Twenty years has elapsed since I was a classroom teacher, but I remember the anticipation and excitement that accompanied the beginning of each school year. I loved preparing my classroom for the onslaught of eighth graders. Each year brought new students, challenges, possibilities, expectations, requirements, and excitement. I imagine the feelings being much the same as a runner crouching in the starting blocks waiting for the sound of the gun signaling the beginning of the race. However, by January my anticipation was gone and instead I found myself overwhelmed, grading mountains of papers, strategizing about getting content covered, and attempting to motivate underachieving students. Like many teachers, I “hit the wall,” both emotionally and physically, and the joy of teaching slipped through my fingers as I painstakingly attempted to hold onto it. As a therapist, I have heard echoes of my story in the lives of countless teachers striving to remain emotionally and professionally healthy.
Dr. Bryon Greenberg, associate professor at Virginia State University, describes classroom teachers as “often ‘on fire’ for the job, and anything on fire can burn out.” Teachers experience negative stressors daily as they manage the demands of students, parents, coworkers, and administrators. This chronic, negative stress often leads to health problems and burnout.
Burnout is faced by all helping professionals regardless of their skill or proficiency (Freudenberger 160). Burnout includes three key markers (Huebner, Gilligan, and Cobb 174):
- Exhaustion—feeling physically and/or emotionally depleted, leaving you highly vulnerable to stressors
- Depersonalization—viewing others impersonally and distancing from them, which sometimes creates a negative attitude toward students and/or teaching
- Reduced sense of personal accomplishment—feeling incompetent as a teacher or feeling that other teachers are substantially better than you
Teachers interact with others daily, but most of these interactions are not with co-workers, where you can share difficulties and receive suggestions and support to address the issues. School layouts and teaching schedules facilitate a sense of isolation, and increase the chances of teachers experiencing burnout (Bennett and LeCompte 324).
Teachers often describe their jobs as “high stress.” This description helps explain why 14 percent of teachers leave the profession after one year and 46 percent leave before teaching five years (Lambert). However, amid the decreasing resources available to meet the increasing expectations, there are strategies to help teachers attain personal health and thrive.