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Teacher Burnout Essay

The term ‘burnout’ was first introduced by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, to describe the state of physical and mental exhaustion among people in ”helping professions,” whose work requires contact with people in need (Sek 7). Since this term was introduced, burnout research has been continued by many investigators all over the world to examine this phenomenon, and diverse definitions flourished as a result. One of these individuals was Christina Maslach who gathered empirical data on this syndrome and found the tool for measuring it, which is known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI).

She describes burnout as a ”syndrome of physical and mental exhaustion, which includes the development of negative concepts of ‘I’, a negative attitude towards one’s work, a loss of emotions and contact in relations with other people” (Maslach 8). It is commonly experienced by service oriented workers; such as nurses, teachers or doctors all over the world (Sek 8). The burnout syndrome among Polish teachers in secondary schools is caused by job stress and significantly affects the performance of their pedagogic duties as well as the learning and motivation capabilities of their students.

Burnout manifests itselfs in the form of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of felt accomplishment in working with others. Emotional exhaustion is the depletion of an individual’s emotional resources and the feeling of having nothing left to give and share with others at the psychological level. The depersonalization phase manifests itself in the form of a cynical attitude toward learners, parents or workmates. Finally, reduced personal accomplishment manifests itself as a feeling of ineffectiveness in working with others ( Maslach 15).

A 2002 research study, conducted on 200 Polish teachers revealed that 53% of them suffered from burnout and that the majority of these teachers worked in secondary schools (Tucholska 103). Burnout does not occur as a sudden crisis. Instead, it developes progressively in a slow manner that drains teachers’ spirit, who often do not recognize it, or do not want to admit that they are experiencing it (Sek 95). Their job demands constant interaction with students and a facing of their problems, which requires a strong emotional engagement.

They have to oscillate between being warm and friendly and keeping their distance in relations with their students, which is a hard and demanding task. It was assumed that teachers perform the second most stressful job, which after bus drivers, pilots and policemen causes the highest risk of heart attack (Kretschmann 15). Why does the job which for many seems to be an easy and pleasant one drive so many professionals to the state of emotional and physical burnout ? The behaviour of students is definitely one of the main stress providers.

A lack of interest, attention and motivation towards learning are prevalent among students, which often leaves teachers with the thought that they are neither appreciated nor respected (Sek 150). When we add to this overcrowded classes and noise in the corridors, the problem becomes even bigger. Each class is made up of students with different abilities, various backgrounds who have various problems. A teacher has to be able to meet each individual learner’s needs, and this becomes a very difficult task in large classes.

Moreover, it is probably that in most classrooms can be found at least one distruptive student who makes it difficult for a teacher to teach the rest of the class and sacrifice enough time for the rest of students. In these conditions, even one student with severe behavioural problems may seem like an overwhelming problem. Also, the stress level caused by school violence has recently increased significantly. Violence is most common in junior high and secondary schools, where some students experiment with drugs or alcohol and encounter bullies (Sek 150).

The acts of agression towards their peers, or even to teachers, are nowadays becoming very common. Thus, teachers who struggle with discipline problems are also becoming victims of verbal or even physical abuse. It is not difficult to find films on the Internet recorded by students where they boast as to how they maintain their rule in class. Not more than two years ago we heard about 14-years-old students who bullied their teachers by hurling paper planes, stones or even chairs at them, who spat on them, or played the game of ”who kicks the teacher last is a looser”(”Koszmar w Warszawskiej Szkole”).

It is shocking that the victims were waiting for months until one of them broke the cone of silence. We can only assume that they were ashamed or too scared to do so. It may also have been caused by the specific feature of teaching profession which makes it almost impossible to confront teachers’ emotions with others. Their negative inner feelings provoked by students’ behaviour are usually revealed in anger or even psychical breakdown (Tucholska 157). Their daily duties often include being isolated from their work peers. During their lessons they cannot ask for advice and consult with co-workers when a problem appears.

Not only do teachers have to solve problems by themselves, but they also need to do it rapidly. It was estimated that a teacher has to take decisions even 200 times during one lesson (Kretschman 18). This gives us the number of 3800 decisions taken by a Polish teacher during just one week. This is undoubtly a huge stress distributor which may bring disastrous results if not shared with others (Tucholska 94). When a teacher feels that they are handling a situation alone, with no external support, it is easy to see how such a situation can lead to disillusionment or loss of confidence.

