Teacher Burnout

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley6 Comments


Last week the Department for Education released their research on teacher workload. With little fanfare, it noted that teachers were working on average over fifty hours a week. Let’s not get started on the loosely titled ‘holidays‘ (make certain to annoy any teacher within a five mile radius with a comment vaguely resembling: “but at least you have the holidays”). With a little calculation, I considered I had a career stretching ahead of me totalling something upward of 80,000 hours of my life. I love my job, but that statistic made me gulp. Staying energised and inspired will take work – staving off burnout and not fading away with exhaustion comes to mind!

On the very same day I read an article about teacher burnout from Annie Murphy Paul (see here) based on findings from a research project led by Jesus Montero Marin, of the University of Zaragoza in Spain, that surveyed a range of university workers. It defined three different modes of burnout:

The first burnout mode is perhaps the most familiar: ‘over-worked burnout‘. This describes the common occurrence of strained teachers pursuing success, or survival, to the point of exhaustion. I’ve known people fixed in this state. Their stress starts to manifest itself as cynical complaining about pretty much every thing and everyone – particularly school leaders. Feeling they are being limited from pursuing what they, and their students, need to succeed, they overload on stress and most commonly give up. Their positive drive often becomes inverted and isolation ensues.

The second mode is ‘worn-out burnout‘. Closely related to over-work, stress rears its ugly head once again. The coping strategy employed by the teacher is to simply give up. All motivation is gone. Teaching is a difficult job at the best of times – stripped of energy and motivation it is nigh on impossible.

Lastly, comes the lesser known mode known as ‘under-challenged burnout‘. This type of burnout is not as widely known, or recognised as easily I would estimate, but it can be just as pervasive and crippling. It ultimately stems from boredom. Most teachers undergo natural plateaus in their career. Over the long-term this would only be natural, but we need to recognise when it happens and its damaging effects.

I have written about my early career plateau – see here – that would best be described as ‘under-challenged burnout‘. I had mastered the difficult challenges of managing the behaviour of my students in the main. I had developed my typical routines. Beyond that, few experiences excited me to develop upon my practice. A training day here or there would spark my interest, but I was neck deep in the job again the following day so he spark was snuffed out. Best intentions were undone. I didn’t have enough time or impetus to read about teaching or seek out a new challenges; I didn’t have any responsibility to inspire me to drive forward. It wasn’t until I took on some departmental responsibility that things changed.

Being under-challenged and bored by the job (even despite the near dizzying variety of experience that can define working in a school, it becomes a crystallized habit soon enough) leads once more to that devilish enemy of teachers: stress. I know people in this position who become cynical, embittered and too often deeply unhappy with every aspect of their working lives. They tear down others often despite themselves. The suffer from sickness and some descend into depression. Once more, the dark cloud of disillusionment covers many behaviours that can poison the atmosphere of any staffroom or classroom.

I don’t think I am stretching believability by expecting that most readers could identify characters from their workplace that fit snugly into the templates described above, or are experiencing something similar. Every staffroom and most departments are populated with teachers suffering from stress and nearing, or mired in, a state of burnout.

So what is to be done? Crucially, our workplace motivation arises from our intrinsic desire to have autonomy in what we do – and the time to do it well.

Much research proves that leaders in organisations are far happier than people lower down the organisation. These answers don’t result simply from the extra pay, although that is no doubt a factor. Time is the thing that really matters. School leaders have far more ‘fluid time‘. That is to say they can decide when they do their tasks with far greater flexibility and often they have the power of choice. Most teachers not in leadership roles experience ‘fixed time‘. They have their timetable fixed. Their deadlines, report writing, lesson planning etc. all fixed to a rigid routine. Choice is minimal. Autonomy is most often squeezed to nought. Of course, time is always at a premium.

Time and autonomy. These topics are currently anathema is a school system that is being forced to suffer the bitter pill of austerity. It will take school leaders contorting their systems and aligning their priorities to find the wrinkles of time that will provide time and autonomy to stave off burnout. Our hard won working conditions need to be protected with lock-jaw tenacity. School leaders must maintain a strong school culture built on the right values and in full defence of their teachers. If not, teachers will simply burn out or fade away.

I sit and consider the thousands of hours I have ahead of me in my career. I hope and expect the vast bulk are spent working in education, but I am not naive and I know that our school system will need to offer me the conditions where I can not just survive, but thrive. If I am a school leader it will be my job to help foster those conditions for others.

