Teacher Burnout

If you are showing up, and making an effort, you are doing a good job and making a difference to someone. Believe me.

I’m glad to be writing on the topic of teacher burnout. It is something that is on my mind a lot as a teacher. I have personally experienced burnout a lot as a teacher. I’ll go into that in more detail during this blog post. I’ve known a handful of teachers, brand new and experienced, who have had burnouts so bad they needed to take time off. And one, he had to resign from his first year teacher job entirely. Why is this happening? What is going on that is causing teachers to be so stressed and overburdened? I’ve learned a few things about this phenomenon on my journey to becoming a more effective teacher. I have new tools that I didn’t have before. I learned them out of desperate need, which I will talk more about in this post. Although it was painful and disruptive, now I’m equipped with some personal strategies and techniques to deal with my anxiety.  I wonder if anxiety could be behind a lot of other teachers’ burnout? If you have felt anxiety, or if you are a teacher who has experienced burnout, you are not alone! If you are currently experiencing burnout, then I want you to know that I understand the difficulties and pressures involved in teaching. If you are showing up, and making an effort, you are doing a good job and making a difference to someone. Believe me. 

So what does teacher burnout look like? Last year at our school a young first year Math teacher quit by winter break

So what does teacher burnout look like? Well for me, it looks like using most of my 10 vacation days before Thanksgiving. This past August and September, I experienced high levels of anxiety and a challenging group of new students. I got to a point where I felt paralyzed by anxiety. Teaching is not the root cause of my anxiety, but it can trigger it. It’s a personal subject, one that I would like to share more on in time. I recommend starting a relationship with therapy! This routine and having a professional listen to you and give you strategies and ideas for how to approach your problems is a great start to dealing with anxiety. You might not even know that what you’re feeling and experiencing is anxiety, I didn’t! You also might not realize that your ways of coping through difficult situations are unproductive and ultimately don’t help much. 

I chaperoned a field trip this year, and drove myself and two other teachers because we ran out of seats on the buses. How did we run out of seats?? We conversed on the drive, mostly about our school and dynamics within various teams. One of the teachers, a 10 year English teacher, said something like, ‘No offense, but millennials just can’t handle it. I’ve seen millennials come in and just give up, they barely last a year, or they quit in 2 years. My older generation, we didn’t complain. We figure it out, you just do it.  Millennials complain so much and just think it’s too hard.’ I didn’t say much because this was in November, and I had already wondered this year what circumstances would qualify me for a leave of absence. She didn’t just say that out of nowhere. We certainly taught in a challenging environment. Last year at our school a young first year Math teacher quit by winter break. The students had allegedly been messing with him for months, taking things from his desk when he wasn’t looking, never to be returned. He had a substitute for several days, and upon his return, all of his personal belongings and other items had been taken from his desk. One of my students who had him seemed somewhat smug when she lightheartedly explained to me what had transpired. I said, “I would have quit too! He didn’t deserve to be treated that way!” I believe this student saw her teacher with new compassion, and I’m sorry that he wasn’t treated with respect and compassion in the first place.

This year, another Math teacher, who I think was also a first year teacher, filled the vacated position at the beginning of the new school year. Sadly, he left the position by Spring Break. I heard first hand accounts of the way students were behaving in class. They were insufferable. I personally witnessed the impact this treatment made on the caring teacher. My students told me that he didn’t explain anything. The picture they painted for me was that the students talked continuously, and were so disruptive that the teacher was unable to facilitate the lesson, or any teacher centered moments whatsoever. He would find relief from this by withdrawing and working from his desk. Diligent students would suffer through the raucous and pursue the learning independently, while others would waste the class period and get out of control. I’ve been there myself, feeling helpless, although maybe not in such an extreme way. 

It can take a long time for students to warm up to teachers.

It can take a long time for students to warm up to teachers. We all know or remember those teachers who are extroverted and fun, and seem to get every student, even the quiet ones, to open up. I love those guys! But not every teacher is a natural in that way. I think I’m more like a mom away from home for students. I never yell or get angry. Sometimes I think I’m too patient. I give too many chances and reminders and warnings, and at the end of the day I think: I should have ended that because they were really distracting and taking learning away from other students. On the plus side, I earn a reputation at my schools for welcoming and embracing students who drive other teachers (and students!) crazy. The range of personalities and behaviors here is huge, from bad hygiene to super chatty to deceptive or naughty. No matter the quality, I love students starting on day one! I truly believe, especially at their young age, that they can do whatever they want in life. They just need to focus on it, dive all in on it, and work really hard. Also, there is no such thing as a bad kid. I want to give students a chance to make mistakes, learn from them, and just get better all around. It’s the best feeling ever as a teacher when a student tells you that this was the first A they have ever gotten in school. You can see it in their eyes that in their mind there are now all of these doors open that they didn’t know were there before.

At least at my last school site, for two years in a row, students did not warm up to me on day one. Who knows all the reasons why, but I know one was trust. I’ll say more about the importance of trust in this post. I guess I looked different, and we had different native languages. It takes time, but by December, students know I’m on their side, give them 2nd and 3rd chances, and sincerely care about them as a whole person. Geez it takes a lot of effort to get there. But it is so worth it! Every student has their own different strengths and needs. In general, I want to make an effort to build an even safer classroom culture so all students can thrive.

