Vol. 11 #1 Teacher Wellness as a Remedy to Teacher Burnout

Teacher Wellness as a Remedy to Teacher Burnout

Vance Austin, PhD

Manhattanville College

As teachers across the country return to the classroom and the job they love, participation in teacher wellness practices can mitigate teacher burnout and help to keep a good teacher in the classroom.There are many reasons that teachers leave the profession, principally, due to unruly students, a lack of control over the work environment, a sense of disempowerment, a dearth of administrative support that includes the provision of mentoring and quality as well as a lack of sustained professional development (Fernet, Guay, Senecal & Austin, 2011). In fact, approximately 35% of new teachers leave the profession within the first three years of employment and between 40 and 50 % of teachers will leave the classroom within their first five years of teaching (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2014). Seidel (2014) found that 15% or 500,000 U.S. teachers leave the profession every year. The pressure to prepare students to take and pass an increasing number of required high stakes tests is also a contributing factor. Nevertheless, there are things that novice and veteran teachers can do to guard against “teacher burnout” and help sustain their love of the profession and desire to make a difference in the lives of students. Sutcher, Darling-Hammond, and Carver-Thomas (2016) have identified dissatisfaction with administrators and a perceived lack of support from them, a lack of control over teaching methods, the increase in testing and accountability pressures, unhappiness with the working conditions, as well as minimal accommodation for parental leave as the most typically cited causes of teacher attrition.

The Case for Teacher Self-Care

Merriam-Webster (2015, p. 1) describes the term “burnout” as a condition caused by exhaustion due to a demanding job. Some researchers have determined that teaching constitutes the hardest job one can do in our society (Glasser, 1992). Seventy-three percent of teachers surveyed in a recent study reported that they are “often” under stress, with 48% stating that they regularly experienced greatstress in conjunction with their duties (American Federation of Teachers, 2015). Compounding teachers’ stress levels are the demands of a profession that is constantly in flux and celebrates sweeping curricular changes, and an ever-increasing list of duties and responsibilities. Neufeldnov (2014), notes that teachers are less able to provide quality instruction when they are stressed and overworked.

These data highlight the need for effective teacher self-care strategies to help reduce teacher burnout and promote recovery. Examples of these suggested reforms include: (a) prioritizing, consolidating, and better organizing teacher tasks and responsibilities so they are not overwhelmed, (b) facilitating the adoption of well-researched interventions and instructional technologies, (c) help improve the effectiveness and viability of teacher preparation programs by using data to inform educational decision-making (Grant Rankin, 2017).

Warning Signs of Teacher Burnout

Research suggests that American teachers don’t do a good job of self-assessment, self-reflection, and, consequently don’t take good care of themselves. One theoretical perspective that has been used to explain this phenomenon comes from Hofstede’s Dimension Scale (Gladwell, 2008). In his investigative work as a social psychologist, Hofstede claimed that Americans, in general, are a self-effacing people, who engage in “mitigating speech” and score at the highest level in “individualism,” as compared with the other nations of the world, they are very tolerant of “ambiguity-uncertainty,” and achieve a high score on the “low-power distance index.” Americans tend to value individual initiative, are tolerant of conflicting beliefs, are not rigid in their thinking, and are not easily impressed or influenced by rank or celebrity, making it unlikely that the American Teacher will acknowledge her vulnerability and search for resources that address and mitigate teacher burnout.

American Teachers continue to be evaluated on their individual contribution to student progress as measured by their students’ performance on standardized tests. Teachers that aspire to achieve tenure are evaluated as individuals and succeed or fail, based solely on individual merit, as determined by the APPR metric. As a result, teachers develop a determination to succeed and frequently underestimate the long-term psycho-social effects of a very stressful profession. Given the stressful nature of the job, teachers often experience compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress (Kenardy, DeYoung, LeBrocque, & March, 2011). Symptoms of this disorder include: (a) decreased concentration and attention, (b) increased irritability or agitation with students, (c) problems planning classroom activities, lessons, and maintaining routines, (d) feeling detached, (e) experiencing intense feelings of concern about specific students’ academic progress and/or emotional well-being.These problems will persist if not effectively addressed (Kenardy, DeYoung, LeBrocque, & March, 2011).

