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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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10 Steps for Avoiding Teacher Burnout

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

"Why did I want to be a teacher?" We all face burnout, sometimes on a daily basis, and in my case, especially after fourth period. Most of the time, we can pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and go back to the drawing board to try another strategy to find success with student learning. I have to admit that it is getting more and more difficult to make that transition back to a willingness to try again. I can't help to think students are more difficult than they used to be a few years ago, and pressures from accountability are becoming more oppressive. And of course, the pay for teachers is inadequate. With all of this we may ask, is it worth it?

Rather than provide a list of things to avoid, I would like to take a more proactive stance by sharing things that will help diminish burnout feelings and help you answer, yep, it is worth it.

Step #1) Have Fun Daily with Your Students

Share jokes, brief stories, puzzles, brain teasers, etc. This keeps it interesting for you and for your students. It only takes a minute and they are easy to align to the topic of the day.

Step #2) Take Care of Your Health

The physical status of your body affects your emotional responses, so never feel guilty about taking care of yourself. Skipping lunch or breakfast are bad ideas. Make sure you get enough sleep each day. Take a rejuvenating micro-nap when you get home. Get some better shoes to put a spring in your step. I used to think that I was an active teacher and did not need exercise, but I realized that I need cardio-vascular and upper body exercise, too. Thirty minutes on a treadmill, two days a week will do wonders. Simple pushups strengthen your abdomen, back, and arms. You will be surprised at how much it helps you not be worn out at the end of the day.

Step #3) Learn Something New and Share It with Your Students

Read an interesting book -- education or non-education related. I have been reading, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way from Amanda Ripley. It is interesting and education related, so I don't feel guilty about taking time away from lesson planning and grading. Read a classic that you have always wanted to read but never got around to reading. Watch a TED Talk or go to Iuniversity and find something interesting about brain research (that's what I like to explore anyway).

Step #4) Help Another Teacher

Share your motivating experiences locally or online. Edutopia is always here for that. If you take the time to respond to a blog, you may be surprised at the response. Start your own uplifting blog to help beginning teachers or nearly burned out ones. Be active in your professional organization by volunteering to teach, facilitate, or prepare workshops. Mentor another teacher, either formally or informally. We can all use as much help as we can get.

Step #5) Make Someone's Day

Call a parent and tell them how good their student is. Find a student that is struggling and sincerely complement him or her on something they are doing well. Show gratitude for an administrator, or fellow teacher by sending them an appreciative note, giving them a hug, or presenting to them a small gift.

Step #6) Lighten Up

Smile (it's after Christmas and it's ok). Try looking in the mirror, putting on a smile and then try not smiling for real. It is nearly impossible. So try smiling when you do not feel like smiling. When you greet your students at the door, smile at them and a miracle happens: They will smile back.

Step #7) Be a Scientist

Experiment with new strategies and become an expert in them. Ask your students to help. Do a control group and an experimental group. Document your results and share them at a faculty meeting or a conference. Celebrate success.

Step #8) Look for the Positive

Be a voice for positive thinking, even in the staff lounge. It won't change the situations, but you will feel better and others might be uplifted too. While teaching is hard, it is not all bad. Half empty glasses are not nearly as exciting as half full ones.

Step #9) Redecorate

Switch out the bulletin boards, move the desks, and adjust the lighting. Add your favorite smells or be adventurous with new ones. I found interesting ones: rhubarb, teak wood, and Hawaiian breeze (usually spray, or solid.) Check with your schools policy about bringing plug-in oil or scented wax warmers.

Step #10) Trust Students More

Let the students know that you will be trusting them more and give them opportunities to earn your trust. Try some project-based learning. Develop strong rubrics, share them with students, and then let them learn as you facilitate and coach.

Turning Things Around

It seems it is easier to fall into the trap of pessimism and negativity because of all the (okay, I will say it) "garbage" teachers have to endure, but that does not have to be our choice. We can choose our attitude, and choosing to do proactive things like those I listed above will go a long way in helping us keep our sanity and avoiding burnout. What helps you keep plugging away? Please share in the comments section below.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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FunWithLanguageSpain's picture
FunWithLanguageSpain
BIlingual Teacher

Thank you for these wonderful suggestions. Luckily I'm not burned out and have used some of these ideas in the past 13 years that I've been teaching which keep me energized. Learning new ideas always inspires me. Cheers to motivate teachers and students!

Shelley- TheWriteStuff's picture
Shelley- TheWriteStuff
2nd grade teacher in British Columbia, Canada

Great article Ben! I am all about #teacherwellness and use the hashtag often. :) I will be sharing this so others can see your suggestions. Thanks!

VeteranTeacher's picture

Our burnout at our school mostly stems from a principal who does not support us. Your suggestions here are nothing new. Our school population is on the wrong side of the tracks; well loved strategies as well as new ones are not as likely to be successful as a school population in an affluent neighborhood. In our case, it is this unfortunate set of factors, a transient population, and the principal who believes that all negative situations can magically be solved with positive relationships (as if that is not the first thing we fine teachers try to do).

Brenda Lamb's picture

Veteran Teacher is absolutely correct!!!! I went from teaching at a school where the SES was not so low to a school the is "on the other side of the tracks" - our Administration is the exact same way. It's sad because students never learn there are consequences for your actions. When everything is excused away because they don't have the best home life - or enough money - or whatever the battle is - we're completely setting them up for failure in real life. When teachers are never backed up, it creates a lot of unnecessary negativity within the school - we set students up for failure and manage to take away the safety that should be within a classroom. It completely saps teacher morale because we know that there is no backup for us in the office.

Lisa LIght's picture

I really appreciated the comments and ideas that Ben writes about. it is the end of a long school year and we all need to be thinking about ways to stay motivated until June. I am a huge fan of using humor in the classroom and with peers. I work in a school where most of the students live in poverty and have multiple behavioral issues and social problems. To be able to choose to smile and laugh about things sure beats living in frustration and hopelessness.

Lisa LIght's picture

I am so sorry that you are working with a principal who doesn't support you. It makes such a difference to have a principal who backs his teachers. I also work at a school on the "wrong" side of the tracks with a transient population. The beauty of our principal is that he worked at the school very recently as a teacher so he understands what we deal with on a day to day basis. He also has enough confidence in us that he lets us do our jobs without micromanaging. I wish everyone could have this!

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