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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!

Teacher Burnout Blog Series
Keep the flame alive!

Comments (30)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

David B. Cohen's picture
David B. Cohen
English teacher; NBCT; writer; consultant

Thank you for sharing this Nick - it's brave, and important to acknowledge. I think anyone who's been teaching long enough (about 18 years, in my case) can relate. Will keep reading.

Mike Anderson's picture
Mike Anderson
Educator, Consultant, Author

Nick...thanks for starting this conversation. This is a great time of year for people to take stock of their emotional states. I think many teachers feel burned out in May. I think a more alarming occurrence is when teachers feel this way in September. That's when it's time to take stock and figure out how to shake things up!

catherinen's picture

Thank you for sharing this Nick - it's brave, and important to acknowledge. I think anyone who's been teaching long enough (about 3 years, in my case) can relate. Will keep reading.

Catherine O'Brien's picture
Catherine O'Brien
I teach sustainable happiness.

I teach teachers and in my experience teachers often give so much of themselves to others that they neglect their own self care. One of the assignments that I always give students in my human relations course is a week of self-care. Their "homework" is to do something that week that nourishes their spirit and then share their activity with the class. Sometimes it simply involves reading a good book, visiting a friend, having a date night, starting a physical activity plan, or booking a massage. As you can imagine, my students love the assignment! I think it is important to send the message that taking care of oneself is vital. We also look at recognizing the signs of burn out and taking steps to prevent it.

Fern Green's picture

I appreciate those comments on teacher burnout. As one see teachers withdrawing at their work places or not getting involved it gives a sense of inability or that they just dont care. I anxiously await the suggestions on how teachers who are burntout can be helped.

Bart Welten's picture
Bart Welten
Passionately dedicated to pastoral education

Hey Nick, thanks. I honour you for your courage, and for your determination to continue walking the path and sharing your insights/lessons as you. I'll support you from afar, and look forward to reading alongside you man.

Raylean Allen's picture
Raylean Allen
Second Grade Teacher

When a teacher loses The Spark it is the saddest thing to witness. They do need support and encouragement from colleagues. This you should always be aware of some of the signs mentioned in your blog. Teaching is not an easy job, but it is even worst when you lose The Spark.

Tamsin Henry's picture
Tamsin Henry
Lecturer from South America

Thanks alot Nicholas, this is so enlightening.
I am so glad that you shared this information with us. As teachers we need to be aware of the various factors that affect our performances. If we are aware of this, we can urgently implement corrective measures to tackle this problem. Eventually, we will see changes in our personal and professional relationships. Right now I am experiencing some tiring days because the second semester ended on Friday and the third one begins next Monday. I will not get any recuperation time because I am currently marking examination scripts. I look forward to your next post as a form of motivation because I don't intend to fall prey to burnout of any form.

Amy's picture
Seventh grade reading teacher and Walden University student

I had not really considered the way I was feeling this year to be "burn out" but I have reconsidered. I use being the mother of three, a middle school teacher and full-time student as an excuse to work through lunch rather than eat in the faculty room, claiming, "I have so much to do and no other time to do it". Truthfully, I would rather be "Missing in Action", like you described it. With just a week left of school it is difficult to not feel drained. I find myself thinking, "I cannot do this anymore, not even one more week!" And yes, I find myself complaining more lately, also. "The Spark" you describe is not there for me, as it usually is. In previous years I have felt the end of the year was bitter-sweet. On the one hand,summer vacation is exciting! But on the other hand, I was sad to see my students go as I would miss them. This year, there is only one hand and it is thrilled for summer vacation!

I look forward to reading your tips for combating "burn out". I also agree with what Catherine O'Brien said in her reply, "I think it is important to send the message that taking care of oneself is vital", and I like her suggestions of reading a book, getting a massage and starting a physical activity plan.

"Burn out" is one of the topics we recently discussed in the course I am taking. I read the following, and thought it was worth sharing: "A support system that offers nurturance, compassion, understanding and direction is the single most important thing that you can do to keep yourself energized and to prevent rustout." (Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. )

Thank you.

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