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Teacher Burnout: Assumptions, Myths, and Issues

by Barry Farber - 1984

Teacher burnout has a significant impact on recruitment, retention, and performance of teachers. Basic assumptions, issues, and controversies that have influenced the understanding of teacher burnout are examined.

This article is based on a paper presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington. D.C., 1982. Research support was provided by the Spencer Foundation. I would like to thank Dr. Christina Maslach for permission to use the Maslach Burnout Inventory; I would also like to thank Pamela Dattner, Richard Eichler, and Marcia Levine for their invaluable research assistance.

In the last ten to fifteen years vast numbers of people, especially in the human services, have embraced the concept of “burnout” and integrated it within their collective self-image as workers. This is particularly true of teachers. The word “teacher” modifies the word ‘*burnout” all too well. Teachers who become burned out may be less sympathetic toward students, may have a lower tolerance for frustration in the classroom, may plan for their classes less often or less carefully, may fantasize about or actually plan on leaving the profession, may feel frequently emotionally or physically exhausted, may feel anxious, irritable, depressed, and, in general, less committed and dedicated to their work.1

The emergence of teacher burnout as a troublesome educational issue comes, ironically, at a time when there is renewed interest in making teaching an inviting professional occupation for able and talented people. The recent national reports on education have called for a revitalization and improvement of the teaching profession, suggesting reforms in such areas as salary, preparation, teaching load, decision making, professional standards and accountability, and advancement opportunities. Implicitly, then, these reports recognis that too many teachers have become demoralized or burned out and that this trend has a significant impact on the recruitment, retention, and performance of teachers.

Both the educational community and the public at large have shown enormous interest in the concept of teacher burnout. The causes, symptoms, and treatment of teacher burnout have, in recent years, been frequently described in popular magazines and professional journals. The National Education Association (NEA) made teacher burnout the central theme of its 1979 convention, and teacher trainers report that burnout is often the highest rated subject on needs-assessment measures designed to identify major teacher concerns.2 Administrators have suggested that teacher burnout is the most serious problem facing educators in the 1980s.3 Burned-out teachers have also become more vocal and visible and, indeed, it is likely that many Americans by now are acquainted with at least one teacher who dreams of leaving the profession to go into publishing, the computer field, or small business. For many teachers, then, burnout is no longer a term of opprobrium. And parents, teachers, and administrators alike seem to be growing increasingly concerned over the potential effects of burnout on the quality of teaching.

Clearly, teacher burnout is a critical social problem; ironically, however, widespread concern with and interest in the phenomenon have served to obscure the gross inadequacy of the data base on which our assumptions and putative solutions arc based. Moreover, as Susan Jackson has observed, the word “burnout” has become a “verbal Rorschach test,” assuming an idiosyncratic meaning for virtually every individual writing or thinking about this topic.4 In short, our knowledge of burnout has been seriously compromised by methodological limitations and conceptual confusion. Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder that there are those who view burnout as an epidemic of tragic proportions5 while others think that the term itself is an overused, convenient excuse for the lazy and self-indulgent.6

