Battling Burnout: First Steps…

Summer is a wonderful necessity for teachers. It gives us time to recharge as teaching is often a mentally and emotionally draining job. I have found that there are several ways for me to refresh. Being out in nature is a great way to de-stress. It is away from people. As the wind runs through the leaves and the cicadas loudly announce my presence, my stress melts away. An added benefit of being in nature is its tiring, so I sleep better too.

Exercising my mind has also been helpful in my destressing from the school year. I have been reading free e-books on my kindle as well as college-level science books from I enjoy learning and this has also helped me to relax while still being productive. I have also begun to research teacher stress and burnout.

I have intentionally looked into this because I want to understand what I am going through. I am currently reading Carla Mckinley-Thomson’s Ph.D. dissertation, “Teacher Stress and Burnout and Principals’ Leadership Styles: A Relational Study.” This has been enlightening on numerous fronts. While I cannot change my work situation, reading about burnout has helped me to

  1. See that stress and burnout are particularly common among teachers
  2. Given me a framework and vocabulary to process my emotions around work

So, this far, I have found exercising my body and mind to be helpful in battling burnout. Another obvious help is to spend time with friends. Rebuilding and deepening relationships that suffered due to lack of time during the school year not only helps me to process the school year through conversations, but it also helps me to see that there is more to life than work.

Through this process, it has been necessary for me to be aware of how I am thinking. It is easy to get into a positive feedback loop of negativity. I have found it necessary to deliberately change my thoughts. “This policy is ridiculous and it wastes my time. It takes away from what I can do with my students.” A true thought. But, in the context of being burned out, an unhelpful one. It has been more helpful to think, “The policy is bad, but I can do X, Y, or Z to achieve admin’s desired outcome as fast as possible. Then I can spend most of my time teaching my students. I like my students.”

Thinking like this puts power back in my pocket. I am not shying from the truth of the bad policy by sticking my head in the sand but am reminding myself that I have the ability to choose, within certain limitations how to achieve what is required. The last part of the thought may sound cheesy, but I have found that it works for me. A true, purely positive statement reminds me that I do enjoy teaching.

Battling Burnout: Leadership Styles

Laissez-Faire Leadership

This form of leadership has been called passive or absent leadership by some. The hands-off approach by administration gives more decision making power to teachers because that power has been abdicated by administration. A study by Eeden, Cilliers, and Deventer in 2000 found that the laissez-faire leader, “leaves responsibility for the work to the followers and avoids setting goals and clarifying expectations, organizing priorities, becoming involved when important issues arise, taking a stand on issues and making decisions.”

A result is that teachers will self-regulate and make independent decisions. This, then often leads to low levels of achievement and increased levels of conflict within the organization because there is not a cohesive vision and therefore staff does not move forward with consistent directions or priorities. In the study I read, this style of leadership was found to have a Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient (PPMCC) of .36 in relation to teacher stress and burnout. Meaning that this leadership style increases the rate of burnout.

My thoughts are that this type of leadership is most harmful to new, and weak teachers. These teachers need more structure and support than teachers who are both experienced and effective. If you are a new or struggling teacher in this environment, find a community of educators that want to improve and join with them. This will likely either be among fellow employees who work hard to improve their craft in spite of the harmful environment this administration creates. The other place you are likely to find a good community is online. I have had good luck in joining the edutwitter community. Reading their posts and blogs have proven to be both emotionally encouraging and practically helpful. It has helped me to gain a direction in my teaching so that I am constantly working to improve, instead of staying complacent.

Transactional Leadership

Another name for this form of leadership is Contingent Reward Leadership. The leader will give feedback and advice from a recognition and rewards tradeoff perspective. These administrators evaluate, train, and correct their employees by using three behavioral approaches: contingent rewards and punishments, passive management by exception and active management by exception.

Transactional leadership can take on a clinical feel, and as such, its authority is based upon bureaucracy and the legitimacy of the organization (Emery & Barker, 2007). This can lead to unbalanced leadership when the leader uses either passive or active management by exception. Passive management by exception involves the leader overlooking various small infractions because the employee has reached a favored status for one reason or another. Whereas active management by exception involves the leader seeking for problems in the employees work to correct. In the study I read, this style of leadership was found to have a PPMCC of -.31 in relation to teacher stress and burnout. Meaning that this leadership style tends to reduce teacher stress and burnout.

