What is emotional burnout and how does it impact teachers?

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

What causes emotional burnout?

  • It’s not all about workload.
  • Vicarious trauma.
  • Consistent emotional regulation.
  • The idea of letting down your students.
  • The cycle of self-concept.

Teachers have an exhausting job. You’re in front of a class all day, constantly on your feet and on the go. It takes quite a bit of stamina to be a teacher, and many teachers are struggling. 

Teaching often feels like running on a hamster wheel. Not just because you’re always going (and you’ll fall flat on your face if you don’t keep up), but because the more you give, the harder it’s going to be to maintain that standard.

It’s not all about workload.

Teachers have a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. Teachers often sacrifice parts of their personal lives so that they can continue working to support their students. High teacher workload is horrendously under-addressed and minimised by the general population. It is very hard to get a serious discussion going around high teacher workload when even your family can only think about how they don’t get school holidays.

This is what many will point to as the cause of professional burnout, and it certainly plays a large role. As a teacher, there are many more factors that play a part in why so many teachers burnout and leave the profession.

Vicarious trauma.

This is a big one that sneaks up on a lot of teachers. Vicarious trauma is about being traumatised yourself after witnessing or hearing about the trauma of others. When you hear this, you may automatically think of doctors, nurses, and emergency responders. This can leave teachers seriously underprepared, undertrained, and unsupported in dealing with vicarious trauma. 

Young student wellbeing leader sitting with colleagues laughing.
Teachers struggle with burnout from a variety of sources; it’s not all about workload.

As teachers, we’re not attending road accidents every day. We’re not witnessing deaths and grieving families like a lot of other professions. You can’t underestimate the impact that watching a 16-year-old king hit another student, having a student overdose, or tell you in graphic detail about ongoing abuse. While these are certainly different situations, teachers are the ones who are explicitly expected to form close relationships with the people experiencing this trauma and will see and support them every day. 

This does take a toll. As a teacher, you need to be prepared for this and have strategies that you can use. It is just one of the many things that teachers have to deal with, and it can have a significant impact on your mental health.

Consistent emotional regulation.

As a teacher, you always need to be the bigger person in every situation. You need to be completely in control of yourself if you’re going to have any chance of being in control of your classroom.

Despite what some of our students think, teachers are humans too. We have feelings, and we react to intense or dangerous situations in instinctual ways. These natural reactions are often not the kinds of reactions that teachers are expected to have. 

It takes a great deal of energy to always be ‘on’. We need to constantly maintain the teacher facade, which takes a lot of energy in the moment as well as a lot of planning. Needing to strictly monitor your own behaviour as well as the behaviour of others has shown to increase stress and burnout in teachers.1

The idea of letting down your students.

Teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves to do the best for their students. This is reinforced by parents and also school boards putting an excessive amount of pressure on them as well. As a teacher, there is always something else that you could do to support your students; always something more that you could give. This not only leads to physical exhaustion and burnout as you try to do more and more with less time but also the emotional exhaustion of never doing as much as you want for your students.

Teacher sitting at a desk in front of a laptop with her head in her hands, as she struggles with burnout.
The emotional connections that teachers need to make with their students makes them prone to burnout.

Truly finding work-life balance as a teacher can be almost impossible in many contexts, and very difficult for all of us. While there are things that you can do to improve the balance in your life, a lot of them are quite drastic and not possible for a lot of people. It can be easy to feel trapped as a teacher, especially when there is a culture of pride in the passion of teaching.

The cycle of self-concept.

You’re a great teacher. You’re always in control, and your students love you. You are calm and cool, and your students feel safe around you. That is until one day when a single student does something incredibly dangerous in your class. You’ve had a difficult week, and are at the end of your tether. You snap at the student, which you immediately regret. Your students look at you a little differently for a while, but while they eventually ease back to regard you in the same way that they always have, you don’t. 

It has been a documented phenomenon where teacher emotional burnout can spiral into more and more burnout.2 A large part of this is the important role that teacher identity plays in how teachers feel about themselves and their job. What happens if you’re a teacher who prides yourself on being a good teacher, a definition which expects a certain range of emotions and reactions, and you break that mould? The result of burnout can make you see yourself as a bad teacher. 

It doesn’t even need to be an outburst, you could notice that you’re more reserved or have less patience with your students. Perhaps you’re avoiding them when you’re out in the yard because you’re so close to your limit. This can seriously impact how you view yourself as a teacher, which then has compounding effects on your behaviour and emotional wellbeing.

Burnout is about far more than workload.

Teachers are quitting the profession at record rates, but this isn’t anything new. Educational researchers have been studying teacher burnout for at least forty years.3 While the impact of emotional labour and exhaustion is well recognised in other professions, teachers are often left without adequate support or training on how to manage this. This leaves a lot of our teachers in a very vulnerable position with few choices when they are struggling to cope.

References:

1Chang, M. L. (2009). An appraisal perspective of teacher burnout: Examining the emotional work of teachers. Educational psychology review, 21(3), 193-218.

2Schutz, P. A., & Lee, M. (2014). Teacher emotion, emotional labor and teacher identity. In English as a foreign language teacher education (pp. 167-186). Brill.

3Seidman, S. A., & Zager, J. (1986). The Teacher Burnout Scale. Educational research quarterly.

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