The primary purpose of this article is to critically examine some of the basic assumptions, issues, and controversies that have affected—and at times impeded—our understanding of the teacher burnout phenomenon. With this goal in mind, several propositions about teacher burnout will be advanced, and where applicable and available, data in support of these propositions will be offered. The data that will be brought to bear on this discussion were collected on a sample of 693 public school teachers in New York State, from both urban and suburban school districts, in the academic years 1980/1981 and 1981/1982. The sample consisted of 424 female and 249 male teachers. These teachers were primarily white (89.9 percent) and married (62.6 percent); their average age was 40.3. They had been employed as teachers an average of 13.4 years. There was a representative range of teachers in each grade level from kindergarten through high school. The measure used with these teachers—the Teacher Attitude Survey (TAS)—is a modified version of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). This latter instrument, originally developed by Maslach and Jackson, has been used extensively to assess burnout in a wide variety of human service professionals.7 The central portion of this measure consists of twenty-five statements about professional work. Each statement is rated on a seven-point Likert-type scale for intensity of agreement and an eight-point scale for frequency of agreement. For the purpose of investigating the specific nature of teacher burnout, the twenty-five items on the MB1 were augmented with forty additional items of exclusive relevance to teachers. These items were chosen to represent the range of satisfactions and stresses in teaching most often noted in the literature. After recoding certain items so that all items were scored in a consistent direction, it was found that the correlation between the original twenty-five items on the MBI and the forty additional items (frequency dimension) was .77; the correlation between the MBI and the entire TAS was found to be .92. Teachers in the suburban school districts completed the TAS at three different points during the school year; teachers in urban schools completed this measure at two different points. Data obtained from the sixty-five-item TAS were analyzed in several ways. Basic statistics on both the frequency and intensity dimensions of each item (e.g., means, standards deviations, percentage of responses endorsing each choice point) were tabulated separately for suburban and urban teachers. Additionally, in order to get a more conceptually integrated view of the results, a factor analysis (principal factoring with iterations and varimax rotation) was performed on the frequency dimension of the entire sample. Based on the resulting three factors, factor scale scores were generated for each subject and compared along various subject-related and school-related variables.

This article will advance the following eight propositions:

1. That the literature in the field has consistently failed to distinguish between teacher stress and teacher burnout, and that the resulting confusion has seriously impaired an effective understanding of either concept.

2. That the problem of teacher burnout is more than a faddish concept and has, in fact, reached serious proportions.

3. That the seriousness of the problem resides in the fact that teachers are actually “worn out” rather than “burned out.”

4. That there still remains within the teaching profession a significant subset of dedicated, committed teachers.

5. That a significant factor in the burnout process is the failure of administrators and parents to provide support and encouragement to teachers.

6. That suburban and urban schools differ in regard to both the extent of burnout among teachers and the pattern of burnout over the course of a school year.

7. That the usual solutions to the problem of teacher burnout are doomed to be ineffective.

8. That some of the more critical and socially damaging consequences of teacher burnout have yet to emerge and may not manifest themselves for several more years.


The literature in the field consistently confuses the concepts of teacher stress and teacher burnout, either treating them as if they were interchangeable terms or “explaining” burnout simply by enumerating all of the many stresses teachers may encounter. The first error is perhaps motivated by the desire for data—since there is a paucity of hard data on teacher burnout available in the literature, data on teacher stress is substituted.8 Behind the second error lies the implicit and erroneous assumption that a stressed teacher inevitably becomes a burned-out teacher. Invariably ignored in either form of this confusion is the myriad number of variables that mediate between stressful environmental conditions and the subjective perception of being burned out, for example, constitutional vulnerability to stress, cognitive appraisal of stressful events, personality type, other life events, and knowledge and availability of coping mechanisms, including social support. These factors explain why there is considerable variance in the ways that individuals react to identical or nearly identical stressful situations.9 Also overlooked in the failure to distinguish between stress and burnout is the fact that stress can have both positive and negative effects—a fact that Selye10 noted over twenty-five years ago. In fact, a certain amount of stress is necessary to motivate action.

Burnout can be regarded as the final step in a progression of unsuccessful attempts to cope with negative stress conditions. Burnout then “is the result not of stress per se (which may be inevitable in the helping professions) but of unmediated stress—of being stressed and having no ‘out,’ no buffers, no support system,”11 Popular accounts of teacher burnout, however, have opted not to explain the process of burnout, but rather to simply list its most observable and immediate precipitants, implicitly attributing teacher burnout in urban schools, for example, to the prevalence of disruptive students. While in some sense this is not entirely inaccurate, it is rather akin to explaining World War I by referring to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand while omitting discussion of the entire social, historical, and political context within which this event was embedded. In short, the assumption that stress necessarily leads to burnout is a simplistic and misleading one, offering little in the way of predictive or explanatory utility.


It is likely, of course, that teacher burnout has always been around, masquerading in the past under names such as job dissatisfaction and worker alienation. Even fifty years ago, Waller described how community pressures, the need for constant vigilance to control large numbers of students in classes, and loneliness and isolation could combine to reduce a teacher’s morale.12 More recently, many of the critics of education in the 1960s—Kozol, Holt, and Herndon, for example—took fellow teachers to task for their lack of concern for students.

