Written by Julie Ziegler on January 17, 2019
I remember the day clearly. It was mid-December, right before the holiday break, when I broke. It was just before lunch, maybe about 11:15, and we were in my self-contained grade 6-8 special education classroom. It was literally the last portable in the back of the school. I was a third of the way into my third year of teaching at a public school district. In this role, I was tasked with managing an IEP caseload of up to 18 students, as well as planning and delivering 4 core subject classes a day. Did I mention that all of my students had severe histories of trauma and were diagnosed with mental health issues? To say that the job itself was stressful would be an understatement. In fact, research has found that teaching can be as stressful as working in the ER.
My students had been working my nerves, and the tension was building. I actually can’t remember what the last straw specifically was, but I recall my response as if it happened this morning. Maybe one of my students said something to me in the wrong tone, maybe Josh climbed onto the cabinet again, or maybe Demare stormed out of the room for the third time that day. Whatever it was, it was my last straw, and I flipped my lid. I wasn’t proud of it, but I went around that classroom and took every single resource and poster off the walls, going on a tirade about how they would need to earn all of the resource materials back. My students sat and watched in shock, mouths wide-open and not making a single sound. I was totally out of control. I was burnt out.
Maybe you can relate to something like this. Maybe you’ve had a moment (hopefully not as drastic) where you’ve just “lost it.” Maybe the stress of the job, the long hours, low pay, and ever growing list of demands became too much, and you did something that you’re not proud of. Maybe it was the opposite: the piles of paperwork and parents and bureaucracy drove you to the edge and you simply checked out. You shut down and withdrew. All of these are symptoms of teacher burnout.
I studied Child Development and Public Health for my undergrad. Both fields look at prevention and early intervention. If we can recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout early, perhaps we can curb teacher attrition rates—and, put the dollars currently going to recruitment and new teacher training back into teacher salaries and student resources.
Teacher Burnout Symptoms
Learner’s Edge provides this list of burnout symptoms to help teachers recognize when it’s happening:
- Feeling irritable and quick to anger
- No desire to attend social gatherings
- Increased complaints
- Chronic fatigue or exhaustion
- Chronic insomnia
- Change in appetite
- Physical symptoms
- Brain fog
Tips for Mediating Burnout
Luckily there are organizations, such as The Teaching Well, from which educators can draw resources and support. The Teaching Well “works in partnership with schools to more effectively support, retain, and leverage the brilliance of their educators. Together, we heal adult culture and create thriving school ecosystems by providing tools for healthy dialogue, emotional regulation, and mindful stress resilience.” Find out more here.
Other tips for combating burnout include:
- Stay hydrated: Dehydration can increase stress by increasing cortisol, the stress hormone. Make sure to carry a water bottle with you, and sip it throughout the day.
- Take a break: Nearly anything can wait 15 minutes. Research shows that taking a short break and letting your mind wander actually leads to more productivity.
- Check out First Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success: This book includes a great collection of tips and tricks on topics such as reducing workload, advocating for support from administration, and leveraging collaboration so you can thrive in your role as an educator.
- Learn to use your district’s data management system: It may feel like an initial investment, but learning to use your data management system could save you hours of time in grading papers and assessing students.
- Cultivate hobbies outside of the classroom: This tip goes hand in hand with setting boundaries. Although it feels as if every single thing must get done, it’s likely not true. Make sure to take breaks to do something that you love other than teaching. Maybe this means going for a walk or a run, cooking or baking, or reading a book. Make sure to include a little bit of time for “play” in each day.
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