As a secondary school teacher, I developed a strong aversion to lazy figurative language through reading the creative writing of students for whom reading was more a matter of necessity than pleasure. Not all ideas strike one like ‘lightning’, nor is it always appropriate to compare people in crowded spaces to ‘sardines’. So when people started, hesitantly at first, and then with increasing frequency and candour, to describe me as ‘burnt out’, I was irked by what seemed to me a lack of thought put into the imagery evoked by a tired metaphor. To be ‘burnt out’ suggests that one was alight in the first place, when in fact, the six months prior to finally admitting to myself that I was not fit to work were characterised by a marked absence of vitality usually associated with fire. After only four years of teaching, I felt less like a too-short wick end and more like the smoke that trails after: diffuse and aeriform.

I have never been a particularly fiery teacher, and after the manner of my calm and focused classroom demeanour, my breakdown was neither dramatic nor particularly convincing (I remember asking my partner if I had, in fact, had a breakdown). Unable to imagine an alternative means of escape from a seemingly infinite to do list, I simply dissipated into the atmosphere. I not only stopped going to school, but I stopped getting out of bed, assuming a state of unprecedented physical and mental inactivity.

The term ‘burnout’ was coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the early 1970s as he watched unattended cigarettes slowly smoulder to ash in the fingertips of his drug-addicted patients. In addition to a successful psychology practice on the Upper East Side, Freudenberger ran a clinic for the treatment of drug addiction on New York’s Skid Row. On the day they were scheduled to embark on a family holiday to California – a rare chance for respite and rejuvenation – Freudenberger’s daughter Lisa recalls that ‘He couldn’t move. He couldn’t get out of bed.’

Although burnout is yet to be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, on the grounds that it is diagnostically indistinct from depression, Freudenberger – and those who have taken up his work after him – generally understand occupational burnout as the product of a defect in the relationship between the individual and their ideological understanding of their profession. From psychologists unable to retain their grasp on their original desire to help others, to teachers no longer able to empathise with the difficulties experienced by their students, beyond a loss of motivation, burnout is characterised by the evanescence of some vital philosophical keystone, a moral imperative fundamental to the self, the disappearance of which is profoundly destabilising.

In my last semester as a teacher, I tried cordoning off Saturdays in a belated effort to discover the mythical work-life-balance. Instead, I came to dread the weekend, during which I inevitably found myself at a complete loss as to what I should be doing with my time.

Should: the word that staged a gradual but eventual complete takeover of my internal monologue. You should finish this presentation before you go home. You should mark these tests before you go to sleep. You should go to sleep earlier so you have enough energy for class. Even when I first went to see a counsellor, you should be kinder to yourself. I always knew what I should be doing, but the question I was increasingly unable to answer was what I wanted to do. As Freudenberger confessed during own self-analysis, I didn’t ‘know how to have fun’ anymore, I didn’t ‘know how to be readily joyful’.

Whereas work-related stress refers to the mental and physical strain induced by the demands of a profession, occupational burnout is understood as the subsummation of an individual’s ideological motivation by those demands. Further, as the aims of both teaching and psychology are centred on allowing the student or patient to develop as is appropriate to their individual needs, each job demands a specific variety of depersonalised compassion that deprioritises the needs of the teacher and the psychologist as individuals. Over time, teaching became less a matter of helping students learn than it was a matter of executing a series of interminable shoulds, a metamorphosis of purpose, or an ideological disintegration which, in combination with the necessity of assuming an essentially impersonal persona in the classroom, lead to a slow, steady erosion of self.

Much of the advice for those experiencing burnout revolves around developing a regime of self-care. For Freudenberger, this involved an extended period of self-analysis and writing on the subject, which culminated in the celebrated book Burnout: The High Cost of Achievement (1980). I have gotten as far as allowing myself a year away from teaching, to sort myself out from the shoulds through which I have navigated the past few years.

Image: Burnout! – Dennis Skley / flickr

Megan Cheong

Megan Cheong is currently studying creative writing at the University of Melbourne.

More by Megan Cheong ›

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  1. Burnout “an ideological disintegration which, in combination with the necessity of assuming an essentially impersonal persona in the classroom, lead to a slow, steady erosion of self.” Not helped by public attacks on the competency and professionalism of the profession by politicians and the media. Resulting in a demoralised workforce that struggles to deal with the burdens placed upon it. This in addition to the basic difficulty of teaching as a profession, which involves managing 25-30 individuals into a teachable unit, before you can even begin all the actual “work” of teaching the curriculum. As someone who has taught for 14 1/2 years, I’ve seen colleagues burn out and disappear, I have found myself burnt out and had to rebuild the fire on more than one occasion. I do love teaching and sharing, but when so much of what you do in schools can be described and neither, but rather as dealing with discipline issues, classroom management and administrative tasks, it can be hard to remember what you love doing. When it works, it works beautifully, but when it doesn’t it is a hard slog, that sucks your attention, emotions, empathy and energy from every other aspect of your life, with little recompense.
    I am sorry Megan that you had to leave so soon into your career, and wish you luck with your new career.

    1. Thank you Natalie. I agree that the systemic issues you describe above are responsible for a significant portion of the pressures of the job. Kudos for persisting in the profession for so long!! I hope it continues to reward you, esp. given the important role experienced teachers have to play in teaching newer staff how to maintain a sustainable practice.

  2. Thank you, Megan, for your beautifully written and carefully researched article. As someone who is in her fourth year of teaching also, and burning out, it was refreshing (albeit sad) to read your article. Refreshing because of the distinction you draw between burnout and ‘work-related stress’; sad because of the prevalence of burnout amongst dynamic and passionate teachers new to the profession.
    As the last eight months or so have progressed, I have, like you, found myself increasingly devoid of the energy and enthusiasm that characterised my early days as a teacher. My burnout has manifested as, among other things, incessant headaches and anxious mornings. So much so that I recently chose, again like you, to take time away from teaching; whether this proves to be a temporary or permanent course of action remains to be seen.
    As Natalie states, burnout is sadly all too common in teaching. There are systemic and political reasons for this which, when combined with a lack of understanding and support from some quarters of the community, can make for an untenable situation.
    Our teachers – and our students – deserve better.
    Best of luck with everything, and thanks again for your article.

  3. Thanks Siboney, I’m so glad the piece could offer you some consolation. It’s a hard decision to make and can feel like you’re striking out on your own, but it’s great that you’ve made a decisive move to prioritise yourself. I’ve felt happier and more myself each day this year and I hope your time away from teaching has similar surprises in store for you.

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