Battling Burnout

Krysta Reed had been away from her rural west Texas school for six days on two separate trips with groups from her 147-member student council, and she had just gone through an emotional executive board shake-up. A regional event she was hosting for 500 other advisers was heavy on her mind, along with other issues for a statewide adviser group where she served as president. Her AP students had to be prepared for testing, and the senior class she was sponsoring soon needed to plan graduation activities and several new events.

Students, parents, administrators, and colleagues all had high expectations of her at Andrews High School in Andrews, TX. At home, she and her husband—a teacher and coach—had a seven-year-old and four-year-old. And then she got very sick.

“It was my lowest point,” she says. “It just made me wonder why I was doing all of this. I was told as a high school student council member that my biggest obstacle in life would be my inability to say no. And so, here I was.”

The situation for Reed, a 10-year teacher, may sound familiar.

“I think many advisers, especially, concentrate so much on their councils, students, and projects that we don’t take care of ourselves,” she says.

Experts agree. Teachers, especially those who are very active in their schools like Reed, often feel burned out. In fact, it’s so common it becomes a way of life and a subject about which they frequently commiserate or even joke. But it’s a serious problem.

“It is really a depressive syndrome,” says Irvin Schonfeld, a psychology professor at City College of New York in New York City, who has focused on the issue in his research. “When we study burnout and depression, we find a great deal of overlap between the two. And it’s common in education.”

Burnout drives good teachers away or diminishes their enthusiasm and skills—frequently affecting new teachers or those who contribute the most, he says. An often-quoted report published in 2007 by the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future on nctaf.org found that half of new teachers leave the profession within five years.
Kristen Lee, lead professor for behavioral science at Northeastern University in Boston and author of the book RESET: Make the Most of Your Stress, says busy educators are “being asked to do too much, often with less resources. That causes heightened and prolonged levels of anxiety and distress, which over time can erode well-being and lead to burnout.” She notes that real burnout is different than normal stress (see “Recognizing Burnout” below) because it is consuming, prolonged, and changes how the teacher functions.

Prioritization Is Key

Barry Farber, a professor at Teachers College Columbia University in New York City who’s well known for his research and writing about stress in education from more than 25 years ago, identifies three types of teachers suffering from burnout:

  • Frenetic: works increasingly harder until he or she is exhausted and seeks satisfaction or success to equal the stress caused by the invested efforts.
  • Underchallenged: is presented with insufficient motivation and must therefore cope with monotonous and unstimulating work conditions that do not provide necessary satisfaction.
  • Worn-out: gives up when faced with too much stress or very little gratification at work. Consequently, while some professionals cope with dissatisfaction by investing greater effort in an attempt to achieve expected results, others cope by neglecting their tasks in an attempt to balance the reasoning between rewards and their investment.

Farber also shared that there should be specific types of support and treatment for each type of excessively stressed teacher.

More recently, researchers using Farber’s theory have suggested that, in some cases, professional therapy may be needed. In other cases, appropriate school-based support is enough and might be more effective than traditional therapy because it can focus specifically on burnout supported by people familiar with the problem. Experts warn, however, that anyone suffering from serious mental health issues should seek the help of a professional.

Dr. Russell J. Quaglia, executive director of the Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations, which focuses on issues such as teacher stress, says teachers are susceptible to burnout because they are naturally energetic and may believe that taking on some of the many responsibilities at a school will improve their status or help them make connections that they’ll enjoy or benefit from.

“Too often, teachers are expected to get involved in everything because that is what they do,” Quaglia says. “The more meaningfully engaged teachers are protected from doing everything and instead are involved in things that they find interesting and purposeful.” He says those boundaries are the responsibility of the adviser and the administration. Teachers should “get involved in enough things to know they are making a real difference for their school and the students. For some teachers that could be one big thing, while for others it could be four or five smaller things. Every effort matters. Being a team player does not mean you do everything; it means you do something well and contribute to the whole while supporting others,” Quaglia says.