Stress and burnout in teachers, then, are not new phenomena. What is new is the extent to which at least some teachers seek a somewhat perverse notoriety in declaring just how burned out they feel. Teachers are in effect saying to one another: “You think you’re burned out . . .” The problem here is one that Edelwich and Brodsky aptly termed “staff infection.“13 When enough teachers in a school spend their lunch hours denigrating students, complaining about administrators, regretting their choice of careers and planning for new ones, then burnout begins to feel less like a shameful emotion and more like a battle wound worthy of showing off.

What may also be new is the magnitude of the teacher burnout phenomenon. There is, of course, no way of comparing the percentages of teachers burned out twenty or fifty years ago with the number burned out today. Moreover, it is clear that a determination of the seriousness of the teacher burnout problem is a direct function of the method we choose to define the term. For example, Learning magazine, by leaving the term burnout undefined and by simply asking teachers to state whether they had experienced feelings of burnout, found that 93 percent of respondents to their survey had experienced such feelings.14 Similarly, the results of my two-year study of teacher burnout could be interpreted to mean that 76.9 percent of urban teachers and 70.3 percent of suburban teachers are burned out. These figures represent the percentages of teachers who responded with any answer other than “never” when asked the extent to which they had experienced burnout during the preceding month. We may agree that feeling burned out “rarely” during a given month should not define a teacher as burned out. The point is, however, that whatever percentage we derive (of the number of teachers who are burned out) is neither inherently right nor wrong, because there is no agreed-upon definition of what constitutes teacher burnout.

We are thus left in a situation analogous to that of psychotherapy research wherein a determination of the efficacy of psychotherapy is based directly on an arbitrary definition of “improvement.” For example, using the same data, one researcher (Eysenck) can decide that 44 percent of patients in psychoanalysis are improved and another (Bergin) can argue that 83 percent (or 60 or 62 percent) are improved.15 What constitutes improvement? Or, more to the point of the present argument, what constitutes teacher burnout? On what basis can we determine the magnitude of the teacher burnout phenomenon?

For the purposes of the present study, burnout was defined in two different ways. The first method simply involved a determination of the percentage of teachers who, in response to the statement “During the last month I have felt burned out from my work,” answered “frequently’‘-points 5 or 6 on a 0-6 frequency scale. On this scale (0 = never; 1-2 = rarely; 3-4 = occasionally; 5-6 = frequently), 70.3 percent of suburban teachers indicated that they never or rarely felt burned out; 19.4 percent they occasionally felt burned out; and 10.3 percent frequently felt burned out; similarly, 56.7 percent of urban teachers indicated that they never or rarely felt burned out; 21.7 percent occasionally felt burned out; and 21.6 percent frequently felt burned out. On this basis, 10.3 percent of suburban teachers and 21.6 percent of urban teachers are burned out.

A second, more conservative way of defining burnout involved a factor analysis of the sixty-five item TAS. Principal factoring with communality estimates on the diagonal was used. Three factors accounted for 35.1 percent of the total variance and each was rotated according to varimax procedures. The terminal solution consisted of factors comprised of items loading .35 or higher. The first factor consisted of eighteen items that are usually considered symptomatic manifestations of burnout (see Table 1). Internal reliability of this factor, as measured by alpha, was .93. By defining burnout as a score of 72 or more on this burnout factor (an average of four or more on each of the eighteen items comprising the factor), 12.9 percent of urban teachers and 6.9 percent of suburban teachers can be considered burned out.

