Teacher Burnout in Special Education Cause and Effect and Possible Solutions Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Special Education Teachers

Special Education Vacancies

Recruitment, Hiring, and Retention

Barriers to Hiring

Barriers to retaining special education personnel.

Incentives used to improve retention.

Recommendations to Improve Recruitment and Retention

Adequate Supply of Special Education Professionals


Teachers today are subject to more stress than ever. Increasing certification requirements, re-certification, assessments, federal standards, demanding children, apathetic parents and an unsupportive administration are just the tip of the iceberg. Special education teachers have special circumstances. While other schoolteachers have some teachers who don't want to learn, special ed teachers are charged with the task of teaching to students who have difficulty learning, whose behavior problems are associated with an illness or handicap, whose needs for special attention are great. Teacher burnout is on the rise, and it's no wonder. This study will examine existing sources as well as conducting a survey of a sample population to assess the primary causes of occupational stress for special education teachers, and to develop recommendations that work towards a viable solution.

Statement of Problem

America is facing a teacher shortage in the field of special education. In part, demographics forecasts spell out the shortage, sheer sets of numbers; irrefutable statistics. In part, the shortage is due to retention, teachers who are leaving the profession early. Much of the exodus is due to burnout, and generally happens within the first five years of a teachers' career. There are differing theories regarding burnout, but there is consensus on the stressors that lead to "overload." Workplace conditions, the nature of the work and administrative and regulatory requirements are areas where stress gestates.

Introduction study that appeared in the Memphis Flyer in 1997 stated that of the country's 2.5 million schoolteachers, almost 67% are over the age of forty, 54% have either a master's degree or six years of college, and 38% have been teaching a minimum of twenty years (with a mean of sixteen years). At first glance it seems to express that our teacher pool is experienced and that teachers possess longevity, two positive traits for our educator workforce. (Surpuriya, T. & Jordan, M.,1997)

However, carried forward into the next decade or two, the demographics paint a wave of population growth and change that will require an influx of teachers into the workforce. The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future issued a report that stated two million teachers would need to be recruited over the next decade to fill the void left by the combination of exiting retirees and entering new students.

Teacher burnout is a significant problem facing special education teachers today. Burnout threatens the ability of teachers to sustain and thrive in a demanding and much needed profession. Among the many causes of teacher burnout are low pay, increasing administrative requirements, unruly or needy students, and parents who are either combative or apathetic. The key factor that leads to teacher burnout seems to be linked to not just one causal symptom, but the teacher's ability to reconcile the conflicting demands with his or her personal life.

Literature Review

In a survey conducted by the Victorian Independent Education Union, the elements of stress factors related to burnout for teachers were examined. (Education and Stress, 1996) According to the report, "stress" refers to an internal state which results from demanding, frustrating or unsatisfying conditions. Occupational stress originates in the workplace.

Workplace stress and life stress in general are commonplace. Low levels of healthy stress can be a catalyst for the excretion of endorphins and accelerated performance. Stress can be physiolical or psychological in nature. Someone may experience an unpleasant feeling of distress or tension in reaction to the way they perceive a situation. When the situation is repeated, or when prolonged exposure to the situation occurs, damage can occur - the person can lose their sense of internal balance.

Stress manifests itself in many forms: irritability, anxiety, depression, nervousness, aloofness, aggressiveness, and even alcohol and drug use. Stress can affect physical health as well, as revealed in signs of fatigue, high blood pressures, susceptibility to illness (tension headaches, for instance) and more. There have been many studies regarding stress and teaching. Rosemarie Otto of Australia conducted studies in the early eighties relating to teachers (Otto, R., 1982) and in 1996 VIEU and NSW/ACT IEU looked at occupational stress of union members who were employed in Catholic and Independent Schools.

Both surveys looked at workplace conditions and workloads. Three significant themes emerged: leadership culture, work hours and class sizes. Teachers responded that, with regard to leadership culture, their perceptions of the culture in their schools was either autocratic or consultative, with limited access. A small minority felt their schools were very democratic (6.6% Victoria, 8.7% NSW) or democratic (23.7% Victoria; 28.4% NSW).

