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April 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Teacher Burnout: The Elephant in the Room

Prof. Dr Carol Griffiths has been a teacher, manager and teacher trainer of ELT for many years. She has taught in many places around the world, including New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, China, North Korea, Turkey and UK. She is currently working as Professor for Girne American University in North Cyprus, as Research Fellow for the University of Leeds (UK) and also as Research Professor at Auckland Institute of Studies in New Zealand. She has presented at numerous conferences and published widely, including her books Lessons from Good Language Learners, The Keys to Highly Effective English Learning, Developing Teacher Autonomy through Action Research, The Strategy Factor in Successful Language Learning, Lessons from Good Language Teachers and Individual Differences in Successful Language Learning . Language learning strategies, individual differences, teacher education and support, English as a medium of instruction, English as a lingua franca, action research, and using literature to teach language are her major areas of research interest. Email: Webpage:


Please note

This article is based on a webinar on burnout I gave for IATEFL on 8 January, 2022.



Teaching is widely recognised as a very demanding profession (e.g. Mearns & Cain, 2003), and it has only become even more demanding in recent times with the advent of COVID (e.g. MacIntyre, Gregersen & Mercer, 2020). The profession has high levels of attrition (e.g. MacDonald, 1999; Saatcioglu, 2020), yet the topic of teacher burnout is conspicuous by its absence from much of the language teaching literature. It is, indeed, the proverbial elephant in the room: everyone knows it is there (how could they not?), but they attempt to carry on as though it were not. 

Given that I have been a teacher of one kind or another for practically all of my working life, starting as a high school English teacher before moving into TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages), I believe I am in a good position to understand the stresses of the job. In this article I will try

  • to explain the background to the issues of teacher stress
  • to identify contemporary problem areas
  • to suggest some possible ways to address the problems
  • and to explain why tackling teacher stress is so important, both for teachers themselves, and also for the other stakeholders, especially the learners.

I will also present the preliminary findings from an exploratory study of teacher stress.



In the past, the teacher was the unquestioned fount of all knowledge (e.g. Confucius) and source of authority. Indeed, until relatively recently, we might say that teacher-centred was the educational norm. But around the second half of last century, learner-centred became the focus of attention (e.g. Nunan, 1988).

Of course, it is impossible to disagree that learners are important, but, as Griffiths (2021) asks with a tone of desperation, what about the teacher? Teachers are also human beings with individual identities which may affect the way they go about their professional duties, with complex needs and dynamic desires and goals of their own, and with families and/or other socio-ecological demands on their time, resources and energy (e.g. Griffiths 2012, 2021). They are not feelingless machines. What about them?

Not only that, but it has been found that teachers are actually critically important from a learner’s point of view (e.g. Mercer, 2018; Hiver & Dörnyei, 2017). In his inaugural lecture at the University of Auckland, Hattie (1999, p.12) concluded that, based on his large-scale research into influences on student learning: “It is teachers that make the difference”. According to Hattie, learners themselves account for 50% of the variance in achievement, while the home accounts for 5-10%, the school for 5-10%, peers for another 5-10%, and the teacher for 30%. In other words, with the exception only of the learners themselves, teachers are by far the largest contributors to variance in student achievement.


Teacher attrition

But we are losing teachers at alarming rates. The highest rates of attrition tend to come within the first few years in the profession, indeed, many pre-service teachers never actually make it into the classroom. An example of this is a student of my own whom I will call Sara (Griffiths, 2012, 2021).

Sara had spent a lot of time carefully preparing an imaginative lesson by collecting plastic capsules originally containing chocolates into which she inserted questions related to the grammar point she planned to teach. She also painstakingly sellotaped together hexagonal shapes into a ball with the idea that students would take a question from the capsule, answer it, and then pass the ball to the next student who would then choose a capsule and answer the question inside. During peer practice at the university it worked well, and, on the day of teaching practice, Sara was full of optimism and enthusiasm as we walked along to the classroom together. However, the class was noisy, so she struggled to get their attention from the beginning. After she got the activity underway, one boy threw the ball rather forcefully at his successor, who then threw it back equally forcefully, and the carefully constructed teaching prop ended up totally out of shape and unusable. Amid the uproar, the tray of question capsules fell on the floor amid the sound of plastic being crunched underfoot. Sara was left struggling not to burst into tears, and order was only restored by the class teacher resuming control in L1and ordering everyone to their seats reading in silence under threat of consequences.

At the end of the year, to my great disappointment, Sara decided that teaching was not for her and she took a job in a bank instead. As a consequence, the profession lost someone who showed promise of developing into a very creative and dedicated teacher. But perhaps the saddest result is that the students themselves learnt nothing from the chaos of poor Sara’s painstakingly prepared lesson. Instead they were reduced to the very thing that learner-centred is supposed to avoid: a teacher-dominated, non-communicative lesson, because this was the only thing that restored some kind of order from which the students might manage to learn something, even if it was not the rich and enjoyable learning experience they might have had before the class got taken over by its undisciplined members.   