Some teachers brag about never sending a student to the office for 15 years. Good for you!

Before students know and trust me, they don’t respect me. Ultimately if a student is being insufferable and won’t chill out, or is a serious risk to the safety of anyone in the classroom, they’ve gotta go! This may look like either calling security or the office to have the student escorted away. Make sure to leave this number on your teacher sub plans. Why do students sometimes rebel and get wacky with substitute teachers? Subs can be firm and authoritative. They kind of need to be. They might give off vibes of, because I said so, and this makes students feel disrespected and belittled. Some students push back against teachers more than others, and in general just have more discipline referrals throughout their school years. Especially now, I really try to keep my cool and don’t force anything. But ultimately, there’s a lot of power in the teacher’s hands, and it can feel embarrassing and confusing for students to get sent the the office.

Some teachers brag about never sending a student to the office for 15 years. Good for you! But everyone else, don’t be afraid to escalate to the next level, just make sure all your ducks are in a row and you followed your school’s code. Respect goes both ways, and until it is established, your life is going to be hard as a teacher. Remember: they don’t care what you know, until they know that you care. I wrote about this in my blog post: End of Year Thoughts 2019-2020. This is a good post to check out to gain an understanding for the evolution of the classroom over the school year cycle, from beginning to end. I wrote it just after the school year ended in June. If you’ve had some rough starts at the beginning of the year, like me, then I would recommend that you make sure your guard is down. Perhaps start the class with an attendance question (start slow with simple questions like, Cat or Dog?…work your way up to opinions and creative questions until after trust and respect are established and observed).

If you wanted to be a teacher, then don’t give up! The profession needs dedicated people like you

Ok, so if you are really struggling with burnout, those ideas might help. I think my burnout stems from my drive to create an awesome learning experience. When I feel disconnected from my classes or from my students, I feel ineffective. In my experience, feeling unprepared can also lead to anxiety and contribute towards burnout. Since I was a student co-teacher, I’ve always spent a tremendous amount of time on lesson planning. Some of this is that for me it is a creative process. When I’m motivated to lesson plan, I toil away! I will spend hours on my own time researching and designing my lessons. I do love learning, you know! And science is so complex and advanced and fascinating, I want to be a subject matter expert.

I used to get anxiety about being prepared for any question that would be asked. This was when I taught 6th grade Earth and Space, LOL! Those kids were exceptionally talented and intelligent. I felt like I was competing on the show, Are you smarter than a 6th grader? And sometimes I wasn’t! The questions just got more mind bending when I taught 11-12th grade Earth and Space science. Nowadays if I can’t satisfy a student’s curiosity, I say, “Oh my gosh you are so smart. Here’s what I think blah blah blah… but that is a great question! If anyone can find the answer during this class period, and share it with the class, they get bonus points!” Or you can offer a raffle ticket, prize, or 5 minute stretch break. Over the years, I don’t need to spend as much time lesson planning. Classroom management gets easier as you learn how to handle things. You don’t need to google stuff like, what do I do if a student asks to go to the bathroom every class period? At least not as often. It gets easier and it gets better! If you wanted to be a teacher, then don’t give up! The profession needs dedicated people like you. You just need support, and sometimes schools, administration, and departments can be ineffective in providing great support. I hope it helps to read about my own experiences. 

Teacher burnout is a real and serious problem.

With each day and school year I become a more practiced, knowledgeable, and refined teacher. It doesn’t happen overnight, and I’ve mentioned before that the learning curve is steep. Continue reflecting on your work and to pursue best practices. It makes a difference, and you will gain confidence and become a better educator. Don’t forget to treat yourself with kindness. Make sure you take time for yourself to recharge your batteries. Get out stress by getting enough exercise. Go to bed early and get a full night’s rest. Care for your whole self by practicing mindfulness, like meditation. I would love to expand on these ideas in another post. For now, take care of yourself and ask for help when you need it. You can’t expect others to be mind readers. Teacher burnout is a real and serious problem. Struggling teachers need support, so make sure to ask for it. Thanks to my rough start this year, I sought out help. I communicated with my administration and felt very supported. I made a commitment to myself to address my feelings that re-emerged every school year. I have more experience, confidence, and strategies to deal with obstacles in my life and in teaching. I feel more prepared than ever to start another school year, but I’m allowing myself plenty of room to feel and accept that things aren’t perfect. No expectations and no anticipation. I’ll pull on my strength and my skills to get me through it if need be. This summer I’ll start working on a unit for the first 4 weeks of school, “Tools & Techniques of Science,” to alleviate the stress of lesson planning during the chaotic first few weeks of school. That should be a good use of my time this summer break, and I always say that my future self will thank me!

Published by How She Teaches

I teach Biology and Earth and Space Science in high school and middle school. I want to share my personal experiences and teaching milestones with anyone who wants to learn.

6 thoughts on “Teacher Burnout

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