- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

Veteran teacher Raymond Nighan remembers a teacher coming to St. John’s College High School in Northwest years earlier who figured the new job would be a breeze.

“I’m looking forward to all the free time,” Mr. Nighan recalls the man saying. At the end of the teacher’s first year, he resigned.

“He said, ‘I never had to work harder in my life. I had no free time,’” Mr. Nighan recalls.

Teacher burnout can come as quickly as that, but for the majority of burnout cases it’s due to a long, simmering set of frustrations coming to a head — low pay, lack of control over curricula, unruly children, unruly parents.

Every profession holds the potential for burning out, but with teachers the complicating factors are only increasing these days.

Mr. Nighan, now in his 28th year at St. John’s where he teaches a variety of English classes, says he’s no stranger to the feeling.

When he felt overextended a few years ago, his administrators stepped in on his behalf.

“They adjusted my course load,” Mr. Nighan said. That, combined with the school allowing him to play a lead role in developing new curriculum helped him get over the teacher’s blues. For others, an approved absence can do the trick.

“I’ve seen cases where a leave of absence is granted and a person is allowed to return [later],” he says.

But the reasons for burnout remain, Mr. Nighan cautions.

“One of the stress factors is the number of papers to be graded,” he says. “They take hours and hours on the weekends and vacation time. Usually at night or on weekends if you’re not grading papers, you’re making lesson plans.”

Some potential teachers might long for those mythical summer vacations they think every teacher enjoys, but today’s teacher often must use that time to prepare for the upcoming school year or enroll in classes to beef up their own educations or make them more marketable.

That doesn’t take into account the low pay some teachers receive, a permanent cause for burnout.

“For 13 years I had to moonlight to pay the rent,” Mr. Nighan says. “You really have to love what you’re doing.”

The average teacher’s salary for 2002-03 school year came to $45,771, up more than 3 percent from the previous year, according to the American Federation of Teachers. Beginning teachers nationwide could expect to be compensated an average of $29,564.

A former teacher and current school administrator in a Northwest school who asked not to be identified said teachers often come to the District “thinking they’re going to change the world.”

That’s before they meet their young charges.

“We’re dealing with a different breed of child today. They have a lot of needs,” he says, from having drug-addled parents to suffering physical abuse. “You’re not just a teacher, you’re a social worker. When the children are in a situation like that, academics take a back seat.”

The administrator left the teaching world for a higher position — “I couldn’t take it another year,” he says — but adds he misses the interaction with the students.

“In spite of everything … the kids are phenomenal,” he says. “If you look at the big picture, we’ve got some great kids who enrich your life.”

Government mandates, like the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind, place a burden on the profession, says Lynn Terhar, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs.

Another modern innovation, inclusion in the classroom for challenged students.

Inclusion is “a wonderful idea,” but many teachers don’t have the right experience to handle the students or need more resources like outside experts to help.

“If you’ve got a classroom, and five or six of those kids have special needs, even two adults (instructors) may not be enough,” she says.

Joseph Aguerrebere, president and CEO of the nonprofit National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in Arlington, says burnout often occurs when teachers feel like they’re losing control of the classroom.

Even a simple curriculum change can trigger the response in teachers, says Mr. Aguerrebere, a former teacher himself. Those tweaks may be deemed unnecessary by the teachers, or they could be carried out with little or no feedback from them which leaves them feeling isolated.

Sometimes, a case of teacher burnout can simply reveal someone not cut out for the profession, he says.

“A lot of people weren’t necessarily energetic and passionate to begin with,” says Mr. Aguerrebere, adding the term “teacher burnout” can be overused.

“The issue is one that any profession faces. With teachers, the same things happen, they get into a pattern and find it hard to break out of,” he says.

Teacher burnout, for the most part, can be alleviated, Mr. Aguerrebere says. It just takes a little teamwork.

“I find that there is a different attitude when teachers are working together in teams versus isolation,” he says. “Schools have traditionally operated in isolated fashions. The teacher closes the door and they do what they do behind closed doors. Go down the hall and everyone’s doing it a bit differently.”

Schools where collaboration exists between teachers, where one teacher may critique the other and offer suggestions and support, generally have fewer instances of instructor burnout, Mr. Aguerrebere says.

Some districts offer counseling services as part of their main compensation package, which can help the overwhelmed teacher, he adds.

Legitimate teacher burnout isn’t new, but Mr. Aguerrebere agrees that recent teacher accountability mandates like No Child Left Behind are heightening the problem.

“Much more attention is being paid to test scores and test results. A lot of teachers complain about that,” he says.

Kathleen Steeves, an associate professor of education at George Washington University, works to prepare teachers to make sure they last the first five years in the profession, a time notorious for instructor dropouts.

Toward that end, Ms. Steeves helps teachers understand the kinds of school systems they are about to enter and promotes mentoring partnerships.

A modern teaching tool, the National Board Certification, is proving to be an effective resource for teachers.

The certification process, which she says began in 1994, lets teachers undergo a yearlong process which tests their abilities.

Teachers report to Ms. Steeves that the process can be empowering.

“It allows them to talk about their own practice. It’s very valuable to them,” she says. “You look at your own classroom and tell others why you made the educational choices you’ve made.”

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