Chapter 10 – How to prevent burnout and maintain your sanity
According to a study in Education Week by Richard Ingersoll, 40-50% of teachers leave the teaching profession within their first 5 years! Click Here to read the entire article. This number is high and very troubling. Why are so many teachers leaving so quickly? The answer, BURNOUT! Burnout is described as a physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress and has caused many wonderful teachers to throw in the towel well before their time.
Often the rigors of teaching, dealing with behavior problems, and the massive time commitment, just get to them and it becomes too much to sustain over time. The first three years are the toughest because often, you haven’t built up your defenses or learned how to leave school at school. In order to really get a feel for why so many teachers are getting burnt out, I went into detective mode and asked as many teaching friends and acquaintances as I could, about what they find is the most difficult part of being a teacher. In my anecdotal experience, I would argue that these factors can build and build until one either learns to cope with the multiple demands, or they consume you and you feel you have no other choice but to move into a different career. When asking colleagues and acquaintances about the most difficult aspects of being a teacher, the following were the most common responses:
- Balancing home and school demands while simultaneously trying to ensure that the demands of one do not compromise the other;
- The emotional demands of taking too much work home and not being able to “get away” from school;
- Committing yourself—too often—to extracurricular activities
Can you see the common thread? Time! Teaching doesn’t start and stop with your lesson, despite what many non-teachers might think. Many non-teachers think how easy it would be to deliver a 30-minute lesson on world history, assign a worksheet or textbook questions, then simply babysit while the students do all the work. They don’t understand that the 30-minute lesson took 3 hours to create and while we are “babysitting”, we are constantly moving around the room helping our students. That’s the easy part of being a teacher though. It is marking—the dreaded “m” word—that takes up an incredible amount of our time. I know marking takes up the majority of my time, and from my discussions, this seems to be a common theme amongst teachers all around the world. But, there’s so much more that requires our time, isn’t there? There’s coaching, there’s before and after-school help sessions, there’s recess duty, coverage and cafeteria supervisions. There’s a constant stream of new initiatives set down by the government so that as soon as we get a handle on one initiative or requirement, they throw something else at us. How about setting up your classroom or preparing a demonstration or lab experiment? These all take the time that we would otherwise use to get our other work done. The only time we have left is before school, after school, or at home: when we should be spending time with our families and unwinding. This wind down time is essential because not only have we had to teach, mark and prep all day, but we’ve also had to deal with the behavioral struggles and problems amongst our students, conflicts with our peers, between peers and administrators; and not to mention, we’ve had to deal parents, a group of individuals that come with all different types of questions, concerns, anger, and sometimes (thankfully) support. How do you therefore, prevent burnout? Here are some suggestions from fellow newbie and seasoned teachers:
“My dad (who taught for 36 years) went into school early and stayed late to do all his prepping and planning so when he was home, he was home.”
“I have made the commitment to keeping school at school. I’ve become very picky about what I grade – only marking certain questions or sections of homework/lab reports and having the majority of my tests online and graded automatically.”
“I work hard to get some grading done while students are working.”
“I love peer evaluation. If your kids write a test or quiz that they could mark (multiple-choice, True/False, etc.), let them do it. Getting 30 kids to spend 2 minutes marking 1 test each will save you 60 minutes.”
Strategies you can use today:
First, let’s address the issue of workload. Short and sweet, pick your battles wisely and reduce your workload as much as possibly while still maintaining the same level of excellence. Instead of assigning that 20-question worksheet for homework then marking each question yourself, institute peer evaluation where the students trade work and mark each other’s. This works better for categorical questions that can be marked in a simple fashion with a check mark or ‘x’. If you are getting your students to mark something that is outside their current abilities (i.e. a short answer question), train your students exactly what you are looking for. Provide a rubric or student exemplars so that everyone knows the standards they are to mark too and then go over each section slowly with them. Not only will this decrease your workload, but as an added bonus, your students will develop a more in-depth idea of what they should be doing on future assignments. To ensure accuracy, I tell my students beforehand to put their names (the one who is marking the paper) on the sheet so that when I randomly mark ¼ of the assignments myself, I will know who to speak with if I have any issues. This is a very effective strategy to keep the students in line and marking to the best of their ability. Kids really are good at this, and their ruthlessness to ensure they don’t give extra marks will surprise you.
Understand that school isn’t everything. I’ve talked with so many teachers who get very uptight and anxious when work starts to pile up or classroom behavior isn’t what it should be. To avoid burnout and improve their mental health, these teachers need to realize that school isn’t everything. Yes, it can be hard and easily get you down. Students’ can be difficult, troubles with colleagues can arise, and the workload can sometimes feel too much to conquer. When you feel like this, stop for a moment and take a deep breath. Your identity as a teacher is not strictly defined by your ability to mark an enormous amount of papers or tests, nor is it about providing some many lines or paragraphs of feedback. It is a reflection of so much more than that, like your commitment to work with kids’ every day and having the objective of helping them to succeed in academics and in life. What doesn’t get done today, will get done tomorrow or the next day. Even if it doesn’t ever get done, life will go on and you are still an excellent teacher.
For the pragmatic readers out there, if you do really feel that you need to get a bunch of ‘stuff’ done and you are feeling overwhelmed, prioritize yourself to tackle small achievable essential tasks, such as planning one lesson, finding one great resource, or marking just a couple of pieces of work. It is okay to do what we need to do, as opposed to what we want to do. When you accomplish just this one thing, give yourself praise for getting that item off the ‘to-do’ list. This helps to end your day with a sense of achievement and will allow you to have that large glass of wine that’s calling your name, guilt free!
Take those sick days when you need to. Many teachers get burnt out because they never give themselves a break, even when they are sick. They say, “There’s too much to do” or “I don’t want to fall behind that other teacher.” Sick days are there for a reason. If you just push through, you are putting additional stress on your body and it will take longer to recover. The longer you take to recover, the less productive you will be during the day and thus, work will pile up. Kids get sick and they are excellent at spreading it around. If you are feeling sick, the worst thing you can do is push yourself. Instead, take a day at home where you can rest and recover. Keep going at a breakneck pace and you could get really sick, which might keep you in bed for a week.
Final thoughts on avoiding burnout and becoming the teacher you know you can be
- Love what you do and BE AWESOME because excitement is contagious.
- Be weird, be different, be funny and be memorable.
- Have fun with your kids! Get to know them as the people they are and enjoy your days together. It makes the year so much richer for all of you.
When you feel like quitting due to behavior issues, workload, jitters, school politics, low pay, etc., DON’T! There comes a time in every teacher’s life where they just want to simply throw in the towel and say forget about it, I’m out of here. It does get easier, trust me. I remember walking the down hall in my first year on the job and I didn’t know it, but I was suffering from new teacher anxiety. I was overwhelmed by pretty much everything I mentioned above and it scared me. I was unsure of what I was doing as well as my career choice. I contemplated to myself as I walked down that hall, what would happen if I simply left the school and didn’t come back. Thankfully I didn’t! I went into my class, then the next class and eventually, one day became a week, which became a month and those feeling became less and less frequent until they were gone. Everyone feels like this at some point in their career, when you do, just push through. I’m so glad I stayed because I love teaching and would have missed out on the best job in the world.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela
If you make a difference for just one child in your career, you will have changed the world! That’s pretty awesome and worth sticking around for.