Using either method then, a substantial minority of teachers was found to be burned out, supporting the contention in this section that teacher burnout is a serious problem. Why has this happened? Several factors can be implicated. In the last ten to fifteen years, demographic change (e.g., a population shift from rural to urban communities; a lower birth rate), legislative change, and budget cuts have affected both the size and racial distribution of enrollment in public schools. Teachers have been laid off and involuntarily transferred; others have found themselves working in communities with students whose histories, values, and behavior they may not wholly comprehend or sympathize with. We have also begun to see psychological changes resulting from the upgrading in teacher education—that is, as teachers have become more highly educated they have developed a greater expectancy of rewards. In addition, the influx of male teachers into the educational system in the last fifteen years has resulted in increased demands for autonomy and improved salary schedules. Increased bureaucratization as a result of the post-World War II baby boom—for example, a 50 percent increase in the number of administrators per thousand pupils in New York City schools from 1958 to 1968—has reduced teachers’ sense of autonomy. In a related vein, the amount of paperwork performed by the entire educational system has risen sharply in recent years.16 The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s also provided an impetus and example for disgruntled groups to express their dissatisfaction. To a certain extent, teachers have become victims of their own successes. With many parents as well-educated as their children’s teachers, there is now less tendency to defer to teachers’ “better judgment” and more willingness to question and criticize.


Still another factor that needs to be considered is the role of “school politics.” Although acrimonious relationships among teacher unions, supervisory personnel, boards of education, school superintendents, and community leaders are hardly unique to the last two decades,17 the pressures on teachers during these years to “improve schools” by implementing a myriad number of local, state, and federal mandates (e.g., Public Law 94-142) have been enormous. Moreover, decisions to institute new programs or policies are often made with little or no input from teachers themselves. Finally, social observers such as Lasch, Packard, Sarason, and Slater have all suggested that as a result of social changes in the last twenty years—urban renewal, broken families, industrial relocations, the general mobility of American families—American workers have become increasingly disconnected and alienated from their communities, and increasingly insistent on attaining personal fulfillment and gratification from their work.18 The combination of these trends has produced workers with higher expectations of fulfillment and fewer resources to cope with frustrations—a perfect recipe for burnout.

The growing impact of these trends is reflected in statistics regarding teacher militancy (number of annual nationwide strikes) and teacher commitment (number of years spent in teaching). The number of teacher strikes nationwide rose steadily from 5 in the 1963/1964 school year to 114 in the 1967/1968 school year to 242 in the 1979/1980 school year. This trend does appear to be abating but primarily as a result of worsening economic conditions in this country.19 In regard to commitment to the profession: Whereas in 1962, 28 percent of all teachers had twenty or more years experience, by 1976 that number had been reduced by half.20 Only 59 percent of teachers last more than four years in the classroom;21 similarly, only 60 percent of current teachers indicated that they plan to remain in teaching until retirement.22 In short, though a teacher’s job has never been easy, the frustrations of teaching have probably increased in the last fifteen years without a concomitant increase in perceived satisfaction or support (administrative, public, or financial). It is understandable, therefore, why burnout has indeed become a problem of serious proportions.


Freudenberger’s original conception of burnout was that workers would find themselves under increasing pressure to succeed (in helping others), would demand more of themselves than they were able to give, and would ultimately burn out.23 According to Freudenberger, highly motivated workers would react to stress by overworking until they collapsed. He referred to people who were overly committed and excessively dedicated, and who ignored their own discomforts and preferences almost without respite. This is not the typical picture of teachers who complain of burnout. Indeed, were this the case, though we might feel sorry for a group of driven and unfulfilled teachers, we might well be thrilled with the educational benefits generated by this stance.

The problem is that teachers are not burned out, they are worn out. Instead of burning out from overwork, they turn off to the job and stop attempting to succeed in situations that appear hopeless. As Fischer has observed, “Those who are burned out, rather than worn-out, cling tenaciously to a high sense of self-esteem.”24 That is, they attempt desperately to succeed against all odds, risking their physical health and neglecting their personal lives to maximize the probability of professional success. On the other hand, those who are worn out have incurred damage to their sense of self-esteem—they are no longer personally invested in performing well on the job. The implications of this difference are not merely semantic. Teachers who burn out have given years of extraordinary service to their students and leave behind a legacy of goodwill, dedication, and learning; teachers who are worn out, on the other hand, resent their choice of careers, work half-heartedly with students with an eye on the clock, and leave behind a legacy of resentment, neglect, and frustration. There are, in fact, teachers who are burned out and they will be sorely missed. Unfortunately, the data suggest that there are many more worn-out teachers than burned-out ones.