But it is not only pre-service or novice teachers who are leaving the profession. Many experienced teachers also decide to leave before retirement and undertake work in other fields. Indeed, “teachers are leaving the profession at rates that outpace retirements and that create unstable conditions that undermine school effectiveness and student learning” (Santoro, 2018, p.16). Teacher attrition has been attributed to many different factors, including issues with professional identity, accountability policies, administrative overload, stress, and emotional exhaustion. These factors contribute to what is commonly called burnout.



Burnout is the term commonly used to describe a condition where an individual has given large amounts of energy until there is nothing left, and the metaphorical fire burns out. Maslach and Jackson (1981) identified three components of burnout as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (characterised by negative attitudes towards others), and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, and they developed an inventory to investigate it which has been used in a number of studies since.

Teacher burnout has long been the proverbial elephant in the room: everyone knows it is there – how could we not given the severe rates of attrition noted above – but it is generally ignored and treated as invisible. According to Rogers (2012, p.xii), the reason for this may be that a teacher “who is struggling…hesitates to ask for assistance, concerned they may be perceived as ineffective – or ‘weak”. Encouragingly, however, this conspiracy of silence seems to be being challenged, as can be seen from a number of recent articles, including in popular publications such as IATEFL Voices and TESOL English Language Bulletin, as well as in the mainstream journals such as Teaching and Teacher Education, System and Language Teaching.

As for the causes of burnout, many of the teachers whose cases are described in Griffiths and Sönmez’s (2020) study mention working long hours, including evenings and weekends in addition to their classroom time, and having no time allowed for human needs such as getting married. Several of the teachers mention getting no support from school authorities (e.g. with student misbehaviour, or parent criticism). On the contrary, principals and others in authority are likely to side with the parent or to blame the teacher’s management skills. Some of the teachers mention physical violence (e.g. one who was slapped across the face by a student), verbal abuse from students (e.g. shouting, swearing), and another who had powdered blue chalk thrown over her blonde hair. They also mention lack of support from the other stakeholders (the educational/school authorities and the parents/students). For instance, when Zeynep tried to get parent cooperation with getting students to do homework, they refused to take responsibility, saying only "you are the teacher you solve this!" (p.84). Parents can, however, be quick to criticise. Zeynep, again, describes being reprimanded by her principal because a parent complained that she hurt a badly behaved student's feelings; she concludes: “These events repeat every day, I feel exhausted” (p.84). Of the seven teachers in this study, none continued teaching.


A study of burnout

In order to further investigate the issue of burnout, I recently sent a questionnaire constructed from the issues raised in Griffiths and Sönmez (2020) to a number of personal and professional contacts asking for their level of agreement with a number of statements regarding the problems they experienced and the strategies they used to deal with the problems.

Of the 51 replies received, 73.33% (almost three quarters) said “yes” to the question “Have you ever experienced burnout or felt you were close to burnout?”

Respondents were also asked to rate their level of agreement to the 22 problems from 5=strongly agree to 1=strongly disagree. Items attracting the strongest median agreement (4=agree) are set out in Table 1:

Table 1: Problem areas attracting the strongest level of agreement from teachers in the study.



Uncooperative students


Unmotivated students


Non-completion of homework


Physical, mental and/or emotional exhaustion


Heavy workload


The respondents also gave ratings of 4 (agree) to 8 of the 15 strategies for coping with burnout listed in the questionnaire, with one strategy (getting enough sleep) attracting a median of 4.5. These are listed in Table 2:

Table 2: Strategies for coping with burnout attracting the strongest level of agreement from teachers in the study.



Getting enough sleep


Talking to the manager/administration


Spending a weekend in a natural environment


Talking with friends and colleagues


Positive self-talk


Socializing more


Spending quality time with family


Keeping away from demotivating, negative people


Giving oneself treats



Addressing the problems

So, what can we do about this actually rather depressing state of affairs? Rose (2019) calls for more teaching-informed research, which would help to ensure that real-world issues are included in research-informed policies and practices, and reduce the domination of theory-based research from the “ivory tower” (p.895). We need to help new teachers to develop coping strategies by constructing plans of action to remedy problems or seeking advice from others for how to solve difficulties (Green & Ross, 1996). And in order to help teachers counteract the extremely negative effects of burnout, both novice and experienced teachers can, perhaps, call on the renewed interest in positive psychology (e.g. Seligman, 2004; Mercer, 2018).

When a group of high school teachers was asked to suggest ways of dealing with problems (as reported in Griffiths & Sönmez, 2020), more than 80% said they had experienced or felt close to burnout. Suggestions for dealing with the problems were received (n=17), of which a majority (14=82%) related to positive self-management beyond the classroom, e.g. talking to others, socialising, outdoor activities, enjoying family time, etc.

However, changing teacher mindsets is only going to solve part of the problem. What about the other stakeholders? Is it unreasonable to expect support with student misbehaviour, and support from parents and school or educational administration?

