Christina Maslach first became interested in the study of human emotions as a graduate student at Berkeley. “I was looking for a new line of research,” she says. “I was particularly interested in strong emotions in situations where the person is supposed to be calm and cool.”
Her research led to studies of emergency personnel, prison guards, lawyers, and others in high-stress, people-centered professions. Her work eventually led to teachers.
“Even though their work was different, people in a variety of professions would report similar feelings and experiences and shifts in their feelings about other people,” says Maslach, now a psychology professor at Berkeley. “What they share is intensive, focused work with other people. They are sharing, caring, helping, curing people. They’re in a facilitating role; they’re not just pushing papers. It can be a highly charged interaction.”
It was in an interview with a lawyer that she first heard the term “burnout.” The lawyer, who specialized in poverty issues, said it was an expression used around the office to describe others who had reached a state of emotional exhaustion, who were no longer effective in dealing with clients. They had become cynical, callous, and detached. Maslach then integrated the word into her professional vocabulary and from there into a test called the Maslach Burnout Inventory.
Recently Maslach’s work has focused on burnout among high school teachers. The research is opening a window on a world poorly understood by non-teachers but one all too familiar to those in classrooms. “Teachers who are not burned out think they’re good as teachers,” she says. “They’re always willing to learn how to improve. They’re willing to talk with each other about their teaching. They still see room for change.”
Burned-out teachers are another matter. “They have blinders on,” Maslach says. “They think the only way to teach is ‘the way I do it.’ That kind of rigidity is a classic sign of burnout.”
The sad thing, she adds, is that they didn’t start out that way. “They were more functional before, doing well, able to be more innovative and change and grow on the job. They were on fire before.”
Unlike a poverty lawyer, who sees clients one at a time, teachers deal with their clients en masse. And yet, as Maslach points out, they’re isolated from other adults, not part of a team. While some teachers learn to cope with such a system, others do not. But that’s not necessarily their fault, says Maslach, who is convinced that the system has to change.
“I just interviewed a teacher who’s burning out in a classic way,” Maslach says. “She says the public expectation is that teachers are just this side of nuns. They’re supposed to be so self-sacrificing, to give up everything in their lives to be terrific teachers. But it’s gotten to the point where there’s nothing coming back.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Expert Testimony