Greater emotional exhaustion among math teachers* in Corona pandemic

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(© Image: Depositphotos)
(© Image: Depositphotos)

Long-term study by a team of researchers led by Thamar Voss, an educational scientist from Freiburg, examining the period from 2007-2022

As part of a long-term study, researchers were able to examine the significance of the Corona pandemic for the professional well-being of math teachers: On a scale of 1 to 4, teachers* mean emotional exhaustion increased from 1.89 in 2019 to 2.41 in 2021. At the same time, mean enthusiasm for teaching decreased, from 3.52 in 2019 to 3.21 in 2021. These trends could be mitigated by good technical equipment at the school, among other factors, and individual personality also played a role in how affected they were. The study was conducted by Dr. Thamar Voss of the Faculty of Economics and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Freiburg together with Uta Klusmann of the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education in Kiel, Nikolaus Bönke of the University of Freiburg, Dirk Richter of the University of Potsdam, and Mareike Kunter of the University of Frankfurt. The study was published in the Journal of Psychology.

The authors analyzed data from six surveys that took place between 2007 and 2022. Mathematics teachers from different school types were surveyed, the first two surveys took place in 2007 and 2008 during their traineeship, two more in 2010 and 2019, and the last two during the Corona pandemic in summer 2021 and spring 2022.

In the surveys, the teachers were presented with statements on which they positioned themselves on a scale of 1 to 4. They were asked about their enthusiasm for teaching (for example: "I teach with enthusiasm"; "I always enjoy teaching the students") and emotional exhaustion (for example: "I often feel exhausted at work"; "I feel overloaded by my work overall"). In the first survey in 2007, the mathematics teachers also answered questions on the personality traits neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. In 2021, during the pandemic, they additionally provided information on the technical equipment of their respective schools, support from principals, cooperation with colleagues, support from parents, and current difficulties in dealing with students.

Not all of the initially participating teachers answered all of the questionnaires over the entire duration of the survey. While the sample consisted of 856 trainee teachers in 2007, 214 teachers still participated in the survey in 2022 - most of them dropped out after the end of their traineeship in 2010. However, the composition of the group remained more or less the same in terms of sociodemographic variables, for example. Accordingly, the researchers used the data from 2007 as baseline values and were able to replace missing values with the help of modern statistical estimation methods.

The researchers were able to show that the pandemic was accompanied by major declines in teachers’ professional well-being. During the pandemic, teachers in 2021 were, on average, more emotionally exhausted and less enthusiastic than in previous years, according to their own statements. Due to the long observation period, it is clear that respondents’ perceived stress during the Corona years exceeded normal levels from previous years. Teachers also reported greater exhaustion than during their equally challenging first years on the job. Although the much-cited ’practice shock’ in the early career phase is also apparent in our data, the effect is significantly smaller compared to the ’Corona shock’. That was surprising for us," says Voss.

Differences depending on the work environment and personality of the respondents

Although the mean values of the measured emotions follow a clear trend, the courses vary significantly between teachers on an individual basis. It can be seen that the impact of the pandemic depends on the specific work environment as well as on personality traits. Teachers whose schools had good technical equipment reported less emotional exhaustion during the pandemic. At the same time, enthusiasm for teaching decreased and exhaustion increased when there were many difficulties in dealing with students, so that, for example, frequent admonishments were necessary during (digital) lessons.

Teachers who are particularly open to new things due to their personality showed a smaller increase in emotional exhaustion during the pandemic. In contrast, strongly extroverted teachers were more affected by a negative change in well-being.

,,As the data from our study show, only a slight recovery effect was observed in 2022 with regard to teachers’ professional well-being after the pandemic-related school closures. Therefore, support from policymakers or school administrators is still needed now," Voss emphasizes. The researchers will continue the study to further investigate the question of recovery.

Fact Sheet:

Original publication: Voss, T., U. Klusmann, N. Bönke, D. Richter, and M. Kunter: Teachers’ Emotional Exhaustion and Teaching Enthusiasm Before Versus During the COVID-19 Pandemic. In: Journal of Psychology 2023 231:2, 103’114 . DOI: 10.1027/2151-2604/a000520

  • Thamar Voss is an educational researcher and for Empirical School and Instructional Development Research at the Institute of Educational Science at the University of Freiburg. Nikolaus Bönke is a research associate in the Department of Empirical School and Instructional Development Research at the Institute of Educational Science at the University of Freiburg.
  • The study was supported by the Innovation Fund of the Max Planck Society and the German Research Foundation (DFG) (DFG project numbers 438654700, 470251387). The open access publication was made possible by the University of Freiburg.