These are the chief situational factors on the road to burnout (Sek 165). For this reason, a good relationship with one’s co-workers is essential. In fact, the work environment is not always as friendly as one may have expected at the start of one’s career. It sometimes provides more obstacles than support and help. These impediments usually come from co-workers who view each other as rivals for praise and reward. Most teachers complain as to the social interactions at work and describe these as rather bad, lacking in trust and willingness to mutual help (Tucholska 94).

Instead of sharing problems, exchanging ideas and experience on how to cope with them, teachers remain silent. Talking about problems with their students is for them an admission of personal failure or incompetence (Tucholska 95). Equally important for teachers is the feeling of support and help from their students’ parents, which is rather rare (Nasalska and Stasinska 9). They appreciate knowing that parents are concerned and interested in their children’s progress. But this is more common among parents of primary learners.

When it comes to a higher level of education, they are less willing to attend parent-teacher conferences and reveal less willingness to cooperate with teachers (Nasalska and Stasinska 10). Moreover, educators are often attacked by parents when their children fail to pass a test or receive a bad grade. Teachers especially in secondary schools, who prepare students for the high school matriculation exam, are under very big pressure from parents and principals. The prestige of a school and teachers’ efficacy are often measured by the succes rate of students moving to the next level of education.

Thus, the student who performs poorly on his Matura exam is considered less guilty than the teacher who was not able to prepare the child to successfully pass the exam (Nasalska and Stasinska 57). Many parents tend to justify their children’s performance and look for fault lying with the teacher. A commonly repeated argument is that teachers are unfair and biased, and that their children are the victims of shabby treatement by them. When students do well at school, parents usually ascribe the success to their hard work, inteligence and effort.

When they, on the other hand, perform poorly, teachers are those who are blamed (Nasalska and Stasinska 62). A real-life example is the shocking incident that happened few months ago, when a 38 years-old woman attacked the teacher of her daughter after she received a reprimand for her behaviour. The reprimand was justified by the girls’ gruff manner and class absenteeism. The mother, who did not believe that her daughter was fault, entered the classroom during a lesson, pulled out the bewildered teacher and while flinging insults at her pushed the teacher against school’s corridor wall (”Wiem, co zrobilam”).

The problem of low financial reward very often forces many teachers to look for additional employment. A lot of them give private lessons at home, very often sacrifying the only free time they have after work. If we know the appalling statistics of the salary levels rate, the news that techers are going on strike should not surprise us. They attempt to catch the government’s attention by manifesting their dissatisfacion. There are people who approach this with a strict criticism and lack of understanding.

They consider a teacher’s profession as a cushy job, where you are paid a salary for a full-time job while working only part-time. Teachers are reproached for their low number of required hours and long holiday breaks (Nasalska and Stasinska 61). But you have to be a teacher in order to understand how very demanding a career this is. Being a teacher does not only mean spending 45 minutes of the class time to pass on the knowledge to their students. This is just one portion of the job. We have to take into account all those hours which are spent on the preparation of lessons, tests and essays topics.

Time has to be devoted to checking these tests and essays and on work as exam invigilators. Many teachers, especially those in high schools, organize extra classes to prepare learners for their Matura exams. They are often responsible for the organization of school trips, various ceremonies or meeting with parents. Moreover, they are bombarded with administrative tasks while preparing a documentation of their work (Tucholska 98). Thus, the many tasks of teachers are very wide and varied.

They have to be good psychologists when dealing with students’ problems, with school administrators and guides in addition to being dedicated and creative tutors. They are sometimes called the salt of the earth but the reward for their efforts is very unsatisfactory. This likely results in their feeling of being unappreciated. Hence, society’s expectations for teachers are very high and rising constantly, but they get comparatively little in turn. As Haim G. Ginott said, ”Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task” (Ginott 11).

The shortage of resources necessary to make their work easier and more effective is the sad reality of many Polish schools. Very often the equipment teachers work with is old and does not work properly, which is one of the many other obstacles teachers face in their workplace. Some of them have to support their own classrooms by purchasing materials for their own money. The teachers struggle to overcome all these hindrances, which is like tilting at windmills, coupled with a workload is a significant stress contributor (Sek 152).

