It seems that the topics of mental health and teacher well-being have come up a lot in the ELT sector recently. Phil Longwell’s talk at IATEFL and related research project seem to have generated a lot of enthusiasm and Sarah Mercer has focused several recent talks on how positive psychology can help promote teacher well-being.
Although teacher well-being is taken very seriously at my workplace, feelings of stress and exhaustion naturally creep in. I became interested in how I could help myself and the teachers I work with feel a bit more relaxed and more enthusiastic about our jobs.
As part of this process, I took a Coursera course on positive psychology. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about the theory of positive psychology as well as trying out some techniques to improve their own lives.
In the following series of posts, I intend to share the information I’ve found on burnout in ELT as well take a deeper look at the PERMA model of positive psychology that Sarah Mercer has touched on in her talks on teacher well-being. I’ll also suggest some techniques, most of which I’ve found in the literature, that anyone can try out in order to promote their own well-being.
Very importantly, I am NOT a psychologist! If you feel you are suffering severe burnout or are struggling with mental health issues, you should seek a medical professional who can help you.
What is burnout?
“a syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism that occurs frequently among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind” Maslach and Jackson (1981)
“A symptom of emotional depletion and a loss of motivation and commitment” Freudenberger (1974:162).
According to Maslach and Jackson (1981), there are three components of the burnout syndrome:
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
- Depletion of a sense of personal accomplishment
Do you feel you may be suffering from burnout? Take this test to find out if you’re at risk.
What are the symptoms?
According to Abdolzadeh (2014) burnout often manifests with these symptoms:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Pattern of neglecting one’s one needs
- Working long hours
- Feeling pressures coming from within oneself
- Giving too much to the people who need your service
I found it very interesting that these were the symptoms and not the causes of burnout. In fact, these symptoms can create a vicious cycle, exacerbating existing issues and making it harder to recover your energy.
For example, because of exhaustion, people who suffer burnout often work inefficiently, causing them to work longer hours. As they spend more of their time working, they have less time to rest and reset, meaning they will feel even more exhausted. Of course, this is combined with the pressure from within to “work harder,” which can cause feelings of guilt for taking time off or spending time on your own needs. All of this causes more exhaustion, deepening the cycle and its symptoms. I imagine all of us can identify with these symptoms on some level, but it doesn’t mean that we’re all burnt out. Burnout becomes a real problem if this cycle continues for long enough to run you into the ground.
Who is most at risk?
Ozdemir (2007) looked at the demographic characteristics of teachers who suffer burnout:
Who is least at risk?
Ozdemir (2007) also looked at the teachers who were less at risk of suffering burnout. Burnout is LESS likely to occur for teachers who:
- are achievement oriented
- avoid extremes of competitiveness
- have internal locus of control
- have a strong purpose in their professional and personal lives
- have a sense of humour
- have hardiness
- have a high self-esteem
- have high self-confidence
- have high professional self-efficacy
- have a positive self-concept
All of these factors are internal to the teacher. They are related to the teacher’s psychological attributes and skills. They seem to outline a sense of “mental resilience” that would allow the teacher to bounce back from stressful situations. Interestingly, they also seem to mirror many of the psychological factors that promote good language learning in our students.
What causes burnout?
Well, what causes burnout then? Does it just happen to certain “at risk” teachers or do stressful situations bring it on? What kinds of situations drain us?
Of course different groups, students, workplaces and roles have an impact on our well-being. Called situational factors (Ozdemir, 2007) or environmental factors (Kyriacou 2001), these stressors are external to the teacher and are often imposed by someone else. Have a look at these two lists:
I found it fascinating that student behaviour and student motivation were at the top of both lists. Managing students is something that teachers will always have to do, no matter what ages or levels they teach or school they work for. Of course some of the other factors are more related to workplace conditions, but I was surprised that dealing with students came in at number one.
Now, although “student misbehaviour, indeed was considered the main stressful event affecting teachers’ well-being” (Buonomo, Fatigante and Fioillia, 2017:191), “teachers’ negative emotional experience occurring when students misbehave was strongly related to teachers’ burnout” (ibid.) and in fact the “the stronger the negative emotions, the more intense the burnout symptoms reported by the teachers” (ibid.).
Student misbehaviour doesn’t directly cause burnout. Burnout comes from both the stressful situation and how the teacher reacts to it emotionally. This means that burnout is an outcome determined by BOTH environmental factors and internal psychological factors.
“The effect of job stressors is mediated by coping mechanisms. If coping mechanisms are inappropriate, stress occurs” (Betoret, 2009:46)
Here’s an analogy with physical health. In order to come down with a cold, the virus must be in the air (environmental factor) and your immune system must too weak to fight it off (internal factor). So how do we try to keep from coming down with a cold? First, we try to eliminate or reduce our exposure to the virus by washing our hands and secondly, we try to boost the efficacy of our immune system by eating healthfully, getting enough rest and drinking enough water.
Certain environmental factors cannot be reduced or eliminated in teaching. We will always have students who misbehave or aren’t motivated. In most schools, being observed is a requirement, a heavy workload can’t always be avoided and change will occur no matter what. It makes sense therefore to work on boosting our “psychological immune system” in order to promote our own “mental resilience” to these unavoidable stressors.
How can we protect ourselves against burnout?
Depending on cause of burnout, a change of workplace, job responsibilities or a long break from teaching are in order. That is to say, we may have to try to change the situational factors that are causing our burnout. However, for most of us, cultivating the adequate coping mechanisms that mediate our stressors may be the best way to prevent getting burned out in the first place.
What is positive psychology?
According to the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”
It is the psychological equivalent to preventative medicine for physical health. Since Freud, the field of psychology has mainly been concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of psychosis and neurosis. Positive psychology however is aimed at helping all of us live our best lives by preventing certain common mental illnesses like anxiety and depression and encouraging us to get the most out of our lives.
Positive Psychology seems particularly suited to combating burnout, as it is focused on developing many of those traits we see in teachers who are less likely to suffer from burnout.
What is the PERMA + V model?
PERMA is the model created by Martin Seligman that describes the five building blocks to well-being. Read more about the model here.
It stands for:
Sometimes a “+V” for vitality is added to the end to emphasise the influence of physical well-being on your mental state.
In the following posts, I’ll break down each of these building blocks, try to relate them to teaching and suggest some simple exercises you can do to nurture your well being in that area. Well being includes all areas of your life, not just work. However, most of the suggestions I make will be related to teaching, as the aim is to protect yourself against professional burnout.
Read more about the first building block, positive emotions here.
Abdolzadeh, F. (2014). Handling causes of teacher burnout in ELT classrooms. International Journal of Language Learning and Applied Linguistics World, 7 (3), 636-64.
Betoret, F. D. (2009). Self‐efficacy, school resources, job stressors and burnout among Spanish primary and secondary school teachers: a structural equation approach. Educational Psychology, 29(1), 45-68.
Buonomo, I., Fatigante, M., & Fiorilli, C. (2017). Teachers’ Burnout Profile: Risk and Protective Factors. The Open Psychology Journal, 10(1).
Kyriacou, C. (2001). Teacher stress: Directions for future research. Educational review, 53(1), 27-35.
Ozdemir, Y. (2007). The role of classroom management efficacy in predicting teacher burnout. International Journal of Social Sciences, 2(4), 257-263.
Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of organizational behavior, 2(2), 99-113.