Your phone alarm failed to go off on time, so you scramble out the door and forget your lunch in the process.
Arriving after the morning bell has already rung, you rush into your classroom and scramble to set up today’s lesson. Students are distracted and the funny, engaging video you hoped would capture their interest keeps freezing.
During lunch, you receive a reminder from the principal about those IEPs you completely forgot about.
You pack your things and head home, where you quickly eat and grade assignments until you fall into bed.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you might be struggling with teacher burnout.
Some days, teaching is a wonderful and rewarding job — educating young minds, encouraging students and making tangible differences in their lives. Other days, it’s draining, exhausting and thankless.
The sudden shift to online learning hasn’t always made it easy, either. Many teachers are taking on extra work and learning how to use new resources as they teach from home.
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What is teacher burnout?
Teacher burnout is more than just a bad day every once in a while. It’s ongoing anxiety that can have serious negative effects on your work and life.
Psychology Today defines burnout as “a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, detachment and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”
Many teachers feel the pressure to be perfect. But according to a 2017 survey by the American Federation of Teachers, 61% of teachers say their jobs are always or often stressful. To make matters worse, 58% of respondents said the stress impacted their mental health.
What are the symptoms of teacher burnout?
There are three major teacher burnout symptoms:
- Cynicism — a sense of detachment from work or life, loss of enjoyments, pessimism and isolation.
- Feelings of ineffectiveness — Apathy, hopelessness, increased irritability, lack of productivity and poor performance.
- Physical and emotional exhaustion — Always tired, unable to sleep, forgetfulness or trouble concentrating, anxiety, depression and anger.
If more than one of those sound familiar to you, there’s a chance you’re struggling with teacher burnout.
Burnout doesn’t just affect you, it affects your students and the entire education system. Teachers experiencing burnout are more likely to quit, and according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, half a million teachers leave the profession each year.
Teachers are also more likely to leave when they’re teaching in high-poverty schools, which affects the educational outcomes of some of the most at-risk students. Education is an important part of a child’s life, and when teachers don’t have the support they need, everyone is affected.
According to a 2020 study of teachers in Finland, teacher burnout might be related to individual factors like:
- Grade level — Special education teachers experience teacher burnout more often than primary or subject teachers.
- Gender — Female teachers are more likely to experience undue amounts of stress at work, while male teachers are more likely to experience feelings of cynicism.
- Years of experience — Early career teachers are more likely to experience burnout, possibly due to a lack of effective classroom management techniques or teaching experience.
Teaching is an incredibly important and demanding job, and there’s no shame in admitting you need help.
8 Realistic ways to prevent and recover from teacher burnout
If left untreated, teacher burnout symptoms can cause serious physical and mental health issues. That’s why it’s so important to use proactive strategies to prevent teacher burnout and treat symptoms sooner than later.
1. Talk about teacher burnout
Sit down with a loved one, video call a friend, or go for a tea or coffee with a trusted colleague. If you can, talk to someone with their own long-term teaching experience. They’ll be able to better understand and empathize with what you’re feeling.
The key is to simply start talking – get it all out! Rant, laugh, cry, and don’t hold anything back. The more you choose to withhold, the more your feelings of stress and frustration will percolate and bubble over into your next teaching day. That isn’t fair for you or your students.
Whether or not your shoulder to lean on gives you sound advice is irrelevant. What’s most important is to break the isolation of your work and know you’re not alone. Every teacher can probably tell you their own stories of job-related stress — especially during this time of online learning — and you can support each other.
2. Practice self-care
It might sound corny, but it works: self-care routines can help you prioritize your own health.
Set some time aside on the weekend or in the evening to do something that benefits you physically or mentally.
What relaxes and refreshes you? Some ideas include:
- Practicing meditation
- A quick morning yoga routine
- Taking a walk and experiencing nature
- Reading a chapter of your favorite book
- Creating a sleep schedule (and sticking to it!)
- Relaxing with your drink of choice and favorite reality TV show
Self-care can even be as easy as taking a deep breath. Studies published in the journal of Neurological Sciences and Frontiers in Psychology have proven the health benefits of deep breathing, especially when it comes to anxiety and stress relief.
If you’re stuck inside and teaching from home, try taking a screen-free lunch break or starting your day with a short walk. When you prioritize yourself, you’re better equipped to help your students.
3. Know when to take a break
When you start feeling teacher burnout, step away from it. Leave your work at work: the thoughts of grading, curriculum planning, field trip permission forms, responding to parents’ emails, report cards to fill out… the list goes on.
Instead of working around the clock, try this: pull out a pad of paper and write down everything that needs to get done over the next two days. Once your list is complete, choose the top three tasks. These are the must-do tasks for tomorrow that will make the day more manageable.
Now that you’ve figured out how to make the next two days easier, let go of your work and prioritize yourself for the rest of the night. Make a delicious dinner, read your current book, watch your favorite Netflix series, or get to sleep early.