Many teachers are not able to cope with their unending struggle and finally give up. A lot of them leave the profession after the first few years of teaching (Sek 47). The government seems to be doing nothing to encourage them to stay in the profession. Their demands for salary increase is answered with an increase in required teaching hours with ridiulously small increase in salary. Thus, some teachers refuse to do such a demanding job for so little money that is not received with appreciation and respect, permission into decision making and expressing their individuality.

Young teachers are full of ideas and creativity with the ambition to ”change the world”. But soon they realize that there is no room for individuality as they have a strictly set program to follow (Nasalska and Stasinska 54). They join a group of teachers who, for the sake of peace, try not to do anything that surpasses their basic duties in order to prevent being exposed to the disapproval of a principal or peers. There are patterns established among ”veteran” teachers, and new members of the staff, and those who want to introduce some changes, are viewed as ”dangerous minds”( Nasalska and Stasinska 49).

In fact, it is very important for most of teachers that they have opportunity to make choices and decisions, to use their abilities to think and solve problems, to have some imput in the process of achieving the outcomes of their work. However, they lack autonomy and have little input into decision making that directly concern them and their daily teaching environment. This results in the feeling of diminished personal accomplishment. It has been proven that low participation in decision making provokes work discontent as well as negative attitude towards one’s principals.

Teachers often take it as a kind of message that their judgment is not respected and that they are not sufficiently important to be asked for their opinion. Most policy changes and reconstructions of curricula are also beyond teachers’ control. They are taken without a regard to educators’ opinions and all they are required to do is to adapt to the new rules (Tucholska 66). Those rapid organizational changes take a high priority among burnout antecedents in respect of high school teachers (Sek 152).

Frequent modifications in government mandates are causing anxiety and require flexibility in constantly having to adapt to the new situations. High school teachers have to adapt to rolling changes in requirements for Matura preparation. They frequently complain of overextensive curricula and lack of time to realize the program (Tucholska 172). This brings difficulties for professionals who are under a time pressure, as well as for learners who are often not able to master the material. They are often forced to organize extra classes for slower students and for whom they cannot sacrifice time during lessons.

But, as many teachers say, the level of mastering the material is not taken into account by administrators, but rather the teacher’s report about program being realized on time. Also, bad grades are viewed negatively as they ”spoil the statistics”. Sometimes, when a teacher does not grade a learner, his decision is changed by the principal. This gives the teacher another message that their decisions are not important and can be changed at any time, which then contributes to low morale (Nasalska and Stasinska 57).

Teachers get many such messages. The vote of non-confidence by their principals is achieved by controlling their work, conducting surveys or in lessons observations and inspections, checking required documentation of their work and assessing teaching results. It resembles totalitarian times, when teachers where under the strict control of their principals and their students collaboratedwith the secret police. The surveys, which are conducted to measure teachers’ work efficiency and students’ opinion of them, are often harmful to teachers.

Students may use this as a tool for personal revenge by making up stories just to get them into trouble. They are also the cause for increased rivalry between staff memebers for achieving best results (Nasalska and Stasinska 55). However, in some ways teachers themselves unconsciously contribute to their burnout. Thomas Carruthers said that ”a teacher is the one who makes himself progressively unnecessary” (qtd. in Skaalvik 618). One of the most important stressors for teachers are their high self-expectations and the high goals they set for themselves.

Halina Sek said that to burn-out you have to first blaze (44). It means that those who are highly motivated and most commited are the most vulnerable to a burnout. A passionate dedication to their work is simulteniously the factor that creates burnout and at the same time the factor that makes them good teachers. They enter their profession full of enthusiasm, high spirits and on idealistic picture of their work. In this way they encourage their own discontent. They usually expect to be popular among students and feel oblidged to agonize over their problems.

When their high expectations are confronted with the school reality, teachers begin to notice inconsistence between their work and the ideals and goals that they set when entering their career. The numerous obstacles which appear on their road force even those that are most dedicated to give up. They are not able to fulfill their expectations which results in depletion of motivation and enthusiasm. The process resembles a withering of plants. The initial flame fades until it wanes completely and the idealistic picture is finally shattered (Sek 47).

After this happens, the image of a good teacher as enthusiastic, passionate, confident, firm and a fair person changes completely. Teachers are trying to reduce the stress experienced at work by distancing themselves from others and their problems (Sek 155). This kind of escape, which has been given the name of ”dehumanization in self-defence”, is a self-protective reaction of emotionally exhausted individuals, which eventually prevents them from effectively carrying out their duties (Sek 17). The basic and inseparable element in a teachers’ profession is the necessity for interpersonal contact.

