, What am I going to have to deal with today that has nothing to do with the kids? It got to the point where I felt like I was in a fishbowl. I started doubting my abilities.”

Up to that point, she says, she had never thought about changing her approach to teaching. Working with a mentor gave White the classroom-management tools she needed to succeed. “My mentor opened a window for me to take a better look at myself,” she says. “I had a lot of different behaviors going on in the room. She gave me some good formulas to manage the kids better. She made me understand that under the kinds of stress I had been experiencing, there was no way I could be my best.”

After a year with the mentor and a transfer to a new job, White says, “I feel rescued.”

The problem is that most teachers don’t have access to this kind of help. “Many school systems are doing very little,” says researcher Ronald Burke. “There are some systems where enlightened administrations try to build a family feeling, where teachers feel like they’re an important part of something, where they don’t feel isolated.”

Connie Muther says that teachers and their students would benefit greatly if schools and districts took a more enlightened approach to burnout, providing support and encouragement to help teachers rekindle the flame. “Every teacher who wants to be a teacher can be great,” she says. “An organization can reveal that greatness to teachers. They can help the teacher achieve what the teacher wants to achieve.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Burnout


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