Teachers - How To Take Care of Yourself and Avoid Burnout
There are two truths I’ve discovered about the teaching profession: you can leave the profession but it will never leave you, and it’s exhausting work. However, these truths are not necessarily self-evident. First, while you may be able to leave teaching (physically), as cheesy as it may sound, the work gets into your heart and soul. Secondly, it’s exhausting work, but you’ll never feel more fulfilled than at the end of a great (or even horrible) day of teaching—and believe me, there are horrible days.
And that is the paradox of teaching. Teaching is a lot like sugar; the work is sweet, but it can also make you really sick if you don’t control your appetite for perfection.
For me, teaching at times has become an obsession for perfection. There are always lesson plans to make, revise, re-teach, modify and papers to grade a little bit better, concepts to teach more clearly and new teaching methods and classroom management strategies to implement. If you do too little, it’s pretty impossible to be a good teacher; if you do too much, you’ll burn out. And, no matter how strong you may feel at the beginning, burning the candle at both ends will catch up with you.
Adding to the mix: you’re a public figure—students are watching and depending on you; their parents and the community expect you to perform at the top of your game. But the reality is, no one can do it all—and you shouldn’t have to. Between one quarter and one half of all teachers in the U.S. quit the profession in five years. I’m purposely being vague because this statistic depends on what information you read. I’ve heard it reported as low as 17% and as high as 50%; regardless, teachers quitting the profession is a well known and hotly debated national crisis in the U.S.
I know firsthand that this is a problem, because teacher burn out has affected me personally. In spring of 2015, after roughly 5 years of teaching, I was done.
Done, done, done.
Fast forward to a few months ago (this September 2016) and my jaw would have dropped had you told me that I would be back to full time teaching the week that I’m writing this article (November 2016)! The school that I taught at, had made some changes, which affected the happiness of the teachers and students in a positive way—I could see the difference when I visited the school to substitute teach. So, when a teacher had to leave unexpectedly, I decided to give it another go.
I started my first day back a few days ago; although I don’t want to jinx anything, I am super happy to be back to teaching. I missed it greatly (the kids, the lesson planning) but not the things that brought me close to breakdown—angry (at times, disrespectful) parents, standardized testing, lack of time to help kids one on one, and an insane work load.
This time around, I made a pact with myself for self care. These can be applied to teaching abroad or teaching stateside. Here are some of my ideas to avoid burn out this time around.
Gratitude Jar: before I quit my teaching job in 2015, I was pretty much a wreck emotionally—I was very sad to end my career. I went to a career counselor for the first time in my life. She suggested that I keep a jar at my desk and keep track of good things that happened each day. I never did do it because it seemed pointless at the time, but this time around it seems like the best thing, ever.
Keeping Promises: I used to let work get in the way of nearly all of my social commitments; now I’m telling myself it’s okay to leave the work and come back to finish it later. It’s important to keep up with friends, family and hobbies; if you don’t, you will burn out, guaranteed.
Time Limits: Teachers put in A LOT of unpaid overtime in order to do their job up to the level that they feel the kids deserve. This takes a lot of extra time above and beyond a prep period or coming to school an hour early each morning. I am starting to put time limits on lesson planning and grading.
Student Centered Learning: I think when you start out teaching, you want to micromanage and control everything that students do. I guess it would be akin to helicopter parenting; I try to remind myself that the more that students get to do on their own, the more involved they feel.
Let Students Teach Each Other: I used to always feel the need to be the resident expert; it’s okay to say “I don’t know,” because it’s really ridiculous to think that anyone on the planet can know everything. Kids aren’t stupid—it’s okay to say “actually, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard that word; let’s make a guess based on contextual clues and look it up after just to make sure that we’re right.” It gives them ownership over their learning.
Exercise: Since my new classroom is right by the track, I’d like to walk the mile several times a week right after school. I move around a lot when I teach, but lesson planning and grading is extremely sedentary. I’m excited to bring my music and clear my mind before I head home after a full day of work.
I really am happy to be back teaching and hope that I can report back with some of my successes and challenges in my quest for balancing work with self-care. Of course, these strategies can be applied to any profession! Thanks for reading and please leave comments below on self-care that helps you stay de-stressed at your job!
Photo Credit: Nasir Nasrallah via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/place_light/
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