Unfortunately, when we consider the lack of progress historically, a change in other stakeholders’ mindsets is unlikely to happen spontaneously. In addition to attending to their own positive mindsets and wellbeing, teachers are likely to need to develop autonomy or the ability to be self-directing (e.g. Dikilitaş & Griffiths, 2017), to assume agency or the ability to take control of their lives (e.g. Miller, Kayi-Aydar, Varghese & Vitanova, 2018), and to be proactive or take positive action (e.g. Herman & Reinke, 2015).


The effect of teacher burnout on students

Although this is, of course, a most unsatisfactory situation for teachers, it is, perhaps, the students who really suffer. As Sammons et al. (2007, p.699) put it, “attainments by pupils of teachers who are committed and resilient are likely to exceed those of teachers who are not”. Similarly, according to Herman and Reinke (2015, p.4): “when teachers are stressed, they are less able to provide the type of environment we know is conducive to learning and to support children’s social and emotional development”. And Stevens (2018, p.3) likewise concludes: “we know that a happy classroom is an essential key to not only a positive school culture and less teacher burnout but also to increased student engagement and student success”. If something is not done to support our teachers, we may have more like Dilara, who describes some of the problems she has experienced in a heartfelt note to me as her former pre-service teacher:

I so badly want to quit. I’m waiting for the end of the year. I’m even counting seconds. When I came here, I worked hard…In fact, I love my job, I’m in love with English, I love children. But no matter what good is happening I can’t stand it anymore…The head of the department says, ‘Please, teacher, don’t go. Parents and we (as a school) love you.’ Of course, they like me. I work hard no matter what. But I’m leaving. I want to leave so badly. Dear Teacher, for money for other things no matter what for, I’m not doing this job.” (Griffiths & Sönmez, 2020, p.84-85).

It is impossible not to feel for the distress which Dilara is describing. But the real tragedy is that her students are about to lose such an excellent and committed teacher. Dilara did, in fact, leave the job to have a baby, and, as far as I am aware, she never went back.



There does seem to be growing support for Hattie’s (1999) conclusions that teachers are a major factor in student success. According also to Hiver and Dörnyei (2017): “teaching may truly be the most important profession: teachers are in charge of training the next generation of citizens, and have the ability to shape the course of their students’ future, for better or worse” (p.405). In other words, as Mercer (2018, p.518) puts it: “teachers matter”!

However, although there are some encouraging signs that teacher issues are beginning to be taken more seriously, there is still a lot of work to be done to prod the sleeping elephant of teacher burnout into action.



Green, S. & Ross, M. (1996). A theory-based measure of coping strategies used by teachers: The problems in teaching scale. Teaching and Teacher Education, 12/3, 315-325

Griffiths, C. (2012). Focus on the teacher. ELTJ, 66/4, 468-476.

Griffiths, C. (2021). What about the teacher? Language Teaching (2021), First View, 1-13.

Griffiths, C. & Sönmez, G. (2020). Burnout and Good Language Teachers. In C. Griffiths & Z. Tajeddin (Eds), Lessons from Good Language Teachers(pp.80-94). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hattie, J. (1999). Influences on student learning. Inaugural lecture, University of Auckland. 

Herman, K. & Reinke, W. (2015). Stress Management for Teachers: A Proactive Guide.     New York: Guilford Press.

Hiver, P. & Dörnyei, Z. (2017). Language teacher immunity: a double-edged sword. Applied Linguistics, 38/3, 405-423

Macdonald, D. (1999). Teacher attrition: A review of literature. Teaching and Teacher Education, 15/8, 835–848.

MacIntyre, P., Gregersen, T., & Mercer, S. (2020). Language teachers' coping strategies during the Covid-19 conversion to online teaching: Correlations with stress, wellbeing and negative emotions. System 94, 1-13

Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behaviour, 2, 99-111. 

Mearns, J. & Cain, J. (2003). Relationships between teachers' occupational stress and their burnout and distress: Roles of coping and negative mood regulation expectancies. Anxiety, Stress and Coping, 16/1, 71-82.

Mercer, S. (2018). Psychology for language learning: spare a thought for the teacher. Language Teaching, 51/4, 504-525. 

Miller, E., Kayi-Aydar, H., Varghese, M. & Vitanova, G. (Eds) (2018). Interdisciplinarity in Language Teacher Agency: Theoretical and Analytical Explorations. System, 79 (special issue)

Nunan, D. (1988). The Learner-Centred Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Rogers, B. (2012). The essential guide to managing teacher stress. London: Pearson. 

Rose, H. (2019). Dismantling the ivory tower in TESOL: A renewed call for teaching-informed research. TESOL Quarterly, 53/3, 895-905.

Saatcioglu, A. (2020). Teacher persistence as a function of teacher-job fit: Evidence from a large suburban district, 2010–2015. Teaching and Teacher Education, 94, 103121. 

Sammons, P., Day, C., Kington, A., Gu, Q., Stobart, G. & Smees, R. (2007). Exploring variations in teachers' work, lives and their effects on pupils: Key findings and implications from a longitudinal mixed-method study. British Educational Research Journal, 33/5, 681-701. 

Santoro, D. (2018). Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Seligman, M. (2004). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Atria

Stevens, G. (2018). Positive Mindset Habits for Teachers. Mountain House, CA: Red Lotus Books

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