What triggers this decline in wellbeing has been the topic of a great deal of research since the 1970s when the term ‘teacher burnout’ was first coined by social psychologist Christina Maslach, yet we seem no closer to providing practical solutions.

While issues around administrative workload, a perceived lack of collegial or supervisor support, unsupportive parents and carers, shame-based media reporting and ever-changing policy and process may be toxic over time, the greatest contributor to a loss of wellbeing, especially for new teachers, sits around the impacts of low self-efficacy for classroom and behaviour management (CBM).

That this aspect of teaching is of primary concern to new, and indeed experienced teachers, and is a significant chunk of why teachers’ wellbeing deteriorates, should not be a surprise.

The rude shock teachers often experience at the start of a new year in trying to engage a classroom full of individuals with their own back-stories and agendas, needs and issues, is so well known it has a number of labels including ‘classroom shock’ and ‘reality shock’.

With less than half of pre-service teachers confident in their ability to manage classroom behaviour and others feeling only somewhat prepared, it is clear that the theory used to inform training teachers about CBM doesn’t come close to explaining/demonstrating how one goes about nurturing and bonding with up to thirty students, while still effectively delivering an over-burdened curriculum to achieve an expected series of results.

Indeed, a lack of clear, evidentiary-based interventions universally available for teachers to choose from and a poor understanding of which ones to apply depending on current student cohort, significantly contribute to the stress new teachers feel when confronted with the wide range of behaviours they will inevitably come across in any classroom.

So how can we protect the wellbeing of new teachers?

How can we prepare them for the highly emotive environment that is a community, a school and a classroom?

How do we make the shift away from the emphasis on just knowing your topic to being able to effectively build and maintain positive relationships to ensure curriculum delivery is most effective?

To get to the heart of supporting new teachers and giving them the skills they will need in the classroom we need to clearly articulate and appreciate that teaching is emotional labour, an idea highlighted in research by Friedman (2006) and others who suggest that burnout primarily arises from the social-psychological aspects of teaching including behaviour and teacher/student relations.

The interactions that teachers have with students and their carers form the foundation of learning yet teachers are usually required to be emotion-less and professionally distant.

This is contrary to a plethora of research that not only demonstrates best practice should be the modelling of appropriate emotional responses and behaviours to enhance student social emotional learning and wellbeing, but that teacher emotional stability and their relationships with their students significantly influences the capacity of students to effectively learn, while concurrently boosting teacher wellbeing.

Essentially, teaching and learning are “irretrievably emotional”, and this must become a key factor in training new teachers and supporting established ones. When we do not have realistic expectations about the role of the teacher, about the psychological processes of learning and the essential component of emotion within them, we set our new teachers up for difficulty, for emotional exhaustion and greater intention to leave.

Pre-empting the major stressors that trigger a decline in wellbeing and teacher burnout then, may be a more effective approach to protecting and enhancing teacher wellbeing than trying to pull back these teachers when they distressed and disengaged from their students, when they have already reached burnout, or no longer have any passion for their profession.

To do this we need to look at teaching training and ongoing professional development practices that emphasise self-awareness, resilience, the psychology of behaviour and effective CBM strategies.

We need to acknowledge that there is never going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to behaviour management because challenging behaviour comes from a variety of motivations and serves a variety of purposes.

We need to be open about investigating our own biases and triggers as teachers, our expectations of what our students and how realistic these actually are.

We need to teach our teachers coping strategies to protect and enhance their emotional wellbeing, clue them in on the signs of emotional exhaustion and how they can hold on to their passion and commitment in the face of imperfect students, parents, carers and systems.

These are the kinds of practical skills, topped up with the theoretical underpinnings that highlight their importance, and ongoing mentoring and collegial support, that may buffer the negative effects of “reality” for new teachers. Without good teacher/student relationships, without teacher training that meaningfully and accurately reflects the reality of the classroom environment, new teachers will continue to experience reality shock to the point that their passion for their career is lost and good teachers shift away from the profession forever.

In short, it is clear to those active in education, that familiarity with curriculum content and confident delivery are not the critical factors that policy makers and the general media would like them to be. Indeed Roffey (2012) reported that over 80% of teachers agree that a focus on teacher wellbeing promotes student wellbeing and academic outcomes and that feeling appreciated and empowered helps them to find the patience and empathy required to manage those students who are challenging.

It is important to accept then, that while we focus on high quality teachers as robotic deliverers of content knowledge we neglect the very elements that ensure effective learning occurs and the enhanced results, so dearly beloved, are achieved.