Burnout: Trickle or Flood?

A colleague of mine recently visited a school in a nearby school district. As she walked through the halls, during a class period, she heard a woman’s voice coming from several doors down. The voice, which was at the level of a scream, said, “You are all so stupid!”.

When she told me about her experience, my first knee-jerk thought was “bad teacher!”. I also immediately imagined what the room of students must have looked like and I mourned for the kids who are subjected to that kind of treatment – not only at school, but many of them at home, most likely. Very quickly, though, I began to think about how that teacher got to where she was and began to feel compassion for this woman. She probably started off being a good teacher and the behaviors she expressed that day didn’t happen overnight. She let them trickle in.

What starts as mild frustration with students can grow into an us vs. them mentality. Once it gets there, the classroom becomes combatant, with students trying to get their teachers to the point of “blowing” and teachers  . . . well . . . blowing.

I talked about this to a group that included seasoned educators over this weekend. After the session, one of them came to me and thanked me for the lesson. He has taught for 32 years in higher ed, and he said that as he listened to me, he was reflecting on his own classroom and realized he was letting it trickle in. He hasn’t gotten to where the woman described above has, but he can see that he does get frustrated with his students more often and that sometimes that frustration results in slightly derogatory behaviors towards them.

Don’t let it trickle in.

How do we be sure we are not quietly heading toward burnout and completely inappropriate behaviors? Reflection. We learn about reflection in our teacher education. It isn’t just an exercise for student teachers – it should be a career-long practice (it helps a lot outside the classroom, as well). Each day, we need to reflect not only on each lesson plan, but on how we performed in the classroom. How did I feel today? How did I interact with my kids today? How did they look as they sat listening to me? If you reflect each day, you’ll catch the leak that becomes a trickle. You’ll be able to keep the burnout from breaking the line and causing a flood of bad, bad teaching.

How do we turn it around? One of my favorite sayings is “A problem well- stated is a problem half-solved.” Once you’ve recognized the burnout, you can take steps toward halting it.

Step One: Take a break. I don’t mean quit your job or even take several weeks of leave. I mean a mental break. Give yourself a few minutes each day to have a rest from the job. During this time, focus on something that is not school-related. Read a book. Listen to music. Sit in your room with the door locked, the lights off, and in silence.

Step Two: Change your thinking. Remember when you were a student teacher and everyone told you not to hang out in the teacher lounge? Stop hanging out in the teacher lounge. There can be a lot of burned out teachers in there, talking negatively about the job and the kids. Anytime you find thoughts creeping into your head that are negative about the job and the kids, recognize it. Turn it around – try to focus on the positives. If you can’t find positives, try to figure out why you feel the way you do. What one thing made that thought come into your head? Is it something that can be fixed/changed?

Step Three: Never stop. The teaching profession demands that reflection and renewal be continuous. It’s a tough job. There isn’t any way to gloss over that particular fact. Nobody can do it “on the fly” every day, year after year. Yes, we have to be able to do it that way and be flexible, but preparation is still one of the most important parts of the job.

Don’t let leaky thinking ruin your plumbing.


6 responses to “Burnout: Trickle or Flood?

  1. Thank you, Elaine, for your well-written, well-timed, and useful advice! Here in March, with one last quarter to go in my district, teachers are feeling burned out exhaustion at the same time that the students are squirming with spring fever. Both students and teaches are counting down the days until the end of the school year — and this far-sightedness distorts our focus. I agree with you that reflection is the way to combat this decline into sarcasm and hostility, and teachers benefit from taking time to think about their day. Keeping a journal — a private one, not a public blog, allows teachers to debrief and vent, as well as watch for patterns and trouble spots. Sharing journals with one trusted mentor or friend may also help.

  2. Sharon,

    Thank you for your comment. I especially appreciate you pointing out the benefits of using a private journal to reflect. It is so important not to let these thoughts spill into a public blog as I’ve seen so many do!

  3. Nice post. I think another aspect to the job is to be aware of the the traps and “trip lines”, as I call them. Such things as planning how much can reasonable get done in a day, or year, when teaching. When I first started, I wanted to do many labs and activities. But as the years went buy, I reflected on the fact that doing too much can burn you out. Now I do the less is more in my mind. One has to take into account how many classes and total students one teaches and how much can reasonable get done.
    Also, listen to your body. When my eye is twitching, I know I’m too stressed out and need to focus on something else.

    I am much more content now that I see only so much can get done and the school year is like a marathon with all the other things that mush be done.

  4. Kevin,

    You make a really good point with the “less is more” thing. I try to evaluate each lab – am I doing this just for filler or is there really something my kids will get from it? Once you remove all the filler, the activities are much more manageable. Sometimes, you can combine the worthwhile parts of two or three activities and turn them into one really memorable lab.

    Your comment about the twitching eye makes me remember my 11th grade Chemistry teacher. Unfortunately, her eye twitched all day long!


  5. For how many years were you a teacher?

  6. Pingback: Start with what we have | Cruel Shoes

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