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Teacher Burnout: A Psycho-educational Perspective

by Barry A. Farber & Julie Miller - 1981

The causes, conditions, symptoms, and treatment of teacher burnout are discussed. The remediation of teacher burnout requires change strategies that consider psychological and social factors of the educational environment. (Source: ERIC)

We would like to express our appreciation to Maxine Greene and Seymour Sarason for their helpful ideas and encouragement.

In the last decade, probably no professional group has been criticized as frequently or as intensely as teachers. Teachers have been accused of failing to adequately teach students, of failing to control student violence, of failing to be sensitive to racial differences among their students, and even of failing to be professionally “responsible” in their salary demands. When schools become battlegrounds teachers are accused not only of instigating the war but of profiting from the spoils.

It has become apparent, however, that teachers, as well as students, are victimized by problem-laden schools. Indeed, teacher burnout has become a problem of increasing public and professional concern. Major newspapers, magazines, and television news shows have recently carried stories about teacher burnout,1 and the National Education Association (NEA) made teacher burnout the central theme of their 1979 convention. According to NEA, as a result of burnout, “thousands of sensitive, thoughtful and dedicated teachers have already left teaching and thousands more may well be contemplating such a move.“2 In this regard, too, a recent NEA poll noted that one-third of the teachers surveyed stated that if they were starting their careers over again they would choose not to become teachers; in addition, only 60 percent reported that they planned to remain in teaching until retirement.3 Further evidence of disillusionment is supplied by the fact that whereas in 1962, 28 percent of all teachers had twenty years experience, by 1976 that number had been reduced by half.4

Teacher burnout has already reached serious, if not crisis, proportions. The societal implications of this problem are great. As Sarason noted:

If it becomes increasingly the case that professionals experience a widening discrepancy in work between expectations and satisfactions, the negative consequences for their lives will have ramifications far beyond the spheres of their individual existence.5

Among teachers themselves, burnout will continue to potentiate “radical career changes” as well as increased demands for alternative sources of satisfaction. However, the most critical impact of teacher burnout will surely be on the delivery of educational services, particularly to that growing segment of the population that can ill afford a further deterioration of an already lacking educational system and is most certainly unable to gain access to private schooling.

These trends portend ominously for the future state of public education. Yet despite increasing awareness of the deleterious effects of teacher burnout on individuals as well as on communities, there remains a notable paucity of adequate empirical research on this topic. Moreover, it is our contention that even recent attempts to develop a conceptual framework for understanding teacher burnout have been incomplete or inadequate. These efforts have too often viewed teacher burnout as a problem of individual “overload” or psychopathology and have failed to adequately acknowledge the salience of historical or even environmental factors in the burnout process.


Freudenberger6 originally coined the term “burnout” to describe the emotional and physical exhaustion of staff members of alternative health care institutions. In recent years a small but growing number of studies have investigated the burnout phenomenon.7 Maslach, for example, in studying a broad range of health and social service professionals, found that burned-out professionals “lose all concern, all emotional feelings for the persons they work with and come to treat them in detached or even dehumanized ways.“8 Burned-out professionals may become cynical toward their clients, blaming them for creating their own difficulties or labeling them in derogatory terms. Furthermore, the emotional frustrations attendant on this phenomenon may lead to psychosomatic symptoms (e.g., exhaustion, insomnia, ulcers, headaches) as well as increased family conflict.

Although burnout is a topic of growing interest to researchers, no study to date has systematically investigated the process or dimensions of teacher burnout. The literature bearing on the topic consists primarily of (1) research on the general dimensions of professional burnout as noted above; (2) impressionistic or autobiographical accounts of the difficulties of teaching;9 (3) clinical descriptions of “battered teachers” or of teachers suffering from “combat neurosis”;10 and (4) empirical research on teacher stress11―a concept that is related but not identical to that of burnout. While this literature fails to provide an entirely adequate data base for clarifying the nature of teacher burnout, it does provide some useful hypotheses regarding the etiological, symptomatic, and treatment components of the phenomenon.


The proposed causes of teacher burnout include discipline problems (student violence and abusiveness), student apathy, overcrowded classrooms, involuntary transfers, excessive paperwork, excessive testing, inadequate salaries, demanding or unsupportive parents, lack of administrative support, and public criticism of teachers. The most salient factors appear to be those related to issues of school discipline. In the recent NEA poll, nearly three-fourths of all respondents (74 percent) felt that discipline problems impaired their teaching effectiveness, at least to some extent; moreover, 45 percent of teachers polled believed that the school had not done enough to help them with their discipline problems.12 Predispositional factors may also contribute to teacher burnout. Bloch, for example, reports that teachers who are obsessional, passionate, idealistic, and dedicated (as measured by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory―a well-established and often-used psychological test) are more prone to the “battered teacher syndrome.“13


The symptomatic manifestations of teacher burnout are anger, anxiety, irritability, depression, fatigue, boredom, cynicism, guilt, substance abuse (alcohol or drugs), psychosomatic symptomatology, and, in extreme cases, paranoid ideation. Marital and family crises are also likely to arise among teachers who are burned out. On a professional level, the consequences of these symptoms may include diminished professional performance, excessive sick leave, and premature retirement. Stated more descriptively, teachers who become burned out may plan classes less often or less carefully, may be less sympathetic toward students, may expect less effort from their students and less reward from their jobs, may have a lower tolerance for frustration in the classroom, may frequently feel emotionally or physically exhausted, may develop a numbed or “depersonalized” state as a way of distancing themselves from perceived threats, may fantasize or actually plan on leaving the profession, and, in general, may feel less committed and dedicated to their work.


