Preventing teacher burnout

27 June 2018

Seven year ago 10,000 education staff became first responders for the 150,000 school students of Christchurch. UC Education’s Dr Veronica O’Toole spoke with twenty teachers about their experiences during the ensuing aftermath. The results of her study include recommendations for New Zealand educators’ emotion regulation strategies, in line with worldwide post-disaster research

  • Burning Matches

    Burning matches

Miraculously, not one child was injured on school grounds during the Christchurch February 22nd earthquake. Teachers pulled all their skills out of the bag and attended to children’s safety. For some, this meant helping children escape life-threatening, immediate and concrete danger, for others it was ensuring no further danger, and for all, their priority was making sure they did not show their fear, in order to prevent any further distress for the children and students in their care. They remained on duty until the last child was reunited with their care-givers.

Twenty teachers shared their memories and experience of the earthquake, the aftermath and how they coped with UC Education’s Dr Veronica O’Toole. Results from her research have been published in international education and educational psychology journals.

Christchurch teachers' emotion regulation, goals and strategies for their immediate fear in the first moments of the earthquake have been compared internationally to that of first responders. Strategies teachers normally use to present a calm and professional image underpinned the regulation of these teachers’ fears at the moment of the earthquake.

While some emotion regulation strategies may be effective in the moment, they can be less suitable longer term. According to international research, changing your thoughts (cognitive reappraisal) about a situation is the most effective and health preserving way to regulate your emotions; this was the most commonly used method by the teachers in this study to manage both the immediate earthquake situation, and the ongoing aftermath. However, experiencing intense fear at the time of a trauma is a risk factor for negative emotional impacts in both professional and untrained first responders later on. In addition to this, ongoing stressors related to increased job demands in the normal course of events can lead to teacher burnout and attrition. Although this may be moderated by teachers’ positive emotions and love of their work, when occurring simultaneously with negative emotions (which was also evident in the Christchurch teachers), their internal skills and resources can become depleted over time, leading to emotional exhaustion and burnout.

The findings of this research are an important reminder of the significant role played by the teachers during the earthquake and throughout the prolonged aftershock sequence. It reminds us to appreciate the emotional support teachers gave students and families, while also coping with their own emotions throughout. Being a hometown disaster, teachers’ personal lives, families and homes were also disrupted alongside the rest of the community. Teaching is both emotionally-rewarding and emotionally-demanding at the best of times, which is exacerbated in a natural disaster. The more aware that teachers and management are about emotions, understanding their causes and consequences, the more likely that teachers can be supported in recognizing their emotions. In situations where teachers feel that their emotions are not helping them in a specific moment, they can choose the most effective emotion regulation strategy should they wish to feel differently.

All emotions are important, because they communicate to us how well we are doing at any time in relation to our goals and purposes. Becoming aware of our emotions is an important first step, such as accepting and understanding why we feel this way at this moment. Teachers can build this awareness into their daily reflective processes, such as making a point of noticing what thoughts may be associated with different emotions associated with different events. During your reflections, try taking a different perspective of that event, or try changing thoughts from a negative to a positive interpretation. Then review the emotional response to the revised thoughts. This cognitive reappraisal can be practised and learned as part of improving our emotional lives, and reducing emotional exhaustion. In disaster planning, under guidance, first thoughts (cognitive appraisal) and revised thoughts (cognitive reappraisal) could be included in rehearsals and drills, to anticipate the presence of emotions in the immediate and prolonged aftermath.

However, emotions also involve biological and physiological processes, so it is also important for teachers to have supported time-out to build their inner resources, to prevent burnout and preserve their love and passion for teaching. Recommendations from this research therefore include consideration of a social emotional learning (SEL) follow-up programme for first responder teachers, incorporating learning more about emotions and research-informed practical skills to manage their ongoing emotions, health and wellbeing post–disaster. Such a programme would also benefit management and teachers in general, including those in pre-service training, to enhance the classroom lives and learning of both teachers and students.

Dr Veronica O'Toole would like to acknowledge that these findings would not be possible without the generosity of the teachers in this study taking the time to share their personal experiences of this disaster, motivated by their desire to help for the future. 

UC Education offers a Summer School course starting in late November 2018, taught by Dr Veronica O'Toole - EDEM608-18SU2 Understanding Emotions in Education, Leadership, and Health.

For more information about this research:

O'Toole, V. M. (2017). "Running on fumes": Emotional exhaustion and burnout of teachers following a natural disaster. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal. In production.

O'Toole, V. M. (2017). "I thought I was going to die": Teachers' reflections on their emotions and cognitive appraisals in response to the February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake. New Zealand Journal of Psychology46(2), 71-86.

O'Toole, V. M. (2017). "Fear Would Well up and It Was Just a Luxury That You Just Didn't Have Time For": Teachers' Emotion Regulation Strategies at School during the February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal20(3), 513-542.

O'Toole, V. M., & Friesen, M. D. (2016). Teachers as first responders in tragedy: The role of emotion in teacher adjustment eighteen months post-earthquake. Teaching and Teacher Education5957-67. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2016.05.012

O'Toole, V. M., & McDonald, A. (2013). Emotional impact of the Earthquakes of Teachers "Unsung Heroes". In CEISMIC Contestable Fund Mini Conference. University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand 


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