EDU 6989 Professional Issue Report: Teacher Burnout

Teacher burnout is a real problem for schools in the United States. Teachers, especially new ones, are susceptible to feelings of stress, loneliness, and low self-esteem. Teacher stress has many negative consequences including adverse effects to teacher health, negative thoughts and attitudes towards the education system, poor job satisfaction, and increased rates of leaving the profession. According to Prilleltensky, Neff, and Bessell (2016), anywhere from 30% to 50% of new teachers leave within the first 5 years of entering the career and 20% to 33% of new teachers leave within 3 years. These large rates of attrition have a huge financial cost to districts, states, and the teachers themselves. In addition to financial costs, teachers who are experiencing high amounts of stress or burnout do not teach as efficiently and can even influence how students feel about the educational experience. Poor teacher motivation can negatively influence students, causing further disinterest and lower engagement (Shen, McCaughtry, Martin, Garn, Kulik, Fahlman, 2015). It is important to understand teacher stress and how it leads to burnout, recognize the negative effects on students, and discover potential ways to alleviate the causes and symptoms.

Numerous studies have been done on teacher burnout. “Schaufeli and Enzmann (1998) noted that teachers represent the largest homogeneous occupational group investigated in burnout research, comprising 22% of all samples” (McCarthy, Lambert, O’Donnell, and Melendres, 2009, p. 283). Some teachers may be more prone to burnout than others, depending on their personalities. McCarthy et al. (2009) hypothesized that teachers are more susceptible to burnout symptoms if they believe the demands of their job are outweighed by the amount of resources they have to cope with those demands. To test this theory, McCartney et al. (2009) performed a study of 451 teachers in 13 elementary schools within a large urban region in the southeastern United States. They measured the teachers’ burnout using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) test. The MBI, developed in the 1980s by Christina Maslach and others, measures three aspects of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment. Emotional exhaustion is defined as a depletion of one’s emotional resources while depersonalization means distancing oneself from others. According to McCarthy et al. (2009), depersonalization for elementary teachers could mean the development of negative, callous, and cynical attitudes towards students and the school environment. Personal accomplishment is a reduced sense of efficacy and devaluing of one’s work with others (McCarthy et al., 2009).

Through a complex analysis of two years’ worth of data, McCarthy et al. (2009) concluded that “teachers’ experience of stress appeared to have little to do with the differences between the various elementary school contexts” (p. 296). Furthermore, what made the most significant difference was the individual differences between teachers, suggesting that the biggest predictor of burnout was individual perceptions of the balance between resources and demands (McCarthy et al., 2009). It is interesting that another finding from this study was that the longer a teacher worked at a particular school, the more at risk they were for having burnout symptoms (McCarthy et al., 2009). The authors speculated that perhaps tenured teachers are given more non-classroom responsibilities, more difficult students, or other administrative functions not typically given to teachers in their first year of service. Another finding suggested that in order to combat depersonalization, teachers need to be given more support from school administrators, such as through morale-boosting events outside of school and even a mentor program. It is apparent in this study that no matter how long a teacher has been in the profession, they are still at risk for stress and burnout.

A recent article by Prilleltensky et al. (2016) explained that risks and protective factors take place at the personal, interpersonal, and organizational levels. On a personal level, feelings, of isolation, inadequacy, and anxiety can be offset by things such as a support network, a mentor teacher, increased self-efficacy, mindful medication, and a growth mindset. Interpersonal risk factors include relationships with students, parents, and colleagues. To combat these potential problems, teachers need to have better classroom management skills, elicit student voice, communicate regularly with parents, and share ideas with fellow colleagues. At the organizational level, risk factors include role clarification and policies and practices that are outside a teacher’s power to influence. Protective factors at the organizational level include workload clarification, understanding the principal’s expectations, and enhancing teacher voice and choice.

Prilleltensky et al. (2016), also note that novice teachers are especially prone to anxiety, loneliness, and feelings of inadequacy at the personal and interpersonal levels. New teachers often do not know anyone in the school and have a difficult time making friends or sharing ideas about teaching. Sometimes their friendliness can be met with frustration or negative feelings from other teachers who may be burned out themselves. Prilleltensky et al. (2016) reference a growing body of research supporting the idea that teacher mentoring and induction programs can increase novice teachers’ efficacy, job satisfaction, and retention. In fact, “first-year teachers who had a mentor in their field were 30% less likely to leave the profession at the end of their first year teaching” (Prilleltensky et al., p. 107). Stressful conflicts with parents and students themselves adds to the emotional burden thrown on teachers.

