It may be a buzzword, but teacher burnout isn’t a new concept. In fact, I’d say within the past few years, it’s become a hot button topic in the teacher community, but when I entered education in 2007, I KNEW the statistics about how many teachers left the profession within 5 years.
Teaching is a stressful, challenging, and rewarding career. So, how can you keep your head above the water when it feels like you're slowly sinking under? Here are my best tips to prevent teacher burnout– from a seasoned teacher who has really been (and is still!) there in the trenches with you!
A quick disclaimer: Of course, teacher burnout can be more than just a rough day in the office, and teachers – and everyone – should prioritize their mental health and wellbeing. I am not a doctor, and my expertise and what I share here about teacher burnout comes only from living it myself. So, if you are feeling a tremendous amount of exhaustion or loss of interest, it may be time to talk to family, friends, or your doctor. This scientifically-reviewed article on teacher burnout is also a good starting point.
What is burnout? Signs of Teacher Burnout
When I say burnout, what words come to mind? Exhaustion? Lack of motivation? Quitting? A lot of people think of the Big Q when burnout is mentioned, but not every case of burnout is that severe. In fact, I would argue that knowing the signs of burnout can help you turn things around when you're headed down a rocky road.
Essentially, burnout is described as feelings of exhaustion, fatigue, loss of motivation, lower work performance, and negative attitudes about your job or life in general. When you're in the midst of burnout, work can feel overwhelming. Some things I’ve noticed when I’m feeling that burnout start to creep in are…
- A consistent lack of motivation to plan or implement classroom activities that you would normally find exciting
- Unusual irritability with your students, colleagues, family, or friends
- Indifference about your success or your students’ success
- Feeling like your to-do list is never ending but struggling to get started
- Difficulty focusing on tasks that used to be enjoyable
- Having a debilitating case of the Sunday Scaries
- Losing interest in activities outside of school that previously brought you joy
- Feeling like you lack substantial balance in your work/home life
- Always feeling behind
How to Prevent Teacher Burnout
Halfway through the year, it’s natural to be feeling a bit of burnout, or at least have a serious case of #teachertired. Either way, this is a good time to stop and reflect on the year so far and make some changes to prevent further feelings of burnout.
My hope for you is that you can enter the second semester of the school year with a fresh, positive mindset. It’s common to need a reset because teaching is challenging and you give so much to your students. Here are a few of my tips to prevent teacher burnout.
#1: Change Your Routine
Sometimes we get stuck into old habits and routines that simply aren’t serving us anymore. Maybe that 5am workout is being more of a pain than it is helping. Maybe you’ve stopped packing your lunch and you miss having a fresh meal to refuel during the day.
Reflect on the parts of your day that just aren’t working for you and make some adjustments. Of course we can’t rid ourselves of all the tiring responsibilities, but there are often ways to make our days easier. For example, set aside certain days to clean parts of your home so that the other evenings can be set aside to relax and enjoy time with family without the pressure to clean up on your mind.
Teacher Plan Tip to Prevent Burnout: If planning is consistently something that causes you anxiety but you’re feeling burnt out by the expectations of planning, try batching your plans to get it all done at once. For me, there is nothing more anxiety inducing than arriving at school with empty blocks in my plan book.
Sometimes, the expectations I set for myself feel overwhelming. I’ve found that having exciting repetition in your plans makes for seamless planning and effective instruction. What is exciting repetition? It’s just repeating the same or similar activities (for ease of planning and implementation) that are still exciting and engaging. For example, I might keep my centers the same and have students ALWAYS playing a Topple Blocks game in the game station or ALWAYS completing a math project as their earlier finisher work. It is SO much less to think about for me or prep on a day to day basis if I keep the activities consistent, and if I choose something exciting (who doesn’t love playing Jenga to practice math?) my students rarely tire of i. It’s a win-win.
#2 Setting Boundaries
This one goes along with your routine and things that are no longer serving you. When I get overwhelmed with life, I find myself saying, “There is so much to do and so little time!” But truly, there are places in my life where I could instill better boundaries and manage my workload to make more time.
For example, you may need to set an alarm after school to notify you that it’s time to go home. You might set a timer when you clean and what got done… got done. The rest can wait when it’s time to move one. You may have ambitious plans for a lesson or unit, but then realize you have to scale it back. Fine tuning these little areas helps you better manage your workload and prevent teacher burnout.
Teacher Plan Tip to Prevent Burnout: I’ll never forget a colleague of mine who stayed until 6pm every Wednesday. Once I noticed it was happening, I asked her about it. She told me she chose ONE night every week to stay late, and that was her dedicated work time to plan for the next week. She was a flurry of activity during that time and got SO much done. She looked forward to it every week, and the rest of the week she was able to leave right after the bell. (Sidenote: I firmly believe it’s a mythical expectation to arrive and leave at your exact contract hours. I have tried, and it just makes me feel even more anxious with so much let undone! Don’t get me wrong… I would LOVE to only work my contract hours, but sometimes that isn’t reality, and sometimes it is! Do you and try not to listen too much to all the noise that is telling you what you should and shouldn’t be accomplishing within those VERY few hours during the day. As my favorite Peloton instructor would say, “You do you, boo!”
#3 Plan Something to Look Forward To
When the days are busy and you seem stuck in a hamster wheel, it helps to have something to look forward to! Maybe you plan a family vacation (or a get away with someone you love!) that you can dream about on those challenging days. Maybe you save your favorite unit or lesson for a time of year that you know will be challenging. Fun school wide events (you can read about some of them here) can also help give everyone something to look forward to and work toward together.
Teacher Plan Tip to Prevent Burnout: Just like I always like to have someone in life to look forward to, I HAVE to have something in class to look forward to. I do my best to plan activities for my students that bring me just as much joy as it brings them. That way I’m not feeling burdened and bored by my own teaching – instead, I create bright spots in my curriculum that are just so much fun!
#4 Treat Yourself
They say it’s the little things, and I couldn’t agree more (Heyyyyy Crumbl, I’m looking at you!). What is something small that can help you light up your days in the final semester of the year? This doesn’t have to be anything over-the-top like a weekly massage (although, that does sound amazing). Maybe you decide to order food once a week for lunch or pick up Starbucks on the way to work on Fridays.
By sprinkling in these little moments of joy, you can find yourself appreciating all the small things in life. It really can brighten your day, and again, help you look forward to your next sweet treat.
#5 Bring Back the Fun
Remember during summer when you were doing all the fun things? Book club with friends. Visits to the zoo with kids. Days out by the pool. While the pool may not be an option in December, keeping the fun in your life is.
It’s easy for us to get swept up in teaching, but I encourage you not to ditch the hobbies and activities that you participated in during the summer. Pick one fun activity you can bring back, even if it’s just once a month. This can help you feel like a person and not just a teacher.
#6 Ask for Support
This should actually be #1. When you are feeling all those icky signs of burnout that leave you feeling exhausted, it’s time to reach out for support. Ask your team, your mentor, your admin, your office staff, etc. for the support you need. Whether that is a day off, a bathroom break, or for someone to make a few quick copies, there is probably someone there who can happily make it happen!
No matter how the first semester went, remember that things can always get better AND you’re an amazing teacher for showing up every day, especially when it’s hard.