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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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5 Tips for Avoiding Teacher Burnout

Mary Beth Hertz

K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

I've read a lot of articles about preventing teacher burnout, so a new list is probably not that unique. However, as I reflected on what causes burnout, on times when I came pretty close to feeling burnout, and on times when I watched my colleagues burn out around me, I realized that many internal and external factors can lead to teacher burnout -- some that teachers themselves can control and some that they can't. Here are five big factors that play a part in teacher burnout, along with tips on how to prevent these factors from burning you out.

1) Maintain Your "Other" Life

It's OK if teaching is your life as long as you have a life outside of your classroom. I see this a lot in new teachers, especially if they are in their early 20s and just starting out. You want to be the best teacher you can. You've been dreaming of this moment for years. Now you're here and determined to launch headfirst into an instantly successful career. You're figuring out lesson planning, grading, managing student behavior, and classroom procedures. You're up until midnight and up at 6:00 AM. Your weekends are spent grading and planning. This is an easy road to burnout. Go for a short weekend trip, get lunch with an old friend, go to the gym during the week, or go for a bike ride. (Exercise relieves stress!) Spend some time when you are not thinking about the classroom, and stay connected to your support group of friends and family.

2) Be a Stakeholder When Changes Are Made

Too much change stretches teachers thin and leads to burnout. Include teachers in conversations about changes, and make changes transparent. I have seen the downside of change in the schools I've worked in over the years. It seems like the administration changes the discipline policy and procedures every week. The school started the year with a new reading program only to find out that they'll be using a different one next year. Lunch procedures are revised and changed with no explanation in what seems like a haphazard way throughout the year. Teachers are moved from grade to grade or subject to subject despite their experience with specific grade levels or subject areas. After enough of these hasty, frequent changes, teachers begin to feel as though they've lost all control over their day-to-day experiences and responsibilities. This leads to unwillingness to go out on a limb, try new things or put in too much effort -- why bother when everything could change on a whim? This takes the passion out of teaching and turns it into a guessing game of what will come next.

If a change needs to be made, be transparent about why this change is happening and, whenever possible, include the affected teachers in the process and avoid sudden changes that appear to come out of nowhere. Always think about how a change will affect teachers and staff and plan accordingly.

3) Find Lessons and Opportunities in Everything

One of the easiest ways to burn out as a teacher is to get stuck in the same routine and practices year after year. Keep it fresh by reading new research on teaching, and by learning, talking, and collaborating with peers inside and outside of your school building. Attend conferences and other structured learning activities. Take on a leadership role in your school through which you can learn new skills or build new connections. Share what you're doing in your classroom with peers, solicit feedback, and revise your lessons. Oh, and read. A lot. Always keep learning. Always keep it fresh.

4) Nurture Peer Connections

Give teachers opportunities to connect with each other about their teaching. When they don't have time or opportunities to connect, share, and plan together during the day, they start feeling isolated. Isolation can easily lead to burnout if you feel like you're all alone, figuring things out by yourself, and having few connections within the building. Feeling part of a team, knowing what others are doing in their classrooms, and seeing how your work fits into the bigger picture is motivating, inspiring, and increases feelings of self-worth. Give teachers across grade levels or subject areas the time they need to share student work, units they're teaching, and ideas they're working on. Give them opportunities to watch each other teach in a non-threatening, collegial way.

5) Keep It Light

Incorporate humor and laughter into your classroom. Putting on a serious face every day, day after day, is hard. There's an old adage that says teachers shouldn't smile until winter break or they'll never be able to manage their class. Sure, it's important to be clear about expectations, and sometimes you need to put your foot down. But who wants to sit in a classroom where no one smiles and everything is super-serious all the time? It's OK to have a good time in the classroom and enjoy yourself. Your students will appreciate your class more, and you will win them over if you seem like you're having a good time! Teachers have bad days just like anyone, and sometimes we need humor to brighten our day. Letting some humor and laughter into your classroom and making it a pleasant place to be will help counteract feelings of burnout.

