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How to Deal with Teacher Burnout - Getting Over the October Slump

new teachers

As the year progresses and the novelty wears off, even the most enthusiastic new teacher can feel the energy lag. Continue down that path, and you might find yourself experiencing teacher burnout.

What is Teacher Burnout?

Teaching is a demanding career that can sometimes be just as stressful as it is fulfilling. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development estimates that U.S. high school teachers spend 1,051 hours per year on instruction--and that doesn't include grading, curriculum planning, meeting with students and parents individually, professional development, or any number of other tasks outside of the classroom. In addition to time, lack of support from colleagues, classroom management difficulties, and feeling underprepared or bored are common stress factors for teachers. So it's no wonder that new teachers can get overwhelmed!

While occasionally feeling tired or stressed is normal and likely unavoidable, prolonged or chronic periods of exhaustion or frustration often indicate burnout. Here are signs of teacher burnout from a veteran teacher's perspective:

  • Physical exhaustion
  • Easily irritated or impatient
  • Anxiety or confusion around role expectations
  • Overcommitting or difficulty setting priorities
  • Feeling underappreciated or resentful
  • Withdrawing from others

Do any of these sound familiar? Fortunately, teacher burnout isn't a terminal condition. There are a number of steps and practices that new teachers can implement to both prevent and recover from burnout. Since the exhaustion caused by burnout is often more mental and emotional than physical, practicing self-care and staying in touch with your thoughts and emotions will serve you well in getting through the school year. You may even find yourself emerging a stronger and more confident teacher post-burnout!

Give Yourself a Break

Teacher relaxing

One of the worst things about burnout is that you can make it worse just by thinking about it--recognizing that you're burned out can cause you to become more stressed out and feel guilty, which only prolongs your burnout. Be gentle with yourself! Recognize ways you're growing and changing under pressure, and celebrate that growth. Wendi Pillars, writing for Education Week, suggests thinking of the difficulties you experience during your first teaching year as if they were strength training exercises at the gym: Your muscles feel sore afterward and may need some time to recover, but ultimately they become stronger and you can lift more weight.

When You Feel Like Speeding Up, Slow Down

A fascinating study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison on mindfulness techniques for teachers found that spending 15 minutes a day in practices as simple as breath awareness reduced stress and increased compassionate actions in teachers. While you might feel pressured to fill every spare minute of your day, taking a quiet moment to breathe deeply and take stock of your emotions will serve you better in the long run.

Make a List and Check It Twice

Writing down a list of tasks or ideas has the immediate benefit of freeing your brain. You no longer need to work hard to remember everything. Instead, put that time and energy toward taking action. Seeing everything written down can also help you prioritize and plan your time wisely. You may also discover that you're including unnecessary or low-priority tasks in your to-do list. Experiment for a couple days by crossing items off your list before you even begin working on them--you may find that no one notices their absence.

Teacher crossing off to-do list items

Find Balance

One of the hardest things about being a teacher is that it can seem like the job never ends. When you're not teaching in front of the class, you're grading assignments, planning new lessons, and finding ways to reach struggling students. Set limits for how late you'll work in the evening. Try not to take work home with you, or least set a couple nights each week when you'll leave everything at school.

Remember the hobbies you loved before you became a teacher? Keep doing them! Find enjoyment in activities completely unrelated to teaching. And, of course, practice the basic health rules of eating well, staying active, and getting enough sleep. They may not seem very important when you're faced with a mountain of tests to grade, but the last thing you need to deal with is preventable health issues.

Focus on the Positive

The unfortunate truth is that in the moment, it's often easier to focus on negative emotions than positive ones. Work on maintaining perspective and remembering why you decided to become a teacher. What about education made it your calling? Revisiting these reasons will help you avoid getting dragged down in daily frustrations and complaints.

A 2004 study on teacher resilience found that the cognitive therapy technique of restructuring was often effective in reducing stress and correcting distorted negative thinking. Focusing on what's wrong or going poorly leads to frustration, emotional blocks, and hitting a plateau in your teaching. By reformatting challenging situations to think about what's going well or what actionable steps can be taken to improve it, you'll be better prepared to address problems effectively and learn from them.

Finish Your First Year Strong!

As a first-year teacher, obstacles can seem unsurmountable, and it may feel like the school year will never end. Remember that you're not alone! If you're looking for more information on teacher burnout during your first year, check out cognitive restructuring on Psychology Today or Education World's advice for new teachers. Your fellow teachers can be another system of support as you navigate through your first year. Ultimately, remember that with a little mindfulness and self-care, you have the power and the knowledge to make your first year of teaching a success!

By Meghan Cooney
September 2016
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