Avoiding Teacher Burnout in Special Education

Stressed out manIn 2007 the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) released an 18-month study indicating that the turnover rate for teachers in the United States was 16.8%. Approximately 46% of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years of teaching. Percentages are estimated to be even higher for special education teachers. Burnout in the field of special education is a problem that impacts teachers, school districts, and ultimately students. High turnover rates create instability in special education programs and erode trust between parents and schools. This article addresses key components of burnout and steps that teachers and schools can take to avoid it.

What is burnout?

Burnout relates to job satisfaction and the desire to leave one’s profession (Huebner, 1992). Not surprisingly, individuals with higher levels of job satisfaction tend to remain in their positions longer than employees reporting lower levels of job satisfaction (Fried, Shirom, Gilboa, & Cooper, 2008). While burnout and job satisfaction are not synonymous, they do overlap. Individuals who are more satisfied with their jobs have lower levels of burnout. The most widely accepted construct of burnout was developed by Maslach and Jackson (1981). This model includes three separate components of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.

• Emotional exhaustion- caused by excessive work demands and characterized by overwhelming feelings of emotional strain

• Depersonalization- a tendency to become callous, impersonal, or cynical when relating to others

• Reduced personal accomplishment- feelings of incompetence and a sense that one’s efforts are not accomplishing desired outcomes

What causes burnout?

Research has identified the following four main conditions leading to burnout (Maslach, 2003).

1. Imbalance- this occurs when there are high work demands with insufficient resources to meet these demands.

2. Occupational stressors that are chronic in nature.

3. Ongoing conflict- Conflict may occur among individuals within the work environment, between role demands, or between the values of the individual and the values of the employer.

4. Feelings of ineffectiveness- This occurs when there is little control over one’s work or when the individual is left out of important decisions.

Why do special education teachers leave the profession?

There are a number of reasons why special educators leave the field. The following is a list summarized in the research (Fore & Martin, 2002; Gersten, Keating, Yovanoff, & Harniss, 2001; Schnorr, 1995).

  • High caseloads
  • High stress levels
  • Difficulty with behavior management
  • Paperwork demands
  • Number of required meetings
  • Issues relating to other teachers, parents, and/or administration
  • Lack of support
  • Lack of adequate teaching materials

What can principals do to retain special education teachers?

In a study of teacher retention by Schnorr (1995), 88% of participants reported a supportive principal as reason to continue teaching. Principals play a significant role in the retention of special education teachers. Gersten et al. (2001) found that levels of principal support were positively related to teacher retention. The researchers identified the following actions that principals can take to help retain special educators.

• Provide time to collaborate with other teachers (both general educators and other special education teachers)

• Provide time to learn- opportunities to observe other teachers, in-services, etc.

• Support behavior management and disciplinary issues

• Allow time for paperwork/clerical duties

• Create a positive school climate where special education is a valued part of the team

• Display an interest in the special educator’s work

• Provide new teachers with mentors

Recently, I observed firsthand the impact of principal support to a teacher experiencing chronic stress. A special education teacher in one of my schools has an incredibly high caseload. She was feeling overwhelmed and stressed out by paperwork demands. After becoming aware of the situation, the principal worked with the teacher to create more flexibility in her schedule and allowed the teacher to lessen other responsibilities to be able to get caught up on her paperwork. Working with a supportive principal can make a huge difference in the levels of burnout of special education teachers.

What is the difference between burnout and being stressed out?

Burnout is a condition that occurs gradually over time. Often, an individual on the road to burnout is unaware that it is even occurring. Burnout and high stress levels differ in that a stressed out worker is aware that there are high demands and can often think of creative solutions to resolve the conflict. An individual experiencing burnout lacks the motivation to even try to make things better. Burnout leaves individuals feeling helpless and detached. They often feel powerless to change the situation and stop caring.

What can I do if I am noticing signs of burnout?

Recognizing the early warning signs of burnout is critical to being able to stop its progression. You may be on the road to burnout if you are experiencing the following:

  • You feel that your job is meaningless or mundane
  • Every day at work is a bad day
  • You feel powerless to change your circumstances
  • You don’t care about your job
  • You don’t feel appreciated at your job
  • You feel increasingly negative or cynical
  • You don’t feel motivated to accomplish tasks at work

If you recognize any of these signs of burnout, it is important to do something about it. You don’t need to quit your job in order to reverse the effects of burnout. However, you may need to make some changes at work and in your personal life.

1. Seek out support- Talk with a trusted friend or coworker. Consider talking with a counselor depending on your circumstances. Most school districts offer several free sessions with a counselor through your insurance. Talking with someone can be very cathartic, even if your work situation does not change.

2. Set clear boundaries- You may need to start saying, “no,” in order to create more time in your day to get your work done. Special education teachers often have a desire to save the world. Their giving nature can deplete them of energy and lead to burnout if not guarded.

3. Talk with your principal- Make sure that your principal is aware of your needs. Principals can’t support teachers if they don’t know that there is a problem.

4. Evaluate your lifestyle- Sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, and an unhealthy diet can drastically impact your outlook on your job, and life in general.

  • Are you getting adequate sleep? According to the National Sleep Foundations, adults should get 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
  • Are you getting enough exercise? The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity (i.e. brisk walking, easy swimming, doubles tennis) or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity (i.e. running, aerobic dance, cycling). Adults should also do strength training (i.e. weights or resistance training) two times per week.
  • What foods are fueling your body? According to the USDA, a healthy diet for adults emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk products. A healthy diet also includes protein from lean meats, eggs, and nuts. Saturated fats, added sugars, and salt should be consumed in moderation.

5. Learn stress management strategies- Avoid situations that are likely to cause a stressful response. If stressors cannot be avoided, try to adjust your attitude to be able to accept and adapt to the situation. Pay close attention to your self-talk and try to focus on the positive. This helps to be able to keep stressful situations in perspective.

6. Schedule time to relax- No matter how busy your day, take a few minutes away from students, your computer, paperwork, etc. to breathe. Take time outside of work to engage in activities that you enjoy. Taking care of yourself allows you to be better equipped to handle stressors that inevitably will come up.


Fore, C. & Martin, C. (2002). Why do special education teachers leave the field? Possible methods to increase retention. University of Georgia. Retrieved 11/23/11 from http://www.hiceducation.org/edu_proceedings/Cecil%20Fore%20III.pdf

Fried, Y., Shirom, A., Gilboa, S., & Cooper, C. L. (2008). The mediating effects of job satisfaction and propensity to leave on role stress-job performance relationships: Combining meta-analysis and structural equation modeling. International Journal of Stress Management, 15(4), 305-328.

Gersten, R., Keating, T., Yovanoff, P., & Harniss, M.K. (2001). Working in special education: Factors that enhance special educators’ intent to stay. Exceptional Children, 67(4). 549-567.

Huebner, E. S. (1992). Burnout among school psychologists: An exploratory investigation into its nature, extent, and correlates. School Psychology Quarterly, 7(2), 129-136.

Maslach, C. (2003). Job burnout: New directions in research and intervention. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(5), 189-192.

Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behavior, 2, 99-113.

Schnorr, J.M. (1995). Teacher retention: A cspd analysis and planning model. Teacher Education and Special Education, 18(1). 22-38.

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