Understanding Teacher Stress and Burnout, and The Power of Mindfulness to Transform Education

By Kailen Guggenheim

Our teachers are shaping the minds of our future leaders. So why are we neglecting their mental health?

Over the past few decades, the issues of occupational stress and burnout have become increasingly prevalent among teachers in primary and secondary education. According to a 2013 MetLife survey, around 51% of US educators report experiencing extreme stress several days per week. Strikingly, about half leave the teaching profession within the first five years due to stress (Herman et al., 2018 ). High levels of stress present both personal and professional challenges for educators, including high psychological distress (Montgomery & Rupp, 2005), impaired physical and emotional wellbeing (Clunies-Ross, Little, & Keinhuis, 2008), and reduced job satisfaction, effectiveness, and overall teaching quality (Abel & Sewell, 1999). Stress within teaching also affects the entire school as an organization (Clunies-Ross, et al., 2008). Clearly, there is a dire need to address the issues of stress and burnout in the field of education.

In my previous article, Supporting Educators’ Mental and Emotional Wellbeing During COVID-19, I mentioned that the increase in teacher stress and burnout over the years has prompted research on targeted stress-reduction programs for this population. Specifically, numerous studies have been conducted on various mindfulness-based interventions for teachers, the findings of which are extremely promising. However, it is important to first understand the root causes of educator stress and burnout in order to fully appreciate why mindfulness offers an effective and sustainable solution.

Causes of Educator Stress & Burnout

In a database of 26 occupations, teaching was rated as one of the highest in stress- related outcomes, which was explained primarily by teachers’ frequent emotional involvement with their students (Split, Koomen, & Thijs, 2011). Specifically, research has identified the primary sources of stress to be pupil misbehavior, poor working conditions, time pressures, and poor staff relations (Abel & Sewell, 1999). As a notable distinction, the research by Split and colleagues (2011) specified that it is not student misbehavior in general, but rather the extent to which such behavior undermines the teacher-student relationship, that may cause prolonged teacher distress.                    

On a broader scale, the ten main stressors for teachers internationally were noted to be (Kyriacou, 2001):

  1. Teaching unmotivated students
  2. Maintaining discipline
  3. Time pressures and workload
  4. Coping with change
  5. Being evaluated
  6. Colleague interactions
  7. Concerns about self-esteem and status
  8. Problems with administration
  9. Role conflict and ambiguity
  10. Poor working conditions

As there are so many possible stressors that each individual teacher may face, interventions that aim at enhancing emotional responses and coping strategies, rather than eliminating the external sources of stress, may be more realistic to implement and may have a broader reach.

10 Main Stressors For Teachers Internationally (List)

Now that we’ve taken a closer look at sources of teacher stress, it is necessary to distinguish that stress and burnout are separate conditions and do not always co-occur. Therefore, as educator stress becomes increasingly prevalent, it is important to understand which individual or situational factors may either contribute to, or protect against, the incidence of burnout.  

The widely used conceptualization of occupational burnout, proposed by Christina Maslach, includes three dimensions: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment (Schwarzer & Hallum, 2008). Let’s unpack this further:

  • Emotional exhaustion is defined as being emotionally overextended and depleted of emotional resources, and symptoms include fatigue, debilitation, and loss of energy.
  • Depersonalization is characterized by cynicism, irritability, loss of idealism, and negative or detached attitudes.
  • Reduced personal accomplishment is experienced as a decline in feelings of competence and achievement at work, reduced professional efficacy, productivity, or capability, low morale, and an inability to cope with demands (Schwarzer & Hallum, 2008).

Notably, teachers tend to have a lower sense of personal accomplishment and slightly higher scores of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization relative to human service professionals in other fields (Aloe, et al., 2014). Furthermore, emotional exhaustion has been correlated with lower levels of job performance, workplace satisfaction, and teaching efficacy. Low levels of self-efficacy (or a lack of personal resourcefulness) may impact the experience of job-related stress and make teachers more vulnerable for burnout (Schwarzer & Hallum, 2008).                    

Experiencing burnout has been linked with absenteeism, irritability, and poor performance among educators (Herman et al., 2018), and can lead to turnover, emotional and psychosomatic illnesses. Additionally, burnout is negatively associated with measures of teacher wellbeing such as school connection and perceived health (Aloe et al., 2014), and teachers may feel powerless, alienated, isolated, and as if their work is meaningless (Howard & Johnson, 2004).              

Stress can also impair the teacher-student relationship (Abel & Sewell, 1999), which has been identified as one of the main sources of satisfaction for educators (Farber, 1984), and which has a significant impact on student learning (Split et al., 2011) and motivation (Zhang & Sapp, 2008).

Given that teachers are often influential figures in children’s lives, evidence suggests that teacher wellbeing may have indirect, yet significant effects on students’ academic performance and socio-emotional adjustment. Teachers are also greatly impacted by their students, with positive student relationships providing teachers with internal rewards, giving meaning to their work, and even encouraging them to stay in the profession.

