Surviving Teacher Burnout
By John Rosales
On August 15, five days before the start of the 2010-2011 school year, Michelle Totra’s summer came to a crashing end. She was told by the superintendent of the Needles Unified School District in California that she had been involuntarily transferred from her elementary school to Needles High school. In an instant, Totra had five days to plan four freshman English classes and two language arts classes, an impossible task for even the most resourceful of teachers.
Until the transfer notice, Totra had spent a joyful summer organizing her classroom at Vista Colorado Elementary School in Needles. Though now teaching fourth graders, she had taught first graders for most of her 20-year career.
“I love that age group,” she says. “They suit my personality…I’m a nurturer.”
But the superintendent found out that she was qualified to teach freshman English, and they needed to fill the position internally.
“I was not trained for high school,” says Totra, a member of the San Bernardino Teachers Association. “I contacted the union, and there was nothing that I could do about the transfer – so, in all fairness to the students, I decided I would rise to the occasion.”
Totra was already coping with the separation from her husband of 30 years, who had been unemployed since 2008. On the day she heard about the transfer, her second granddaughter had been born to her son, who had been recently diagnosed with cancer. He had surgery in September.
At school, Totra says students could see she was struggling…and they pounced.
“I became the target of teacher bullying,” she says. “I was their entertainment. They called me a b–ch, and yelled the F-word at me all the time. They knew what buttons to push.”
Totra also heard rumors that there were unflattering photos of her on Facebook posted by students.
“By October, I could no longer fight all the battles, she says.”
School Principal Jeffrey Ritchley supported Totra. He took decisive action by transferring some students out of her class and suspending others.
Still, Totra became filled with anxiety, frustration and low self-esteem. It was a slow build up to what some clinicians call “burnout.”
This condition usually occurs when a teacher feels highly stressed, emotionally exhausted, and cynical or uncaring about what happens to students. According to studies, most teachers experience job stress at least two to four times a day, with more than 75 percent of teachers’ health problems attributed to stress.
“Classroom teachers are often ‘on fire’ for the job when they start…and anything on fire can burn out,” says Byron Greenberg, an associate professor and clinical psychologist at Virginia State University, Petersburg.
A colleague of Totra’s realized she needed help and referred her to the Survive and Thrive Mini-Sabbatical Intervention Program sponsored by the California Teachers Association (CTA) and conducted by Greenberg.
The program redirects teachers back to the healthy reasons they had for choosing the profession, says Greenberg.
“It empowers them by demonstrating that their experience is shared by other teachers and it promotes a sense of purpose and value in what they do as professionals,” he says.
The program consists of a five-day sabbatical in a retreat setting where a group of teachers (up to 15) reflect on their lives and careers as well as receive instruction in time management, stress management, nutrition, and relationship-building. After completing the program, there are follow-up sessions with instructors at intervals of three, six and nine months.
“Within the first week, they look at themselves and come to appreciate who they are,” says Donna Jefferson, who recently retired from CTA but is still a trainer with the program. “After the first year, most are back in their classrooms.”
School districts and CTA typically share the $4,000 cost per participant for food, housing and teacher release time. The program is cost-effective for CTA because a dismissal proceeding and discipline grievances leading up to it can cost tens of thousands of dollars per teacher and sometimes in excess of a hundred thousand, says Robin Devitt, a program coordinator and CTA UniServ staff member.
“CTA believes in programs that support members in all areas of the profession, including but not limited to job-related stress,” she says.
While many issues play a role in teacher burnout, common “stressors” include dwindling school resources, low pay, high expectations for test scores, changing assessments of student performance, lack of parental involvement, and pressure from administration for non-teaching tasks such as rubrics, reports, and curriculum assessments.
“There are a myriad of stressors for professional educators,” says Devitt, who has been affiliated with the program for 12 years. “These tasks far outweigh in hours, the average work day for educators.”
Stress can also be imposed by knowledge of lingering state budget cuts and layoffs, according to Jerald L. Newberry, executive director of NEA’s Health Information Network (HIN). (HIN offers methods of coping with stress, burnout and other health issues. Kill Stress Before It Kills You is the title of an HIN workshop available to state Associations.)
“Being a teacher in these economic times can just wear you down,” Newberry says.
“In the end, it is a system that blames the teacher for students who fail, placing on the teacher responsibility for the choices that others, such as parents, prior teachers, and students, make,” says Greenberg.
Since completing the retreat last spring along with 10 other teachers, Totra feels rejuvenated, and was recently approved by district officials to return to the high school.
“The best part is, I want to be there too,” she says.