(This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of Teacher Plus.)
Do you feel incapacitated by the stress you experience at the workplace? Have you stopped caring for your students the way you used to? Does teaching no longer feel like the labour of love it was when you joined the profession? Have you begun to doubt your skills as a professional? You are not alone. Burnout is a common phenomenon among teachers, and it is so normalized that it is rarely talked about in Indian contexts as a syndrome that finds a place in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases.
I learnt about the pervasiveness of this experience only while reading S. Yoganand, I. K. Annie and John William Felix’s article ‘A study on burnout syndrome among school teachers in Tamil Nadu’, published in the International Journal of Community Medicine and Public Health in 2019. They are associated with the Department of Community Medicine at Annamalai University’s Rajah Muthiah Medical College and Hospital in Chidambaram. Their study assesses the magnitude of burnout among school teachers of Chidambaram educational block in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu.
Why do teachers experience burnout? According to this study, there are multiple factors such as “behaviour of students in the classroom, the shared responsibilities by the colleagues and institutional heads, the work environment, and the growing demand from the parents or the society,” apart from “having spouse as a teacher, having a chronic illness or requiring a longer time daily for travel to reach their school.” This made me wonder about other factors such as marginalization experienced due to caste identity and sexual orientation, as well as housing arrangements, access to water, medical insurance, and availability of a support system for teachers who have young children or ageing parents because most teachers bring work home.
I also came across the work of Anil Shukla and Tripta Trivedi, researchers from the University of Lucknow, who conducted a study with secondary school teachers in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. They found their respondents reporting physical as well as emotional exhaustion. In an article titled ‘Burnout in Indian Teachers’, which was published in the journal Asia Pacific Education Review in 2008, they wrote that these teachers “think that their job has taken up all the energy and ‘life’ which was theirs, and so they feel drained and used up.”
The teachers in the study were losing confidence in themselves, and felt that they were not doing their job effectively. As a result, they were apprehensive about projects given to them, and were reluctant to take up new assignments. They were feeling alienated from their work environment, and began to maintain a psychological distance from everyone related to their job.
Shukla and Trivedi say, “This situation is really catastrophic for the well being of the students who are in constant company of such teachers as their pessimistic feelings hinder their own healthy development. These feelings are found in an average or moderate level among the teachers and immediate remedial measures are required, otherwise they may reach the high or chronic stage from which recovery would be very, very difficult.”
Schools in India do not seem to care much for the mental health of teachers but they do emphasize improvement in teacher performance. That, in itself, is reason enough to take the findings of this study seriously, and offer professional development programmes that focus on effective coping strategies for teacher burnout. Shukla and Trivedi state,”…burnout deserves serious attention. The emotional, financial and societal costs are too high for it to be ignored on dismissed any longer.”
Unfortunately, this study does not acknowledge that mental health distress occurs within social structures. It should not be understood as individual failure. Capitalist structures equate a person’s worth with their productivity. Patriarchal structures invisibilize emotional labour, mostly expected of women. Heteronormative structures shame life choices that include staying single, being in same-gender relationships, or rejecting the idea of having children. How does this trio of capitalism, patriarchy and heteronormativity enter the classroom and the staffroom?
What aspects of their personal lives do teachers like to share, and what do they choose to avoid conversations about? If the work atmosphere seems hostile, and teachers cannot be themselves without the fear of being judged, coping with everyday tasks can be a huge challenge. They begin to resent their work, their colleagues, and their students.
When the responsibility for burnout is placed solely on a person rather than the social systems their lives are embedded in, there is undue pressure on them to cope in a way that prioritizes their usefulness rather than their well-being. It has become fashionable to speak of self-care and work-life balance in order to take care of mental health. While these are undeniably beneficial approaches, they locate distress within individuals and pathologize them and let institutions escape without the accountability they must show.
Does it make any sense to send teachers to a mindfulness workshop when all they need is a weekend free of work-related emails to compose and respond to? Is it fair to expect teachers to be endlessly nurturing towards their students when they feel uncared for by the school administration? Are coping strategies useful if schools are dumping the work meant for two teachers on one, just so that they can save up on salaries? These are not hypothetical questions. These are realities that teachers have to contend with, and that schools must address. Now.