My thoughts on this type of leadership are negative, to say the least (but according to the data I have seen, this can be a positive leadership style). I have found this approach to leadership to be a cold one that does not treat teachers as individuals. It treats them as cogs in a machine. The active/passive management by exception can, in practice, be based simply on whether or not administration likes you. When this is the case, a toxic work environment will follow. When a teacher who is liked by admin turns in decent work, they are fine. But when a teacher who is not liked by admin turns in the same quality of work, admin can find problems and make sure that every jot and tittle is corrected.

Transformational Leadership (Most Effective)

This is seen as the most effective leadership model. The transformational leader fosters an environment of trust and respect. As a result of the respectful and trusting environment, leaders and teachers are able to challenge and learn from each other, allowing both to improve. A transformational leader will be sensitive to the individual teacher’s needs and work to develop them into a future leader.

This type of leader motivates employees to be more efficient by effectively addressing goals, visions, and project/task outcomes in light of the “big” picture. In order to accomplish employee motivation, a transformational leader will draw from their charisma, inspiration, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Bass, 1998; Yukl, 1998). When done effectively, the admin’s passion and vision are adopted by the teacher. When admin and teachers share a common goal, communication becomes more straightforward.

All schools have goals and tasks for teachers to accomplish. A transformational administration will ensure that teachers are aware of the task/goal’s significance. They do not give out busywork or work where only admin knows the purpose. This admin will also provide strategies for teachers to efficiently and effectively accomplish the task/goal. In the study I read, this leadership style was found to have a PPMCC of -.59 in relation to teacher stress and burnout. Meaning that transformational leadership is associated with reduced levels of teacher stress and burnout.

My thoughts on this type of leadership are largely hypothetical because I have not encountered this. (To be clear, it is upper management. I have had some wonderful department heads though.) I can imagine that this type of work environment is one where teachers feel respected and safe, and as a result are free to focus on teaching and its related tasks.





Battling Burnout: The Problem is Manifold

It is nearing the end of my school year. I finish on June 29th and am barely hanging on. I am struggling to keep work stress at work and as a result, am often unable to relax or get a good night’s sleep. My stomach has been upset for days. I am burned out. This article and the ones to follow are my attempt to understand burnout.

I am going to try and deep deeper than I am burned out because of work stress. That’s obvious and unhelpful. What specific aspects of work are burning me out? Why? I have some inklings, but I want to figure out what I can control and how to hopefully avoid this in the future because grinning and bearing it is making me sick. I still love teaching, yet currently hate going to work. I want to understand this conundrum and be able to enjoy work again.

Burnout has been defined by Maslach and Jackson (1986) as a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism based on three aspects of middle administrators’ behavior: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment.”

For teachers, emotional exhaustion (EE) sets in when they feel emotionally overextended. EE can be caused by numerous aspects of a teacher’s job because emotion plays an integral role in a teacher’s job. Building relationships with difficult students, helping students with difficult home lives, dealing with parents/administration, and teaching lessons all carry an emotional load. When a teacher is consistently given an inadequate amount of time to process and recharge, EE will set in.

Teachers (and anyone else) who experience burnout will begin a process involving depersonalization at work. Depersonalization generally involves a loss of enjoyment, pessimism, and detachment. Loss of enjoyment will often start small and can simply feel like you are having a “bad day” but it becomes more persistent and can become the default. This can often lead to pessimism as the teacher feels there is little to no hope for improving the situation. Once this sets in, the teacher can begin to detach themselves from relationships at work, both with co-workers and students.

Burnt out teachers often perceive themselves as having low levels of personal accomplishment at work. Feelings of low accomplishment are often compounded by the symptoms of depersonalization. This can lead to irritability and lack of focus, which then affects the teacher’s ability to teach. Thus, lowering the actual level of accomplishment at work. Burnout can be a rather vicious cycle.

Teachers who are burnt out give students a lower quality of education and it can lead to absenteeism and higher turnover rates. More seriously still, burnout is associated with personal problems such as decreased health, increased use of drugs and alcohol, along with familial/marital strife.

The teaching profession is relatively infamous for its burnout rates. In America, about 8% of all teachers leave the profession after each year. From a teacher’s rookie year to their fifth year, approximately 40% of their colleagues who started with them will no longer be involved in teaching.

The problem is manifold. We must take meaningful steps to both understand and solve teacher burnout.