At the organizational level, new teachers are often placed in tough classrooms without proper professional support. Unfortunately, many teacher preparation programs do not equip teachers for daily classroom demands. Furthermore, teaching is inherently emotionally intense and the school system is not organized in a way to support new teachers (Prilleltensky et al., 2016).

While numerous studies have been centered on teachers’ own characteristics, “few have explored the connection between teachers’ burnout and students’ motivation via their own perceptions of teachers’ behavior and emotional well-being” (Shen et al., 2015, p. 520). The theory is that as teachers become increasingly burned out, their classroom preparation and involvement in classroom activities decreases while student criticism increases. Thus, students’ sense of efficacy in school can decline, reducing their intrinsic motivation, and eventually diminishing learning and engagement. Shen et al. (2015) conducted a study of over 1,300 high school students and their 33 physical education teachers in 20 high schools from two school districts in a Midwest metropolitan area to investigate the relationship between teachers’ burnout and students’ independent motivation. Teacher experience in this study ranged from 8 years to 30 years.

Results showed that physical education teachers’ “burnout was negatively associated with students’ autonomous motivation” (Shen et al., 2015, p. 527). There could be a few possible reasons for this connection, including: 1) emotional exhaustion may discourage teachers from realizing the relevance of physical education and therefore they did not provide students with convincing instruction, and 2) teachers might be uninterested in setting goals for students or allowing them to choose activities they find interesting (Shen et al., 2015, p. 529). Further study is needed across a wider variety of school populations and subjects to determine the link between teacher burnout and student motivation.

These studies point to the fact that teachers could benefit from instruction on fundamental skills such as stress and time management, relaxation training, and coping skills. One such skill called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) might be helpful. According to Gold, Smith, Hopper, Herne, Tansey, and Hulland (2009), “MBSR is based on training attention through straight-forward, secular, meditation techniques” (p. 185). When dealing with stressful thoughts or events, teachers using MBSR attempt to reduce emotional reactivity and become more attuned to logical thinking. Gold et al. (2009) performed a study of nine elementary teachers and two teaching assistants at six schools to determine the effectiveness of MBSR training at reducing teacher stress. Participants completed the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales test before and after the MBSR training. The training occurred over 8 weeks with sessions once a week after the school day for 2.5 hours. There was also a 5-hour session on a Saturday between weeks 5 and 6.

Results showed that most teachers were emotionally distressed, scoring above the clinical threshold for depression, with eight scoring in the clinically significant range in two of the three subscales (depression, anxiety, or stress) (Gold et al., 2016). After the MBSR training, only four scored within the clinically significant range on any subscale, with only two being mildly stressed (Gold et al., 2016). Several participants had positive things to say about the training such as “I wish I’d known about it 30 years ago” and “It has been helpful for me to notice unhelpful thinking patterns and nipping them in the bud” (Gold et al., 2016). It is difficult to make a generalization about these results given the extremely small number of participants, no control group, and no follow up of the long-term effects of the training. However, at least in the short term, MBSR training may prove useful for some teachers to reduce their personal anxiety, stress, and depression by increasing their coping abilities.

It is essential that educators around the country realize the seriousness of teacher burnout. Personal, interpersonal, and organizational factors can have a huge impact on how a teacher handles stress and loneliness. New teachers especially are prone to these negative feelings and may not have the training or support they need from their school or teacher preparation programs. Coping strategies such as the MBSR approach, other cognitive behavioral approaches, and having a good support network can help alleviate the symptoms of burnout. Teacher working conditions and classroom environments must be improved. For the sake of all educators and students, there needs to be more of a balance between the demands and resources of classrooms, more support for teachers with challenging students or situations, and perhaps even mentors assigned to new teachers. Recognizing teacher burnout is the first step in the long road to improvement.

