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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Author Vicki Davis surrounds herself with sayings and thoughts to help her stay positive.

"Our very lives are fashioned by choice. First we make choices. Then our choices make us." - Anne Frank

A tired teacher is a powder keg waiting for a match. In my bouts with burnout, I've learned that stepping back from the brink is about choice. These 12 choices have helped me recover and be a better teacher for my students.

Choice #1: Choose to Be Happy

First, happiness is a choice. Choose to be the first one to smile at everybody you meet. Choose to greet your students by name.

Use happy triggers to boost your mood when you get upset. I have a Pinterest Board called Happy Thoughts and another called Things That Make Me Laugh. The "Atta Girl" folder in my desk holds nice notes.

Choice #2: Choose to Disconnect

We are making a dumb use of our smartphones. Instead of freeing us up to go anywhere anytime, they've tethered us to a hamster wheel. Usually, I check email twice a day. I deleted my school email off my smartphone after several evenings because of an angry email. (We all get them.) Unplug once a week. Be a human being, not a human doing.

Choice #3: Choose to Be Mindful

Mindfulness is being called society’s next wonder drug. Some meditate or practice yoga -- I pray every morning at 5 AM for at least 20 minutes. I find a sense of peace that centers me upon what is important.

Choice #4: Choose to Make Time for Sleep

Sleep loss harms your thinking, your health, and your mood. Psychologist Norbert Schwarz says, "Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night."

Realize that watching your favorite movie may not be restful when you're exhausted. Go to sleep early with your cell phone in the kitchen where it can't wake you.

Choice #5: Choose to Get Outside and Get Moving

Last year when I was in charge of prom on top of everything else, I was close to quitting. So my principal and I had an honest conversation about my struggle to stay grounded. I asked to take a 15-minute walk during morning break every day until I could get through it. Thankfully, he agreed. I packed my tennis shoes and kept them at school. It worked.

Boston University psychology professor Michael Otto says, "Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise, you get a mood-enhancement effect." Exercise is shown to be a powerful intervention for clinical depression, diabetes, and anxiety. Even five minutes of green exercise (outdoors) is also shown to boost your mood. So get outside and exercise.

Choice #6: Choose to Be Grateful

Research studies have shown that keeping a gratitude journal will "increase your long-term well-being more than winning a million dollars in the lottery." I keep a joy journal by my desk and write in it every day.

Choice #7: Choose What to Overlook

"The greatest remedy for anger is delay." - Seneca

Understand that you're working with others who are almost (if not more) burned out than you. Therefore, count on everyone being fussy, cranky, and tired. Let it go. Studies show that patients who've had heart attacks can improve their well-being by practicing forgiveness and working to be less angry.

Sometimes our biggest enemy is the perfect person we try to be. My kids will be happier eating a frozen lasagna from a happy Mom than a home-cooked meal served by a witch.

Choice #8: Choose the Battles Worth Fighting

Most situations that educators regret "caving in on" are those that happen in these exhausting end-of-school months. Parents are emotional. Kids are emotional, and we educators are tired of fighting the battle. Choose to fight only for what matters.

Choice #9: Choose What to Do Next Time and What to Stop Doing

Arthur Gordon says to learn to say "next time" instead of "if only." Make the mistakes of your past a signpost, not a hitching post. Remember your mistakes, but keep your eyes facing front toward your current surroundings.

There are times to say, "There will not be a next time. Enough." Some places should be left. Some relationships should be severed. Some organizations should become part of your past. Not all the time, but sometimes.

Choice #10: Choose to Enjoy the Relationships That Matter

Don’t be so busy making a living that you forget to make time for living. You have relationships and hobbies. Keep them in your life.

When facing burnout, I plot my big projects on a chart based upon my "upset factor" (on the left) and how quickly I can get the work done (on the top). Set an appointment for each task.

Credit: Vicki Davis

Choice #11: Choose to Make a Schedule and Priority List

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg shares how the things that you schedule on your calendar are more likely to be the "done" items that you check off your list. Schedule important tasks.

Choice #12: Choose to Finish Well

No matter how you started the year, choose to finish well. This is also your decision.

In the long run, a burned out teacher is of no use to her students or herself. You can choose to step back. You can do this, teacher! Your calling is noble, but you must sometimes regroup and adjust to make it.

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Tess's picture


I enjoyed this article and I believe it offered a lot of great tips. I am an educator as well as a parent. The one suggestion I have to educators is to collaborate with one another. Find out if other educators have a big project that students need to complete at the same time you are expecting a project to be completed. As a parent, I struggle with my sons to complete their homework--it can be a huge battle. The reason why is because they have homework from several different teachers. Some of the homework involves at least an hour of their time to complete. If my children have several teachers expecting them to complete an hour's worth of homework that evening...the battle begins. My children are burned out after 2 hours of homework--so am I. We all need time to relax and enjoy the outdoors or simply "being" versus "doing" like the article stated. If we battled the night before, I can tell you the next day my children are grumpy and uncoorperative at best. So if it happens to be a school day, you may feel my child does not care because of his attitude. When in reality it was a reflection of the battle from the night before. So I, as a parent and educator, ask you to please talk to one another to find out how much homework is going home and maybe space it out a bit. Do not have major projects due at the same time because a whole weekend can be taken up by simply doing homework. Then the children do not get the break that they need. Also, not all homes are created equal. Some children's parents work weekends, holidays, evenings, and nights. So the parent may be so exhausted and unable to help with homework because they worked the whole weekend or the evening/night shift. This is especially true for those who work in the healthcare field (i. e. doctors, nurses, CNAs, etc). A lot of healthcare workers work 12 hour shifts. Firefighters and paramedics work 24 hour shifts. Just food for thought....

