Teacher Agency in the light of increasing Teacher Stress and Burnout

At a time when Estonian school children have reached the top of the 2019 PISA[1] league tables in several categories, it was interesting, but disturbing, to hear that increasingly Estonian teachers believe that their profession is not valued.

During an EAPRIL keynote session in Estonia, November 2019, Dr Ali Leijen, Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Tartu, presented her research on teacher agency and how to support it effectively.  Estonia is not only top of the league tables in reading, maths, and science, compared to other European countries, but it’s also the highest placed European country overall, when aggregate scores are compared in Europe by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in its 2018 rankings.  

But as Professor Leijen explained, according to this year’s OECD research, 26% of Estonian teachers overall feel that the teaching profession is not valued (compared to 14% in 2013); and this figures increases to 39% of Estonian teachers with up to five years’ experience.

Professor Leijen explained how teacher agency can be achieved and even strengthened, despite context and/or circumstances which promote or hinder practitioner agency at work. She illustrated how agency draws largely on one’s professional knowledge base and can be nurtured where institutions develop a culture that supports collegiality and collaboration.

These collegiate and collaborative approaches were also reflected in an EAPRIL Cloud 3 workshop by Dr. Rebecca Eliahoo and Professor Marcelo Giglio held in Tartu during the EAPRIL2019 Conference. The Cloud 3 workshop explored some of the causes of teacher stress and burnout. Teachers and practitioner-researchers from a variety of countries were asked to discuss levels of teacher stress and burnout in their own countries and to suggest ways of combating teacher stress and aiding teacher retention.

Research shows that understanding how teacher stress, burnout, coping, and self-efficacy are interrelated can inform preventive and intervention efforts to support teachers (Herman et al., 2017).  However, teacher stress and burnout are not restricted to school education, as evidenced by a joint Russian and Portuguese project (Mesquita and Sinagatullin, 2019) examining the professional lives of Higher Education lecturers. 

In Portugal, teachers complained principally about excessive bureaucracy, big classes, inappropriate behaviour by students; and too many curricular units to teach. In Russia, teachers said that their huge academic workload, poor working conditions and low salaries had led to a lack of motivation. Like the Portuguese respondents, they also suffered from unnecessary paperwork, as well as rigid and systematic control.  They also highlighted what they described as ‘test nightmares’ leading to the burden of over-assessment. 

The teaching profession in Europe is not immune to occupational illnesses, as a training seminar on health and health education in 1999 pointed out (EI/ETUCE, 2001). This seminar organised by the European Trade Union Committee on Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI), in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO), noted that increasing teacher workload was a tendency in several European countries and was leading to a rise in illness, particularly stress-related illnesses. Some of the factors affecting teachers’ ill health included: nervous overload; disappointment and frustration; lack of job stability and security; school environment; lack of social recognition; and the burden of administration.

Following the 1999 seminar, a study of elementary, primary and secondary school teachers was launched, seeking the causes of teacher stress, its consequences and the means to combat it.  Education International and ETUCE led the study which covered 31 countries using quantitative and qualitative data over the period 2010 to 2012 (Michel et al 2013).

The study showed that there was widespread agreement on the factors causing, or contributing to, teachers’ stress across these countries. Although the extent of the influence of each factor on stress levels varied, similar causes were repeatedly cited, regardless of the country. These causes were categorised as: changes in professional skills; economic pressures; student behaviour and attitudes; difficult relationships with pupil parents; poor institutional planning and organisation, including constant restructuring and educational reforms; social and personal pressures; and schools as stressful workplaces (Michel et al 2013).

This year, the UK’s National Education Union (NEU 2019) surveyed its 8,674 members and found that school and college teachers’ work-life balance was worse than a year ago.  Workload and accountability were cited as the main reasons why school and college teachers did not see themselves working in the sector in the near future. Two fifths of respondents (40%) predicted that they would no longer be working in education by 2024, and almost one fifth of all respondents to the survey (18%) expected to have left the teaching profession within two years.

Moreover, a study (Lynch et al., 2016) by the UK’s National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) has shown a relationship between low teacher job satisfaction (influenced by factors including workload and feeling valued and supported by managers) and a greater intention to leave the profession.

The aforementioned results were confirmed during the EAPRIL Cloud 3 presentation by an international audience, which highlighted very similar causes of teacher stress and burnout, including a lack of respect for the teaching profession – not only by some policy makers and institutional leaders – but also from parents and carers.

As Professor Leijen said in her keynote, the most effective way of increasing teacher agency, as well as respect for the teaching profession, is to develop a collegiate and collaborative culture. This can be achieved through work-based and team-based professional development activities, which help teaching professionals to become more familiar with professional discourse and help them to become more adept and confident at articulating their own as well as their collective long-term purpose.

Teaching professionals need to partner with Universities, policymakers and other stakeholders so that they are continuously considered to be an integral and crucial part of developing the field of pedagogy.


Eliahoo, R., Giglio, M., & van Wessum, L. (2018). ‘Tools to Improve Collaborative Lifelong Learning’. Journal of Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences, SPECIAL ISSUE “Practitioner researchers’ current and future visions of education & learning”. https://uasjournal.fi/in-english/improve-collaborative-lifelong-learning/.

Michel, A., Gordon, J., & Sellier, M. (2013). Study on Policy Measures to improve the Attractiveness of the Teaching Profession in Europe. European Commission and IBF International Consulting.

Herman, K.C., Hickmon-Rosa, J., & Reinke, W.M. (2017). ‘Empirically Derived Profiles of Teacher Stress, Burnout, Self-Efficacy, and Coping and Associated Student Outcomes’. Journal of Positive Behaviour Interventions, 20(2), 90-100, https://doi.org/10.1177/1098300717732066.

Leijen, A., Pedaste, M., & Lepp, L. (2019). ‘Teacher agency following the ecological model: how it is achieved and how it could be strengthened by different types of reflection’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 10.1080/00071005.2019.1672855.

Lynch, S., Worth, J., Bamford, S., & Wespieser, K. (2016). Engaging Teachers: NFER Analysis of Teacher Retention. Slough: NFER [online]. Available: https://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/LFSB01 [10 October, 2017].

Mesquita, A. & Sinagatullin, I. (2019). Teacher burnout – the problem in higher education and some directions to solve it. Paper presented at the SPACE Conference (8-10 May 2019), International Hellenic University, Kavala, Greece.

NEU (2019). The state of Education Workload. London: National Education Union.

Worth, J., Lynch, S., Hillary, J., Rennie, C., & Andrade, J. (2018). Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)

[1] The international rankings compare the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, math, and science across 79 countries and economies, including the 36 OECD member states. The rankings take place every three years.

Dr. Rebecca Eliahoo researches the professional development of Teacher Educators; Mentoring in Education and Training; Teaching Methods and Higher Education. She was a former EAPRIL Executive Board member, and is one of the founder members of Teacher Education Lifelong Learning (TELL) in the UK which is a grassroots research network for researchers interested in Further Education.