References

Gold, E., Smith, A., Hopper, I., Herne, D., Tansey, G., Hulland, C. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction (mbsr) for primary school teachers. Journal of Child & Familiy Studies, 19, 184-189. doi: 10.1007/s10826-009-9344-0

McCarthy, C. J., Lambert, R. G., O’Donnell, M., Melendres, L. T. (2009). The relation of elementary teachers’ experience, stress, and coping resources to burnout symptoms. The Elementary School Journal, 109, 3, 282-300. doi: 0013-5984/2009/10903-0004

Prilleltensky, I., Neff, M., Bessell, A. (2016). Teacher stress: what it is, why it’s important, how it can be alleviated. Theory Into Practice, 55, 104-111. doi: 10.1080/00405841.2016.1148986

Shen, B., McCaughtry, N., Martin, J., Garn, A., Kulik, N., and Fahlman, M. (2015). The relationship between teacher burnout and student motivation. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 519-532. doi: 10.1111/bjep.12089

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EDU 6989 Observation Reflection

As part of my field experience class at Seattle Pacific University, I observed several teachers at B. F. Day Elementary School over the past two months to gain a better understanding of the curriculum, culture, and the daily life of teachers there.

Demographics

B. F. Day is located in the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle, Washington. It is the oldest continually operating school in the city. The “building is a designated historic landmark having undergone state-of-the-art renovation in 1991” (About B. F. Day Elementary, 2016). It is a relatively small elementary school with approximately 330 students and 21 teachers. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI, 2016), for the 2014-2015 school year, about 58% of students are Caucasian, 12% are Asian American, 10% are Hispanic, 8% are African American, and 12% are two or more races, making the student population moderately diverse. Approximately one-third of students quality for free or reduced-price meals, 16% are transitional bilingual, and 13% qualify for special education (OSPI, 2016).

Curriculum and Teaching Styles

B. F. Day uses the “mini middle school” system where the 4th and 5th graders have several teachers throughout the course of the day. This program is meant to help prepare them for the transition to middle school. I mostly observed the 4th and 5th grade literacy, science, and math teachers, but I also observed the physical education teacher and the art teacher. After my observations of the “mini middle school,” I am not convinced it has a positive effect on students. Instruction time is lost with as many as three transitions a day, not including transitions for recess and lunch. The students also have four or five different teachers who all have different personalities and ways of managing their classrooms. Expectations are different almost every hour depending on which teacher the students are with at that time. Additional observations in future years would help determine the effectiveness of the “mini middle school” program.

The curriculum included math, science, and literacy/social studies as the core subjects, with art and physical education on alternating days. In the math classroom, not once did I see learning targets shown anywhere, essential questions being asked, or instruction occurring. This may be an unfair assessment, given the fact that my observing was very sporadic and I generally spent the majority of the time with the science and literacy teachers. However, I frequently observed the math teacher handing out worksheets rather than actually teaching. Most of the students expressed boredom with math and were frustrated that they were forced to do so many repetitive worksheets they felt would be irrelevant in their futures.

In stark contrast, the literacy teacher had learning targets for the week posted on the board, as well as references to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Reading. I graded a few worksheets and papers for her during one of my observations using the rubrics provided by the CCSS. She also used rubrics for the end of unit projects students completed and scored them on a scale of 0-4. It appeared that she used this information to improve her instruction for the rest of the unit and for future years. She also often had students turn and talk to their neighbor about answers to questions and other topics. This teaching technique seemed to work well at gaining student interest. Students were also interested in the social justice unit in their literacy class. Many liked the fact that they could choose a book from a list of books provided related to a social justice topic.

The science teacher often used PowerPoint presentations to give direct instruction, which usually included a learning target. No standards were referenced. Students seemed interested in science, especially when doing experiments such as the erosion and deposition of soil. It is unclear to me how he evaluated student progress and achievement. In general, if an experiment did not go well or the students appeared to be confused, he would simply revisit the experiment the next day to correct any errors or misconceptions. He often used sentence starters as a way to get the students to start writing a summary about a topic such as erosion and deposition. I assume he graded these summaries and took that information into account when working with particular students, but again it was hard for me to make a fair judgment based on the short amount of time I spent observing.

Child Abuse Prevention

Child abuse prevention and reporting is a critical aspect of being a teacher, counselor, principal, or other professional school employee. As part of Seattle Public Schools, B. F. Day follows Board Policy 3421 adopted in April 2012 by the district with regard to reporting child abuse:

All professional school personnel who have reasonable cause to believe that a child has experienced abuse, neglect, or exploitation shall report such incident to law enforcement or the Children’s Protective Services Staff at the first opportunity and in no case longer than forty-eight (48) hours after the finding of possible abuse or neglect.