The second factor generated by the data of the present study supports this contention. This factor, with an alpha value of .84, consists of nine items that are related to teachers’ sense of dedication and commitment to the teaching profession. The items loading most highly on this factor included: “If I had to do it all over, I would still choose to be a teacher” (.79); “I have felt that, all in all, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages of teaching” (.72); “I see myself continuing to teach for the rest of my career” (.68); and “It has been my belief that I gain suitable emotional rewards from teaching given the effort I put it” (.64). That these items did not cluster (i.e., correlate highly) with the items comprising the burnout factor suggests that a commitment to teaching is not an associated feature of the burnout process. Moreover, the correlation between the commitment-to-teaching factor and the burnout factor was— .41, p < .001, indicating that the more burned out a teacher is the less committed he’ is to the profession. The cause-effect relationship here is, of course, unknown and it is possible that those teachers who now appear burned out were once the most dedicated teachers in their schools. It is clear, however, that the prototypical burned-out teacher—at least at the time when symptoms of burnout are being manifested—is neither excessively committed nor dedicated to teaching. “Worn out,” then, may well be a better description of these individuals than burned out.


The problem of teacher burnout—or more accurately “wearout” —is, indeed, a serious one, affecting in the neighborhood of 10 to 20 percent of all teachers. It bears keeping in mind, however, that the majority of teachers working today are not burned out; indeed, they appear to care about their students, to be responsibly involved in their work with students, and to perceive themselves as effective in their roles. Teachers see themselves as helpfully involved with their students and seem to be gratified by the satisfaction that this engenders. The data of the present study strongly suggest, however, that while teachers are committed to their students, they are not committed to their profession. That is, teaching per se is apparently gratifying, but the profession itself is not. As Jerry Kaiser has noted, “teaching itself is not stressful, it’s everything that gets in the way of teaching.“25

To illustrate these points, it is necessary to look at the composition of Factor 3 in this study. This factor, with an alpha coefficient of .88, is composed of nine items that reflect various aspects of effective involvement with students. The items loading most highly on this factor included: “I have dealt very effectively with the problems of my students” (.68); “I have felt I was positively influencing students’ lives through my work” (.68); “I have accomplished many worthwhile things in this job” (.67); “I have felt exhilarated after working closely with my students” (.66); and “I could easily understand how my students have felt about things” (.53).

For the entire sample, the mean item score on the effective-involvement factor was higher (X = 3.7) than it was for the commitment-to-teaching factor (X = 2.6). The finding was true for both urban and suburban teachers when considered as separate subgroups. (Comparisons between these groups indicated that suburban teachers had significantly higher mean item scores on both factors.) Nevertheless, it is clear that both suburban and urban teachers are considerably more impressed with the opportunities they have for interacting effectively with students in a classroom than they are with the status, salary, or respect their job engenders. The distribution of scores on individual items within both these factors further emphasizes this point. Virtually all items on Factor 3 (Effective Involvement) showed that at least one-third of teachers at least “occasionally” feel effective in helping and understanding their students, and that an additional one-third “frequently” feel this way. Table 2 illustrates this pattern.

The pattern of percentages on these items is in striking contrast to the pattern of percentages for items comprising Factor 2 (Commitment to Teaching). Most notably, on Factor 2 items there is a substantial proportion of teachers—particularly in urban schools—indicating that they “never” or only “rarely” feel committed to or satisfied with the teaching profession. Table 3 illustrates this trend.

What, then may we conclude from these data? First, that teachers are less burned out (or even worn out) than they are, in general, unconcerned and uninvolved with the teaching profession; and second, that a primary source of satisfaction for teachers is their sense of helpful intervention in the lives of their students. In short, both effective involvement in the lives of students and lack of commitment to teaching may play important roles in preventing or reducing burnout: the first by mitigating the impact of stressful working conditions, the second by providing a target—other than students—for teachers' feelings of frustration and anger.




