The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 18, 2013

Teacher burnout leads problems with education system

Point Blank

By John Blankenship

— In recent years, there has been a sharp resurgence of interest in our nation’s public schools.

According to a multitude of local and national reports, our schools are so replete with problems that education has come to a standstill for many children.

Only about 40 percent of our nation’s 17-year-olds can comprehend, summarize and explain what they have read. No significant progress has been made since the early 1970s in raising the reading levels of our students.

High school seniors in this country have lower scores on mathematics tests than those of many other industrialized nations.

The high school dropout rate is estimated to be about 30 percent, with about 1 million students dropping out annually.

Veteran educators have quietly watched the “rising tide of mediocrity” in our state and national school systems. It is possible that our entire public education system could collapse in the next few decades.

But it has also become apparent to many who have studied the educational system in this country that teachers, as well as students, are victimized by problem schools and insensitive administrators.

A substantial proportion, more than 25 percent, of all current teachers are seriously considering giving up teaching as a career within the next five years.

Attrition rates for new teachers during their first five years on the job average between 40 and 50 percent, according to recent studies.

And nearly half of the teachers in this country (roughly 49 percent) believe that morale within the profession has substantially declined since the school system reform movement began in the 1980s.

Too many teachers have become stressed or burned out, which occurs in highly motivated workers who react to stress by overworking until they collapse. In other words, they have become dysfunctionally affected by their jobs.

But regardless of the exact meaning of the term “burnout” (and there is no single definition for its associated symptoms), teachers quickly were among the first professional group identified with this phenomenon.

And interestingly enough, teachers originally did not refute the characterization of many of their colleagues as burned out; rather, they embraced the term as the most accurate reflection of their attitude toward a job that no longer commanded public respect nor engendered self-respect.

Ironically, even before the word burnout became the focal point for teachers’ dissatisfaction, the public began to question the quality of education, assuming that if teaching is not terribly interesting nor exciting to many teachers, how can we expect them to make learning interesting or exciting to children?

What is more, the community pressure, and the need for constant vigilance to control large numbers of students in classes, not to mention the feelings of loneliness and isolation of the teaching profession itself, all have combined to lower a teacher’s morale.

Originally, teachers began their work with enthusiasm and dedication, with a sense that their work is socially meaningful and will yield great personal satisfactions.

Eventually, though, the demands of teaching caused educators to feel debilitated; the distractions were annoying, classroom disturbances were aggravating, pupils seemed less caring, parents seemed more demanding, administrators seemed less sensitive, and colleagues seemed less supportive.

Caring faded as energy was depleted. Anger came easily. Patience became a scarce commodity.

The children, once perceived as innocent victims, now became increasingly viewed as spoiled, or under socialized, or lacking in values.

Headaches, backaches and stomach aches resentfully were attributed to the job. Teacher absences increased and were viewed as “mental health days.”

Increasingly, one thought of quitting; the idea of spending one’s whole life in the classroom became intolerable. The job became devoid of its original meaning; ultimately, paychecks alone served as motivation to come to work.

Today, teacher burnout is one of the most significant contributors to the problems of our educational system. As a result, new teachers in the future will be difficult to recruit and retain-even with more attractive salaries.


Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a reporter for The Register-Herald.