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 b