No standardized treatment plans have been established. Proposals for either preventing teacher burnout or reducing its severity include additional teacher training that would more adequately prepare teachers to cope with violence and stress; firmer and more consistent administrative responses to student violence; increased sensitivity of administrative staff to teacher problems; grants to afford instructors respite from their teaching duties and an opportunity to participate in educational research; physical exercise and participation in fulfilling outside activities; periodic shifting of grade or even school assignments; education of the public to increase the status of teachers in society; school-based crisis intervention teams; community-based hot lines; teacher drop-in centers; and the establishment of coalitions among teachers, administrative staff, parents, and community leaders. It should be noted that these proposals are primarily based on a crisis-intervention model. That is to say, the implicit task revolves around “treating” teachers after they are already burned out.


As noted above, the traditional view of teacher burnout is that it is a phenomenon attributable exclusively to pressures caused by student violence and apathy, overcrowded classrooms, inadequate salaries, public criticism, and so forth. These conditions undoubtedly do lead to stress and even trauma. However, it is our hypothesis that teacher burnout is attributable not only to overt sources of stress but often to unexamined factors within school structures that lead to a lack of a psychological sense of community14―a lack that produces feelings on the part of teachers of both isolation and inconsequentiality.

Let us offer an example to illustrate this point. Teacher A and Teacher B are both sixth-grade teachers in inner-city schools. Both have experienced discipline problems in their classrooms, both have had only limited success in improving their students’ reading scores, and both have had a history of frustrating, unproductive meetings with parents. In short, both teachers appear to be equally stressed and equally prone to burnout. However, Teacher A works in a school where she feels herself to be an integral part of a common group tradition and mission, and is identified with a network of relationships reciprocal in nature and mutually enhancing. When stresses arise for Teacher A, she enjoys a psychological sense of community that validates her worth and supports her needs. Teacher B, on the other hand, perceives that she has no such opportunities for collaboration and support. When stresses arise for Teacher B they are magnified by her sense of isolation and, in turn, invariably make her feel as if her professional efforts are in vain. What we are contending, therefore, is that a psychological sense of community may mitigate the impact of stress and prevent or reduce the intensity of teacher burnout.

Empirical support for this position is suggested by a study investigating correlations between absenteeism, personal characteristics of teachers, and structural aspects of schools. Bridges and Hallinan15 found no significant relationship between teacher absenteeism (which may be viewed as a consequence of stress) and such factors as sex, age, or marital status. Significant correlations were, however, found between subunit size (number of persons a teacher was involved with on a daily basis) and work system interdependence (how many people made up the teacher’s actual work team). Absenteeism rates were lowest in small schools where a great deal of contact was usual among small numbers of people. Additional evidence of the importance of affiliation to teachers comes from studies by Super and Holland.16 Their findings indicate that in comparison with other occupational groups, teachers are highly “social” and greatly value opportunities to interact with co-workers.

Social and political factors in the last two decades have contributed considerably to teachers’ growing sense of isolation. The middle 1960s marked the end of an era of widespread public reverence for teachers.17 Teachers then were grossly underpaid but enjoyed the admiration and respect of a public that regarded them as highly competent professionals. If a child was not doing well in school it was the child’s “fault” and the parents’ shame; the teacher was considered sacrosanct. But in the early and mid 1960s―an era that saw thousands of idealistic young people become teachers, an era of social awareness and protest, an era when “the system” became the focus of abuse―a transformation occurred. Violence in schoolchildren was now seen as the inevitable product of an unresponsive, morally bankrupt nation; the onus of educational failure began to shift from the child to the teacher. Teachers no longer received the same kind of respect and admiration, and, now, if a child was not doing well in school it could be regarded as the fault of an uncaring, incompetent, and possibly even racist teacher. The child was now the highly respected and often sacrosanct institution; a child’s failure was now considered the school’s fault and the teacher’s shame. This trend might appear to be progressive, but it is ironic and unfortunate that many of the same educators, critics, and concerned citizens who applauded the demise of the “deficit model” of the inner-city child—a model ascribing the failures of urban education to cultural, emotional, and intellectual deficiencies in the child—are now subscribing to a deficit model of the teacher, believing that school failures are primarily the result of teacher deficiencies. The wholesale adoption of this model by a public eager to scapegoat some group, any group, for educational failures has certainly driven many teachers into a stance of embittered isolation.