Sara Wilson, a science teacher and leadership adviser at Derby High School in Derby, KS, agrees. “The biggest cause of burnout is simply the number of irons we have in the fire,” she says. “When I look at student council duties and what I do teaching, plus things for my family, it really adds up. We have to choose.”

The Importance of Support

Along with having too many responsibilities, a lack of administrative support often causes stress for advisers, says Terry Hamm, director of the Texas Association of Student Councils. “It’s the most devastating issue to face, and the most difficult to resolve,” she says.

Some advisers say simply having a disinterested administration can make their job more difficult, as they seek support and cooperation in the school and among parents. Without open communication, advisers may not get advice they need from administrators—or approval for activities.

Typically, leadership advisers report good relationships with administrators. But, there are other stress-creating factors in the dual role of teacher and adviser (where they often supervise the most visible organization in the school apart from sports teams). The job includes worries about finances and fundraising issues, endless details for trips and events, staff whims or concerns, and sometimes concerns from parents.

“The most stressful thing for me each year is that parent of the child who gets dismissed. It is seldom the child’s fault,” says Shannon Reynolds, an adviser at McCall Elementary School in Willow Park, TX. She says there seems to be one parent who is late with paperwork and expects consideration or wants her to otherwise bend rules and doesn’t appreciate the adviser’s difficult position.

While working with students is often the reason for undertaking the job—and for many advisers the reason why they stay in it-students can, nonetheless, be disorganized; unmotivated; combative; and have other socio-emotional, personal, and family problems, says Lee, that add to their adviser’s emotional load. Advisers become counselors and mentors to their members.

Looking at the Big Picture

Hamm says advisers need to prepare for the year well before school starts, and some veterans suggest that the process really begins the previous year when they should keep track of contacts, how activities unfolded, and other useful information—a history to look back on for planning purposes.

“To keep myself sane, I have to keep organized—lots of lists, calendars, and schedules,” Wilson says.

Vicki Carstens Gray, a former adviser and now executive director for the Iowa Association of Student Councils, says, “The most stressful part of being an adviser is finding time to get everything done. So, you have to delegate.” She developed a “village” system with village leaders, who are assigned tasks and can be easily monitored, primarily by the council president.

“After a few years,” Wilson says, “when you have trained many of the students, they lead on their own and you are able to step back, rather than getting in and getting your hands dirty.”
Expectations should be clearly hashed out for students and parents, Reynolds says, noting that her principal established a required fall meeting for both where a contract is signed.

To improve relations with administrators, Hamm says advisers (or students—who often can be the best spokespersons) should get time to discuss the student group and its plans in a positive tone in advance, explaining what it can do for the school.

Then, she says, think about the principal’s mindset when it comes to projects and consider planning, conflicts, costs, and safety. Promote ways the group’s efforts might improve school culture and its standing in the community. Devote time to public relations. “Will it make the principal look good? That is a key question.”

Getting away from the school and its activities is important, too. “When you think no one cares and the kids and the administration are driving you crazy, take a break,” says Susan Waldrep, an adviser at Texas High School in Texarkana, TX. “My mom always said that the key to turning a bad day into a good day is your attitude. Her treatment was to take a moment, have a brownie and a cold Coke, put on lipstick, and then get busy. It’s true.”

Waldrep says high levels of stress signal us to take time off. “You need to step away for a few minutes, for a day, for a weekend, or for a week to rejuvenate and to analyze the root cause of your problems and stress. Then, when you return, have a plan.”

Several advisers also note that getting the support of others in the job helps. Reynolds is active with other advisers in regional and state conferences. “For 22 years, they have always been there to help me out. They keep me fired up and ready to see more great things happen each year,” she says.

And several note that often the reason they became a leadership adviser can be the reason to stay involved. “It’s the kids,” Gray says. “They always keep me energized.”


Jim Paterson is a writer living in Lewes, DE.