Beating Burnout & Avoiding Stress: Top Tips from/for Teachers

It’s such a big topic, we hear about it all over the place: Burnout. Sadly, though, few people seem to take it seriously and build up strategies to prevent themselves becoming Burnout’s next victim. I learnt this the hard way. And once I admitted to myself that I was suffering, I started to ask others for tips and advice. The diagnosis ‘burnout’ was the most helpful step for me, but for anyone who’s feeling stressed or pressured, I decided to collect some tips especially from & for teachers, to help us all to beat burnout and avoid stress taking over our lives! Here’s the collection – feel free to add you own ideas in the comments box below!

Martyn, a Deputy Head Teacher from Alton (GB), keeps busy with his family, doing “Footie training with my girls Monday night, Running, Gymnastics Thursday with the girls, Ballet and tap Saturday” [don’t know if ballet/tap are Martyn himself or the girls…?!]

Gemma, an EAP/EFL tutor working in St Gallen (Switzerland) says: “To prevent work taking over my life – I have detailed ‘to do’ lists for each day, that way I can see how I’ll fit in not only planning for classes but also PD activities such as reading blogs, going on twitter etc, as well as non teaching activities such as exercise. This stops me feeling overwhelmed and ensures I always include non-work related activities. I try to manage my work so I don’t work at weekends, or if I do limit it to a few hours. That way I can have at least a good day and a half break. After a stressful day or week at work I usually try and do some reflective practice – journal writing for example to help me think everything through a bit more clearly. This also helps me finish the day/week on a more positive note and helps me to set goals for the next class. … After a stressful day or week at work I usually try and do some reflective practice – journal writing for example to help me think everything through a bit more clearly. This also helps me finish the day/week on a more positive note and helps me to set goals for the next class.”

Joanna, an online Business English teacher based in Crete (Greece), agrees: “It is very easy to get lost in your work, especially as an online teacher. That is why I always try to do things that will allow me to decompress or avoid burnout. I like to paint because when I paint I am so focused on what I am drawing that I zone out. I also make sure that I do things outside the house like pay bills offline or workout. I am a big planner and I actually even plan fun things to make sure I don’t spend the whole day inside working on my computer!!”

Danielle, a university lecturer in Germany, sent me a link to this article on Scientifcally Proven Ways to Have a Better Day.

Mark, based in Bath: “I’m principal of Kaplan International English in Bath and do little in the way of teaching these days, unfortunately. Previously I was a teacher in Madrid for 10 years, then DoS for 6 years at the school where I currently work. I always found it harder to maintain a healthy work/life balance as a teacher than I do now – I suppose this is because there is no limit to how carefully and meticulously a teacher can plan and prepare lessons. Perhaps it’s also because CELTA courses tend to obsess over lesson preparation and give new teachers the idea that a lesson’s effectiveness is proportional to the amount of preparation which goes into it. In my experience this is anything but true! So my advice to teachers now, in order to combat stress, would be to not hang all your expectations of a lesson on a particular fixed outcome. Have an intended learning outcome in mind when planning a lesson, but at the same expect the actual learning outcomes to be different. Embrace uncertainty in the classroom, and enjoy/relish the unpredictability of the learning process rather than attempt to contain it. Stress in any walk of life is the result of a failure to accept what IS and instead fixate on the gap between reality and how your mind feels things SHOULD BE. And join a gym! I took up Cross Fit a year or so ago and it’s been a life-changer in many ways – you can’t lift weights safely while you’re worrying about concept checking questions for tomorrow’s elementary class!”
Kate, a Critical Reading & Writing Instructor at the University of Toronto (Canada) provides some tips especially for teachers: “Don’t grade everything; some tasks can just be practice. Put clear limits on how much feedback you will give on an assignment. Don’t check work email at home. Remember Liz Gilbert’s advice: Done is better than perfect. Find ways to transfer work to the students, e.g. If you don’t have time to write a full model outline of a text, have students work in groups to finish it during class. And in general, get enough sleep. Drink enough water and coffee. Exercise. Make art. Say no to things that don’t make you excited.”
Beci, a Freelance English Trainer, based in France first told me “I’m not sure I can say much that’s positive in that respect I’m afraid as I don’t manage to manage stress and my work-life balance is pretty disastrous!! Keeping a healthy work-life balance as a teacher is a real challenge. I am self-employed, so I teach in four different schools: sometimes 3 in one day. I am lucky in that they are all pretty close together, but that’s still pretty hard to manage at times as it means having to juggle different working styles, student needs, systems of evaluation, etc. It also means that I have to carry my office on my back like a tortoise, which means that my home is overrun with folders and homework and textbooks. I try to keep everything in one place in my office and not to let it spread around the house and “infect” (is that too strong a word?!) the other rooms. And being a teacher also means working evenings and weekends, of course, which doesn’t help!” But then she also came up with this: “Since the birth of my daughter, I have found that I no longer have the energy to stay up until 1am planning or marking, strange as that may sound. It has forced me to be more organised and to squeeze marking and prep into any moments of downtime I might have between lessons. I suppose I manage stress by trying to have time to myself. I ride which means I get to spend time outside with my horse, again, sometimes between lessons, I try to have a 20 min break where I just sit with her and try not to think about work. Of course this very time-consuming hobby is also a big commitment and not always as relaxing as it sounds..! Every year I say I must take on less work, and every year I find something new to take on, so I must love teaching, despite the stress. I really enjoy the time I spend in the classroom with the students. I suppose the students, depsite being a huge source of stress at times, are really the only thing that keeps me sane!!”

