Session 4~ Teacher Stress & Burnout

understanding teacher stress

Stress is neither good nor bad; how you see things and how you handle them makes all the difference in terms of how much stress you will experience.

{J. Kabat-Zinn}

Before we begin talking about the nature of your teacher stress, become aware of your breathing. Take 5 breaths.

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Now, let’s begin with a formal seated practice. This is an Awareness of Breath meditation. It is 11 minutes long, and Justin (who you will meet next week) will guide you through your practice of refining your capacity to notice what is happening in your mind and body today.

Awareness of Breath meditation


Here we are….

The last several weeks in our course, we have focused on directing your attention, discovering your inner roommate, and cultivating a compassionate inner voice. These topics and the “homework” you have been integrating into your every day life, have been intentional and essential to bringing you to thinking about, understanding, and re-framing the nature of teacher stress. As the quote above suggests, and perhaps you are really coming to feel this in your body and not just in a purely intellectual way,  HOW you see things matters. Events in the external world, the actions of others, and even your own inner commentary/ thoughts are not the “problem” nor the real causes the stress you feel.

Whew– this is really good news, actually. How disastrous if these external things held that much control over us and how we feel. Rather, what you are coming experience through your daily mindfulness practice is that your perception or how you see things is what determines the level, intensity, and duration of “stress” you internalize.

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How you see things– how you perceive– can be changed. We make great shifts in our capacity to see differently or see multiple or different perspectives of things once we settle our thinking mind to rest on the neutrality of the present moment. For the present moment brings us back to an objective center point where we can not only see different perspective, we can see what frames our seeing! It’s almost as if when we direct our attention, very deliberately and intentionally, on the present moment (and we use the breath to get us here), we shift our seeing from our head down to our heart. The practice of mindfulness, paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment, changes our relationship with not only the external world, but it changes how we related to ourselves (and our internal world). Pretty powerful stuff!

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The heart has 40,000 neurons, as many as the brain, and when the heart leads the mind becomes more focused and relaxed. 


In the book, TheHeartMath Solution, Doc Childe and Howard Martin leverage scientific research to prove that the heart, not just an organ that pumps blood, is the true intellectual center of our being (H. Amara). In the past several weeks have explored HOW to move from the overly active intellectual mind down to a heart center. Week #1, we talked about the power you have to pay attention and direct that attention wherever you wish! You learned, and hopefully experienced in your practice, how mindfulness meditation practices increase and refine the quality of your attention and your capacity for clear, non-judgmental attention.

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The Thinking Mind

This cultivation of clear, non-judging attention helps you to also see yourself clearly and be less judgmental of the self. This is an important point if we are talking about understanding the nature of stress. We learned from reading Larrivee in the chapter on Modifying Destructive Ways of Thinking that “it is your mental appraisal of events that determines your emotional tone, and hence your stress level.

You have practiced noticing and noting your judgments. We all have them, and every day they surface. These immediate and often unconscious mental appraisals of events, others, and the self tend to represent rigid and fixed thinking, and they stress us out.

The constant running commentary going on inside your head has the potential to either positively or negatively impact your mood, self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, stress level, and your health.

{B. Larrivee}

Whenever we think something “should” be a certain way, we are judging it; comparing it to some fixed ideal that isn’t what is happening in the present moment. This discrepancy between what is (reality) and what  your mind thinks it “should” be causes stresses.  And for teachers, some of the most intense and debilitating stressors come from the way one judges oneself while teaching. This is emotional stress. There are 6 types of stress-producing self-talk.




The Nature of Stress

We can’t talk about stress and how to cope with your stressors as a teacher if we don’t first illuminate the role your mind has in the stress cycle. Here is what it comes down to….Check out this quite and video by Jon Kabat-Zinn:

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It is helpful to remember that not ALL stress is bad. Good kinds of stress make us feel alive and excited. We need good stress. What are some things that exhilarate you? What are some kinds of “good” stress in teaching that you really need?


As you read about in chapter 5, The Heart of Teaching, your secret weapon as a teacher is your open heart and caring presence. So how do you get there?? Well, you “practice being mindfully aware of your own thoughts and feelings so that you can be fully present for your students” (Jennings, p. 110). That is what you are learning how to do– being mindfully aware of your thoughts and feelings because when you are, you significantly diminish the stress you feel, and thus are capable of seeing beyond your issues and annoyances to be fully there for others.

So let’s not forget that: 

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Take a look at what the research indicates as the origins of teacher stress.