Administrators and parents cannot be unaware of the phenomenon of teacher burnout; indeed, under ideal conditions both groups would be working with teachers to reduce stress and facilitate optimal working conditions for teachers. Yet, in both suburban and urban schools, administrators and parents are perceived by most teachers as contributing more to the problems that teachers face than to the help they need.

In suburban schools, 86.9 percent of teachers surveyed have never or rarely felt that administrative meetings prove helpful in solving the problems that teachers face, 63.4 percent have never or rarely felt that they received support or encouragement from their principals, 60.8 percent have never or rarely felt a “sense of community” among the faculty and administrators of their school, and 66.1 percent have never or only rarely felt that parents have made things easier for them. In addition, as noted previously, even suburban teachers take a dim view of the way that the teaching profession is perceived by the public—a total of 79.9 percent have never or only rarely felt satisfied with teachers’ standing in society. As one might expect, these figures are even more startling among teachers in urban schools: 90.6 percent of urban teachers have never or rarely felt that administrative meetings are helpful, 76.7 percent have never or rarely felt supported by their principals, 69.2 percent have never or only rarely felt a “sense of community” in their school, and 75.5 percent have never or only rarely felt that parents are making things easier for them. A total of 81.8 percent of teachers in urban settings have never or only rarely felt satisfied with teachers’ standing in society.

Teaching has long been considered a “lonely profession.“26 Too often teachers have only limited contact with other adults during the school day; too often they become the “sole repository for skills, stamina, and enrichment—a role that cannot long be endured by any single individual.“27 To a certain extent this is a “structural” problem rooted within traditional conceptions of what teachers “should” do and how schools “should” function.28 Even within traditional school settings, however, the loneliness and isolation that teachers face can often be mitigated by the availability of support from administration, parents and the local community, and the public at large. It is worth noting, too, that teachers need not only emotional support but technical support as well, that is, expert advice and honest feedback from administrative personnel. In fact, Pines showed that, in relationship to five other types of social support, the absence of technical support is most highly correlated with burnout in human service professionals (r = .42, p < .001).29 When social support of any type is not forthcoming—and according to teachers it has not been—the sense of isolation increases, resentment develops, and the stresses of teaching, now left relativity unbuffered, more frequently lead to burnout.


As noted previously, a greater number of urban than suburban teachers seem to be burned out. This finding was based on a survey of teachers carried out in October-November of the school year. Though this finding empirically corroborates previously untested assumptions about burnout, it still leaves unanswered a basic epidemiological question: Do the percentages of urban and suburban teachers who are burned out remain relatively constant over the course of the school year?

The present study found that the relative stability of burnout rates is different in urban schools from that in suburban schools. In urban schools the percentage of teachers who are burned out remains fairly constant over the school year. Using a score of 72 or over on Factor 1 (Burnout) as the criterion for burnout, in October-November 12.9 percent of urban teachers were burned out and in March-April 16.2 percent were burned out. Using the second criterion measure—a response of 5 or 6 (“frequently”) to the single item, “During the last month I have felt burned out from my work,” in October-November of the school year 21.6 percent of urban teachers were burned out and in March-April 18.3 percent were burned out. In suburban settings, on the other hand, the proportion of burned out teachers decreases 40 to 50 percent (depending on the criterion measure) over the course of the school year. As defined by a factor score, the percentage of burned-out teachers drops from 6.9 to 3.4 percent. In terms of a single item score, the percentage of burnout among these teachers drops from 10.3 to 5.5 percent. Thus, during the course of the school year the ratio of urban teacher burnout to suburban teacher burnout rises from, at most, 2:1 to approximately 3 or 4:1.

