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Teacher Burnout: What Are the Warning Signs?

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Research that helps us pinpoint the causes of burnout gives us guidance for how to avoid and combat it. In his landmark book, Beyond Burnout (Routledge), Cary Cherniss used intensive case study research to identify factors most likely to lead to teacher burnout:

  1. Lack of adequate preparation for dealing with the kinds of learning and behavior problems that teachers face in the classroom. Teachers who feel a sense of accomplishment don't burnout.
  2. Lack of autonomy Teachers think of themselves as professionals, and they resent interference from administrators, parents, board members, and others who usually have little idea about what it's like to teach today.
  3. Difficult student behavior This factor is related to the first one. Students who lack the ability and/or motivation to learn what the teacher is trying to teach them make it impossible for teachers to achieve that sense of accomplishment that is so important for any professional. Relatedly, burnout can be avoided as teachers develop classroom management skills and supports when they do face difficult behaviors.
  4. Lack of support and interpersonal conflict Teaching can be a lonely profession. Lack of opportunity to engage in meaningful exchanges of ideas with other teachers contributes to burnout, as does conflict with parents, administrators, and students. One of the main benefits of meaningful professional learning communities is to provide just this kind of support. Also, faculty and grade level meetings can be better used to foster connection and mutual problem solving.
  5. Boredom Given how stressful teaching is, this last factor may seem surprising. However, many teachers find that after a year or two in the classroom, each day is very much like the next, and there are few opportunities for doing new and interesting things. One of the main sources of rebellion against test-centered pedagogy is its routinization. Differentiated instruction and personalization are two movements that recognize teachers need to be in a creative mind-set to be most energized.

Reconnect with Purpose

Another factor that I have found important is to help teachers reconnect with the reasons why they went into education and identify, preserve, and expand those parts of their work day that are consonant with those reasons. Unless educators are clear about their purposes, they are more likely to fall into using techniques that they don't believe in because there does not seem to be any alternative. The combination of purpose and technique helps teachers to avoid and return from burnout.

Look Out for the Warning Signs

But how do you know for sure if you are slipping into it, or already there? Christina Maslach has done some very helpful research; it's been captured in a "popularist" way where you can take a self-test to see, roughly, where you might stand. Knowing there is a problem is often the first step in addressing some of the issues noted earlier (and toward beginning to find solutions).

Here are some of the most important indicators of burnout. Ask yourself whether you experience them Not at all, Rarely, Sometimes, Often, or Very often:

  1. Do you feel run down and drained of physical or emotional energy?
  2. Do you find that you are prone to negative thinking about your job?
  3. Do you find that you are harder and less sympathetic with people than perhaps they deserve?
  4. Do you find yourself getting easily irritated by small problems, or by your co-workers and team?
  5. Do you feel misunderstood or unappreciated by your co-workers?
  6. Do you feel that you have no one to talk to?
  7. Do you feel under an unpleasant level of pressure to succeed?
  8. Do you feel that you are not getting what you want out of your job?
  9. Do you feel that you are in the wrong organization or the wrong profession?
  10. Are you becoming frustrated with parts of your job?
  11. Do you feel that organizational politics or bureaucracy frustrate your ability to do a good job?

The self-test and these questions may be intuitively useful, but this has not been validated through controlled studies and therefore should not be used as a formal diagnostic technique. Please, therefore, interpret the results with common sense. The Maslach Burnout Inventory is a tool that may be used for a more validated assessment.

The Culture and Climate of the School Matter

Teacher burnout is most often an organizational problem and it is insidious because it can remove dedicated teachers from the field of education, sometimes even before they physically leave their jobs. Its solution is found most often in creating a positive, supportive school culture and climate, where teachers are treated as professionals and given the opportunity to collaborate, problem solve, and get needed, reasonable supports in timely ways.

It is not a matter of teachers becoming superhuman and overcoming all horrible conditions and indignities trying to succeed in doing what is virtually impossible, especially in a sustained way. The students need their teachers to stay engaged and fight for them. When the conditions of teaching are bad, the conditions of learning tend to be worse, and children suffer in lasting ways. That's why the collateral damage of burned-out teachers is burned-up children.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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Mindy Keller- Kyriakides's picture
Mindy Keller- Kyriakides
High school english teacher and blogger.

The factors, warning signs, and survey are very helpful! From the feedback I get on my blog, most teachers are experiencing some (if not all) of these issues. They understand "what" is happening and "why", but here's where things seem to get stuck:

"It is not a matter of teachers becoming superhuman and overcoming all horrible conditions and indignities trying to succeed in doing what is virtually impossible, especially in a sustained way. <--> The students need their teachers to stay engaged and fight for them."

