Burnout in ELT
by Roseli Serra.
I’d like to thank all EFL/ESL teachers who agreed to participate and collaborate in my research of this important issue.
Burnout: physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress (Oxford dictionary). Burnout is a theme which seems to have been frequently discussed among EFL teachers recently. I myself have reflected about it since I experienced a certain awful situation in 2012. I can assure you it is as if one steals the floor under your feet and the consequences are extreme and pure chaos. And I tell you: either you change or lose your physical and mental health.
It is as if the body and the mind put an end point: “Now it’s enough!” A devastating weariness reveals an absolute lack of energy. At work, normally competent and attentive person turns on the “autopilot”. Instead of motivation there is irritation, lack of concentration, discouragement, a sense of failure. These are indications of a cruel and difficult diagnosis that progresses in hospitals, companies, schools … The burnout syndrome, or professional exhaustion, which results from prolonged stress at work.
“It’s when the house falls. I stayed out of my house for 14 hours, three days in a row this week… it was horrible. By the last day, I was already questioning everything in my life. Basically it’s the fact that we have to work long hours in order to make a good living. And we don’t just give classes: we must prepare lessons, correct students’ productions, go to meetings with parents, and there are also the pedagogical meetings. It’s very exhausting.” (by an EFL teacher)
“… On top of that, there is the ‘emotional labour’ of facing several classes of students each day and attempting to create a conducive learning environment and ‘good vibes’. All of these aspects are challenging and draining and too often institutions just see teachers’ time as a series of time segments that can be divided up arbitrarily without considering the psychological and emotional states and needs of teachers”. (by an EFL teacher)
“Something that affects self-employed teachers – or teachers working for schools that provide in-company classes – is a lack of support and no sense of belonging: rushing from one place to another and not having any colleagues to share concerns/ideas with. In many teaching contexts, teachers have no access to social media or online platforms where they could form healthy PLNs. In Brazil, for instance, mainly in big cities teaching means facing heavy traffic and hours of commuting to go to students’ workplaces and homes. It can be exhausting”. (by an EFL teacher)
In general, teachers I talked with listed the following causes of stress:
- Being underpaid: Low salaries do not match the amount of work and extra work teachers have to do. In some countries they can barely survive paying the bills with their wages.
- Accumulation of tasks: Yes, you have to prepare classes, call parents, be a nanny, a psychologist, a secretary, prepare lesson plans, prepare and correct tests, and give feedback to your students and their parents.
- Excessive responsibilities: Such as encountering students with no demand for the service they pay for. Having to go out of your way to talk a student into learning makes it all much more exhausting.
- Perfectionism: Perfectionism leads to the search for excellence at times impossible, and idealism in relation to the profession, charging a personal engagement beyond limits.
- Focus on work as an exclusive source of pleasure: “…As teachers we walk into a class and we have to be physically, mentally and emotionally available for our students. It is a process of suppressing our own feelings and needs in order to ‘give’ to others. That is why we can walk out of a great class and feel like a deflated balloon. <…> Ok, so that is the essence of being in a caring profession, but what makes it difficult is that often many people surrounding us do not understand what we feel or how to support us and give us back some sustenance. Then we also clash with corporate culture in our workplaces that denigrates the humanist professions and idolises the managers.” (by an EFL teacher)
- Disrespect on the part of the students, parents, managers and bosses in general. They are very common issues in the Brazilian culture and, according to colleagues from other countries, they are becoming more and more frequent worldwide.
- Teaching the same course for a long period of time: “Some teachers are face-to-face with students over long periods during the day and of course it can be really draining. Also, being held accountable for situations over which we may not have control, such as students who drop out, or students who get low grades – some classes are slower than others but it doesn’t mean they aren’t learning.” (by an EFL teacher)
- Negative Feedback: When every feedback you get lists more negative points than positive ones. It is when the criteria for assessment are non-negotiable or not very clear to us.
- Top-down decisions that affect teachers or teacher identity and disempower them by not allowing them to make decisions. “The work teachers do is highly technical. It takes years of training and studies to do what we do. Yet, the people making decisions have very little knowledge of classroom life and challenges. All they are concerned about is learning/student outcome (whatever they call it) plus figures and charts. This is disheartening.” (by an EFL teacher)
- Lack of acknowledgment: Acknowledgment is one of those things that you don’t think about until you notice it’s missing. Acknowledgment is an expression of gratitude and we need it.