In short, burnout is a more stable phenomenon in urban than in suburban schools. One might assume that this finding is attributable to a reduction in the level of stress in suburban schools over the course of the school year. In fact, however, the mean score on Factor 1 actually increased significantly among suburban teachers from October-November (X = 35.1) to March-April (X = 40.6), suggesting that levels of stress were actually higher in the spring than in the fall. Moreover, the mean scores of suburban teachers on both Factor 2 and Factor 3 decreased over this time period, indicating that in the spring teachers were feeling less satisfied with and committed to their profession, and feeling less gratified by their involvement with students. How then can we explain the fact that fewer suburban teachers seem to be burned out in the spring than the fall? One hypothesis that is supported by the data is that, during the spring months, suburban teachers have greater access to or make better use of such coping mechanisms as social support. Among suburban teachers the percentage of those who frequently feel a sense of community in their schools rises from 15.2 percent in the fall to 19.6 percent in the spring, and the percentage of those who never or only rarely feel such a sense of community decreases during this time from 60.8 to 45.7 percent. No such pattern can be found among urban teachers—the percentage of those frequently experiencing a sense of community decreases from 11.7 to 6.8 percent; the percentage of those never or rarely feeling a sense of community increases slightly from 69.2 to 70.1 percent. Thus, for suburban schools it would appear that an increase in the perceived availability of social support effects a substantial decrease in the percentage of teachers who can be considered burned out.


Teacher burnout will not “go away,” at least in the near future. Despite criticism of the concept, teacher burnout has become an issue of increasingly greater public and professional concern. Moreover, economic conditions in this country have and will continue to exacerbate the problem of teacher burnout. As a result of inflation and unemployment, teachers who want to leave the field often find that they cannot. They feel stuck in teaching—a position that intensifies feelings of irritability, anger, and loss of commitment. As teachers continue to feel burned out and stuck, and as the public becomes increasingly concerned over the potential effects of teacher burnout on student performance, pressure to find solutions to the problem of teacher burnout will undoubtedly intensify. Typically, these solutions will fall into one of two categories: (1) stress-reduction techniques such as jogging, meditation, biofeedback, or relaxation training;30 and (2) group-support techniques such as teacher workshops and teacher centers that aim to lessen isolation and produce solidarity through sharing problems and solutions.31

Both kinds of solutions are likely to produce some positive effects in teachers inasmuch as both have been found effective in enabling people to better withstand the negative consequences of stress. Teachers, for example, may feel gratified by the opportunity to share their experiences in an atmosphere of acknowledgement and support. However, such treatment efforts seem most likely to produce only temporary, short-term benefits. To begin with, these solutions are not ongoing efforts built into the structure of the school. They consist, for the most part, of mini-courses, one-day workshops, Superintendents Days, and the like. Moreover, as has been noted elsewhere,32 these efforts fall within the category of “first-order change.” That is, they arc cosmetic changes; they do not alter the nature of the malfunctioning system, and, in fact, serve to perpetuate misconceptions regarding the origins and dimensions of the problem. These solutions may provide teachers with a quick fix of social support or teach them how to cope better with stress but rarely do they provide guidelines for altering the sources of stress, especially those that emanate from a school environment that pays little attention to the needs of teachers. Even when such first-order change strategies fail—in this case when teachers begin to perceive one-day workshops as essentially unhelpful—these strategies are likely to be continued. The nature of social science problem solving is such that failure most often leads to increased use of the same or similar strategies.33

There are several other reasons why these solutions are unlikely to have any long-term impact on the incidence of teacher burnout. For example, it has long been the experience of workshop leaders that those who attend sessions are often those who need help the least and that the most burned-out teachers arc those who arc first out the door at three o’clock, who want no part of anything additional associated with the school. In addition, these solutions often fail to take into account individual differences among teachers and settings, assuming homogeneity in regard to such variables as size of school and availability of administrative support. In essence, many workshops are geared to treating a label (“burnout”) and not a specific set of symptoms that arc necessarily embedded in a social-historical-political context. Still another limitation of typical attempts to treat teacher burnout is that they generally pay insufficient attention to how administrators and parents affect the experience of work for teachers. Focusing efforts on reducing stress within the classroom or on creating collegial bonds with other teachers ignores the potentially vital role of parents and administrators in mitigating stresses for teachers. Finally, current efforts to reduce teacher burnout focus primarily on treatment of already affected teachers. Strategies for preventing burnout, for example, by more adequately preparing teachers-in-training for dealing not only with students but also with administrators and parents or by restructuring schools to meet the needs of teachers, have not been emphasized.34

