Teacher burnout is no joke. We routinely hear stories about the intensity of a teacher’s work day, and thanks to the pandemic, things are only getting harder. Last year, it was remote learning, hybrid learning, and school closures. This year, with schools mostly reopened for in-person learning, the struggle has been trying to get back to “normal” while the world around us remains far from it. It’s easy to see how burnout could set in.
I’m not an expert in mental health, but I am a teacher who knows the exhaustion of teaching through a pandemic. Here are a few ways I’m beating teacher burnout and powering through a school year filled with challenges.
I set my priorities and I stick to them.
We call them “Big Rocks” at my school, in homage to Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. Your Big Rocks are the tasks that you absolutely have to make time for, and once you accomplish them, everything else seems a little less daunting.
I start every week by writing my Big Rocks out by hand, setting myself up for an instant dopamine rush each time I check off another item from the list. Some weeks might be focused on smaller tasks like responding to student work or designing class activities, while others may be more time-intensive if it’s the end of the term or I have lots of meetings going on. Either way, keeping a checklist or calendar with your priorities is a great way to visualize how full your plate is before taking on anything extra… or for helping you realize that you actually need to cut some things out. Speaking of which…
I spend as little time as possible creating instructional materials from scratch.
My first year as a teacher, I used to spend hours after school creating slideshows, developing assignments, and researching lesson ideas to put together from scratch. Now that I’m a few years in, I’ve learned that it’s almost like a rite of passage—when you’re a first-year teacher, that’s just what you do. But that’s no longer the case, at least for the most part.
Thinking back, I realize that I probably looked like a hamster running frantically on its wheel, working its little legs off but not actually going anywhere. The activities and lessons I designed may have been marginally more engaging than the curriculum I was given, but I now realize that they came at such a high opportunity cost. Every hour that a teacher spends scouring the Internet for resources or designing materials is an hour not spent analyzing data, providing feedback on student work, or honing their craft—all of which offer way more bang for the buck.
That doesn’t mean teachers should stop looking for supplemental materials or making modifications to their resources to better meet the needs of all their students. However, if you’ve been given a curriculum by your school or district, lean on it. Teaching is hard enough without the burden of creating our own resources.
I set aside time to decompress with my colleagues.
As teachers, much of our job satisfaction comes from the people we get to do this important work with. I’m blessed with great colleagues, and before the pandemic, the opportunities to sharpen the saw with them seemed to come so naturally. However, because of the overwhelming nature of this year, I’ve noticed that I have to be a whole lot more intentional in making time to decompress, hang out, or talk shop with my work family.
Even still, I’m making time. Being together with my colleagues takes me back to my why—the simple fact that motivated and purpose-driven adults really can make a difference for students. Finding time to share a laugh or a story about the school day is like medicine for this teacher’s soul.
I give myself something to look forward to every day, every week, and every month.
I’m a huge believer in positive thinking. When we dwell too much on the negative aspects of our jobs, our relationships, or our lives, it gradually becomes harder to see the positives anywhere. Once that negativity sets in, burnout is all but certain.
The key is to avoid letting yourself get to that point. One practice I started last fall was giving myself something to look forward to every single day, week, and month, so even if the school day was tough and I came home overwhelmed, I always knew I would have something positive coming my way.
Most of the time, they’re pretty small things—each day, I set aside time to watch a movie with my wife, take my dog for a walk around the neighborhood, or maybe order takeout. On a weekly basis, usually on the weekends, I do something a little more time-intensive like reading a book, practicing guitar or piano, or visiting my parents. Finally, each month, I try to find time on my calendar for a short day trip or some kind of event to look forward to. We all need an occasional reprieve from a busy work day, and being intentional about building those consistent, positive experiences for yourself is a great way to tackle burnout head-on.
Teaching is a tough profession, but it’s also filled with tough people. This school year has certainly had its unique challenges, but as we like to say here in Kentucky, “we’ll get through this, and we’ll get through this together.” And when we do, I believe we’ll look back and realize just how strong we were along the way.
Garris Stroud is an award-winning educator and writer from Greenville, Kentucky whose advocacy and scholarship have been recognized by USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, Education Post, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and The Lexington Herald-Leader. He served as a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow from 2017-2019 and became chair of the organization’s editorial board in 2018. Stroud is currently a doctoral student in educational leadership at the University of the Cumberlands, located in the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian region. Contact him via email at [email protected]