If you’re a new teacher, maybe you’ll feel affirmed to know that researchers have found that the hardest stretch of the school year, especially for novice teachers, is late October to Thanksgiving break. By that time of the year, the rush and excitement of the start has faded, you’re tired, and you’re not yet seeing the impact of all the hard work you’re putting in—you aren’t yet seeing leaps in student learning.
Let me quickly define burnout. Burnout is physical and emotional exhaustion. It can manifest as low-level depression. It’s what happens as a result of unrelenting stress—both physical and emotional. And you can prevent it. You can recognize the indicators of burnout, you can boost your emotional resilience, and you can draw boundaries around what you do so that you can tend to your physical and emotional well-being.
Whether you’re in your first or 15th year of teaching, here are 10 tips for staying energized, at any point in the school year:
1. Care for your body. Prioritize sleep above all else. Aim for eight hours a night. There are many connections between sleep and emotional wellness. Eat nutritious food. Move your body. You know this, but I need to remind you.
2. Carve out downtime and honor it religiously. Make sure you take at least one weekend day off. During the week, be sure to stop working by 8 pm. You need to rest. Working yourself to the bone or martyring yourself to the cause is useless. It won’t ultimately serve you or your students.
3. Build in micro-moments of renewal during the day. Every hour, or at least a couple times a day, sit still for one minute. Close your eyes. Imagine all your stress draining out of the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet.
4. Cultivate realistic optimism. Resilient people are optimistic. Remember that challenge and struggle are temporary, not permanent. Being optimistic has nothing to do with being a Pollyanna or denying reality. It’s about holding to the belief that positive change is always possible. It’s about seeing the glass as half full and half empty.
5. Hold a growth mindset. Whatever the challenge is that you’re facing—and for teachers there are endless challenges—ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” This question puts you in a learner mindset and reminds you that you can always learn. Just because you can’t do something today doesn’t mean you won’t be able to do it next week.
6. Anchor in your why. Resilient people are driven by purpose. Why are you teaching? What do you want your legacy to be? What motivates you to get up every day? Get clear on your why and use it as an anchor.
7. Be patient. Patience is a disposition of the resilient. Be patient with yourself, your students, your colleagues, and your administrators. Patience has nothing to do with complacency, it’s just an acceptance that we aren’t the master rulers of time and all things and that we can only do what we can do.
8. Have tea or coffee with a colleague. Or host a BBQ for your students and their families. Or eat lunch in the staff room. Build your community. In moments of stress, those who thrive are those who strengthen relationships with others.
9. Learn to see what you’re doing well. When we get exhausted, and when we’re trying really hard to do something well, we have a hard time seeing what’s working. Maybe you have an instructional coach, mentor, or administrator who helps you with this, but it’s equally important for you to hone your ability to spot your own successes. After all, you’re the only one watching you every day. Spend a day being your own best friend, ban your critical self-talk from uttering a word all day, and spend the day narrating your successes: “You got your first-period class focused on the ‘Do Now’ within 30 seconds! You weren’t triggered by Johnny’s attitude! You ate breakfast!”
10. Ask for help. When you’re really struggling, ask colleagues, friends, neighbors, supervisors, mentors, coaches, and partners for help. Ask for all the kinds of help you need. Tell people you’re having a hard time. Keep asking until you get what you need. And if you’re ever in doubt, even the tiniest bit, about your mental or physical well-being, please seek professional help. Rates of depression and anxiety among teachers are higher than in the general public. Teaching is extremely stressful. If in doubt, get help.
Supporting Ourselves, Supporting Others
High levels of stress and burnout among teachers are symptomatic of a dysfunctional system. As teachers, we need to individually take responsibility for our emotional well-being by cultivating our resilience so we feel better and can meet the needs of kids. We will then have the energy to better address the underlying conditions and root causes of stress.
Education leaders also need to take responsibility for creating conditions in which teachers thrive. School administrators can help teachers by:
- Giving teachers positive feedback regularly.
- Helping teachers see their impact and efficacy.
- Addressing conflicts between staff.
- Facilitating meaningful professional development so that teachers can continue honing their craft.