In summary, current efforts to treat teacher burnout may serve to temporarily ameliorate troublesome symptoms but are not likely to prevent either the reoccurrence of burnout in some teachers or the development of burnout in others. A truly comprehensive and enduring approach to burnout would entail the coordinated efforts of parents, administrators, teachers, and unions, and would involve a commitment to and among teachers that transcends infrequent workshops or discussion groups. Human service professionals such as teachers “should not be held responsible by themselves for combatting burnout.“35 In fact, individually oriented coping strategies have been shown to be relatively ineffective in dealing with job-related stress.36 If teacher burnout is to be prevented, and if schools are to be made places that encourage the growth of teachers as well as students, then teachers must be made to feel respected and supported in their efforts to educate children.

In this regard, many of the reforms suggested by the recent national reports on education would be quite welcome. Certainly, suggestions to increase pay, to restructure the profession to include provisions for master teachers and merit pay, to reduce teaching loads and increase preparation time, to exempt teachers from nonteaching duties, and to involve teachers to a greater extent in decision making in regard to textbooks, curriculum, and staff development are all steps that will serve to reduce stress and increase job satisfaction. With the exception, perhaps, of merit pay and the recurrent suggestion to increase the length of the school day and year—a suggestion, by the way, that if implemented might well increase stress and the incidence of burnout—all these proposals would undoubtedly be endorsed wholeheartedly by this nation’s teachers. The foreseeable problem, then, is not primarily in the adequacy of these particular solutions but rather in the economic and political feasibility of implementation. The least costly reforms are those that are most likely to be implemented while the more costly reforms—for example, master teachers, reduced teaching time and classloads, more paraprofessionals, and additional year(s) of teacher training—may well be sacrificed in the name of “fiscal responsibility.” Given our predilection to take care of short-term educational needs (for example, the shortage of math and science teachers) rather than long-term, high-cost systems needs, and given also our reluctance to either treat teachers professionally or link teacher satisfaction with student achievement, teachers may once again be left out of the reform process. Predictably, at least in some school districts, each child will have a computer well before each teacher has an aide in the classroom. But if the problem of teacher burnout is to be seriously confronted, then finding sufficient money to fund teacher-oriented reforms must become a higher priority than it has been traditionally.


We see the symptoms in teachers: anger, anxiety, depression, fatigue, boredom, cynicism, substance abuse, psychosomatic symptoms, and marital and family crises. The literature also suggests that teachers who are worn out or burned out expect less work from their students and fewer rewards from their jobs, and that they distance themselves emotionally from students. We assume too—and yet there is no data yet to support the assumption—that teacher burnout directly affects student performance.

What we do not know is what the long-term social consequences are of vast numbers of teachers who no longer feel enthusiastic about their work. How will the publicity surrounding teacher burnout affect the recruitment of future teachers? What of students who have been exposed to several consecutive years of burned-out or worn-out teachers? Will they suffer a loss of self-esteem? Will they become permanently turned off to learning? Will their values regarding education change and be transmitted to their own children? What will be the effect of burnout on the attraction of parents to private schools? And what of the unintended consequences of our attempts to publicize and find solutions to the problem of teacher burnout-will these efforts result in non-worn out and non-burned out teachers feeling that they too arc worn out and burned out?

Sarason has noted that the detrimental implications of disillusionment in human service workers extend “far beyond the spheres of their individual existence.“37 Burnout has affected and will continue to affect the lives of teachers and their families, politicians and their families, community leaders and their families, indeed virtually everyone. We cannot yet know the long-term consequences of teacher burnout. It is likely, though, that at least some unforeseen consequences of this growing social problem will emerge in the next decade.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 86 Number 2, 1984, p. 321-338
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 936, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 12:42:44 PM

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About the Author
  • Barry Farber
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    Barry A. Farber is assistant professor, clinical psychology program, Teachers College, Columbia University. Supported by a Spencer Foundation grant, he is currently studying burnout in teachers and psychotherapists. He is editor of the book Stress and Burnout in the Human Service Professions (Pergamon Press, forthcoming).
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