Are New Educators Exposed to a ‘Burnout Contagion’ in School?

If a new teacher is vulnerable to burnout after only one or two years in the classroom, you can bet lack of administrative support, mentorship, professional development and planning time top the list of culprits. And researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) believe that teacher burnout may, to some degree, be contagious.

Analyzing survey data on burnout of 171 early career educators (less than four years in the classroom) and 289 experienced educators who had relationships with their younger counterparts either as mentors or as colleagues. They found a substantial link between burnout levels in new educators and burnout among their more experienced colleagues.

“When you talked with someone who had a high level of burnout, you were more likely to be burned out,” explains Jihyun Kim, an MSU doctoral student and co-author of the study, along with Kenneth Frank, professor of measurement and quantitative methods in MSU’s College of Education and Peter Youngs, a former MSU scholar now at the University of Virginia.

So the positive impact of mentorship, for example, can be diminished if the mentor is vulnerable to burnout.

“If you are surrounded by people who are downcast or walking around under a pall of burnout, then it has a high chance of spilling over, even if you don’t have direct contact with these folks,” says Frank. The researchers did conclude, however, that the burnout levels of close colleagues may be more consequential for early career educators.

The MSU study compliments other recent research that also reveal the virus-like effects of a stressful school climate.  A 2016 study out of Canada found that students’ cortisol levels (the hormone used as the biological indicator of stress) were much higher in those classrooms led by a teacher who had reported feeling overwhelmed or exhausted. It was unclear, however, what emerged first – the higher cortisol level in students or teacher burnout.

But does it really matter? Researchers who have studied teacher burnout don’t blame educators or students for not adequately grappling with the daily challenges of school life. The more pressing issue is that, while there may be adjustments individual educators can make to curtail exhaustion, too many schools and policymakers have cultivated what Frank calls a “culture of burnout.”

“If school administrators and policymakers are serious about promoting retention and reducing burnout among novice teachers, they should be aware not just of the curriculum they are advocating, or their rules and policies for teachers,” he explans. “They should also attend to how the organizational culture in their schools can have direct effects on burnout levels of their faculty.”

The MSU study, Frank says, “is one of the first to provide evidence that the organizational culture in schools can make a notable difference for early-career teachers’ burnout levels.”

Many schools fall far short in providing early-career educators with effective professional development, resources and preparation time. In addition, says Frank, “is It is also clear that the introduction of new reforms in K-12 education on a frequent basis adds to the pressures they experience.”

If school administrators and policymakers are serious about promoting retention and reducing burnout among novice teachers… they should attend to how the organizational culture in their schools can have direct effects on burnout levels of their faculty” – Kenneth Frank, Michigan State University

“Resources” to a new teacher aren’t limited to books, instructional materials and school supplies. “They also include human resources, collaborative culture, enough time, and strong leadership, which can compensate the lack of tangible resources,” says Kim.

This undeniable systemic failure, says Doris Santoro, associate professor of Education at Bowdoin College, is why “demoralization” is a more useful and accurate term than “burnout,” which she believes assigns blame to individual teachers. “Demoralization occurs when the job changes to such a degree that what teachers previously found “good” about their work is no longer available,” she says.

However it is specifically labelled, the impact of an overly-demanding, high-stakes, high-stress environment is getting more attention.  Research, plentiful in the 1980s and 1990s, practically ground to a halt with the era of overtesting and punitive accountability measures ushered in by No Child Left Behind in 2002.

The problem has become harder to ignore as teacher shortages have emerged across the country. Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania believes the focus should be less on teacher recruitment and more on retention. “Instead of working on keeping and supporting new teachers, the conversation is about very expensive and often ineffective recruitment initiatives,” he says.

A 2016 report by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) found that new teachers leave at rates somewhere between 19% and 30% over their first five years of teaching. These numbers increase when less-experienced educators don’t receive effective mentoring in those critical first years. In addition, schools in high-poverty and high-minority schools tend to have higher rates of attrition.

“The teaching profession continues to be a leaky bucket, losing more than 200,000 teachers each year,” says Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University and president of LPI. “Teaching conditions have hit a low point.”  Teaching conditions include professional learning opportunities, instructional leadership, support from the administration, collaboration time, collegial and constructive relationships, and having a voice in their school.

The National Education Association recently conducted a large-scale survey of educators in their first five years. The results were eye-opening. Most respondents said they didn’t feel empowered in the classroom and that they lacked a seat at the decision-making table. “They had to scream and push just to get their voices heard,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen-García said at a panel discussion on teacher retention last June.

Writing in Education Week, Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz argue that giving educators more autonomy, particularly over instructional strategies, can provide a critical “booster shot.”

“Teachers will become facilitators of complex tasks instead of distributors of content. This tactic reduces the overload and provides an initial antidote for burnout. Student achievement will organically improve as teachers apply the strategies and techniques to implement this shift.”

But Myers and Berkowicz join other experts in calling for a institution-wide approach.

“With out newest teachers lacking support while working in a contagious environment, our treatment must be two-fold. New teachers should be treated with an immunization of support, and the whole school should receive an antidote.”