Teaching Profession Opinion

Rx for Teacher Burnout

By Nancy Flanagan — June 02, 2016 4 min read
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Guest Post from Hal Portner, a former teacher and administrator, and a member of the Connecticut State Department of Education. Portner developed and facilitates an online Mentoring and Coaching graduate course for Western New England University. Hal trains mentors and coaches, and consults with federal, state and local education organizations and institutions. He is the author of 10 published books and over 80 articles on mentoring and coaching, and is a member of the Editorial Board of an international peer-review journal.

I was watching an antidepressant commercial on TV the other evening. You know how those ads go. A man or woman sits, head bowed, surrounded by fog. Perhaps a raincloud hovers overhead.

Then they take a magic little pill, and Voila! like the post-tornado moment in the Wizard of Oz, the scene suddenly bursts into full color.

Don’t you wish there was such a pill that teachers could take to brighten up their day? It may not be actual depression some teachers experience. If they are feeling disillusioned it’s more likely a state of emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about their competence and the value of their work--otherwise known as burnout. Well, be of good cheer, I have an antidote for them. I’ll get to my anti-burnout pill commercial shortly, but first, let’s look a bit more at the symptoms.

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic say that job burnout is a special type of job stress. They ask:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, they suggest, you might be experiencing job burnout. But don’t despair. Here is the commercial about that anti-burnout pill I promised. It’s called self-actualization and it’s administered through teacher-leadership.

Self-actualization is the need to fulfill one’s potential. Self-actualization is made up of a variety of qualities, such as the desire to interact with and help others; to give as opposed to take; the creative desire to solve problems--particularly those of others; curiosity; and the sense of efficacy--the sense that one has had some impact on others and an effect on the environment.

The role of teacher-leader supports an individual’s own self-image as an efficacious person. Teacher-leaders see themselves, first of all, as teachers. They are educators who want to continue to work as teachers rather than as managers. They also want to invest their know-how and energy beyond the classroom in ways they feel will help improve their school and its instructional effectiveness, their school/community relationships, and the profession at large.

Sometimes teachers initiate their own professional learning efforts with the central goal of improving the conditions and outcomes of student learning. Those teachers lead through their strong commitment to continued learning, and by modeling a willingness to take risks, to collaborate, and to question existing practices. They often began with a focus on their own learning and classroom teaching and later move into other leadership spheres where they collaborate with and influence colleagues and other stakeholders on a wider scale.

A middle school science department chair in Fairfax, Virginia, shares three reasons why she became a teacher-leader.

1. I wanted more opportunities to "have my voice heard." I'll admit, I have a lot of opinions. Through leadership positions at my school, I am able to voice these opinions to the final decision makers. . . . After becoming a teacher-leader, I found that I was often asked, "What do you think?" 2. I wanted to impact students outside my classroom. As a teacher-leader, my impact on student learning has multiplied. By helping and mentoring other teachers in my school or district, my knowledge impacts the students in their classes. 3. I wanted to grow and learn as a professional. As a teacher-leader I get opportunities to learn from others and meet new people. I attend district meetings and workshops outside my school where I collaborate and interact with teachers and administrators. I also participate in professional organizations and attend national conferences. Through discussions at these events, I build my own knowledge, which I pass on to teachers in my school.

Teacher leadership is no longer an alien concept in education. It is generally expected that schools provide leadership opportunities for teachers and that teachers engage in leadership activities of their own volition. Here are a couple of examples of where and how teachers lead.

  • Arlene J. is a first-year middle school teacher in a semi-urban Midwest district. At the beginning of the school year and for the first month, she felt confined to her classroom and was sure she was shortchanging her students. Then she decided to take the initiative and do more for her students. She formed a Drama Club and put on a musical for the school year.
  • Holly B., a National Board Certified Teacher from Louisiana, sits on her state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

These examples of teacher leadership are indicative of the variety of roles assumed by teacher-leaders. The diversity of teacher leadership activities is extensive, and instances of where and how teachers can lead are as varied as teachers themselves.

When teachers volunteer or are assigned or recruited to assume leadership outside the classroom, they are formal teacher-leaders. Informal teacher-leaders, in contrast, emerge spontaneously and organically from the teacher ranks. Instead of being selected, they take the initiative to address a problem or institute a project or program.

Teachers exhibit leadership in multiple, sometimes overlapping, ways. Some leadership roles are formal, with designated responsibilities. Other more informal roles emerge as teachers interact with their peers locally or are motivated to contribute to or influence some broader aspect of their profession. The wide variety of roles and opportunities ensures that teachers can find ways to lead that fit their talents and interests.

Regardless of the roles they assume, teacher leaders help shape the culture of their schools, districts, states, and nation. They influence the practice among their peers, impact the profession, and most importantly, work to improve student learning.

Yes, teacher leaders seldom if ever burn out. Now that commercial wasn’t a tough pill to swallow, was it?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.