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Size matters when it comes to burnout

OPINION: Determining the ideal classroom size is arguably the number one topic on the long list of thorny education issues to have divided policymakers, academics, school leaders, teachers, parents and even students over the past 50 years.

At the heart of this split is a set of highly regarded studies that on one side concluded smaller classes enhance student learning, while other equally reputable research suggests the number of students in each class has no measurable impact on learning outcomes.

Beyond conflicting research reports, many school leaders, teachers and parents adopt the view that students learn more and teachers can be more effective in smaller classes, based on the notion they allow greater individual attention.  

Regardless of what might seem obvious to most school leaders – that smaller class sizes are more conducive to student learning – there is another, equally compelling, reason to jump on the small-class-size bandwagon – teachers and their workload.

Just survey your own common sense on what will eventually happen if, in order to get more bang for your educational buck, you load teachers with extra students to the point they feel overburdened and overworked. The answer is burnout.

Teachers these days frequently use the ‘burnout’ buzzword, particularly when they are feeling stretched, undervalued or irritated.

In fact, school leaders hear it so often you could hardly blame them for becoming desensitised to the term or even dismissive of it.

For many teachers and school leaders, however, burnout is very real; so much so that the World Health Organisation has reclassified the condition from “a problem related to life management” to describing it as an “occupational phenomenon”. WHO says the reclassification portrays burnout more appropriately as a work-based syndrome caused by chronic stress.

WHO says the broad characteristics of burnout include feelings of depleted energy levels, increasing disengagement form one’s work, feelings of negativity and cynicism, and reduced professional competency.

Drill down on the symptoms and you will discover teachers afflicted with burnout might feel that their work is unrecognised and undervalued.   

Teachers might experience physical complaints such as headaches, illness or backache, along with accelerated rates of absenteeism. They might pull away from their colleagues, students and parents in an emotional sense.

School leaders must be constantly vigilant when it comes to the risk factors often associated with teacher burnout, which include an overwhelming workload and navigating hostile environments – such as managing difficult students and responding to aggressive parents.

They need to avoid the common trap many fall into of adopting a simplistic view and falsely believing a two-week school holiday vacation period will fix a bout of burnout. Burnout is far more complicated than that.

And part of our teacher burnout problem in schools is that we tend to glorify workaholism.

We continue to applaud the teacher who works the 12-hour school day, who continues their working spree well into the weekend, and who fronts up to the classroom during school breaks – even though it is well known that workaholism is the enemy of self-care.

The latest ‘Riley Report’, known formerly as ‘The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey’, has made clear that school leaders as a group experience high levels of burnout.  

The challenge for all school leaders is that, not only must they grasp the notion of self-care and take steps to avoid their own burnout, they must also take decisive steps to reduce the likelihood of burnout of those in their care – their teachers and support staff.

With burnout in the WHO spotlight, school leaders have a new opportunity to step up and consider how, collectively, they can respond to what appears to be a growing epidemic in our schools.

It starts with looking at ways to reduce the workload and includes reconsidering the issue of class sizes, developing appropriate support mechanisms and building a school culture that promotes self-care.  

• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA

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