Thanks, Tess

taja_tt's picture
TAJA TT® a paradigm changing teaching system

Dear Vicki Davis,

I feel you, really I do. You are really moving through some "s***" on a holistic level and being able to keep on stepping up and write this article for others is noble. big thumbs up.

my thoughts on your 12,

#1, yea! check out Louise Hay's work, we certainly have the power to choose, and if we don't take advantage we lose it and we choose to suffer.
#2, yea! I haven't shut off my phone for whole day in a while, maybe next monday(?) thanks for aiding my mindfulness of choice around this issue.
#3 YEA! without it the other 11 won't happen ;-)

#13 unlock your teaching creativity by teaching with another teacher yea!
#14 unlock your teaching innovation by teaching with another teacher, double yea!
#15 reduce your time and energy used per class by teaching with another teacher
16 enjoy more joy by inspiring your students while you access their modern psychological makeup in a way one teacher in a classroom never can
17. less, the burnout. more, the art of teaching. yea....!!!!!

check out my website to learn more.

wishing you Peace, Harmony and Prosperity

Rebecca's picture

Looks like the same issues pervade across the continents. Hard to be positive when your work load increases exponentially and your biological children tell you they despise your job as you seem to care more about the children in your class. Fine to say have time to yourself, but hard when your bosses demand more and more of you and seem oblivious to the stress of their staff. I find it hard that my so called regular job is seven days a week, then there's preparation once my sons are in bed, often until 11pm. Yes, I kind of guess how easy burm out happens.

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Teaching Middle School 'Technology, Engineering & Design' in Northfield, NJ

Rebecca, we've all been there. Let's try something. Can you name three things, if you were able to accomplish/change, that would make it easier to deal? Hint: winning the largest lottery prize in the history of North America doesn't count...seriously, you'll see where I'm going with this in a bit (if you want to keep talking...)

Erin Cote's picture

Wonderful article. I especially love Choices 7-9 as I think they are super relevant as an educator at the end of the year. Hoping to just get through the year by not sweating the small stuff and understanding my students are as tired as I am.

Debra Johnson's picture

Vicki and fellow responders, there is such wisdom in your posts. The strategy that kept me going during the last few years of my 31-year teaching career was reminding myself -- every single day -- that, for some students, we are the BEST thing in their lives. Even when we can't see immediate results, our interactions with students matter. We can't know every hurdle our students face and, even if we did, we can't fix all their problems. What we CAN do is serve as a constant in their lives. The best curriculum delivered using the best teaching strategies available won't reach students unless they feel valued and safe in their learning environment. Take time to build your classroom community. It will provide a foundation that allows you and your students to keep your balance when challenges arise.

taja_tt's picture
TAJA TT® a paradigm changing teaching system

It's a system issue, a fundamental problem with our socio-economic value system, where one of the most important professions of mankind is given little to no creative license and control and is financially belittled as the altruistic heart of teachers are taken advantage of. see table 2.2 in this article http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-05-07/presenting-best-and-worst-colle...
Burnout happens in any profession good or bad, loved or not, but in the current education and economic conditions it happens much easier. As I work personally to get TAJA's 2 teacher system rolling I am going to another school myself as i have found a down to earth, sincere, hard working supervisor in this new school that I see I will be able to work with, and that will make a big difference for me, but, in all honesty, the system is still basically the same, so in effect I am just putting a band aid on and keeping burn out an arms length away rather than pulling it out from the root. TAJA T2 goes to the root, changing schools and people will have to do for now though.

sincerely wishing you all the power to create the career you want,
peace and prosperity

Mrsdoos's picture

Thank you for this article. I really need it right now. With 4 more weeks to go, I feel like I'm crawling to the finish line! The one thing that really keeps me going is my coworkers. My school is a smaller school with a close-knit staff. We hold each other up. On any given day, if someone is down, the rest of us help them back up. Without these amazing people, I don't know if I would've made it this far! It helps to have coworkers who feel more like family than just someone you work with! It's valuable for our students, too. They see adults at school talking, laughing, and showing each other respect. Unfortunately, for many of our students, they don't see that at home. We are the only role models, structure and support that many of our students have.
It's also helpful to remember that the students are as tired as we are. I definitely have to remind myself of that every day!

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Teaching Middle School 'Technology, Engineering & Design' in Northfield, NJ

Great attitude and great school community, MrsDoos! You can do it! Keep going!

Cynthia Miller ASU Jonesboro's picture

Great suggestions, Vicki! I plan to share your article with Mentor and Novice Teacher teams attending my STEM Leadership Conference for K-12 Teachers, sponsored by Verizon, this summer at Arkansas State University. I plan to have the Mentor Teachers write a "If I Knew Then: A Letter to Me on my First Day of Teaching" to their Novice Teacher partner. And of course all teachers will be encouraged to sign up for Edutopia. Thanks Edutopia!

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