Does your school take steps to counteract burnout? Please share in the comments section below.

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Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educational Consultant/Author, Southern California

Terrific article. And yes, keep it light. A silly joke or activity that gets the kids standing up for a minute or two--all very healthy.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

I think the tricky thing about burnout is that it masquerades as other things. First you're a little tired, then a little late, then a little distracted and suddenly you're a LOT tired, late and distracted. The system seems to even encourage it- teachers who are first in/ last out receive kudos for their commitment and passion. I'd love to hear about admins who encourage teachers to get out of the building, work fewer hours, take time to take care of themselves and their families rather than rewarding all the behaviors that we know lead to burnout.

Thanks so much for this. It should be shared liberally!

MissPerry7's picture
MissPerry7
Grade 2 Teacher from Scranton, PA

I'm convinced that the positive climate and happy exchanges in my room are what makes our learning so meaningful. "Keeping it light," to me, isn't a trick to avoid burnout. It's a daily practice that makes our school day successful.
Thanks for this list! With 21 school days left, I will definitely be using these tips.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
Blogger

Very true, Laura. It's kind of like a downward spiral. I think strong school leaders see their teachers as human beings, just as strong classroom teachers see their students as human beings first. A school community that serves the person first and the educator/educated second thrives.

MissPerry7's picture
MissPerry7
Grade 2 Teacher from Scranton, PA

You hit the nail on the head, Mary Beth... See your students as human beings first. If we, as educators, all saw our students this way, I believe our success rate would be raised exponentially.

John Liptak's picture
John Liptak
Associate Director of Career Services at a University

Thank you for your article on the topic of burnout for teachers. I have done some research on the topic of burnout and burnout is one of those interesting topics in which more people are actually burned out than the statistics cited. Burnout actually affects many more people who simply feel they are stressed-out. It is important for teachers to understand the signs of burnout as they progress through their careers. I have identified three types of stressors that can actually lead to burnout: Personal factors such as type-A Personality and an inability to relax; Organizational factors such as changes in the school system; and Structural factors such as feeling as if you have a lack of control.

Hugh Kingsley (thebrainary.com) has great materials for helping teachers and helping professionals to learn more effective ways of dealing with burnout.

Fay Asistol's picture
Fay Asistol
Intermediate teacher from Manila, Philippines

Thank you for this wonderful article, very enlightening indeed! The only thing I think about whenever i am already close to getting this "teacher burnout" is the realization that teaching is not just a mere job, it is supposed to be a vocation, a calling, otherwise you will really end up getting afflicted with this.

Sue Long's picture

As the retired administrator of an alternative school for at-risk students, I worked hard at relieving stress for our staff. Each morning we would meet for a short time. We started with a joke that various staff members were responsible for. Next we related something positive that happened the day before. We had a system for allowing students to spend varying amounts of time in another room, just so the teacher could catch his/her breath if necessary. Monthly we would have a half day in-service day: we would go out to lunch together -- often on my dime -- and then head for an activity: bowling, pottery making, etc. We also kept a dartboard for teachers to use at the end of the day -- sometimes the dartboard received a name (student or parent). I was often asked how I managed to maintain a stable staff in an alternative program. My answer was a book I receive upon becoming an administrator: If You Don't Feed the Teachers, They'll Eat the Students!!! It helped!!! Maintaining a sense of humor was key!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

I love that book! I used it in a teacher evaluation and professional learning course I taught in a local district years ago. The content isn't that groundbreaking, but the general idea it espouses is priceless.

Sounds like you were an excellent admin.

Wendy P.'s picture

Mary Beth, you have offered some great advice on how to avoid teacher burnout. I will keep these in mind as I start the new school year in two weeks. I have read several articles and books with chapters that focus on teacher burnout/rustout and how to avoid it. We must learn to be proactive instead of reactive to prevent the negative, destructive results of this occupational hazard. I encourage you to read "On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension" by Jeffrey A. Kottler, Stanley J. Zehm, and Ellen Kottler focusing on Chapter 7: On Avoiding Burnout and Rustout.

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