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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I'm just going to come out and say it: I'm burnt out.

I didn't realize I was burning out. I only noticed when it was too late. I've always been the type of teacher who's tired at the end of the school year because I've given my all -- every day -- for the past nine months. I've learned to master that type of tired when May and June roll around. However, being burnt out is something completely different. It is something that needs to be caught as soon as possible so that steps can be taken to put the frazzled teacher back in a good place. In this series of posts, I'm going to share with you the different ways to identify, deal with and prevent Teacher Burnout for you and your staff.

This time, let's talk about calling the problem by its real name. After all, one of the most important things to do with any problem is identify it. Teacher Burnout is actually a sneaky guy. He will creep up out of nowhere and pounce on the most vulnerable of teachers. Following are some key signs to look for in yourself and in other teachers, signs that can help identify when Teacher Burnout has become a problem.

1. Missing in Action

Teachers dealing with Teacher Burnout will often stop attending social gatherings and lunches. They feel overwhelmed and have no desire to be around other people that seem to be doing great. These teachers will also start to take mental health days to try regrouping for the final few weeks of school. They will stop participating in meetings and will no longer join the email exchanges during the school day. Teachers dealing with burnout will cut themselves off from the rest of the world until the end of the school year.

2. The End of Sharing

Sharing is no longer a priority for a teacher dealing with burnout. The emails sharing lessons or ideas for units will stop as all focus turns to just making it through the day. The confidence level drops and the fear of sharing bad lessons is high. These teachers find it hard to talk about new ideas or plans for the next school year. They are mired in funk and can only think about the next 24 hours. Even that is tiring for them.

3. Complaint Department

A teacher who is dealing with burnout will rarely talk with peers. However, when he or she does talk, it is nothing but complaints. These complaints will be about students, parents, staff and people in the room. Everything is wrong, and nothing is going to be fixed, so why bother? This attitude will persist for the rest of the meeting and the rest of the school year. Teacher Burnout is a dark place, and only complaints can live there.

4. The Spark is Gone

This is one of those things that only educators can really see. When you have The Spark, you can see it in others -- and you can tell when it is gone. The Spark is something in a teacher's smile when he or she greets students. The Spark is there when a teacher high-fives a student who does well on a test. The Spark is in those tear-filled eyes when a graduate returns to thank that special teacher for caring. There is nothing worse than seeing a teacher who has lost The Spark. The Spark is the driving force in everything we do as teachers. It carries us through the bad times and the darkest times. When The Spark is gone, it's up to other teachers to reach out and help as soon as possible before it's too late.

These are not the only symptoms of Teacher Burnout, but they are the most glaring warning signs that teachers can use to identify colleagues who might be dealing with burnout. In future posts, I will share with you the different ways that teachers and administrators can help combat burnout. The most important thing I want to leave you with is that you are not alone. Educators around the world are dealing with burnout -- and it can be overcome!

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misciel lauren's picture
misciel lauren
College Professor

I've seen a lot recently about "signs of teacher burnout" or "how to avoid teacher burnout," but what if you are already there? How do you come back from the sensation of having all your efforts fall into an unappreciated black hole? /sigh

Mark Alberstein's picture
Mark Alberstein
Retired public school teacher, 38 years experience, grades 1 -12.

Identifying burnout and developing recovery strategies are both worthy endeavors, but they pale in comparison to identifying the causes of burnout and implementing strategies to prevent it in the first place. A good place to start is to talk to teachers who have been on the job for a long time and yet have experienced no burnout at all. What did they do differently? What support did they receive that others perhaps did not receive? Contact me for some detailed info.

RHHSJBJones's picture

I like reading Louis Schmeir's "RANDOM THOUGHTS" BLOG - he did write every Friday until he retired from Valdosta State University in GA. Now he writes periodically but his BLOGS go back for several years on the web; you can buy his books [compilation of his BLOG entries] through Amazon; he has a great sense of purpose and connections with the youth of today and parents who were his students many years ago. I quote from him periodically in my presentations; have email him complements and add-ons to his BLOGS - he is a great writer. His statement of purpose for teaching can help anyone who wants o teach better understand the whys and hows and help keep the focus on the outcomes instead of the daily "bovine meadow" muffins we encounter.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi -----,
From me: it sounds like you're doing awesome this yea! Keep it up!

I've been there. I spent years in my previous school basically ignored except for when things went wrong. Sometimes even now it's hard when dealing with adult problems in my current school.

One of my first recommendations, honestly, is to take a look at your work routines and schedule and see how you might be able to tighten things up so you aren't always the first to arrive and last to leave. Working hard is important, but if you're always at work, you don't leave yourself much time to be just you, and not teacher you. If need be, sign up to take a class or go to an activity that's completely different from what you do in the classroom. It will refresh you to focus on something just for you that you're passionate about, and it will probably still spark great new ideas that you can bring back to your classroom.