<--> This is what we need to expand upon, I think. A bridge of "how" that will take them from the political mire to authentic engagement and strength to fight. : )

Thanks for the awesome post!

Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.'s picture
Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist & Author of The Homework Trap

I completely agree that teacher burnout is an organization problem, and I think the same principles of burnout apply for all organizations, the school and the family. The principles of organizational theory support what the author is saying but they also lead to the conclusion that educactors need to diminish their reliance on homework, at least to the degree of setting an expectation that anything will get done outside the teacher's zone of control. Teachers can always assign homework, but need to recognize it is not in their power to enforce homework, and that harsh penalties for homework not done only highlight that they are trying to control something over which they have no control. Once teachers accept this, there will be a reduction in the behavioral problems in school (one of he author's points) and better home-school relationships since the message will be one of respect for the natural hierarchy of the home.

Madison M's picture
Madison M
First Grade Special Education, Long Island, New York

I love the warning sign checklist. Most teachers are not aware of the fact they are "in danger" of heading into the burnout area. I am going for my Masters in Special Education right now, and our topic a few weeks ago was becoming a Burnout. We are reading the book, On Being A Teacher The Human Dimension (Kottler, Zehm, Kottler, 2005). There are many interesting facts, and ways to cope with becoming a burnout. You have to find what helps you relax, and I've learned, once you leave work, leave it at work, don't take it home with you because it will make your job that much more stressful. One quote mentioned in the book reads, "People relax in an endless number of ways-though meditation, listening to music, watching television, driving in the car, walking, hiking, exercising, daydreaming, watching movies, soaking in a bath, playing on the computer, watching birds, or working on a hobby" (Kottler, Zehm, Kottler, 2005, p. 126). You have to find something that will benefit you, and your students.

I loved reading all your posts! Great insights and a lot of information that will be very helpful with the years to come!

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On Being A Teacher The Human Dimension. In R. Livsey (Ed.), On Avoiding Burnout and Rustout (p. 126). Thousand Oak, CA: Corwin Press

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

As I reflect on the comments on my post, I realize that another element I did not address, but should have, is the need for us to normalize checking for burnout, and setting up some organizational supports when it is detected. Right now, if burnout is seen as a negative, or a pejorative, or a sign of "weakness" or incompetence, it will continue to remain largely underground. It's time we realize that teaching is a highly stressful profession and that burnout as a term should be replaced by excessive stress; those feeling excessive stress should be encouraged, organizationally, to seek relief and support. Perhaps we can start to think about how we prepare and use "substitute teachers," thinking more in terms of the way "relief pitchers" are used in baseball, coming in when starters falter but not in a replacement role.

Meghan's picture
School Psychologist

This is just what I was looking for! We are putting together a document to share with our teachers as an outreach activity compliments of the school psychologists. What makes this even more exciting is that it is written by one of my favorite undergrad professors!

taja_tt's picture
TAJA TT® a paradigm changing teaching system

"burned out teachers (means) burned up students" "collateral damage" ...well said...."for what we want to see in the students we need to see in the teachers."

My next week's project is for students to raise edu concerns with teachers throughout the school in an effort to not only develop communication skills, self expression, boldness and confidence, negotiation skills etc but also to start a grassroot student/teacher awareness around basic edu problems. Burnout is part of a very basic problem.

It's a system issue, a fundamental problem with our socio-economic value system, where one of the most important professions of mankind is given little to no creative license and control and is financially belittled as the altruistic heart of teachers are taken advantage of. see table 2.2 in this article
Burnout happens in any profession good or bad, loved or not, but in the current education and economic conditions it happens much easier. As I work personally to get TAJA's 2 teacher system rolling I am going to another school myself as i have found a down to earth, sincere, hard working supervisor in this new school that I see I will be able to work with, and that will make a big difference for me, but, in all honesty, the system is still basically the same, so in effect I am just putting a band aid on and keeping burn out an arms length away rather than pulling it out from the root. TAJA T2 goes to the root, changing schools and people will have to do for now though.
my only advice to continue the spirit of the proactive stance would be campaign in some way to alter the fundamental education system defects. it's a long-hual approach but just as with a dis-ease, if we don't also solve the root cause of the dis-ease it's potential to arise will always be there. same goes for e.d.u.

sincerely wishing you all the power to create the career you want,
peace and prosperity

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