Online learning makes this trickier, but it’s still important to set boundaries. Step away from your computer screen at the end of the day and remind yourself it’s personal time, not work time. Switch on some cozy lights, move to a different area of your home or put on your favorite dancing music to get your mind off work.
According to a Finnish study, self-regulation — changing your own behaviors and thoughts — is one of the key ways teachers can avoid and treat teacher burnout. This means:
- Slowing down your working pace
- Prioritizing your most important tasks
- Leaving your work at school when you need to
- Experimenting with different time-management techniques
Looking at your workload, it might seem impossible. But if you’re at risk of teacher burnout, you need to make changes. After all, you can’t be there for your students if you’re not taking care of yourself.
4. Plan for community
Preventing teacher burnout doesn’t just mean self-regulation. The same study mentioned above also found co-regulation can help reduce burnout symptoms like cynicism and dissociation.
Co-regulation, or building a professional and personal community, looks different for everyone. But what is constant is having a support system in place where you can turn for professional advice or emotional support.
If you want to grow your social network, try:
- Joining a hobby group — Maybe you love to knit, hike or spend your weekends baking endless loaves of bread. Whatever your passion is, connect online or in real life with other people who love the same things as you!
- Start or join a professional group — See if there’s a professional group online or in your area that aligns with your teaching interests. You’ll find new ways to get excited about work, and maybe even learn a thing or two.
- Reconnect with family and friends — It’s easy to fall out of touch with friends or family members who live further away, but don’t forget to check in every once in a while! Write letters or hop on a video call to keep your personal support system strong.
Whether it’s teachers in your school or strangers on the internet, relationships are an important way to remind us we’re not alone.
5. Find out what actually went wrong
So you had a bad day — it happens. A bad day can feel all-encompassing, but have you ever stopped to think about why it was a bad day?
If it was just a single, possibly small event that triggered your bad day, maybe you’re more in control than you thought. When things don’t go as we expected, it can negatively affect everything else we do – even when there’s no real reason for them to.
Once you’re able to pinpoint the event that unfortunately ruined your day, you may come to find nothing (or very little) about your day was actually that bad.
If the same things keep going wrong, that’s usually where you should make a change. Woke up tired and grumpy? Make a point of putting your work down and getting to bed earlier. Is it a struggle to transition between certain classes? Build a routine with your students to help them focus.
When you understand where the tricky spots in your day are, you’ll be better equipped to smooth things out.
6. Put things in perspective
Teaching – any job, really – can consume you if you aren’t careful. It can become unhealthy when you start having thoughts of quitting or your mental health takes a backseat.
Forgetting this important reality can quickly lead to teacher burnout. You know, that feeling when the weight of the job starts to drown out your joy.
The unique thing about teaching is that you’re so much more than just a teacher. You’re a parent, a friend, a spouse, a student, an explorer — you can fill in the blanks!
The point is, there are relationships and other areas of life that begin to fade if you don’t take care of yourself. And what’s life without those?
Refer back to the points above to build a community, show yourself some compassion and practice healthy work habits. This is when “outside-the-job” thinking is important.
7. Try something new
If you’re feeling cynical, uninspired or frustrated with your teaching, it could be a sign you need to troubleshoot your classroom.
|Students are acting out in class.||Try implementing new classroom management strategies or creating a set of classroom rules together with your students.|
|Students have trouble focusing and get distracted during lessons.||Introduce a new teaching strategy.|
|Students don’t seem excited to learn.||Try out a new teaching strategy or introduce your students to a new edtech tool like Prodigy!|
Whatever you decide, it’s important to realize the end goal is not to add another task to your growing to-do list — it’s to get you (and your students) excited about learning.
Think it’s impossible while you’re teaching from home? It’s not! Check out six ways you can engage your students while they’re learning remotely.
Choose what that feels exciting but not overwhelming — maybe something that fits in nicely with your existing routine. Start with small goals and soon you’ll see how much they can grow!
8. Ask for help when you need it
Teacher burnout can have serious consequences for your mental and physical health. If you’re struggling, use the resources you have around you. It might feel hopeless, but we promise it’s not. Try:
- Visiting your family doctor
- Reaching out to a trusted friend or colleague for support
- Accessing resources through your school’s Employee Assistance Program, if available
Your mental and physical health comes first — before your to-do list or the next staff meeting.
Even if you’re working from home, there are still resources available to help you, so reach out! If you’re not sure where to turn first, connect with a trusted colleague or friend to get the help you need.
Yes, you can recover from teacher burnout
Now more than ever, it’s important to take care of your mental and physical health. Even if you’re stuck at home, connect with others and cut yourself some slack.
As tempting as it is to keep pushing yourself, sometimes the most effective thing you can do is rest, reflect, and recover. Use these ideas to recover not only your love of teaching, but your sense of self.
Were there any strategies we missed? We would love to hear what works for you, because chances are there’s someone experiencing the same struggles who needs to hear it. Let’s keep the conversation going below.
Prodigy is one of the most engaging game-based learning platforms loved by over 90 million students and teachers around the world. Join today for no-cost, adaptive math practice that your students will love!