A four-stage framework can help teachers understand the burnout process—and what they can do to protect their well-being and career.
The Leichtman Burnout Scale (adapted from my dissertation research) seeks to provide a clear understanding of the burnout process specifically for educators. While my dissertation research focused on new teachers, the research in the field of burnout is consistent for veteran teachers in relation to the four categories below.
While each individual case of burnout has different causes, variance in symptoms, and varying thresholds, there are noticeable trends. These trends can help teachers see how burned out they are and what they should do immediately to overcome that stage of burnout. This scale has identified four levels.
LEVEL 1: PASSIONATE BUT OVERWHELMED
Passion can lead to burnout. It’s very difficult to burn out of something you don’t care about deeply. A passion for teaching leads to commitment, which encourages you to work harder and take on more tasks. This tipping of the scale begins the cycle of burnout. The following are some indicators:
- Low feelings of self-efficacy (I’m not good enough)
- Negative coping strategies (addictions, unhealthy habits)
- Limited pursuit of passions or hobbies outside of work
If you identify with this first level of burnout, it’s time to employ positive, proactive coping mechanisms. Further reading can help you cope with life’s stressors by applying positive coping strategies.
LEVEL 2: OVERWHELMED AND BECOMING CYNICAL
While the first level is infused with passion and a variety of positive feelings, level two of burnout may be the first time you actually feel exhaustion. At this point, you begin to take on an unmanageable load of work and pour your heart into your students. Instead of seeing the hoped-for results (higher pay, easier course loads, less paperwork, positive results on evaluations and student exams, etc.), you notice more work and responsibilities being sent your way. This is the point where you may begin to feel cynical toward the profession.
The indicators are as follows:
- High levels of stress
- Quick to become irritated (at work and home)
- Bringing work home and not completing it
- Feeling like there is never time for friends or family
- Guilt from not doing enough for students
If level two describes you, a strong mentor can help you manage your responsibilities and reduce your feelings of stress and cynicism. Understanding the roles of mentor and mentee and how to find a good mentor is invaluable.
LEVEL 3: CYNICAL AND APPROACHING EXHAUSTION
Continuing from level two, the third level of burnout reaches you at your most cynical point. You may feel like it is impossible to be a good teacher. This stage may have you feeling like everybody and everything is at fault for the state of education. You continue to take on too many tasks and overextend yourself at school, but without the feeling that it will make a difference. The cynicism and exhaustion of this step may follow you home, impacting relationships and time spent outside of work.
Indicators may look like these:
- Isolation (in and out of work)
- Feelings of paranoia (every school policy, program, etc., is out to get you and make your teaching day harder)
- A constant feeling that school goals and your goals will not be met
- A refusal to engage in professional development
Once you have reached this stage, two strategies can create a positive, meaningful impact. Role reduction and mental health support from outside of the workplace are both effective ways to mitigate the damage of the third level of burnout.
LEVEL 4: COMPLETE EXHAUSTION AND BREAKDOWN
My sincere hope and wish is that no reader of this article identities with level four. Once you have reached this point, there are two options: quit or recommit. Burnout has spread throughout your life, challenging your personal wellness and your professional goals. Level four is pure survival mode, leading teachers to decide to leave the classroom (or transfer to another school) or to dig deep and restore their initial passion for teaching.
The following are signs of level four:
- Feelings of exhaustion every day (including holidays and summer)
- Drastic increase in sick days/mental health days
- Lack of optimism for career and personal life
- Unusually frequent physical symptoms (colds/flus, stress-related illnesses, hospitalizations)
All hope is not lost at level four, but it’s vital to take action before your health deteriorates further. At this stage, prioritizing and purpose seeking are two incredibly useful strategies.
It’s never too early to work against burnout. Wherever you fit on this scale, try applying these strategies to protect your wellness and your career.