How do you know?
As teachers, we give and give. And give some more. We love doing it, or we wouldn’t. We even offer that invisible 10%, or strive to do so. Over the last two and a half years, we have done all this in the midst of a pandemic, with changing teaching conditions by the day, and extraordinary stresses on us and most particularly our students, which often comes back to us.
A real risk for teachers who care - in the best of circumstances - is burn out, and data suggests that it is worse today than perhaps it ever has been in the modern era of education. A Gallup poll last February indicated that teachers suffered from burnout more than any other job, with 44% of K-12 teachers saying they “always” or “very often” feel burned out. 35% of college teachers felt the same. These numbers have nearly doubled in the last two years.
But what is “burn out,” how do you know you are at that stage, what causes it, and what can you do about it?
I am not an expert in this subject, and it is personal for each of us. But I think it is fair to say that all teachers have - at one point or another - had feelings of being “burned out.” It means we’re out of gas, or each day there is little left in the tank. To use a battery analogy, over time, our batteries do not get sufficiently recharged on evenings and weekends to make it through the day or the week without feeling completely discharged.
Another symptom is illness. Sometimes we push ourselves to the limits of our physical and mental strength, unawares that we are doing so. Until you end up with a terrible flu, ear infection, or similar health event that lands you in the ER. This is the ultimate wake up call for a teacher.
The causes of burn out among teachers are myriad and different for each of us. But there are some similarities. Overwork. Long days. Too many students. The endlessly giving mentality of a good teacher. Personal issues and challenges. Health issues. Uncaring administrators. Demanding parents. Students who have disengaged.
Most often, it is a mashup of too many of these at the same time. It just happens. It isn’t anything you did.
What to do about it is tougher. Often you will have colleagues who will help take a day or two - you just have to admit you need help and ask for it. But often the only thing you can do is grit your teeth until the end of the semester or school year. And so your best and hang on.
While you are doing that, it might help to think of ways you might be able to reorder the rest of your life. The reality is that a good teacher is making sacrifices about what they can do during the week - and on weekends - other than their job. They have to conserve their energies during the weekends to have enough left to get through the week. For some, going to an all day tailgate and football game is energizing. For most, while fun, it is exhausting. If you are the latter, you have to say no to some of those things so you can be rested and maintain a quiet mindset so that when Monday comes, you can pour it out in class and not be burned out at the end of the day.
I suspect teacher burn out is, generally speaking, not an issue that concerns administrators much. It is hard for them, for sure, to know where the line is with their teachers. They want to maximize the human resource, but they don’t really know where that maximum is, and often push past it by assigning too many students, or requiring too many forms, or faculty meetings, or committee service, or all four. A good administrator is constantly in touch with their teachers about this, and being careful not to require too much, so as to preserve the quality of the educational enterprise as a whole.
Have you had periods of burn out in your teaching? What have you done to address it, and get back on track?
Letters of Recommendation
Another great article in The New Yorker magazine this week, this one on the Nobel Prize winning musician, poet, and composer, Bob Dylan. If you are a Dylan fan, you’ll enjoy it. And even if you’re not.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from the American writer Norman Rush:
The main effort of arranging your life should be to progressively reduce the amount of time required to decently maintain yourself so that you can have all the time you want for reading.
I’ve definitely felt this. Too many students/courses combined with some health issues (which, as you say, can be exacerbated by the teaching loads). I’ve tried to put up better boundaries for nights and weekends but during those busy seasons all bets are off. Sabbaticals are not gifts, they are necessities if we are to remain fresh and engaged in our discipline.
If I'm being honest, most of last semester carried a sense of burnout. It was our first semester fully back in the classrooms after online and hybrid classes and it felt like too much. Suddenly re-doing lesson plans, rubrics, and assessments for the third time in as many years, with too many uncertainties about the Big C and...just everything. It felt overwhelming; it was exhausting.
So, I did what I always do. Made sure I was getting enough sleep, tried to get some exercise and eat...better, let's say..., and made sure I was putting time into the other things that matter to me. And while that hasn't fixed everything, it has fixed enough for the moment.