Every teacher needs to be acutely aware of the signs and dangers of stress and burnout. We should be vigilant when considering our fellow teachers and ourselves. Most of all we should be kind to one another. No budget or political mandate is needed for kindness and being mindful of others.

How many hours do you have left in your career? How will you stave off burnout? How will you be kind to help others avoid such a fate? These questions should give us pause.

Related posts:

I wrote about longer school days and finding the elusive work-life balance here.

I wrote about the teacher expert and the teacher cynic here.


  1. ‘Autonmy, mastery and purpose’ wrote Dan Pink, and his short essay/presentation on motivation is an easy watch – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc. Having led a school now for 33 years, reinvented myself and the school on a number of occasions, I certainly subscribe to the ‘under-challenged- burn-out, and indeed I am losing a talented middle leader to a Deputy headship for that reason. We couldn’t move quickly enough, nor should we have done, to keep him recruited. In many ways, I think it’s the job of good schools to ship their talent onward and outwards, because that prevents the conditions for ‘ground-hog day’ developing.
    I am working in a number of collaborative cells involving state and independent sector currently, and you are right about the impoverishment, aka lack of money, that the current financial ‘crunch’ is having on provision. What worries me most though when I work with colleagues on initiatives is the incredibly tight ‘what will ofsted think’ straightjacket that embraces primary schools. All will now study an MFL at KS2 and make substantial progress in 1 by age 11 is the current conundrum. My take – start with a couple in Y3, go culture and other alphabet in Y4, go classical an integrate the myths and legends in Y5 and then having opened up the young minds, step in with 60 minutes a week in Y6 with one of the EMFL from Y3. “Isn’t there an App or programme that can do that for us” asked one of the cluster?. When I dug deeper, it was quite clear from the Advanced Skills advisory teacher that her take was progress each year in the same language. “But that’s not what it says here” i respond, highlighting the curriculum directive. “No” came the tart response, “But I’d much rather our cluster focussed on meeting these assessment objectives (24 of them, in 4 layers)” and that way assist the teacher in showing Ofsted that every one in the class was making progress across the 4 years. Classes of upper 30s, taught in the PPA time, so the main class teacher (who has the relationships built and class management under control) is absent leaving the visiting specialist just 30-40 minutes a week (it will be some one different next term.year) to demonstrate that all are making progress every lesson. Now that is the imposition of conditions for overwork and breakdown. 30 teachers in the room, all lapping up every word of how to script for Ofsted, not how to do it right for the child. You write “Our hard won working conditions need to be protected with lock-jaw tenacity. School leaders must maintain a strong school culture built on the right values and in full defence of their teachers. If not, teachers will simply burn out or fade away”. In our meeting, I was the only headteacher. The kind deputy who got the room ready in his secondary school which hosted the meeting acted the janitor – there at the start and there at the end, but sadly not there in the middle to rail against the machine, self-imposed by the willing majority that just want something simple given the them on a plate. Just 2 nay-sayers – both from the Independent Sector. Where is the time and autonomy if a teacher is to race around umpteen schools, delivering the token MFL or coding to show primary years are making progress and as Mr Gove would expect ‘so that this would create young people able to work at the forefront of linguistic acquisition and technological change”. As if.

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  4. Thanks for this, Alex – interesting, as ever. You always make me think!

    I have to say I don’t think I ever suffered from the ‘under-challenged and bored by the job’ version of burn-out, but I was mindful of the possibility of burn-out from unsustainable workload and the pressure of responsibility. My strategy was to stop full-time work after 30 years (the last 10 as a head) and do something else interesting and rewarding with the last stretch of my professionally useful life. Even though I loved headship, ten years was enough for me (and I find James’ 33 years mind-boggling!)

    I think school leaders need to watch their own potential for burn-out and also accept their responsibility for monitoring and supporting what’s happening to others. I felt that the main sources of teacher, middle and senior leader stress in my school were to do with feeling out of control of one’s workload, and feeling out of control of other elements of your job. There are ways that you can help staff to see that they do have a voice, some choices and the capacity to make a difference to the way their school operates. In my opinion, all heads should bear this in mind and give it a high priority. Burnt out staff is bad news all round.

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      Headship is certainly a tough challenge. I do think leaders need to protect staff wherever possible. Yes – money may be tight – but we can say push on the time issue. For every new initiative we must ask what is being removed.

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