Bullying at work, peer pressure, and cyber bullying
It’s more frequent than we think it is. Lots of teachers admitted to being bullied and threatened at work. I myself lived through a situation when a monstrous CEO tried to turn me into an awful leader. He desperately tried to make me act like a bossy leader and lead the team of teachers with no pity, no mercy, no sympathy or humanism. He simply forgot I myself was just a teacher with the position of the DOS in that school. He wanted me to announce HIS decisions to the team as if they were mine. I don’t need to tell you the end of this story. It was 2012, a year I will never forget. Now I know I had to live through this experience.
When I left the company, I was about to turn 49. I had been there for 18 years. I was devastated. I mourned. And like a phoenix, I was reborn from the ashes. I was reborn stronger and I learned priceless lessons. I overcame the struggle thanks to the support of my family, true friends who did not care about me as a position holder but as a person, and thanks to the wonderful PLN I have built.
However, I have seen teachers being cyber bullied on social networks by students and parents, as well as by colleagues who belong to their PLNs. It hurts. It hurts a lot. It hurts when people “forget” you because you are no longer holding a certain position, and then they suddenly “remember” about you when you are in a position of a decision maker. Teachers are not supposed to be powerful. Positions are. What a sad reality!
“It comes from financial problems, from having to work more hours than our body can tolerate <…> The financial crisis we are living in in some countries also does not help much and the pressure increases. I also see that peer pressure is a problem, because you work a lot and still have to develop professionally, because the market imposes this idea, and colleagues do, even if indirectly. A lot of people end up depending on us <…> and it’s not easy at all. I myself went through a violent burnout, which led me to rethink a lot in my career and my life. After falling ill several times, I decided to put my health (physical and mental) first and prioritize LIFE, my well-being, my family. These things happen so we can think better of everything. No money or status guarantee anything in life, family love and self love come first.” ( by an EFL teacher)
Getting over the burnout syndrome
Burnout is a disease recognized by the World Health Organization. The problem lies in the difficulty of diagnosing – often it is confused with depression. In general, antidepressants are said to provide some relief. But the treatment involves more than that. “You cannot take a little medicine and keep going at an amazing pace,” warns the World Health Organization. You need to slow down.
- Abandon the motto “My name is work”.
- Try teaching a new course every now and then.
- Make an assessment of costs and benefits: What attracted you to this job and keeps you there, the possibility of helping people or the salary? Whatever the motivation is, focus on what is positive instead of looking at the negatives.
- Restore professional contacts.
- Network and look for new chances in the market or another sector of the company if what you do at the moment means exhaustion.
- Watch for the signals of your body. Exhaustion can be a symptom of various diseases, from anemia to thyroid disorders. If in doubt, set an appointment with a physician. If it’s stress, try to slow down and do one thing at a time.
- Count on the support of family, friends, or a spiritual practice (whatever it is that you believe – it’s good for your soul).
- Do not put all the eggs in one basket. Diversify sources of gratification and discover habits that bring you pleasure.
- Read more, go to the movies, enjoy time with friends and pets.
- Take care of your lifestyle. Eat well at regular times without overdoing on alcohol and caffeine. Sleep as needed to wake up refreshed.
- Include physical exercise in your routine.
- Smile, smile, and smile! Oh, and laugh out loud! It doesn’t hurt at all! Be positive. Play Snoopy philosophy.
As I am about to turn 54, I have decided to slow down a bit, to be more independent, to listen to my body and heart. Age made me realise that I have worked too much (for the others) already, I have given and dedicated too much of my time and energy on working and being an employee. I have learned that, as a teacher, a psychologist, and whatever other role I play, I have my limits.
Finally, I realised it’s about time to have the power of choice. Giving up some things for the sake of health and freedom and/or flexibility is the wisest decision I could take in my early fifties. I know I’m lucky as not everyone has a choice. No worries! There’s a time for everything. Remember that having a job is a blessing but being alive is the biggest blessing of all! And life doesn’t give us a replay.
Enjoy teaching. Enjoy life. Carpe Diem!
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