We need to talk about: Burnout by @GeographyTom9

You know what? You matter. You really, really matter. No matter who you are or what you do, you are really important – Good job! I think it’s important that you’re reminded of that. (I don’t usually open my blog posts with a compliment to my a reader, but it felt nice to start that way.)

In this entry, I write about burnout and the cultures we, as educators, exist in can contribute to this phenomena. Carson et al (2011) have shown that burnout can have a significant impact over the quality of life and over a teachers effectiveness. It is these very reasons that talking about burnout (identifying it, dealing with it and finding ways to reduce it) really matters.

What’s the problem?

I have been a teacher for 2 years, during which time I have experienced feelings of burnout and have witnessed colleagues going through the same. The worst thing about it, it felt like a natural part of the job. I felt as though it was something I had to deal with and overcome, we all know teaching’s hard, right? Whilst I am most definitely enjoying my summer holiday, I have fully embraced the chance to reflect on the past year. There have been times this year where I have been completely burnt-out. And the scariest thing about all of this? The impact this had on my students, and, sadly, only now I’m starting to realise this…

Maslach et al (2001) carried out a pioneering study into job burnout and what characterizes it. Their study identified three key features; 1) emotional exhaustion, 2) depersonalisation and 3) reduced personal accomplishment. Of these three features, the one I found most shocking was number 2. Depersonalisation is described as the development of negative emotions towards the people in one’s care/receiving one’s service. In the case of teachers, this would be our students. When a teacher is suffering burnout, students are the one’s suffering. When we are burnt out, we no longer recognise or choose to ignore, the things that make our young people unique and great. The impacts of burnout extend beyond short term impacts, Schaufeli & Enzmann (1998) demonstrated the impact burnout can have on motivation. Their research cites that burnout can reduce a professional’s intrinsic motivation (and in teaching, for me at least, intrinsic motivation is the thing that keeps you going on the really tough days). Furthermore, Shen et al (2015) build on this work and explain how teacher burnout goes deeper with students, they have shown that burnout can affect the intrinsic motivation of students. A burnt-out teacher can very quickly lead to disengaged students.

At the most basic level, these findings show us the importance of being rested. (That remains my most common nugget of advice for teachers starting out in the profession today – sleep matters, don’t neglect it.) Yet this research goes far beyond this, it shows us the importance of the school environment. At its root, burnout is a psychological problem, and thus any discussion of it relies on a degree of this research to be considered. Ryan (1995) suggests humans have three basic psychological needs that need to be met to ensure we remain motivated. These needs are framed within the wider concept of Self-Determination Theory (herein referred to as SDT) (Deci and Ryan, 1985)

SDT identifies these needs as the following; the first is the need for autonomy. This evinces our need to be the source of our own work and this is realized when we conclude our behaviour is self-defined. The second is the need for competence. This is based upon our desire to work with our environment and undertake opportunities to express ourselves to our full capacity, in essence, to show our full capabilities. And finally, the third need is relatedness. This is our want of strong and meaningful relationships with others. The arguments presented previously indicate that the absence of stimulus for any of these needs will result in a heightened chance of teacher burnout.

So, what do we do?

I certainly don’t claim to have all the answer, but there are some small changes we could make as individuals that would go part of the way to dealing with this chronic problem.

Firstly, we need to create an autonomy-supportive environment. This means giving members of the school community their own responsibilities and believing in their ability to do it. I have seen some very, very busy senior/middle leaders. Delegate, give your teachers the responsibility to show you what they can do. It reduces your workload and empowers them. Equally, I’ve seen some very busy classroom teachers (I’m one of them!), let’s give our students some responsibility. Once a term, challenge your students to plan and deliver a lesson. Let them be responsible for their learning for that hour. Naturally, you may be constrained by the structures of your school, but try and present your argument for the validity of this.

Secondly, we need to show teachers and students they really matter. We need to create a shared growth mindset and make it a central part of the school culture. We need to encourage all members of the school community to value challenge and to rise to it. We need to allow people, teachers and students, to show us what they can do – you’d be amazed at what people can do if you believe in them. The caveat to this, of course, is that any challenge must be presented in a positive way. Staff and students alike need to be empowered to undertake a challenge, creating this takes time.

Thirdly, to enhance relatedness, talking matters. I opened this blog post with telling you how fantastic you are (I still mean it by the way) and that’s a really easy takeaway from this. Create that feeling of belonging for colleagues and students alike, take 5 minutes at the end of the day and have a chat with someone. Tell them how fantastic their contributions have been, tell them their efforts are not ignored, tell them they’re appreciated. It doesn’t have to be about work, it can be about anything but show you value that person. You’ll feel better after doing it too!

I reiterate again, I don’t have all the answers. These are my thoughts and ideas, open the discussion (comments below!). What do you think? How can we create great cultures of learning where teachers and students can do their best, show their best and celebrate their successes?

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Tom Highnett in 2015 and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

– Carson, R., Plemmons, S., Templin, T., and Weiss, H. (2011), “You are who you are:” A mixed method study of affectivity and emotional regulation in curbing teacher burnout. In G. Gates, W. Gmelch (Series Eds.), G. M. Reevy & E. Frydenberg (Vol. Eds.), Research on stress and coping in education: Vol. 6. Personality, stress and coping: Implications for education (pp. 239–265). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

– Deci, E. and Ryan, R., (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

– Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W., and Leiter, M.,(2001), Job burnout, Annual Review of Psychology, 52, pp. 397–422.

– Ryan, R. M. (1995). Psychological needs and the facilitation of integrative processes. Journal of Personality, 63, pp. 397–427.

– Schaufeli, W., and Enzmann, D. (1998). The burnout companion to study and practice: A critical analysis. London, UK: Taylor & Francis.

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

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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