The Emotionally Exhausted Teacher

How many times have we heard students and parents voice displeasure over a teacher’s incompetence in the profession? In some cases, it might truly be the result of poor teacher training, but in other instances there is a bigger underlying problem: emotional exhaustion.

Emotional exhaustion is far severe than its physical counterpart. A good night’s sleep or a rejuvenating massage might be an effective cure to physical tiredness, but emotional exhaustion cannot be intervened easily for it is the result of burnout and stress accumulated over long periods.

As in other professions, teachers’ emotional exhaustion caused by occupational stress, has severe negative implications on work performance, particularly students’ learning.

Depersonalization is a common symptom of burnout and a  teacher experiencing this becomes less involved in the classroom and does not show enthusiasm and effort in lesson planning. Teachers who experience greater levels of these symptoms will display less favourable social behaviour in the classroom by being more critical with students’ work and less encouraging. Students of  such teachers may feel less confident of their work which will reduce their motivation and enthusiasm to participate in active learning.

Klusmann and Richter (2016) (1) conducted a large cohort study of more than 1000 elementary teachers and student in an attempt to link teachers’ emotional exhaustion to students’ performance in mathematics. They also considered various other classroom parameters such as students’ socioeconomic background, language minority and cognitive ability, in their analysis. The chosen teachers were either university graduates or had a teaching certificate in mathematics or other subjects. The students were assessed using national educational standards in Grade 4 mathematics.

The results of the study showed that the more experienced the teacher, the higher the level of emotional exhaustion. The socioeconomic status of the class and the students’ cognitive abilities also played a large role in this observation. As expected, students of such emotionally exhausted teachers performed poorly in the achievement test. Since experienced teachers tend to stay in the profession longer, they will inevitably be teaching large cohorts of students whose development will be negatively impacted by the teachers’ emotional exhaustion.

Absenteeism is prevalent in emotionally exhausted teachers which reduces their contact time with the students and effort in lesson planning. A mentally tired teacher may not display the required social interactions with his/her students which may harm the classroom dynamics and reduce the students’ interest in the subject.

Though we argue that teachers’ emotional status is linked to students’ performance, the reverse could also be true. Emotional exhaustion can be caused when a teacher is forced to teach low-achieving and difficult students. Despite the effort put in by the teacher, a class that does not perform to expectations will cause dejection and feelings of inefficacy in the teacher which, over time, will lead to emotional exhaustion.


The investment into the mental well being of a teacher is one that reaps instant results. A recent interview of a school principal in The New Paper tells how she insists teachers should not reply to work-related text messages or emails before 7.30 am and after 5 pm and enforces the rule strictly. She permits her teachers to leave school immediately after their last class, twice a week (2). Her reason? A happy teacher is a better teacher.


  1. Uta Klusmann, Dirk Richter. (2016). Teachers’ Emotional Exhaustion Is Negatively Related to Students’ Achievement: Evidence From a Large-Scale Assessment Study. Journal of Educational Psychology. 108(8).

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