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Gerardo Castillo Ceballos, Professor Emeritus of the School of Education and Psychology of the University of Navarra.

The discomfort of overwhelmed teachers

Wed, 09 Mar 2016 13:19:00 +0000 Published in El Confidencial Digital

Many teachers today are exposed to a high risk of occupational stress, even above that suffered by miners, parachutists, test pilots and circus trapeze artists.

An ILO report (1981) states that "a growing issue of programs of study conducted in developed countries show that teachers are at risk of physical or mental exhaustion under the effect of material and psychological difficulties associated with their work".

The excess of new responsibilities and the accumulation of work is causing great wear and tear on many teachers at teaching secondary schools.

This burnout was initially called surmenage and malaise enseignant. It later became known as burnout. The latter term refers to the syndrome of the "burned out" worker, as a consequence of chronic work stress. It is more common among professionals who provide care staff to others, such as doctors, nurses, social workers, counselors and teachers.

The phenomenon is affecting more teachers than we had assumed. This is reflected, for example, in a report in the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia (23/3/2111): "The feeling of being emotionally exhausted sums up the burnout syndrome, which threatens 20% of secondary school teachers, according to a study carried out by UGT and financed by the Ministry of work. The diagnosis is based on a survey to 1,125 secondary school teachers from all over Spain". 

What stresses teachers the most is the lack of time to carry out the tasks that successive Educational Reforms assign to them, without being accompanied by the corresponding training . On the other hand, the speed of social change makes it practically impossible to synchronize educational solutions with the unexpected and continuous challenges.

In the face of any problem (for example, campaigns against alcoholism or drug addiction), the school is called upon. Even some of the responsibilities that belong to the family are transferred to the school, among them the sexual Education of the children.

A humorous cartoon by Forges brilliantly portrays the problem of the polyvalence to which today's teachers are subjected. In an interview at work, the recruiter and the candidate have the following dialogue:

- Profession?

- Entertainer, educator, actress, mother, psychologist, guide tourist, companion, translator, speaker, linguist, psychiatrist, designer, trainer, writer, drawer, gesticulator, and walker.

- All this does not fit.

- Then put teacher, which is the same thing.

A teacher overloaded with work who has to teach unmotivated adolescents, while simultaneously maintaining discipline at class, is in permanent tension. J. M. Esteve, in "El malestar professor" (1997) states that what disturbs them most is being forced to do their work wrong.

What are the symptoms of such behavior in some teachers? Chronic fatigue; the desire for school dismissal time to arrive as soon as possible; irritation; suspiciousness; bad mood; always being on the defensive. In the process of development of the "bournout" syndrome the teacher usually goes through the following phases:

He is puzzled and frustrated to find that teaching is not what he expected and that his expectations are not met;

-Resorts to defense mechanisms, such as, for example, inhibition and absenteeism;

-Try a school transfer or early retirement;

-He blames himself. He ends up believing that he himself is the problem;

-After exhaustion, habitual anxiety can lead to neurosis or depression.

How is the "burned out" teacher generated?

Due to the confluence of two types of causes:

1.- Causes related to student behavior: indiscipline; lack of respect for the teacher; not paying attention at class; not studying; aggressions among students.

2.- Causes of social and administrative subject : scarce social recognition of the figure and the work of the teacher; teachers deprived of authority, who no longer have the support of families; prolongation of the period of teaching compulsory; schedule of work excessive; too many students in the classroom; group of very heterogeneous schoolchildren.

Is there an effective strategy to prevent work-related stress for professor?

Numerous programs of study point out that since the context and conditions in which teaching is currently practiced have deteriorated so much, a new teacher profile is needed, endowed with some competencies belonging to emotional intelligence, such as self-regulation of emotions, self-motivation, empathy and social skills.

This requires, in the first place, improving the initial selection systems for future teachers. Secondly, it is necessary to favor training and the permanent self-realization of teachers, so that they know how to react adequately to the problems posed by each new status.

Finally, it is highly advisable for the new teacher to be mentored by a teacher mentor, and then to be integrated into some sector of the educational community.