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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 (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sped62's picture

I have been teaching students with special needs for the past 15 years, and occasionally I do feel burned out. But only occasionally. 'The ideas in this article really do work.
I also find it helpful to not get into energy zapping work drama.
In order to have a positive relationship with administration, I make a point of letting my principal know that she is always welcome in my room. She stops by a few times a week, just to tell my students hello. They are very short, (1 minute or less) positive, powerful encounters. My students love her. What a great support!

JudyB's picture

Ben Johnson has some great ideas and I will definitely try some of them. Here are some things I also do to help avoid burnout:
1. Every Friday after school I grab the finished work basket, take off my shoes, put on some great music, and spend 30 minutes just grading papers. It gets rid of a stack and eases my mind.
2. When I'm exhausted, I get a cup of hot tea and just walk around the school saying Hi and chatting with fellow teachers for a few minutes. It always rejuvenates me.
3. Like Ben Johnson says, I also try to liven things up with humor in the classroom. I try to find a funny video or something that is related to our studies and show it to the kids. We all laugh and I feel better.
4. Cleaning. There is something therapeutic about cleaning the classroom. I can see the progress and improvement and I just feel like I've accomplished something. Very helpful on those tough days when it seems like I didn't teach anything.
5. Chat with the kids. I love doing this. Have a class discussion about something small (a favorite food or something) and don't try to monitor it or anything. We get to know each other better and usually make each other laugh at one point or another.
6. Music. Depending on my mood, I put on some jazz, blues, rock, r&b, whatever and just blast it while I work after school or sometimes during lunch.
Anyway, these things help me. Hope they help others, too! :-)

K Champion's picture

I love these ideas. The only one I think should be altered is the bringing in scents. The synthetic chemicals used to make the scents described in the article often contain carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, they are also allergens for enough people they are banned in many school districts. If your interested in learning more about this here is a link to a summary of the science behind phthalates, a common endocrine disruptor, http://www.breastcancerfund.org/clear-science/radiation-chemicals-and-br...

Catalina Nichols's picture
Catalina Nichols
3rd grade teacher. San Jose, California

JudyB, I do 4, 5, and 6. There are times when I want to play so I play 4-square, jumprope, or kickball with the kids at recess (and I don't have yard duty). Its interesting how playing with only 2 students quickly becomes a crowd of a dozen students wanting to join in the fun. I love that I have this chance to meet kids from other classrooms and grades.

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

I just want to say that I absolutely *love* this blog. I've been following the conversation about this post on Twitter and Facebook and many pointed out that these tips work for any profession and I agree.

I also just came across this excellent blog by educator Pernille Ripp on making the last days of school count -- It's inspiring:

http://pernillesripp.com/2014/04/23/make-each-day-count/

sspencer's picture

"Step #10 - Trust students more"
So much truth in these few words! I have found that the more trust and responsibility I place in my students, the more they will trust and value me, ultimately resulting in higher quality work. So few teachers will allow students to actually take ownership of their own learning and personal progress that students can feel powerless and frustrated. In my experience, the more I trust my students, the more they will step up and amaze me, and often amaze themselves.

Jennifer Hill's picture
Jennifer Hill
Spanish Teacher from New England, Health & Wellness Educator for Adults

What a great post! Teachers especially need to be reminded to do #2, Take care of our health. When things get stressful or busy, we tend to put everyone else's needs ahead of our own. For that reason, and others, I am leading a holistic health program online, and have a generous discount for my fellow teachers. You can check it out at www.jenniferhill.me/po3-educators :)

Cynthia Pilar's picture
Cynthia Pilar
doctoral student

It has been my experience that there is often a "brown out" phase before true burn out sets in and it's at that point that new stimulus, interests and rejuvenation can be helpful. Teachers, like all professionals, can get into a rut and routinized behaviors can make the job mundane and uninteresting. I think continuing to learn is absolutely critical - stimulating the mind about aspects of the job that one is curious and trying new approaches can be invigorating. I think it is the individual teacher's responsibility, not the administrator's, to stay current and interested in the job. Burned out teachers can have a negative effect on staff morale and students deserve teachers who are still interested and enthused about their work.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Facilitator 2014
Staff

Cynthia said, "I think it is the individual teacher's responsibility, not the administrator's, to stay current and interested in the job."

That may be true, but it's just as critical for administrators to create a culture that supports that kind of teacher engagement. Check out Dan Callahan's advice to administrators in this discussion about teacher loss of heart: http://www.edutopia.org/groups/education-leadership/789411

I think he nails it.

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