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Education may be the closest thing to a helping profession outside of the medical field or social services.

But some new research suggests that while this sort of personal generosity is a hallmark of schools and important for student success, teachers often may just be too unselfish with their time and energy, and it’s hurting their students.

“There is research that shows that teaching is a profession that is particularly prone to burnout, partly because many teachers are so committed to helping as much as they can,” says Reb Rebele, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who studies human resource issues. "And sometimes selflessness has a negative effect."

Rebele is co-author of a study that followed 400 second-year teachers and resulted in an article recommending how educators and other professionals overcome what they call “generosity burnout.” Students of teachers who were too unselfish performed worse than those who moderated their attention to others, the research found.

Rebele and co-author Adam Grant, a Wharton professor who also authored a 2013 book, Give and Take,  say while helpful people are generally more successful, teachers have to find “effective, or self-protective ways of giving.”

In the research by the pair, teachers were given a dozen hypothetical multiple-choice questions where they were asked for help by students, teachers, and administrators. For instance: “Imagine that you're teaching a geometry class, and you've volunteered to stay after school one day a week to help one of your students, Alex, improve his understanding of geometry. He asks if you'll also help his friend Juan, who isn't in your class. What would you do?” The four available responses offered different levels of assistance.

The researchers found that teachers tended to do the more generous thing for Alex and Juan. But more surprising, however, were results showing those who consistently chose the overly-generous response often had the worst results with students.

“Compared with their self-protective peers, selfless teachers saw significantly lower student achievement scores on standardized assessments at the end of the year,” the two reported. They noted that the effect was even stronger for teachers whose students had performed poorly the previous year.

“Selfless educators exhausted themselves trying to help everyone with every request,” the two write. “They were willing to work nights and weekends to assist students with problems, colleagues with lesson plans, and principals with administrative duties. Despite their best intentions, these teachers were inadvertently hurting the very students they wanted to help.”

Beyond that, University of Virginia education professor Patricia Jennings, who is soon releasing a study on the topic, says stress from teachers trying to do too much is creating worrisome levels of teacher burnout with the most generous.

“There just isn’t enough time to do anything in education, and it’s getting worse,” she says. “So teachers who try to help their students or their colleagues are just pushed too far,” she says.

Jennings is a founder of CARE for Teachers, a “mindfulness-based professional development program designed to reduce stress and promote improvements in classroom climate and student academic and behavioral outcomes.” She is also author of the book Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom.

How can you tell if you give too much?

A lot of people have advice, ranging from 21 signs you’re “just too darn nice” on Buzzfeed to a ten-minute “assertiveness test” from Psychology Today that ranks your assertiveness. But experts say you probably know you are doing too much when you feel that you give a lot more than you get from others, or feel exhausted by helping. You might even ask an objective person who knows your habits what they think.

Rebele and Grant also came up with what they call the “7 Habits of Highly Productive Giving.”
1. Prioritize the help requests that come your way—say yes when it matters most and no when you need to.
2. Give in ways that play to your interests and strengths to preserve your energy and provide greater value.
3. Distribute the giving load more evenly—refer requests to others when you don’t have the time or skills, and be careful not to reinforce gender biases about who helps and how.
4. Secure your oxygen mask first—you’ll help others more effectively if you don’t neglect your own needs.
5. Amplify your impact by looking for ways to help multiple people with a single act of generosity.
6. Chunk your giving into dedicated days or blocks of time rather than sprinkling it throughout the week. You’ll be more effective—and more focused.
7. Learn to spot takers, and steer clear of them. They’re a drain on your energy, not to mention a performance hazard.

Article by Jim Paterson, Education World contributor