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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Recharge and Avoid Burnout: Tips for Mindful (but Busy!) Teachers

Do you feel like you’re “on” all the time? When you're not in class, are you correcting homework or in a meeting or doing paperwork or helping a student or in another meeting or doing more paperwork or correcting more homework or helping another student...?  (But hey, it's worth it for all the accolades and overtime pay, right?)

At minimum, it can make you tired and cranky, dragging through your days with little to no enthusiasm.  At its worst, it can make you seriously consider leaving the field.

According to the New York Times, more and more people are feeling burnt out because of
the push to work harder with fewer resources, less pay and greater job insecurity. Also, as technology allows the lines between work and home to blur, many feel on-call all the time, with no opportunity for respite.   

The Importance of Setting Limits

I think for those of us in the "helping professions," it can be hard to set boundaries without feeling like we're being irresponsible or letting someone down.  But we have enough pressures already without adding unnecessary ones.  

For example, I don't mind checking my email once or twice in the evening to see if there are any messages from students.  But I was getting emails as late as ten or eleven o'clock.  Or not.  With little to no predictability.  And it was driving me crazy.  

I finally decided to set a policy:  if my students want me to see something before the next morning, they have to get it to me by 8 pm.  If they need me to check something after 8 pm (for example, because they have a presentation the next morning), they need to ask me in advance and schedule a time.

Your rule may be different.  I used to work with a teacher who freely gave out her cell phone number and answered homework questions while running errands.  That would drive me batty, but she seemed perfectly happy about it.

The point is that you need a rule that works for you, so you feel like you have some control over your own time.

The Importance of Work-Life Balance

I understand that there are all kinds of factors you can't control.  But you can probably control a bit more than you think you can.  According to
Anyone who feels overworked and undervalued is at risk for burnout... But burnout is not caused solely by stressful work or too many responsibilities… What you do in your downtime and how you look at the world can play just as big of a role in causing burnout as work or home demands.
As school principal Katie Yezzi put it in a recent interview:
I run, and in the summer I play Ultimate Frisbee. That’s how I burn off the “stress thinking” that just spins around and around making lots of noise...  Our work as educators is so demanding, and it’s where we spend most of our time. Having an athletic pursuit reminds me of being a whole person.
For you, it may not be athletics, but it's important to have an interest that's unrelated to what you teach.  For example, if you teach music, you presumably love music and spend a lot of your time listening to or playing music. Which is all great. But sometimes you need to do something totally different, like cooking or making model airplanes or reading historical novels.  

I have the typical occupational hazard of ESL teachers:  every time I read anything or watch a movie or see something on TV, I start wondering how I can use it in class.  So, even though I really enjoy reading and watching movies, I've also started sketching and painting; it helps me clear my head for a while as I focus on  something that's nonverbal.
Don't Be Too Hard On Yourself

It's important to remember that you aren't alone and you aren't a "bad person" for feeling burnt out.  Good teachers are invaluable, and I hope you can find ways to recharge and feel good about all the things you do to help your students. 

Vicki Zakrzewski passes along some advice in an article for Greater Good on How Self-Compassion Can Help Prevent Teacher Burnout

Teacher burnout is almost epidemic in this country and is one of the causes of the 17 percent annual attrition rate amongst educators. Kristin Neff, pioneering researcher and author of the book Self-Compassion, believes the practice can greatly benefit educators.
"With the burnout issues teachers face, taking care of themselves through work/life balance is important, but it isn’t enough,” says Neff, “Teachers need to give themselves permission to be self-compassionate for the stress they’re under."

Hang in there!  Be sure to check out my previous posts about reducing stress and dealing with frustration, as well as Simmons School of Social Work's list of Self Care Tips, which are useful for anyone in the 'caring professions.'

photo by David Castillo Dominici for


 related posts:

Rainbow Walk: A Mindfulness Activity to Move the Body and Rest the Mind

Relaxed Abdominal Breath: Stress Reduction Through Mindful Breathing

and more Self-Care for Mindful (but Busy!) Teachers

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