As it stands, teachers’ needs for affiliation and support are often unfulfilled. For the most part, teachers are terribly alone in their helping roles. They not only function independently, but, within the confines of their classrooms, they become the sole repository for skills, stamina, and enrichment―a role that cannot long be endured by any single individual. As a further contributory factor to teachers’ lack of a psychological sense of community, it should be noted that schools are settings where learning and change are viewed as goals for someone other than the helping professional.18 Thus, in spite of the obvious impact of teacher satisfaction on pupil performance, schools are inadequately designed to meet the needs of teachers. In short, Levine’s notion of “teaching as a lonely profession”19 clarifies an essential aspect of the etiological basis of teacher burnout—an aspect too long ignored by those preferring to view the problem within the paradigm of individual, rather than environmental, pathology. While the symptoms of teacher burnout form an observable clinical profile, their origins must be properly located in a social-environmental context.


The prevention of teacher burnout requires that the overarching goal of all intervention efforts be the development of a structurally enduring psychological sense of community. We propose that in order for this to occur, the environment of the school must be altered in such a way that it becomes a growth producing, motivating one for teachers and other educational personnel. Reppucci20 has offered several guidelines for the creation of settings conducive to the needs of helping professionals, among them “a guiding idea or philosophy which is understandable to, and provides hope for, all members of the institution”; an organizational structure encouraging consistent collaboration among all levels of staff personnel; and the necessity of active community involvement. Based on these principles, schools in which teachers experience a psychological sense of community might feature, for example, ongoing case conferences geared not only to acute student crises but to the long-term expression of teachers’ needs, concerns, and interests; a team-teaching concept of education; variation in teachers’ scheduled routines; consistent program- and problem-oriented contact with administrative as well as paraprofessional personnel (apart from the usual adversary meetings); an active in-school teachers center; use of school facilities for teachers after hours; recruitment and utilization of community volunteers; and effective coalitions among teachers, administrators, parents, and community leaders. In regard to this last point, we have found that active collaboration among all segments of the educational community reduces the institutionalization of teaching as a lonely profession; reinforces the teacher’s esteem for peers, community members, and self; and may rejuvenate a teacher’s commitment to and investment in the children in the classroom. To be sure, these are but a few examples of the kinds of situations that may lead teachers to experience themselves as part of a schoolwide, and indeed communitywide, effort to educate children. What is important to recognize is that all such innovations should grow out of a sensitivity to the fact that the experience of work is intimately related to a psychological sense of community.21 It is worth noting, too, that while the creation of social-professional support networks to combat professional burnout has been encouraged by researchers in the field,22 with few exceptions (e.g., the formation of a Teachers Center in the Bayshore, Long Island, public school system23), this general concept has not been widely or successfully adopted on a grass-roots level.

As teacher burnout becomes an issue of increasingly greater public concern—and it surely will as its impact on children becomes more apparent—pressure to arrive at “immediate” solutions will intensify. It is likely that these solutions will consist of treatment plans whereby teachers will be brought together to compile a list of stresses or “horror” stories with the hope that these efforts will offer cathartic relief. Undoubtedly, some teachers will be temporarily gratified by the opportunity to share their experiences in an atmosphere of acknowledgment and support. It is our contention, however, that the majority of such treatment efforts lend themselves, at best, to the illusion of short-term benefits. These efforts fall within the category of “first order change,“24 that is, they do not alter the nature of the malfunctioning system (the school in this case) and, in fact, serve to perpetuate present misconceptions regarding the nature and treatment of the problem. First-order strategies are of the type that bring to mind the classic French proverb, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Even, however, when first-order change fails, that is, when teachers begin to perceive “gripe sessions” as unproductive and outside consultants as essentially unhelpful, first-order strategies are likely to be continued. In fact, the nature of social science problem solving is such that failure most often leads to increased use of the same or similar strategies. The usual administrative prescription is for more of the same.

Effective remediation of teacher burnout requires second-order change strategies, that is, a reconceptualization of the problem in a different manner and subsequent modification of the system’s functioning. In this case, the reconceptualization involves understanding that burnout is not an inevitable result of the inevitable stress a teacher faces; the modification of the system involves utilizing principles underlying a psychological sense of community.

It is, of course, clear that social problems do not have “solutions” in the same sense as do mathematical or biochemical problems. And though the establishment of social-professional support networks within a general psychological sense of community cannot guarantee the prevention or abolition of teacher burnout within a school it can, and does, offer a more comprehensive and potentially enduring solution to this problem.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 83 Number 2, 1981, p. 235-243
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 741, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 7:02:47 AM

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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).
  • Julie Miller
    New York University
    Julie Miller is visiting assistant professor of psychology at New York University. She is also the managing editor of the journal Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought.
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