Second, mix it up in your classroom. Espcially as you approach the last weeks of school, this is a great time to do stuff that's fun while still focused on learning. Play new games and do silly things with your students. Get hands-on activities going. Tap into your students' passions. Start a genius hour or innovation day project. Run a student Edcamp in your classroom.

Finally, check out opportunities to connect with other teachers outside of your school. Being here on Edutopia is a good start! Get on Twitter or find a good teacher Facebook group to join. There's a nice, budding #education community on Tumblr. There's lots of great teacher ideas on Pinterest. I first joined Twitter when I was at my most lonely in my work in my previous school, and it really energized me, let me know that I wasn't alone with my crazy ideas, and connected me to people who pushed me to be better.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

Misciel - You're right. There are a lot of blogs on "signs of teacher burnout." We find that if people are more aware of signs before it gets too bad, it's a more pro-active approach (and easier to remedy).

While this is not exactly what you're talking about, this author also wrote this blog: "Teacher Burnout: Start Preventing It Now!" http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teacher-burnout-start-preventing-now-nichol.... It talks about pro-active ways to get back on track.

I'm also going to suggest your specific idea to our editorial team. I'm thinking a personal account of a teacher who was completely burnt out and was able to turn it around.

And..just know..you are appreciated. As Dan talked about above, make an effort to get on Twitter -- it's such a supportive network and I know so many educators who otherwise would've left the profession but their support network on Twitter kept them going. Reach out if you need help getting started.

Nicholas Provenzano's picture
Nicholas Provenzano
High School English Teacher/The Nerdy Teacher
Blogger 2014

I understand your frustration. I think many teachers have been in positions where they feel left out or ignored in their building. It stinks. I used to dwell on the times where I felt I should at least get a head nod from someone.

I agree with Dan when he says it is good to find other things to keep you busy and supported. I met Dan through Twitter and he is one of nerdiest/nicest guys I know. I also love to read my comic books and work in the garden. I've learned to not live or die by the appreciation of my colleagues. I do not teach them, I teach the students. Their smiles and thank yours, along with their parents, is all I need.

Teaching is filled with the lowest lows and the highest highs and they can come minutes apart. Understand that you are not alone in feeling this and there is a community out there ready to embrace you and help in any way that they can.

Feel free to connect with me on Twitter @TheNerdyTeacher. I'm happy to help in any way that I can.


Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

Hi Misciel! I totally know what you mean. I find that when I'm struggling, I do best if I get away completely- even if only for a few hours. I draw hard boundaries between work and home- I turn off my email on my phone, acknowledge that I can't possibly do everything that's being asked of me, prioritize what I'm doing when I'm *at work* so I can get the most important stuff done, and I let myself be okay with not getting it all done. I know that we all want to be the absolute best we can be, but being your best self (personally and professionally) requires that you take care of yourself. Step away from everything you can- and you can absolutely step away from more than you think you can. Take honest stock of the situation and select only the most vital things to give your precious energy to.

There's some good stuff at the end of this Forbes article. (I think the plethora of articles on this topic right now speaks to our shared exhaustion and overwhelm.)


Good luck!

Mrs. R's picture
Mrs. R
Online health and pe teacher in minnesota

I wish I had had this information years ago. I think it might have helped me with my burnout but I don't know. Because of state funding issues (or lack of) so many Health and PE teachers in my urban district were cut in the spring and then rehired in the fall but never in the same place. I was placed in 9 schools in 7 years. Being certified K-12 I never knew where, let alone what or what age I would be teaching. I had to learn new curriculum just about every year. I had always loved my job and my students but I found myself building walls around myself. Not healthy for my students and not healthy for me. That's when I decided I needed to retire from the classroom. Luckily I found a new zest for teaching when I accepted a position teaching online. I love it, the staff, and the kids and feel I have my "spark" back. Knowing what to look for and how to deal with it can make a big difference for our mental health so we can take care of ourselves.

Bruce Newcomer, M. Ed's picture
Bruce Newcomer, M. Ed
K-5 ELL Teacher

The last couple of months of the school year can be nerve-wrecking. The pressure to finish the curriculum and standards for the year are enough pressure in itself. Add to the mix updating student records, end-of-year assessments, inventory of classroom/grade level materials, awards ceremonies, and closing out after-school and extracurricular activities for the year. For the teachers who like to give their all, that's a lot to give one's all to in a few weeks.

Throughout the school year, including the last couple of months, teachers need to self-reflect, keeping ourselves from burning out. Thank you for this post.

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