Recharge, Reduce, Reconnect, Recycle

The good news is that there are solutions to problems related to teacher burnout. Read Dorothy Zemach's here, and see her From A to Z column, "Burnout from Teaching," Essential Teacher, September 2006, pp. 16-17.

The nature of teaching as a profession can lead to burnout, especially in the types of people commonly drawn to teaching. However, there are solutions to problems related to teacher burnout. While it may not be possible (or desirable) to change your personality, and you cannot change what it means to be a teacher, you can change your behaviors and your reactions to situations.

Recharge

The most important as well as the most obvious solution is to take care of yourself first. When you fly, there's a reason that the flight attendant tells you that, in the event of an unexpected loss of cabin pressure, to fix your own oxygen mask before you help your children. In the same way, you will not be of much use to your students (or anyone else) if you're exhausted and unhealthy. This means that sometimes you have to say no: no to giving students access to you 24/7, no to correcting their essays two years after they've left your class, no to extra committee assignments, and no to waking up at 5:00 a.m. to bake gingerbread for the faculty meeting.

As well as decent food (so say no to schedules that don't leave you time for meals) and enough sleep, you need regular exercise and a method of relaxation. I don't think it matters whether you meditate, pray, take long walks, or read novels in a bubble bath, but you need something. Sleeping does not count as relaxation, either. Just remind yourself that you need a method for relaxation far more than you need another coursebook or workshop.

Reduce

If you're overworked and your institution can't or won't reduce your workload, you need to do it yourself. Figure out what the most stressful parts of your teaching life are, and find solutions.

A good rule of thumb is that it shouldn't take you longer to prepare your lesson than to teach it, and far less time once you've taught it over several terms. Your students won't face disaster if they write two drafts instead of three, or one paper per term instead of two. If you don't have time to read and respond to dialogue journals, have students write to each other, or to keypals, or just to themselves. If you can't handle thirty book reports, have students present them orally; in groups, even, using peer assessment. Sure, students might love it when you show them episodes of Friends for which you've laboriously transcribed every word; but if that takes you all weekend, maybe you need to ask yourself if it's really worth that kind of effort.

An important point here is that when you see your colleagues taking steps to cut back, be supportive. A colleague who's found an easier or more efficient way to do things is not a slacker. Some institutions encourage a pride in workaholism; you don't want to be a winner in any competition to suffer the most. I once overheard a colleague say of another, "Her problem is that she doesn't work any harder than she has to." The second colleague, of course, knew enough to take that as a compliment--but it wasn't meant as one. Meetings should be arranged to deal with as few administrative matters as possible and to allow more time for teachers to share their methods in order to reconnect, save time, and renew their energy.

Reconnect

Build a professional support network. This is especially important for teachers who work alone or in small institutions, but anyone can benefit from reaching out to like-minded colleagues. If you're having a problem at work, sometimes it's healthier, as well as easier, to discuss it with someone who has no direct connections to your institution.

Join your TESOL interest section's e-list, for example. Stay in touch with people you meet at conferences. Make friends with teachers in other disciplines. These people can be the ones to offer you praise and encouragement, and they can offer you solutions for problems when you're feeling stuck. It's also important to have friends outside of work, of course, but they're of limited help when it comes to brainstorming solutions to your work crises. The point is, if you have enough people to help you with your work life, you won't need to drag your family and friends into problems at work.

Recycle

Collaborate at work. Plan lessons together. Share worksheets. Yes, I've worked at places where teachers didn't want to collaborate--but more often at institutions that hadn't even thought of how to encourage collaboration, let alone acted to facilitate it.

Even when teaching different sections of the same class, sometimes teachers won't use the same worksheets because they don't have an easy way to share. Create a binder, put a clean copy of any good worksheet in a plastic sheet protector, and then anyone can photocopy it. A worksheet is no less "good" because your coworker wrote it. Try not to create worksheets that cannot be used for more than one term. Look for textbooks that truly fit your class so that you don't have to create too many worksheets in the first place.

Don't Label Colleagues Burned Out

My final word on burnout here is to not overuse the term. There's a danger in thinking of yourself as being burned out because you're having an off week, or even an off term. There's even more of a danger in labeling others burned out when they refuse to take on extra assignments or when they don't agree with you or the administration. Teaching is a flexible and people-created profession, and it's up to all of us to create an environment that's healthy for all teachers.

Dorothy Zemach (zemach at comcast dot net), author of Essential Teacher's From A to Z column, is a senior development editor for Cambridge University Press.

More Resources:

  • President's Message: August/September 1999
  • President's Message: October/November 1999
  • President's Message: February/March 2000
  • NNEST Newsletter Volume 5 Issue 2: December 2003
  • President's Message: June/July/August 2003