Teacher Leadership

End of Year Burnout: How to Finish the Marathon in Stride

Four tips for how to keep going strong all the way to the end of the year.

May 20, 2014
A teacher letting her students out the front door of the school on the last day of the school year. The kids are running with smiles on their faces, and the teacher is smiling as she watches them go.
©iStock/Ridofranz

The end of the school year can feel like the final few miles of a marathon. Not only does your body not want to go on, your mind wants to be elsewhere. And the situation is not helped by the fact that the dreaded tests are over. Feeling burned out is quite common. In one of my previous blog posts, I drew upon the work of Cary Cherniss, whose book Beyond Burnout gives great guidance about factors most likely to lead to teacher burnout and some ways to detect and prevent it.

But the end of the year is different. Detection is not the issue. Neither is prevention. You are at mile 23 and your lungs are bursting, your legs are cramping, your mind is in a jumble, and you just want say, “Beam me up, Scotty.”

Yet just as the marathoners make it to the finish line, so can you. Here are four ideas that work.

1. Reconnect your kids and with your kids: Not your students—your kids. Whether 7 or 17, they are kids at heart, and this is your chance to reconnect with them as people. Talk with them about their interests. Ask about what books they’ve read, videos they’ve seen, sports they’re following, teams they like, foods they most enjoy, favorite things to do during the weekend, museums or parks they have visited.

To make this more comfortable, you might want to have them start out some of these conversations in small groups, or in round robins, or in speed-dating formats, to keep things lively and to help them better connect to each other. You could also have them write or draw about your questions.

2. Share your interests: Talk to them about things that interest you. Not part of the syllabus? Make it so. “Speaking of geometry, we have been trying to find a new table for our kitchen, and we have not been able to figure out the right shape—rectangle, circle, oval, square, pentagon—I bet you hadn’t thought about the geometry of a kitchen or dining room!” You could announce something like, “Today, as part of our English lesson, I wanted to talk with you about London, which is in England, and therefore part of the English curriculum. It’s my favorite city in the world. What are some things you might go to see in London?” Or, “Before we talk about our science topic today, I have a question for you: Do any of you have pets at home? We have been having some trouble with our dog and I could use some advice.”

Even if they don’t care about the subject matter you’re talking about—not exactly a new event during a school day—they care about you and will enjoy that you’re sharing with them in a personal way.

3. Talk about the summer: In some of my work in schools this year, I’ve been surprised by how many students want to talk about the summer. There seem to be three groups: kids who just want to think about the summer the way marathon runners think about the refreshment tent beyond the finish line, kids who have specific things they’re looking forward to, and kids who dread the summer because they have to spend time at home, or work at things they don’t want to do.

Either way, giving your students a chance to talk about the summer, as a class or in small groups, will help them, and help you. One approach is to ask students to raise their hands if they’re really looking forward to the summer, sort of or not really, or really not looking forward to it. Then you can put kids in those three groups for a preliminary conversation to share their particulars. You can visit each group, and then have an overall class sharing. You can also talk about your feelings about the summer, as you think appropriate.

4. Engage and encourage their aspirations and dreams: “OK, today we’re not taking out any books or papers or anything. I want you to take out your imaginations and your hopes and dreams about the future. Put them on the desk and look them over. What do you hope for in the future? What do you want for yourself, and your family? Your education and your career? Let’s talk about it.”

From here, you can guide small groups or a class discussion, individual writing or mindful contemplation, etc. There’s a lot of research showing that, in terms of learning, the aspirations of students matter. You will find it valuable to learn what they think about their future, and helping them realistically plan for their futures, expand their aspirations, and understand the importance of turning their dreams into reality may be more productive than any bits of lesson content you will cover in those last few classes.

And you’ll find yourself re-engaged in why you went into education—to make students’ lives better and to help them make a positive mark on the world.

Perhaps unlike a marathon, we don’t have the option to quit before the finish line. And we can’t make the terrain any easier. But we can spend the time in ways that will actually lighten our stride and allow us to cover more ground—in this case, time—without it feeling quite so burdened. And we might even get a runner's high on occasion.