A Self-study Exploration of Early Career Teacher Burnout and the Adaptive Strategies of Experienced Teachers

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Published: 
May 2021

Source: Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 46(5)

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This research was conducted in an effort to explore the following question:
How can the adaptive strategies of experienced teachers be applied to reduce burnout in early career teachers (ECTs)?
The research focused on analysing the adaptive strategies that experienced teachers apply to negotiate the stressors of isolation, role-related distress, and organisational pressures.
The self-study methodology enabled the four colleagues to share, learn, and develop their own practice, as well as each other’s, while also contributing to recommendations for practice that can be applied by other ECTs.
This research held personal significance for the authors, who had both experienced firsthand the ‘deep-end’ end submersion of entering teaching.

Research Design
The research unpacked the major stressors that contribute to burnout in teachers as well as what strategies experienced teachers use to cope with these challenges through the lens of self-study.
Self-study methodology is useful to develop insights into teaching and to enact reflection through practice (Russell, 2010).
In line with critical pedagogy, self-study methodology attends to educational change through careful reflection and multiple perspectives (Samaras & Freese, 2006).
Four participants from the same P-12 school took part in the study.
Three of the participants were experienced teachers and took part in semi-structured interviews and critical friend meetings with the first author, Jarrod, an ECT in his second year of teaching who was also completing his Masters degree.
The second author, Peta, was Jarrod’s research supervisor.
Participants were interviewed about their experiences as ECTs, what strategies they believed had contributed to their longevity and success in the profession, and what stumbling blocks they had encountered or observed in other ECTs in their time as mentors.
By exploring these experiences, and refining them during the study’s critical friend meetings, the research team were able to frame recommendations for practice to support ECTs.
A critical friend denotes an individual who will listen to, and critique, the researchers’ account of practice, as well as the thinking behind the account (Handal, 1999).
The decision to make use of critical friend meetings was motivated by a desire to enhance research integrity and to better articulate, critique, and validate any interpretations arising from the research (Costa & Kallick, 1993).
As part of their contributions to meetings, the critical friend group analysed the researchers’ findings from preceding interviews and evaluated these interpretations as part of a member check (Creswell, 1994).
The team was also encouraged to express their thinking about the findings, to clarify, summarise, or expand on any areas they felt warranted.
Excerpts from a selfreflective journal kept by the first author supplemented the researchers’ conclusions and critical friends were given access to this material prior to all meetings.
All interviews and meetings were conducted at the teachers’ school, recorded, and transcribed verbatim.
All participants were assigned a pseudonym and remain anonymous.

Data Collection and Analysis
Data collection consisted of four rounds of semi-structured group interviews, as well as four critical friend meetings, and entries from a self-reflective journal kept by the first author.
Data collection took place over the course of eight weeks.
Each group interview had a specific focus, being informed by key questions established a priori based on themes discovered in the review of literature on the causes of teacher burnout.
Excluding these questions, however, interviews were organic in nature and flowed to allow the exploration of different themes as they arose.
Queries and questions that surfaced during interviews or meetings, but which were not fully explored, were raised again in following meetings.
Each interview focused on different aspects of the participants’ experiences with teaching and burnout.
Critical friend meetings interleaved these interviews, with participants being asked to reflect on the findings from the preceding interview.
These meetings were an opportunity for participants to expand on themes, clarify comments that had been made, and to critique the authors’ interpretations of what had been discussed.
Excerpts from the first author’s self-reflective journal supplemented these discussions and recorded the meta-narrative (or conversation) that took place throughout this self-study.
Over the course of eight weeks the first author, Jarrod, used this journal to record his experiences as an ECT, writing an entry at the end of each day of teaching.
Jarrod also wrote an entry following each group interview with participants, making connections between their experiences and his own.
The questions, reflections, and insights contained within this journal helped ensure that the research’s critical friend meetings focused on themes related to adaptive strategies for mitigating burnout and followed a natural progression.
To identify key themes from the interviews, critical friend meetings, and reflective journal, all transcripts and entries were analysed using an inductive method of coding (Thomas, 2006).

Findings and discussion
The research aim was to investigate how the adaptive strategies of experienced teachers could be applied to reduce burnout in ECTs.
In undertaking this research, there was concern that our lived experiences of learning to teach, and those of our participants, might produce no new insights.
Fortunately, this was not the case.
The findings of the authors’ critical friends were rich and well-flavored with practical strategies and advice.
Investing in relationships and community, engaging with personal and professional networks, framing development in the long-term, and knowing the boundaries of your role were found to be crucial practices for mitigating the stressors of isolation, role-related distress, and organisational pressures.
Participants felt that these practices had contributed to their own longevity as teachers and were instrumental for reducing burnout, helping them not only to survive, but thrive.
More importantly, while some of these approaches likely benefit from experience, the overwhelming consensus was that these strategies would be valuable for and could be employed by ECTs to help alleviate the effects of burnout throughout their careers.
Among the suggested strategies:
• Combating Isolation with Collegiality and Professional Networks
• Mitigating Role-related Distress through Professional Development, Community and Self-advocacy
• Managing Organisational Pressures by Understanding the Boundaries of your Role
• Avoiding the Siren’s Call of Received Wisdoms in Teaching through use of Adaptive Strategies

Conclusion and Recommendations for Practice
The task of preparing ECTs for the challenges of the profession is a responsibility shared by all stakeholders in education, from initial teacher educators to graduates themselves.
The authors’ research and its findings provide strong evidence to support the role that experienced teachers can play in this process, not only as exemplars for how to adapt to and negotiate the causes of burnout with grace, but also as colleagues, mentors, and as part of formal and informal networks.
A key focus of this research was to go beyond the dominant myths, clichés, and received wisdoms, that permeate ECTs’ entry into the profession and investigate adaptive and practical strategies that could be adopted by this cohort.
The paper includes recommendations for practice and examples, refined in the study’s final critical friend meeting and divided by theme, that represent the results of this research.

References
Costa, A., & Kallick, B. (1993). Through the Lens of A Critical Friend, Educational Leadership, 51(2), 49-51.
Creswell, J. (1994). Research Design Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.Handal, G. (1999). Consultation using critical friends, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 79(1), 59-70.
Russell, T. (2010). Self-study by teacher educators. International encyclopedia of education, 3, 689-694.
Samaras, A. P. & Freese, A. R. (2006). Self-study of teaching practices. New York: Peter Lang.
Thomas, D. (2006). A General Inductive Approach for Analyzing Qualitative Evaluation Data, American Journal of Evaluation, 27(2), 237-246. 

Updated: Dec. 16, 2021
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