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Teacher Burnout: Why it Happens — and How it Affects Students

8 min read
Dec 8, 2022 8:00:00 AM

What data says about educator burnout, how burnout affects students, and what causes burnout in the first place.

In today’s post of our three-part series on teacher burnout, you’ll learn what data says about burnout, the effect of teacher burnout on students, and the causes of educator burnout. Read part one here: Understanding and Addressing Teacher Burnout.

Table of Contents

1. Educator Burnout Data and Implications
2. The Effect of Teacher Burnout on Students
3. Causes of Burnout in Educators

Educator Burnout Data and Implications

Historically, K-12 education has been one of the most burned out categories of workers in the U.S. This has been exacerbated by COVID-19.

Since 2020, educator stress has increased as teachers needed to navigate a plethora of challenges, all of which have increased the level of burnout among teachers.

Some of those challenges include:

  • School openings and closures
  • Parent and community member frustrations with school pandemic responses
  • Social, academic, and mental health challenges of students

In March 2020, when the pandemic began, 36% of educators reported via surveys feeling burned out “very often” or “always” compared to the general population at 28%.

Unfortunately, a survey in 2022 revealed that this gap has grown to 44%. Compare that with 30% for the general population (Marken, S. & Agrawal, S., 2022).

burnout gap between k-12 teachers and other professions

As noted earlier, one of the precursors of burnout syndrome is working in a stressful environment.

According to a national poll by the Education Week Research Center, 60% of teachers reported that their jobs are “frequently or always stressful.”

The implications of working in a chronically stressful environment reportedly compromises their physical health, sleep, and the ability to enjoy free time with family or friends.

As the overall burnout literature suggests, this high level of stress makes teachers feel less effective, which research shows can negatively impact the quality of their instruction, classroom management, and relationships with students. In this same study, only 12% of teachers reported that they were very satisfied in their roles.

Perhaps the most alarming recent data was from a survey conducted by the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teacher union in the U.S.

In early 2022, the NEA found that 90% of teachers reported that they are suffering from “serious” burnout, and 67% reported “very serious” burnout.

Another survey from Gallup (2022) found that K-12 education has the highest burnout of any industry, even significantly higher than health care, which historically has been viewed as a highly stressful industry and prone to burnout.

The Gallup poll also found that burned out teachers are 63% more likely than workers in other industries to be absent from work via a sick day and are more likely to be looking to leave the profession at a rate of 2.6 times greater than the average.

The empirical evidence suggests that when teacher absenteeism reaches 10 school days, the result is significant learning loss for students.

In one of the few studies looking specifically at the burnout of secondary teachers, García, Carmona & Aguayo, R. (2019) found that a large proportion of secondary school teachers present high levels of Burnout Syndrome symptoms:

  • 40% having low levels of personal accomplishment
  • 38% having high levels of depersonalization
  • 28% suffering from severe emotional exhaustion

These percentages are significantly higher than those found for other professional groups.

According to Lozano et al. (2007), in a study of levels of burnout in different professional groups, both police officers and the general population present higher rates of personal accomplishment in their work than educators.

Burnout Syndrome has significant implications for the personal and professional life of the educator.

The empirical evidence confirms that teachers with BOS are not able to establish positive relationships with students, deliver effective lessons, and understand individual needs (Greenglass et al., 1996; Yong and Yue, 2007; Shen et al., 2015).

Additionally, studies show that educators experiencing Burnout Syndrome suffer from a variety of physical and somatic complaints:

  • Back pain and headaches
  • Psychological implications, such as low self-esteem, a lack of meaningful-life orientation, interpersonal conflicts, and low social support
  • Depression

In the final analysis, BOS can result in a high rate of teacher absenteeism and early retirements of burned out teachers, all of which increases district costs (Brackett et al., 2010).

Burnout Syndrome also impacts the entire organization by requiring teacher substitutes, who are often difficult to find for many districts. Additionally, teachers experiencing burnout do not provide all the necessary information or the backup students need, which strains relationships (Kyriacou, 1987).

teacher experiencing burnout

The Effect of Teacher Burnout on Students

Not surprisingly, research indicates teacher burnout negatively impacts students.

Being burned out translates directly into job performance, which in turn directly and negatively impacts the quality of education that K-12 students are receiving.

In addition to the personal consequences of burnout, burnout also causes schools to incur substantial costs brought on by teacher absenteeism, presenteeism, turnover, career change, mental/physical health claims, attrition, and early retirement (Bermejo & Prieto, 2006).

These issues directly impact students’ involvement and motivation as well as the entire school community and educational system.

It is well-established, and as referenced above, that teachers with BOS will have concomitant impacts on their overall mental health — and, in particular, depression.

Harding et. al. (2019) found that the emotional well-being of teachers is critical for positive student outcomes.

Better teacher well-being is associated with better student well-being and lower student psychological difficulties. Lower teacher depressive symptoms are associated with better student well-being.

Additionally, teacher presenteeism and the teacher–student relationship may be mediating factors in these relationships, as there is an association between teacher–student relationship quality, teacher presenteeism, and teacher absence with student well-being and psychological distress.

Below, I have outlined five ways teacher burnout affects student.

1. Teacher Absenteeism

Teacher absenteeism, which is associated with Burnout Syndrome, has great impacts on student learning.

One study estimated that 10 additional days of teacher absence reduce student achievement in fourth grade mathematics by 3.3% of a standard deviation.

