In the first installment of this piece, Teacher Burnout: Feeling the Burn, I shared with you several reasons why teacher burnout is so prevalent in the United States. But all hope is not lost! In this piece, you will discover ways in which you can prevent and reverse teacher burnout. Some of these methods will require you to shake up your routine and forge unknown paths. Then again, that might be precisely what you need.
Choose your own mentor
Most teachers are assigned a mentor when they first start teaching, but what happens if that mentor just isn’t a good fit? Put the power back in your hands by choosing your own mentor. It doesn't matter if you’re in your first year of teaching or your 10th. If there is an educator—whether that person is in your department or not, or whether they are still employed or retired—whose work you admire and value, don’t be shy about approaching them for advice and following their well-established lead. When sorting out who is the best choice, considering the following:
Choose a mentor who…
- is happy
- is someone you know to have a good resumé/track record
- has goals that align with your own
Once you have decided who you want as your mentor, use your time communicating with this person wisely. As Tim Ferriss says in his bestselling The 4-Hour Workweek, “It’s amazing how many would-be mentees or beneficiaries ask busier people for answers Google could provide in 20 seconds.” Don’t pester your mentor with mundane questions like how best to arrange your classroom. Use this connection to seek guidance about the student who never turns in her work because she’s not getting the support she needs at home. Ask them about lessons they taught that you heard were tremendously successful, and find out how you can apply some of those same approaches in your own classroom.
Something else to keep in mind is not to treat this precious relationship as if it were an infinite and readily available spring of information. Your mentor has their own commitments; overwhelming them with a barrage of questions is, well, rude. You should to repay their service with service of your own. As best-selling author and entrepreneur Ryan Holiday says in his blog, “Bring something to the table. Anything. Quid pro quo. Even if it’s just energy. Even if it’s just thanks. You cannot ask and ask and not expect to give anything in return.” No relationship, professional and personal alike, can work if it’s one-sided.
Lastly, don’t blurt out, “Will you mentor me?” That’s a surefire way to make your intended sage feel uncomfortable. Like any relationship, take it slowly and allow the labels to define themselves over time.
Ask for help
Though you will be asking your mentor for help from time to time, this is more for immediate feedback and assistance on the day-to-day stuff. When you start to feel like you’re sinking, that’s when you need to suck it up and ask your colleagues, your friends, your boyfriend, or your own children for help. Need assistance grading those multiple choice quizzes? Make an extra answer key and ask your wife to give you a hand. Need to get those copies to the printer but you don’t have time after school? Ask a colleague if they can run them over for you. You can’t do it all, even if you want to. Just as you would be there for anyone who asked you for help, do the same for yourself. Not having to worry about the minutia can feel like an incredible burden lifted from your shoulders. Just be sure to pay it forward when you can.
Learn to say “No.”
As a teacher, it’s in your nature to want to help everyone in any way you can. But sometimes, you can’t. Or rather, you shouldn't. Learning to say “no” takes practice, but just as you have instructed your kids that they must sometimes choose their battles, so must you. When you’re asked to take on something extra and you know you don’t have the time or energy to do it (chaperoning the dance, leading the field trip, going to the school play, etc.), say no. Whoever is asking for your time may be put off in the moment, but they will get over it, especially when you say yes to the next thing they ask of you. You have to find a balance. Trying to do it all will lead to burnout, so take control.
Budget your time
Managing non-classroom time is perhaps the biggest stressor when it comes to teachers feeling burned out, so establishing set schedules can be a real game changer. Teachers need to have an arsenal of skills and tricks to help tackle time constraints, such as using rubrics and delegating tasks. The most important thing to note here, however, is that whatever guidelines you put in place for yourself, you must stick to them.
Use a rubric
Rubrics help teachers “assess assignments consistently from student-to-student” and “save time in grading, both short-term and long-term” (Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation).
- Ask your mentors and department colleagues if they have rubrics they can share
- Create your own based on core requirements and state standards
Set a timer
- Give yourself 5-10 minutes per assignment (depending on the length) to read and comment
- Decide ahead of time how many comments/corrections you will make on each page
- Don’t spend precious time commenting too much; in turn, students won’t feel overwhelmed when tackling the corrections/rewrite
Plan your grading time
- Break up your grading over several days so you only have to sit for 1-2 hours at a time
- Be sure to schedule breaks to stretch, grab some water, use the bathroom, etc.