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Which ones do you most strongly relate to? Yep– they are all big ones. But the biggest, most stressful part of teaching according to the research is not all these external factors. The biggest stressors for teachers– new teachers in particular– is coping with the intense emotional reactions that come from these stressors. Notice that– the most negative stress comes from the teacher’s inner world, not external.

In effect, teachers cite not being able to cope with the emotional demands of the profession AND not being able to cope with their own emotional reactions to these demands as the most debilitating stressors of the job.

We will be talking more about teacher emotional intelligence, the emotional art of teaching, and coping with your strong emotional reactions as teachers in our next several sessions. For now, let’s look first at what happens to teachers when they lack the awareness of the emotional demands of the profession and/or how to cope with their own emotional reactions.

Chronic stress the goes unnoticed (***ding, ding*** that’s your first sign) for extended amounts of time starts to impact the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual body. Well- since your mindfulness practice cultivates NOTICING, you are already protecting yourself from the onset of chronic stress. This is good because chronic stress initiates the process of burnout.


TEACHER BURNOUT is a PROCESS of “dis-integration” that occurs over time. Its almost as if your body, mind, and sprit are being broken apart from the inside out– they are disintegrating! Burnout refers to the “physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that occurs from chronic job stress and frustration” (Larrivee, 2012). 


Burnout is a crisis. Even though the crisis begins as an occupational identity crisis, it will generalize to the entire self-concept of the teacher

(Vandernberghe & Huberman)

Basically, that means that the stress your feel in your professional life, impacts who you are as a person. You need to protect yourself! And you do this by learning many different strategies, tools, and behaviors to help you cope with the stressors (both internal and external) of teaching so you A) don’t completely lose yourself, and B) teach who you really are. Because that “you-ness” is really your greatest secret weapon as a teacher!

Okay- more on that to come, but for now, before you reflect in one second, become aware of the 3 stages of teacher burnout. You knowing them and being aware of them is the first step in recognizing when you start to feel the onset of burnout setting in.

Stages of Teacher Burnout

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The Manifestation of Burnout

Chronic stress (or as you are seeing, your mental over-reactions to things) gone unnoticed and unchecked over time will have physical, mental, and emotional ramifications. As we are seeing as teachers, these ramifications don’t just affect us, personally. They affect how we teach, how we interact with our students, the climates of our classrooms, and the presence (or lack thereof) we bring into the classroom setting every day.

We simply MUST take excellent care of our selves, mentally, physically, and emotionally because our health and wellbeing directly impacts our professional lives. Here’s why:

Teaching is an interpersonally oriented profession. The relationship between teacher & students is central to the job and the nature of the work is highly emotional.

{Vandenberghe & Huberman}

Teaching is a relational profession. HOW you are as a person will impact every single relationship with students, colleagues, and parents. So what happens when teachers don’t know the strategies to cope with the stresses of teaching or their own emotional reactions to events in the classroom? They burnout– internally and externally.

The internal manifestation of burnout is described above in the stages. The external manifestation of teacher burnout– how it impacts those around you– is described below:

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The reason why you are learning about the nature of stress, teacher stress, your mind, and the manifestation of burnout is because heightened awareness of these things gives you choice. The more aware you are, the more you enable yourself with options for THINKING and ACTING with awareness.

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This week you will be practicing cultivating greater awareness of your reactions to “stressful” situations. You may choose to use classroom situations (if you are teaching this summer) or you may simple use your everyday experiences to notice how your mind and emotions respond to stressful situations.

*FORMAL DAILY PRACTICE: Try CALM’s —“7 Days of Managing Stress” or HeadSpace’s —Take 10 (attempt for back-to-back days of stillness). Attempt to push your practice by doing it back to back days.

*INFORMAL DAILY PRACTICE: Data collection on STRESS SCENARIOS. For this practice, I will send you via email the handout to write out your notes. What you will be doing is paying really close attention to 2 stressful events in your everyday life. Yes– there will be more, but you only need to take notes on 2 events for our conversation at our next f2f.

Basically you will be paying very close attention to noticing your habits of reaction to stressful events. You will write about and reflection on the “stress scenario” though the following questions: What was going on? What lead up to the event? What did you feel? What did you think? What did you do or say? What happened? What was the result? **Handout with these questions will be in your inbox.

*READING: Chapter 2 (The Emotional Art of Teaching) and Chapter 3 (Understanding Your Negative Emotions) in Jennings.

*JOURNALING: Keep creating pockets of space to use your journaling about your Personal Education History as a from of meditation