Evidence-based Teacher Self-Care Practices

Mindfulness. Research supports that mindfulness activities can enhance positive psychological feelings, improve functioning, and help to alleviate psychological distress through self-regulatory processes (e.g., Hart, Ivtzan, Hart, 2013). Examples of mindfulness activities include non-religious meditation, yoga, tai-chi, and Qigong, to name a few. Similarly, studies show that mindfulness can assist teachers in managing the demands of teaching by promoting adaptive emotional regulation and coping skills that reduce stress while increasing energy and providing self-regulatory strategies (Roeser, 2016; Roeser, Skinner, Beers, & Jennings, 2012; Skinner & Beers, 2016).

One such strategy, designed exclusively to support teachers, is the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE for Teachers) program designed to promote teachers’ social and emotional competence and improve the quality of instruction and the student-teacher relationship using mindfulness techniques (Jennings et al., 2017). In brief, the program involves 30 hours of in-person training conducted over a 4-5-week period designed to help teacher-participants improve their adaptive emotional regulation, increase mindfulness, and reduce psychological distress and the stress created by a constant barrage of deadlines. An investigation of the effectiveness of the program found a reduction in psychological stress indicators among participants. Furthermore, these teacher-participants’ students displayed better attitudes, the classroom climate improved, there were less disruptive behavior, and the students were more engaged in learning (Jennings et al., 2017).

Stress management techniques. Another teacher support program that was recently developed, the Stress Management and Relaxation Techniques for Educators (SMART), consists of an 8-week, 20-hour, research-based curriculum that was created for early-childhood, childhood, and adolescent-level teachers.

A similar teacher stress management technique that has achieved successful outcomes is entitled: “The ABCs of Managing Teacher Stress” (Nagel & Brown, 2003). The first letter, “A,” in the acronym represents the phrase: “acknowledge it [stress],” the “B” signifies “Behavior Modification” through meditation and exercise and uses a creative problem-solving process that recommends the following steps: (a) describe the problem, (b) generate ideas to solve it, (c) select a solution and refine it, (d) implement the solution, and (e) evaluate its efficacy. The letter “C” in the acronym stands for “Cognitive Restructuring,” which consists of a three-step process: 1. Describe the situation: (e.g., a screaming, disruptive child), 2. Review the original thought this situation induced: (e.g., “This child is loud and obnoxious-a real bother!”), and 3. Restructure the thought so it promotes a prosocial/therapeutic response: (e.g., “Perhaps the child is engaged and overly-excited and needs to be taught a more appropriate way to show enthusiasm.”) (Nagel & Brown, 2003).

A valuable stress-reducer advertised in the literature incorporates the use of the “I” statement, which enables teachers to tactfully say what they really mean. For example, when Mr. Jones is asked by his school’s principal if he would consider being the student council faculty advisor, he respectfully replies, “I am very disappointed to have to miss this opportunity this year, but I must decline because, at present, I’m finding it a challenge to balance work and home responsibilities. Please check back with me next year, if you need an advisor.” Further, administrators can help reduce teacher stress and subsequent burnout by selecting experienced mentor-teachers to help teach and model stress management techniques (Williams & Wolfe Poel, 2006).

Positive self-affirmations. Self-affirmations are written reflections that involve 10-minute writing sessions and target desired values such as the acknowledgement of the need to feel relevant. The benefits of self-affirmations include: (a) the perception of self as a “good person” deserving of love and wholesome human interaction, (b) the perception of self as adequate to be considered moral and adaptive, and (c) the perception of self as one who is worthy of esteem or praise (Robinson, 2014).

Morris (2015) has suggested ways that teachers can take care of themselves. For example, the author recommends that teachers (a) find some “me time,” (b) take walks, (c) keep journals, (d) read for pleasure, (e) reflect, (f) recharge, and (g) respond to themselves. Another researcher has offered strategies to enhance teacher self-care: (a) care for yourself so you can care for others, (b) set healthy boundaries, (c) take frequent breaks, (d) engage in exercise, (e) know your own threshold for stress and don’t exceed it, (f) find at least three activities that relieve stress for you and do them consistently, and (g) start your day on a positive note (Brunette, 2004).

A Last Word

Disruptive students, a lack of control over the work environment, a sense of exclusion, a lack of administrative support manifest in an unwillingness to invest resources in relevant and sustained professional development, as well as mounting stress caused by increased responsibilities are but a few of the threats to the emotional and physical well-being of teachers in today’s classrooms. These conditions and others contribute to low teacher self-efficacy and emotional exhaustion that are the principal causes of teacher attrition.Aside from leaving the profession, as many do, there is a mollifying alternative: teacher self-care practices. Effective teacher self-care techniques can help revitalize a promising career and keep a good teacher in the classroom. Teachers who need help in implementing self-care should seek the support of a mental health professional that specializes in addressing teacher burnout.


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