Nearly 50% of the Victorian respondents reported in excess of twenty-one hours of direct student contact per week (with 7.8% in excess of twenty five hours). NSW comparatively reported 42.8% and 17.4%, respectively. In terms of total hours spent in the workplace on a weekly basis, 55.3% of Victoria teachers and 45.9% of NSW spent greater than 41 hours per week in the workplace, as well as 20.5% (VIEU) and 26.7% (NSW) reporting in excess of 11 hours school work completed at home. In addition, both studies noted the added times of being called to school during evening hours and on weekends for school related activities.

As for the third theme, 60.4% of teachers in Catholic schools reported classes in excess of 26 students (18.1% taught classes greater than 31) while 23.9% of teachers in independent schools reported similar class sizes.

In addition to the three prevailing themes of workplace conditions that emerged from the two study results, other factors associated with stress were identified as ambiguous job descriptions, lack of employee input into job functions and the demands on the employee's time outside of the workplace. Four workplace stressors were identified as primary causes of occupational stress for teachers. These include: workload, professionalism, communications/management and career prospects. (Education and Stress, 1996)

Workload stressors were identified as:

multiplicity of tasks that needed to be performed within a set period of time. (85.1% VIEU and 91.9% NSW considered this a "high" or "moderate" stressor.

Unrelenting demand of work effort; student reporting/assessment and diversity of student needs (75.9% VIEU and 86.2% NSW - "high" or "moderate"

Professionalism Stressors were identified as:

The effort to keep up with changes in the field of education (79.4% VIEU and 76.8% NSW)

The effort to continually adopt new teaching strategies and approaches (70.2% Victoria; 78.4% NSW)

Communications/Management Stressors were identified as:

Quality of staff communications (61.8% Victoria; 74.1% NSW)

Quality of staff consultation (66.6% Victoria; 74.1% NSW)

School Decision making process (67.1% Victoria; 77.5% NSW)

Career Prospects were identified as:

Perceived lack of fit between pay and skills/responsibilities (69.3% Victoria; 75.2% NSW)

Lack of opportunity for growth (61.8% Victoria; 59.6% NSW).

Interestingly, both studies asked respondents to identify personal symptoms of stress that occurred at home or during personal time. This is important, because the extent to which an individual is experiencing personal stress will affect how susceptible he or she is to occupational stress. The table below summarizes the responses from both study groups:



Irritability at home

Internal feelings of anxiety

Feelings of powerlessness and futility

Psychosomatic complaints*

Psychosomatic complaints mentioned included chronic fatigue/exhaustion, shingles, abdominal complaints, vulnerability to virus infection, muscular tension, palpitations of the heart, respiratory disorders and recurring headaches.

Ultimately both studies affirm the fact that we live in a stressful and complex world. This is certainly not new information. The higher the stress level is on a personal level, the more affected an individual is likely to be by workplace stress. An unhealthy response to high levels of stress, (internalization, manifestation, illness, emotional responses, mood changes, etc.) creates overload, or "burnout." Workplace stressors are many and constant. Individuals need to be prepared to face this kind of environment, to dodge and respond to the many issues arising daily from the administration, the school, the students, the parents and the community.

In a presentation regarding professional burnout of teachers of special education needs in Greece, the authors stated: "Special Educational Needs (SEN) teachers serve one of the most stressful occupations. Special working conditions such as the high ratio of teachers and pupils, the limited progress due to the various problems of the pupils with special needs and the high workload exert an additional psychological pressure on the personality and the work performance of SEN teachers." (Antoniou, A.S., Polychroni, F., Walters, B., 2000) While it has been widely established that teaching is among the most stressful occupations, (second to social work), the study of the original plight of special education teachers has not been a prevalent source of literature. (Cooper, 1988).

Kyriacou & Suttcliffe have determined that stress results from the "teachers' perception that a) demands were being forced upon them b) they are unable to or have difficulty in meeting these demands and c) failure to do so threatens their mental and/or physical…

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