As teachers’ personal and professional identities are seemingly linked with their relationship with students, it has been suggested that there is a need for teachers to invest in their “selves” (Split et al., 2011). In other words, teachers who take time to work on their own wellbeing will be able to better relate with and more effectively serve their students.

Impacts of Mindfulness on Educator Stress & Burnout

Mindfulness for educators has been studied for roughly twenty years, with a range of research investigating the efficacy of programs designed specifically for teachers. Mindfulness training for teachers is hypothesized to have both direct effects on teachers’ capacities to teach effectively, and indirect effects on students’ abilities to learn more effectively. Proven benefits include enhanced personal wellbeing and ability to cope with teaching demands, achievement of personal goals, and reduced mental health difficulties.

Researchers propose that mindfulness training provides teachers with the resources of mindfulness and occupational self-compassion, which help them cope more effectively and recover more quickly from the social-emotional and cognitive challenges of the classroom. This will then allow teachers to develop self-regulatory strategies for managing stress and teaching effectively, and modeling these skills and mindsets for students will enable them to be successful in school (Roeser, et al., 2013).

One study found that teachers who participated in a mindfulness program reported higher levels of mindfulness and occupational self-compassion, greater focused attention and working memory, and significantly lower levels of occupational stress and burnout as compared to the control group.                            

Another study suggested that mindfulness helps teachers to develop the self-regulatory resources needed to meet the cognitive, social, and emotional demands of teaching. Given this, the researchers posited that mindfulness may also allow teachers to conserve their self-regulatory resources and to invest them into student relationships and teaching, instead of employing them for coping and defense. Therefore, it appears that mindfulness may enable teachers to spend less energy on coping with stressors, and thereby give more attention to teaching and relating positively with students (Roeser, et al., 2013).

Mindfulness may also protect teachers from long-term burnout to the extent that it affects daily emotional and physiological experiences. Research has found that educator mindfulness has a strong protective effect against burnout, and that mindfulness impacts burnout through a range of daily experiences such as decreased negative mood, sleep impairment, and physical symptoms (Abenavoli et al., 2013).

Not only do mindfulness-based programs appear to mitigate the experiences of stress, burnout, and physical symptoms among teachers, but they also promote positive outcomes such as increases in mindful awareness, emotion regulation, and self-efficacy. These findings have promising implications, as they directly relate to two key factors of teacher stress and burnout previously discussed: teacher-student relationships and teacher self-efficacy. 

Clearly, the teacher-student relationship is a critical component of the teaching profession that has the potential to either contribute to, or protect against, educators’ feelings of stress and burnout. Given that mindfulness training improves teachers’ levels of mindfulness and emotion regulation, and thereby allows them to relate with students more effectively (Jennings, 2016) and to be more attentive and responsive to their needs (Abenavoli, et al., 2013), it stands to reason that mindfulness-based interventions have the potential to improve teacher-student relationships and thus address a major component of teacher stress and satisfaction.

The research also shows promise that mindfulness may increase self-efficacy, which has been directly linked to burnout in this population. Furthermore, studies have found that mindfulness can increase teaching self-efficacy and improve classroom management abilities (Meiklejohn, et al., 2012).

Based on the research, investing in an educator mindfulness program seemingly offers schools a cost-effective solution to the issues of stress-related turnover, attrition, and reduced performance that has become increasingly prevalent among teachers. On the level of the individual teachers, mindfulness training provides important coping resources that enhance their personal wellbeing, job satisfaction, and sense of self- efficacy. Moreover, as teachers’ personal wellbeing has been shown to influence both their professional performance and the classroom environment, fostering educator mindfulness also has important benefits for students and the school as an organization.

As teachers play an integral role in society by inspiring youth and shaping the minds of future leaders, their personal wellbeing and professional efficacy are of paramount importance. Therefore, integrating a specialized mindfulness program into teachers’ professional training is seemingly a worthwhile endeavor that has the potential to not only prevent stress and burnout, but to promote educators’ personal and professional flourishing.

About the Author

Kailen Guggenheim is President of Mindful Awareness Practices, LLC and is passionate about spreading the transformative practice of mindfulness within professional industries and beyond. She is a lecturer and published author of "Put It In Perspective: A Teen’s Guide to Sanity" (AuthorHouse, 2014), a book offering mindfulness and stress-management tools for teenagers and young-adults. Kailen graduated Cum Laude with a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Florida in under three years, and received her M.A. in Clinical Psychology with a Concentration in Spirituality and Mind Body Practices from Teachers College, Columbia University. Additionally, she has completed an advanced certificate in Cooperation and Conflict Resolution from the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia. Kailen holds a Trustee & Advisory Board position for the Krame Center for Mindful Living (Ramsey, NJ) and currently resides in New York City.

Contact: kailen@mindfulawarenesspractices.com

References:

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