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Is Burnout Inevitable in Teaching?

I deliberately wrote today's headline in the form of a question because it's hard to get a definitive answer ("When Burnout Is a Sign You Should Leave your Job," Harvard Business Review, Jan. 25).  What we do know is that burnout is far more common today than it was when I began teaching. 

I say that because public school teachers are under unprecedented stress as a result of the accountability movement.  It's not that teaching was ever a stroll in the park.  But there was a time not so long ago when conditions were different.  To understand the reasons, I begin with what I believe are the three components of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.  I'll take them in that order.

Exhaustion is the result of having to teach five classes a day, with just a few minutes between to attend to personal matters. Althought this is not new, it extracts a price from teachers.  For example, when I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, my classroom was a bungalow on the periphery of the sprawling campus.  The faculty restroom was too far away and so I had to use the boys restroom, which lacked soap and paper towels.  Lunch period too often involved working with students, leaving little time for a few minutes alone. 

Cynicism is hard to avoid when it becomes apparent that teachers are not considered equal partners.  The initial enthusiasm about "making a difference" tends to dissipate when reality sets in.  Once again, this is not new.  But what is new is the platform given to those who have never taught in public schools but who are viewed as experts.  It's demeaning. You see it in the op-eds published in the media. The imbalance in power between administrators and teachers also soon becomes apparent, since unions no longer possess the muscle they once wielded.

Inefficacy is the ultimate outcome of the first two components.  When teachers begin to doubt their ability to do the job they want to do, their egos are undermined.  This usually happens because of conditions beyond their individual control.  Once underway, it tends to get worse until some teachers simply quit. They find it impossible to carry on.  Or if they remain in the classroom, they are barely hanging on.

There will always be some teachers who never experience burnout.  I salute them. But they are the exception.  I believe that burnout will become more pervasive in the years ahead as pressure mounts on teachers to produce ever-increasing outcomes in one form or another.

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