Burned-out teachers try to restrict contact with students, co-workers, principals and parents to the most possible minimum. They no longer spend extra time on working with individuals, not to mention avoiding taking part in organization of school trips or school events (Sek 155). Moreover, they are no longer able to cope with responsibilities and pressures of teaching. The work, which was making them happy initially, becomes a source of discontent and teachers are not able to devote themselves wholehearted any more. ”The work becomes a Wonderland, and teachers all become Alice.

All in all, the effect is obvious. Learning and the joy of learning rarely happen because if a person is drowning herself, she doesn’t have the will to teach someone else how to swim” (Ginott 13). So, the efficacy of their work performance deteriorates alarmingly. The lessons are less creative and interesting. They do not care anymore and do not even try to make their pupils involved in understanding the material. Teachers, who do not like their job behave stiffly towards their students, lack versatility, lower student requirements and are at the same time intolerant of student failings.

Moreover, emotionally exhausted teachers, who are fed up with their job, take a lot of leave time. It happens very often that they make up excuses just to get more days of vacation. As a result, students miss lessons or are given a substitute teacher, if one is available (Tucholska 104). The relationship with learners diminishes as teachers try to create a psychological distance in order to protect themselves from a stressful environment. They begin to complain of lazy, distruptive students whose presence does not make them happy any longer. They easily get angry, tend to overreact, reveal distrust and jealousy.

They lack involvement, charisma and positive emotions when dealing with learners. They minimize their involvement, and live from one lesson break to another. Their indifference towards pupils’ problems, either personal or educational, makes them cold and unsymphatetic individuals. They try to restrict contacts with students, co-workers, principals and parents to the possible minimum. High school students, who are still growing up and experiencing emotional problems whether at home or with colleagues, expect from their teachers to be both a psychologist and friend who will give them advice, confort and guidance in dealing with problems.

Unfortunately, they cannot depend on their help, friendliness and suport (Sek 96). Thus, students pay a high price when interacting with burned-out teachers. It is generally perceived that emotions are not our private experience but is rather a social one. It has been proven in numerous studies that a teacher’s non-verbal immediacy positively influences teaching efectiveness, students’ performance and motivation and the learning outcomes. Thus, a teacher’s emotional state and dark moods can easily be noticed and understood by others as it is manifested by body language or voice and brings a mirroring effects.

Students can easily distinguish between a teacher doing his work eagerly with passion and the one who forces himself to do it. This strongly affects pupils’ discipline, motivation and attitude toward a teacher, a school and learning (Tucholska 193). Why should they care if the teacher does not? What is more, burned-out individuals are not able to interpret other people’s demands. They do not feel the need for affiliation and are not able to fulfill the societal role connected with emotional closeness, concern for students and taking responsibility for them, which is so important in this profession (Tucholska 217).

They do not try to create positive relations and partnership between students, which are necessary if co-operation is to exist. Morover, as it has been proven in numerous studies, the amount of knowledge passed on by burned-out teachers is significantly smaller. What is more, students cannot hear any words of praise, appreciation for good performance, and this reduces their motivation. No matter how good are the ideas which students come up with, they are hardly ever accepted by their teachers. They cannot depend on teachers’ assistance, response to their questions and needs.

Teachers do not try to motivate and encourage them to learn. They give up quickly and burden the students with the blame of being incapable and lazy (Tucholska 104). The problem becomes more serious when teachers start treating pupils in a dehumanizing manner. They are easily irritated, express anger and impatience. ”They are inflexible in their responses” and tend to judge and criticize their students (Maslach 17). Verbal abuse is commonly used as an attempt to single out a student in front of the rest of the class.

It also happens that that a learner may become a victim of physical abuse from emotionally unstable teachers (Tucholska 157). No wonder that students are not enthusiastic about attending classes where they are criticized for each small mistake, where their ideas are ignored and where they are exposed to ridicule. Works Cite Education at a Glance 2006. 12 Sept. 2006.

Organization for Economic Co-operation And Development. 18 March 2009 http://www. oecd. org/document/52/0,3343,en_2649_39263238_37328564_1_1_1_1,00. html Ginott, Haim. Teacher and Child. New York: Colliers Books Macmilllan.


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