George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Wellness

How to Burn Brightly Without Burning Out

May 19, 2016

Whether rookies or veterans, most teachers have had at least a brush with burnout—the feeling that between grading papers, writing comments, planning lessons, coaching, directing, advising, and trying to maintain some semblance of an existence beyond the job, they have absolutely nothing left to give. 

I am no exception. I sense burnout approaching when no matter how much sleep I get, it never seems enough. I then slog through my teaching day less patient, easily agitated, and with a mild but persistent headache that neither Advil nor caffeine eases. I know that if I don’t make an adjustment, my body is prone to getting even sicker. 

To better understand this issue, I recently spoke with John Spencer, a former middle school educator and author of The Fireproof Teacher: Seven Strategies for Preventing Teacher Burnout

Avoid obsessing over perfection 

As a newer teacher, in addition to all of my other duties, I decided to devote late nights to reading books on how to improve my craft. I even started an education blog, featuring interviews with leading thinkers on how to create the ideal learning environment. When Spencer found himself in a similar situation, he asked two questions: “Am I doing this because there's this shame that's attached to being less than perfect? Am I doing this because there’s a cultural expectation in teaching that we're supposed to be martyrs?" Too often, the insane hours I put in had less to do with my actual teaching duties and more to do with a foolish, unhealthy drive to sacrifice my whole being to the profession. There is nothing wrong with wanting to engage in professional development, but too much of anything can lead to burnout. 

Prioritize a social life

My unhealthy quest for perfection really hurt my social life. Yet upon returning from a fun outing, without fail, I found my productivity increased. “You have to have that thing that drives you outside of education,” Spencer says. For me, that thing turned out to be running. When I taught in Miami for six great years, I joined running clubs and trained for competitions. I met fascinating people, and our conversations about non-school-related topics made me a happier and ultimately more effective educator. To avoid burnout, I make an effort to engage in physical activity and spend time with family and friends. Still, I need to do better. Now that I am about to marry a middle school math teacher, we depend on each other to keep ourselves grounded. Here, Spencer and I both have loved ones to thank for helping us see the value in not letting the job completely define us.  

Build a healthy personal learning community

Creating a personal learning network (PLN) is also crucial to preventing burnout, as well as improving your craft—so long as it does not consume you. Several years ago, I grew obsessed with Twitter and online social platforms like Edmodo, both great means of connecting with educators around the world. I spent too much time and effort doing just that, putting me in danger of burning out. I’ve since maintained a more modest connection with my PLN, affording me more time to reflect and grow. In my experience as a teacher and education reporter, schools benefit enormously from fostering PLN’s, where, as Spencer says, “everybody can be vulnerable, you can be open about how work is actually going, and you’re not competing.” This prevents not only burnout, but also frustrated teachers who might decide to leave the classroom. 

During the day, find time to recharge

I’m an introvert, and as much as I love teaching, constant, prolonged stimuli drain me. Spencer, also an introvert, captures my feelings exactly in saying that to avoid burnout and remain effective, “we must carve out time for reflection, renewal, and getting ourselves centered.” Teaching is an emotionally exhausting job for anyone, extroverts included, but introverts especially struggle over having nothing else to give. No matter how busy I find myself, I carve out small chunks of time during the day for just me. Even when sharing space, I put on headphones and listen to a few songs to recharge. 

Learn to say “No”

If you’re good at your core job, at some point you’ve probably been asked to assume additional responsibilities. If you do those things well, it’s a safe bet that you’ve also been asked to take on even more. It’s always flattering to be asked, but at a certain point you have to just say no. Otherwise, you face not only likely burnout, but also resentment toward those with fewer duties who had the good sense to decline taking on more than they can reasonably manage. As I’m helping my bride-to-be plan for our wedding, I recently let my school know that I will be unable to coach next fall. 

Take a mental health day 

When you’re feeling the burn, so to speak, there is nothing wrong with taking a sick day. I take at least one a year, and I use the time off to rest, read something fun, and do other mindless activities. I also don't feel guilty about my absence, as I’m certain my students wouldn’t benefit from my overwrought self. I return the following day feeling refreshed and energized. 

How do you avoid teacher burnout? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. 

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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