Why Schools Should Take Teacher Burnout More Seriously

As we start another school year in the northern hemisphere I reflect back on the hundreds of conversations I have had over the last twelve months with educators and school leaders around the world about their wellbeing and that of their colleagues. It is shocking to think that, for many, life is still not anywhere close to returning to normal and that the impact of the pandemic rages on without an end in sight. After 18 months it is impossible for governments or schools to deny the toll that the crisis is taking on staff as an increasing number report signs of burnout. In August 2020 and January 2021, I wrote about the growing prevalence of burnout among school leaders and teachers in two articles Leading Through the Pandemic-Is an Epidemic of COVID Burnout Awaiting our School Leaders? and What is Burnout and How Can Teachers and School Leaders Overcome It? It would be a mistake, however, to think of educator burnout as a phenomenon created by the COVID 19 pandemic, as there is plenty of evidence to show that burnout has been an escalating problem in schools for many years. Large-scale research from Australia, New Zealand and Ireland over the past decade has consistently found the prevalence of teacher burnout to be significantly higher, as much as double, that experienced by the general population, while similar research from the UK has shown teacher wellbeing to be well below average.

The current crisis has no doubt acted as a catalyst for schools to think more about staff wellbeing and that should be welcomed. Some schools are genuinely committed to making a real difference through the introduction of well-planned strategies to support staff that will hopefully have lasting impact. I fear that the majority of schools, however, are making merely token gestures, while others show no inclination to address the needs of their most valuable resource. I would argue that this is a huge mistake as there is now mounting evidence of the negative impact that teacher burnout can have on schools, including on student outcomes. Two recently published meta-studies from the University of York have reviewed the literature on teacher burnout from the last 35 years and have identified a number of very concerning issues that should mobilise schools to immediately take action to prevent and address staff burnout.

Impact on Student Outcomes

In recent years, researchers have developed many theories of how the emotional exhaustion, detachment and reduced professional efficacy that characterises teacher burnout may impact students. It has been suggested that teachers experiencing burnout are likely to be less effective in planning and delivering lessons, managing student behaviour and creating the social connections that are essential to a well functioning classroom. This could impact a student’s sense of belonging and reduce engagement and motivation, as well as impact performance. A well-documented psychological phenomenon known as “contagion effect,” where individuals pick up and imitate the emotional cues of others, could also lead to teachers passing on burnout to students. The first of York University’s meta-studies, published in November 2020, went some way towards confirming many of these theories. The analysis of 14 studies, covering over 5,000 teachers and 50,000 students, found that there is a strong association between teacher burnout and increased disruptive behaviour by students. It also found some evidence of impact on student motivation and academic achievement, with students who are taught by a teacher experiencing burnout performing less well on assessments and receiving lower cumulative grades than other students. Finally the review found that, while there is no evidence of students experiencing burnout as a result of the “contagion effect,” students are able to recognise burnout symptoms in their teachers and that teacher burnout is associated with higher physiological markers of stress, such as increased cortisol, in the students they teach. This alone should give schools great cause for concern but it is not the full picture.

Impact on Teacher Turnover

The second meta-study of pre-COVID research, published just this month, identifies clear links between teacher burnout and job turnover. The review found that burnout is a key predictor of teachers’ intentions to leave the profession and that teachers experiencing burnout are now more likely to leave the profession than at any time. These findings match those of other recent studies, including a large-scale study of UK education professionals from 2019, where 57% said they had considered leaving the teaching profession in the previous two years due to pressure on their mental health and wellbeing. This should be of equal concern to schools as the findings of the first meta-analysis, as teacher turnover is also linked to student outcomes. A 2012 study of 850,000 observations of 4th and 5th grade students over eight academic years in New York City found teacher turnover to be detrimental to student learning. In schools where teacher turnover was high, student achievement was consistently lower, even among students whose teachers had remained in the school and grade level for a number of years. So the impact of high turnover in the school had a disruptive effect on the school generally. There are a number of reasons why this might happen, including impact on staff cohesion, community and school culture, which would affect all teachers including those retained from year-to-year and their students.

Having led schools for more than 15 years, including through the first 6 months of the pandemic, I fully understand the enormous pressures that leaders and boards of governors/directors/trustees currently find themselves under and the reasons why a meaningful approach to preventing staff burnout may be considered a low priority. Firstly, there are too many other problems to solve that may be of greater importance; secondly, burnout is thought of as an issue for the individual to address and not the responsibility of the organisation and finally, schools have neither the resources nor the know-how to make the impactful change that is needed to ensure their staff are protected from a burnout situation. This is in my opinion very short-sighted, teachers in increasing and worrying numbers are being rendered incapable of performing their roles to the level that is needed for them to impact student learning effectively. In addition, highly trained, skilful and dedicated professionals are being forced to leave the jobs they once loved and retire early or build new careers elsewhere. It is a mistake to presume that schools and students are better off without these people as high turnover of staff may negatively impact the learning of all students in the school. Research also shows that it is often the most dedicated, hard-working and caring individuals who burnout. The teachers who keep giving and giving until they have nothing left to give. They deserve better but more importantly students, schools, the teaching profession and society need experienced and committed teachers. We need to value them more, nurture them and support them, rather than burn them out and then discard them.

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