I am sure these guidelines are reiterated at the beginning of every school year with training occurring every three years after initial employment.

Culture

Rules and expectations are posted in the hallways and in classrooms and are reinforced by faculty and staff daily. B. F. Day is in the first year of implementing the social and emotional literacy program called RULER, which stands for Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions. They also utilize a school wide curriculum called Second Step to teach social skills. I saw posters about these programs in the hallway and in classrooms, but never observed them being referenced by teachers. I often observed students misbehaving in the hallways, in classrooms, and on the playground. Students are expected to transition between classrooms quietly and in line order, however many times students were talking and continually out of line and had to be corrected.

I generally observed good behavior in classrooms, however the math teacher struggled to maintain order in her room. On my first day of observing, I walked into a chaotic classroom where the teacher was doing very little to control her students. The math teacher asked me to help two girls with their math worksheets in the hall outside the room. The girls continued talking and were off-task the majority of the time I tried to help them. Once one of them tore up the math worksheet right in front of me and refused to do it. There seemed to be no consequences for their actions. Needless to say, the math teacher had no idea how to gain student interest in math and failed to keep students in line. She is taking a position at a different elementary school next year.

The other classrooms I observed were much better behaved. The literacy teacher indicated that she set behavior expectations at the beginning of the school year and students seemed to respect her more than the math teacher. As part of her behavior plan, she set up a classroom meeting one afternoon a week for her 5th grade classes. Every student had to compliment at least one person for something and all students were given the chance to discuss important topics such as playground issues, school or community events, and their personal lives as they felt like sharing. Students took this classroom meeting seriously and really enjoyed discussing topics.

The science teacher also set up classroom meetings for the 4th grade classes, which they appeared to enjoy. For general classroom management he used a computer/cell phone app called ClassDojo. This app allows the teacher to quickly award or take away points for each student based on their behavior. Students can gain points by being on-task, participating, and helping others. Points can be taken away for off-task behavior, talking out in class, or other distracting behaviors. At the end of the week if all students had at least 15 points, the teacher would allow them to play on the playground for the last 15 minutes of class. I think this was a great motivational technique for maintaining student engagement and behavior.

As for the faculty frustration, it was clear that the literacy teacher did not appreciate the lack of control the math teacher had over her students. During lunch I would often sit in the teachers’ rooms while they worked on their lessons for that afternoon or answered emails. Sometimes the other 4th and 5th grade teachers, with the exception of the math teacher, would join us and talk about how their day was going. Often I heard lamenting about how they wished the day or week was over and that it was summer break. Other times they felt energized about how well a lesson went that morning or how a certain student was successful at something. They seemed ever hopeful that things would get better, which was encouraging.

In summary, the school culture seemed to be one of rowdy and sometimes disengaged students, as well as frustration among the 4th and 5th grade faculty, mostly in relation to the math teacher and particular students egregiously misbehaving. It is unclear whether the students I observed were as disengaged in prior years or whether their rowdiness was a result of a poor math teacher.

As for my overall experience, I enjoyed getting to know the teachers at B. F. Day Elementary School. They welcomed me, a complete stranger, in their classrooms and allowed me to assist with experiments, grade student work, supervise the playground, inventory science kits, and perform many other tasks. B. F. Day has a handful of dedicated teachers and I am hopeful that next year’s math teacher will be an immediate improvement for the 4th and 5th graders. I hope to have a chance to revisit the school in the future. Having this chance to observe a local school gave me a better understanding of how classroom management can impact the learning environment. Building positive relationships with students and other faculty, clearly communicating expectations and enforcing them, as well as creating a compelling curriculum can make teaching incredibly rewarding.

References

About – B. F. Day Elementary. (n. d.). Retrieved May 28, 2016, from http://dayes.seattleschools.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=2199&pageId=35328

Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. (n.d.). Retrieved May 28, 2016, from http://reportcard.ospi.k12.wa.us/summary.aspx?groupLevel=District&schoolId=1120&reportLevel=School&year=2014-15&yrs=2014-15

Seattle Public Schools Board Policy No. 3421. April 4, 2012. Retrieved May 28, 2016, from http://www.dayes.seattleschools.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_543/File/Migration/Departments/HR/3421.pdf