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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

Comments (27)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Carrie L. Patino's picture
Carrie L. Patino
Second Grade teacher from Modesto, CA

I've taught 27 years and pulled myself out of burnout several times. Once was after being harrassed by and administrator (who is no longer working for the district), and changing schools and grades to get away from that person. I pulled myself out of depression from it. But now I'm finding something going on that the above strategies won't all help. Things in our district have become unbelievably complicated. New administrators, new standards, new report cards, new math, too many students being pulled out, 120 minutes of language arts, 90 minutes of math, 30 minutes of P.E., 30 minutes of RTI, 30 minutes of EL student lessons, and all lessons must be taught under the EDI lesson plan, with total student engagement (all within a shorter period of time then all of that adds up to). I went from an 8 page gradebook to a 52 page grade system. I barely have time to do a bulletin board because every CCSS assignment requires an hour of correcting for a small stack of math papers because we are using Engage NY and don't have any answer keys, so we have to make those too. Did I mention we have to put together new homework that correlates to CCSS? I live in a place where we have a 22% poverty level and are on the list of ten least educated areas in the country. Every student in my classroom deserves a teacher who is focused and enjoys teaching. I love teaching and have committed my life to it, but for the first time, I feel like I am being handicapped by politics. I'm too exhausted at the end of the day to rearrange (which I used to love to do), and I am working about 6 to 8 hours every weekend. This is what happens when you take the creativity out of the job. How am I coping? I'm trying to have more fun when I can, I'm trying to get more sleep, and I'm trying to get over being a perfectionist. Mostly, I'm coming to terms with the fact that this isn't the job I signed up for and I spent a lot of money educating myself for a career that has been snatched from me. Still, I sneak 5 minutes a day to read one on one with each student, out of a book I chose that I know my student will enjoy. If I get in trouble for that, so be it.

BAlexan2's picture

Step #8: Look for the Positive:
I had to share this post with a couple of teachers in my school who have altogether stopped going to the teachers lounge because of all the negative talk that drains us even more than we already are. Great advice! Thanks for sharing!

liana Davis's picture
liana Davis
Teacher, Writer, Activist

Love this list, and after 4th period I am completely out too!

"Professor" Paul O. Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul O. Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University

We have to follow these 10 steps to avoid teacher burnout! I've been teaching for more than a third of century and I am still going strong! I am so glad I've been practicing many of these ten steps for quite a while! I always look for the positive and I always take care of my health! Learn to trust students more and be sincere with your approach and they will turn around and trust you even more!

Jay Burcham's picture
Jay Burcham
Director of Schools, Brentwood Christian School / Co-Founder & Author of Leaps by The Life Excelerator

EduWeek Teachers just posted a blog about how researchers are prescribing suggestions to retain teachers also. This rampant dissatisfaction and burnout of our educators is a huge threat to the success of our education system, but more importantly it underserves our students.

"Martin Luther King Jr. once stated that 'Intelligence plus character is the goal of a true education'. Mandates have replaced that with 'a high standardized test score is the goal of a true education'. Yet while testing is important and the United States must be the standard bearer for academic performance and ability, teaching to a test is not an education."

Annette Alvarez's picture

These are really useful tips, especially #4! I know I greatly appreciated when teachers offered their help and resources to me. Why start from scratch when veterans have the experience to kickstart newly minted educators?
I'm so grateful to a former colleague and current friend for all the lessons, advice, and encouragement she gave me, and now I'd like to pass some of it on to other teachers. Her teacher blog, http://laurarandazzo.com/, has tons of useful tips and even free lessons and presentations. She is on a mission to prevent English teacher burnout by sharing the wealth of knowledge she's amassed over the years. Check it out!

Brian Starling's picture

Being able to truly be myself has prevented me from the burnout that I had in previous years.
Worst advice I ever got as a beginning teacher: Don't smile before Christmas.
Best advice I ever got that changed things around: Smile from day one.

KMorash's picture

I struggled with deep depression and pessimism all throughout adolescence and worked very hard to get out of it. I've learned to overtly tell yourself to be positive and look for it in even the worst parts of your day.
I recently had a temp job working for a very critical boss. It kept weighing me down, but it didn't break me because I kept reacting professionally which made me happy to accomplish as a 20-something.
Smiling, even when you don't have anything about which to smile, helps you think positive.

Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

Very insightful KMorash, thanks for sharing. It must have been stressful to be under such intense scrutiny by your supervisor, good for you for keeping a brave face. I once had a teacher in high school who heavily pushed the "smiling for no reason" mentality. He claimed that awakening the facial muscles used when smiling also triggered a small release of endorphins & serotonin, hence "tricking" your body and improving your mood. Interesting stuff.

Owen Griffith's picture
Owen Griffith
4th Grade Teacher, Guitar Instructor and Blogger

I really like these ideas. Even implementing one or two can change the classroom. One thing I would add under suggestion #8-"Be More Positive" is to do a gratitude list about something positive happening in your classroom. We can find it if we look for it and then create more positive by focusing on it

Brian Starling's picture

Being able to truly be myself has prevented me from the burnout that I had in previous years.
Worst advice I ever got as a beginning teacher: Don't smile before Christmas.
Best advice I ever got that changed things around: Smile from day one.


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