This percentage is large enough to be of policy relevance given the fact that teacher absences directly affect the achievement of as many as 25 students in one classroom.

Absent teachers impact team planning and professional development sessions. A teacher’s absences may then be seen as having an indirect negative impact on the students of the teacher’s colleagues.

2. Student Performance

Additionally, small differences in the performance of even a few students can pull down the overall school results, thus impacting student recruitment and retention (Miller, Raegen & Murnane, Richard & Willett, John., 2007).

3. Teacher Attrition

Teacher burnout and attrition go hand in hand, which impacts student learning.

The NEA reports that losing a teacher mid-year through attrition can have the equivalent of losing up to 72 instructional days, which will cause students to fall behind.

Teachers overwhelmed by stress use less effective teaching strategies, and the quality of instruction and classroom management suffers.

4. Classroom Management

A study in the Journal of Educational Psychology (Rucinski, C., Brown, J., Downer, J., 2017) found that teachers experiencing burnout at the beginning of the school year had notably worse classroom management by the spring than other teachers and there were significant student disruptions.

A study from the University of British Columbia also found that the students of teachers reporting burnout had elevated levels of stress hormones, suggesting that teachers inadvertently pass their stress on to students.

5. High-Poverty Schools and Marginalized Students

The impact of Burnout Syndrome on students has even more extensive student impacts in high-poverty schools. The literature indicates that the highest teacher attrition rates occur in high-poverty schools and schools made up largely of students of color.

For example, in 2016, Title I schools (schools where at least 35% of students are low-income) had turnover rates 50% higher than non–Title I schools.

Teacher burnout and attrition are magnified in schools that serve marginalized students, and this can contribute to a widening achievement gap (Rucinski, C., Brown, J., Downer, J., 2017).

Causes of Burnout in Educators

Teachers face innumerable challenges in the classroom, which can create chronic stress, leading to burnout. There is not one single cause in a given individual.

Gallup research shows five broad root causes of worker burnout in general, regardless of occupation, that provides an overall sense of the main causal variables:

  • Unfair treatment at work
  • Unmanageable workload
  • Lack of role clarity
  • Lack of support from managers
  • Unreasonable expectations/time pressure

In general, studies have shown these factors are the main drivers of burnout among educators specifically:

  • Work overload
  • Excessive paperwork
  • Poor student discipline
  • Conflicts with administration and parents
  • Poor facilities
  • Frequent educational reforms
  • Time pressures
  • Lack of training

In a novel method of analyzing the causes of educator burnout in a granular fashion, Ghanizadeh and Jahedizadeh (2015) reviewed the literature across 30 studies and categorized the causes of burnout across the three most commonly researched dimensions of Burnout Syndrome.

The Dimensions of Burnout Syndrome and Their Causes

Causes of Emotional Exhaustion

Causes of Depersonalization

Causes of Low Professional Self-Efficacy and Accomplishment

  • Student misbehavior
  • Poor school climate
  • Demonization and disrespect
  • Lack of shared decision making
  • High workload
  • Pedagogical barriers
  • Lack of shared decision-making
  • Low self-efficacy
  • Role conflict
  • Poor school climate
  • Low emotional intelligence
  • Student misbehavior and demonization
  • Low self-efficacy
  • Low teaching efficacy
  • Low self-esteem

Another way of categorizing the cause of Burnout Syndrome is to consider internal (teacher) and external (organizational) factors that contribute to educator burnout and both must be considered.

Risk Factors for Burnout Syndrome

Individual Risk Factors

Organizational Risk Factors

  • Poor self-esteem
  • Low self-efficacy
  • Lack of pedagogical skills
  • Maladaptive coping and cognitive processes
  • Young adults with an idealistic worldview
  • Unrealistically high personal expectations
  • Having financial issues
  • Student misbehavior
  • Heavy workload
  • Lack of administrative support
  • Conflicts with coworkers
  • Poor overall climate
  • Diminished resources
  • Lack of control or input
  • Understaffing
  • Rapid institutional changes

A significant factor that can also contribute to BOS is the lack of cognitive, behavioral, and mental fitness skills required to mediate the negative effects of stress and some of the causal factors mentioned above.

In an extensive interview in 2021 with Authority Magazine, Dr. Andrew Miki describes these issues as negative cognitive patterns that can be changed. He treats his patients with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to help patients unlearn these negative thought patterns, stating:

I have never seen a patient with depression (and associated BOS) whose overall level of confidence was high because depression is often accompanied by a perception of hopelessness and a lack of control over making any changes. Also, a lot of negative self-talk further erodes confidence over time.

To reverse these patterns . . . they should also talk to themselves like how a good coach would motivate their athletes. Both of these led to a different set of patterns that would alleviate depression and rebuild their confidence . . . and train themselves to face situations that reinforce their ability to cope and perform in different situations are all ways to rebuild confidence and reverse the patterns that lead to burnout.

The empirical evidence suggests that the most potent factor affecting educator burnout may be student misbehavior.

Ariel, et. al. (2014) in an extensive meta-analysis of teacher burnout and student behavior found significant and convincing evidence that student misbehavior related significantly with the three main dimensions of teacher burnout.

The largest effect was between students’ misbehavior and teacher emotional exhaustion, followed by depersonalization, and then personal accomplishment. 

Next month, we will post the final part of this burnout series and cover ways you can overcome or mitigate teacher burnout in your school.

Until then, check out A Hidden Crisis: School Leaders Are Struggling with Mental Well-Being.



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