Larissa, based in Portlang (USA), for whom this topic is so important, she wrote this long, but very helpful text for me: “We’ve all seen the effects of stress. We get irritable. We get sick more often. We are more likely to have a negative attitude about ourselves and others. Our relationships suffer. And we don’t think as clearly about our work. Often times, it’s simply priorities and boundaries that are the differences between a chronically stressed teacher (or any person) and one who is enjoying his or her days with a little more ease.By priorities, I mean that it’s important to prioritize yourself and your needs. We too often put our self-care on the back burner while attending to the needs of our jobs, students, families, friends, colleagues, animals, homes, cars, and so on. If we see ourselves as just as important as the rest, we will treat ourselves with more care. Imagine you are your best friend who you love dearly. What advice would you give him? Give and follow that same advice for yourself.

By boundaries, I mean knowing when to say no and knowing when to say yes! Many of us, particularly women, don’t believe it’s okay to say no. Guess what? Sometimes, it is! What a relief, right? So feel free to say no to being on a third committee, or say no to going out to dinner with your friends when all you really need and want is a hot bath and a good book (or, gasp, a t.v. show) after your long week.

One example of how I say “no” in my work is this: I structure my classes so that I can say no to students taking make up tests, quizzes, or exams without it being catastrophic for their grades if they miss a quiz. (Of course, if they miss the final exam, they usually can’t pass the class. In rare cases, I will make an exception for a student who has approached me in advance with a provable, unavoidable, legitimate reason for needing to schedule the final exam at a different time.) I used to allow for make-up tests, but I saw how many extra hours a term this cost me. And I also noticed that when I stopped allowing for make-up tests, students really showed up on test and quiz days! Those who didn’t were almost always those who weren’t passing anyway. You may not agree with this, and that’s perfectly okay. Maybe this isn’t something you’d feel comfortable saying no to. The point is to give an example of how you, with boundaries around how you use your time professionally, you can free up more time for grading, sleeping, eating, and other important things. Speaking of grading, there is another way I save time for myself as a teacher. I don’t collect and grade every weekly quiz (if I’m giving a weekly quiz in a class, which can take hours a week to grade depending on how many students there are, how long the quizzes are, and how many classes I’m teaching that term). So I mix it up. For example, in the advanced reading class I taught last term, I told students at the beginning of the term that there would be a vocabulary quiz each week on the novel they were reading and a short chapter quiz each week on the text book. I also told them that some weeks, I would collect the quizzes, and other weeks, they would correct them themselves and not be graded, and other weeks, there might be no quiz at all (even though the prepared for it). I reminded them that what is most important here is learning, not a test. So if they studied and were prepared, they are doing great. The weekly quizzes are a significant part of their grade, so they take them seriously. The way that this serves students (and not just me) is that it keeps them on their toes when it comes to quizzes. They are curious about what will happen when they come to class that day. Quiz? No quiz? Graded quiz? Not graded quiz? It takes some of the monotony out of weekly assessments. The reactions to “No quiz today!” are sometimes hilarious.

Some key ways to prioritize yourself and use boundaries to have a less stressed and more balanced life are these: Say yes to enough sleep! Say yes to pampering yourself at least once a week (and a tiny bit every day) – in whatever way this works for you. Make yourself as important as your students and the rest of your job. And act accordingly. When you’re a happier, calmer, healthier you, you will be a clearer thinker, more creative, and a more supportive presence in the classroom.

Lastly, frame of mind is critical when it comes to reducing stress. I have two pieces of advice for you. First, imagine there is no such thing as a problem. There are only different types of circumstances. When you stop using the “problem” language, you change your subconscious reactions. Some examples of problem language are, “That’s a problem!” or “This is the worst situation ever.” When you don’t judge a situation as problematic, and you just see it as another situation or set of circumstances to be handled (or not), you are less likely to react and activate a stress response in your body. You can allow some ease around it. Your shoulders can relax. You can breathe easier. Second, let go of your vice-like grip on ideas, people, beliefs, and things. That grip creates tension and stress and the illusion of problems. For example, you can love and be proud of your best friend. But ease your grip on him. Enjoy him. Have normal, human attachment. But don’t cling to him with your thoughts or actions. If he wants to move away or gets a new friend he spends time with, you will have much healthier thoughts and less stress regarding the situation if your care is strong and your grip is loose. This same idea applies to everything. Have and care about these things, but let go of your vice grip on your identity as a teacher (you’ll be surprised how freeing it is), your judgments of others and yourself (so important), grudges against those who’ve done you wrong, future plans, stances in an argument with anyone, your favorite travel mug you can’t find. You can still accomplish everything and have healthy attachments without holding onto every thought and thing you care about for dear life. In fact, you will be less rigid, nicer to be around, and more able to flex with situations in the classroom and in life, which we all know rarely go according to plan – no matter how attached we are to said plan.”

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