Find a bathroom buddy
- Create a system where teachers on their free periods check in on and cover classes while another teacher uses the facilities
- Set up a schedule that rotates throughout the week/quarter/semester
“Delegating small positions of authority to students teaches them to accept responsibility, it creates a feeling of community between students and it improves their learning,” says retired teacher Jill Jenkins (Edutopia.org).
- Assign tasks like taking attendance, classroom cleanup/arrangement, handing back papers, etc. to students
Don’t work on Sundays
- The week starts on Monday; use the tips above to help keep it that way
- Use Sunday to relax and get focused
Much like learning to say “no,” teachers need to set boundaries to avoid interruption and help streamline workflow. At the start of the school year, set your guidelines and stand firmly by them. Incorporate your office hours for student visitation into your syllabus. Include information on how and when you will contact parents and respond to emails or voicemails. Let the front office staff know that you will not accept unannounced visitors. Be clear with students, parents, and administrators on when you will have grades posted. Yes, these may all seem like insignificant particulars to consider, but the extra time and energy you spend dealing with these types of issues adds up quickly. Having set plans in place for even the tiniest of details can mean a huge difference in your stress level.
Lack of resources
Schools that lack funding often lack the resources teachers need in their classrooms, whether that’s in the form of texts, electronics, or supplies. The fact of the matter is there is no easy solution to this problem, but there are several ways teachers can help themselves in these situations. For instance, ask your school librarian for assistance. The school librarian is often an untapped wealth of information. They have the know-how and ability to find and procure lots of the items you need for your lessons, including books, telescopes, computer software, and more. Additionally, ask your mentors for resources, which they have no doubt amassed plenty over the years. Instead of being sucked into a black hole of internet searches, your mentor can tell you precisely where to look for the information you are seeking.
Focus on you
If we don’t direct any time and attention to our own well-being, then we can’t possibly be as effective as we want to be in other aspects of our lives. People in service careers have a tendency to neglect their own physical, mental, and emotional health as they feel they must devote all of that energy toward their clients, patients, and students, and this is precisely when burnout occurs. It’s not a sustainable practice. So, what can you do to divert some of that attention back to you so that you can ensure you’re giving others the best version of yourself? You can start by redirecting your attention to the positive, and a great way to do this is through journaling. Alex Ikonn and UJ Ramdas, creators of the wildly successful The Five-Minute Journal, cite several studies in the book’s introduction, including that of Emmons and McCullough in 2003, where it “…was found that keeping a daily gratitude journal leads to better sleep, reductions of physical pain, a great sense of well-being, and a better ability to handle change,” (23). Another study the pair cited in The Five-Minute Journal is the one conducted by Ali Crum (Yale University) and Ellen Langer. The study’s conclusions led to the idea that beginning each day with an affirmation can set your brain on an entirely different and more positive path (Ikonn and Ramdas 27), thus leading to a more effective day.
Shifting your emotional and mental focus is key in combating stress and burnout, but your physical well-being is just as important. Packing healthy meal and snack choices and moving throughout the day are your tickets to helping manage stressful energy. Twice a week, get together with colleagues who are off the same period as you and walk a few laps around the building. Not only will this get you moving, but having some time to chat with adults—including bouncing ideas off each other for handling classroom issues or sharing lesson delivery ideas—is a welcome relief from daily instruction. Bonus points: by making these healthy choices, you are modeling positive and impactful behaviors for the students (and other adults) around you.
Ask the tough question
Though all of the above are great tactics for avoiding and relieving burnout, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to answer this question and answer it often: Why am I doing this? If the reasons become less about why you initially became a teacher and more about guilt or fear, you’re going to need to take a much harder look at your career. Let’s face it—teachers have to be invested if they are going to be effective. If they aren’t, everyone suffers, including the teacher. We constantly tell our students that they should do what makes them happy, yet we are often reluctant to heed our own advice. It’s a scary thing to face the realities of change, but if you do the above and diligently check in with yourself, you will find you are happier and less stressed for it.
Being out of the classroom has allowed me to discover that teacher burnout is in fact preventable and curable. Some of you may be wondering why, in light of this, I have not returned to the profession. Though I miss teaching in the traditional sense, I am incredibly happy and fortunate to be where I am now since I am able to instruct in other ways. However, for those of you still in the classroom who may be feeling stressed, fearful, and exhausted, you owe it to yourself and to your students to explore how you can overcome those feelings. Sure, it takes a little effort and refocusing on your part, but—as we so often impart to our students—if you equip yourself with the right tools, you can do it.