We frequently express concerns about students who drop out of school…but, what about teachers dropping out of school? Of the nearly 3 million teachers in U. S. schools, approximately a half a million leave the profession annually. This nearly 16 percent exodus is higher than the 11% experienced in non-teaching professions. Of even greater concern is the percentage of new teachers (i.e., those within their first five years) who leave can range from one third to as many as one half.
Reasons cited for the sizable percentage of teachers leaving the profession prematurely include such things as low compensation, heavy workload, lack of administrative support, poor working conditions, or inappropriate student behavior. Also included on the list of factors contributing to early teacher departures is burnout.
Leading researchers[i] have described burnout as coming from sustained exposure to chronic stress. More specifically, they see burnout consisting of three components: (1) increased feelings of emotional exhaustion (that is, as emotional resources are depleted and teachers feel overloaded and drained to a point of no longer being able to give of themselves at a high psychological level); (2) development of depersonalization (that is, negative, cynical attitudes and feelings about their students and colleagues); and (3) reduced personal accomplishment (that is, a tendency to evaluate oneself negatively particularly with regard to one’s work with students).
One of the most significant parts of the burnout definition noted above is the notion of “a sustained exposure to chronic stress.” Stress, in and of itself, is not bad. As a matter of fact, several theories of human performance and production note that a certain degree of stress is desirable because it raises a person’s arousal and engagement in the task at hand. For example, as early as 1908, two psychologists (Robert Yerkes and John Dodson) empirically demonstrated a positive relationship between stress and performance. In essence, they found that performance increases as arousal (or stress) increases. That is, we perform better if we are a little nervous (which heightens our attention to the task at hand). However, if we become too nervous (aroused) our performance will be compromised.
Performance is also compromised when we are in a situation of sustained arousal or stress. Teachers experience sustained stress when they feel that the amount of work they need to do is so overwhelming that the only way to tackle it is by continuous work (thus they work longer hours and cut out breaks). Their stress is compounded when they are feeling a lack of success in spite of giving it their all with no hope of relief or change in the foreseeable future. When these feelings are experienced over a prolonged period of time, teachers can start to feel emotional exhaustion, a sense of hopelessness, and burnout.
The burning question becomes…how can burnout be prevented? The short answer is to address the issue of sustained stress and pressure. During the creation of the earth, God taught the principle of resting after a period of hard work: “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because that in it he had rested from all His work which God created and made.”[ii] A foundational element of the commandment to “honor the Sabbath Day” is that of resting fully from our labors. In short, we are to totally “push the pause button” and turn our attention, energy, and labors away from our daily work and toward deity.
There is powerful counsel given by God in the Old Testament about not doing things of the world on the Sabbath: “If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honorable; and shalt honor him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words.”[iii]
For following the commandment of honoring the Sabbath, the Lord promises enormous blessings: “Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”[iv] Additional blessings are promised in the Doctrine and Covenants to those who honor the Sabbath by turning from their labors and honoring the Lord: “Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fullness of the earth is yours …”[v]
From a secular perspective, Loehr and Schwartz (2003) speak of the importance of people consciously spending and protecting their limited energy (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual). They assert that one of our most fundamental needs as human beings is to spend and recover energy. Performance problems can be traced to an imbalance between the expenditure and the recovery of energy. To the degree that we build our lives around continuous work, performance is compromised over time.
Cultures that encourage people to seek intermittent renewal not only inspire greater commitment, but also more productivity. Periods of recovery are intrinsic to creativity … Sounds become music in the spaces between the notes, just as words are created by the spaces between the letters. It is in the spaces between work that love, friendship, depth, and dimension are nurtured. Without time for recovery, our lives become a blur of doing unbalanced by much opportunity for being.[vi]
All teachers desire is to do what is in the best interest of their students. This happens most when teachers are fully engaged (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually) in the process of teaching. Full engagement is possible only when times of disengagement are regularly built into daily and weekly routines so refreshment and replenishment can take place. Honoring the fourth commandment should be the cornerstone of any replenishment routine.
[i] Maslach, C., Jackson S. E., & Leiter, M. P. (1996). The Maslach burnout inventory (3rd Edition). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
[ii] King James Version, Genesis 2:3
[iii] Isaiah 58:13
[iv] Isaiah 58:14