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Commentary: 10 Steps (Give or Take) to Avoid Teacher Burnout

Ellie Herman | December 11, 2013

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10 StepsRecently, a reader commented on one of my posts, asking me to offer some concrete goals and steps to avoid burnout.

First of all, thank you for asking my advice. I am no expert on burnout except that I personally experienced it. For truly professional advice, I highly recommend a book by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, “The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It.” It’s filled with concrete steps for individuals and organizations.

But since you asked, I’m going to give my personal, unscientific recommendation. I call this piece “10 Steps to Avoid Teacher Burnout” because that’s what I wish I had had. Ten easy steps: do one a week, and by March you’re back in action, frisky and clear-eyed and filled with purpose. Amazing! Next stop: rock-hard abs!

The thing is, “10 steps” is an illusion. Teacher burnout is enormously complex and probably different in every case. I think a huge problem in education these days is the belief that we can come up with simple 10-step solutions, or rubrics, or accountability systems for anything. We are human beings trying to pass on all that we know to the next generation. There are no easy answers, only messy human answers.

So I only have one step. It’s what I didn’t do; it’s what I wish I’d done.

1. Listen.

Listen, first of all, to yourself. Are you exhausted, drained, cynical, hopeless? Do you write things in your journal like, “I can’t keep going” and “I hate my life”? When a student says, “I’m worthless,” do you have to bite your tongue to keep from saying “That makes two of us, bucko?” Do you no longer take pleasure in anything, even things you used to love, like family, friends, hobbies? Does the mere idea of “hobbies” make you seethe with resentment at the thought of that people who work less hard but make more money actually have them? When was the last time you exercised? When was the last time you ate a good meal, and by “good meal” I do not mean an energy bar wolfed down over a stack of papers to grade?

If any of this rings a bell, stop right now. You’re burned out. Take a day off. You may need two days off. I know your workplace may have incentives not to do this; you may have a school culture that prioritizes attendance every single day. That’s great. For superheroes. You are not a superhero. You are a wonderful human being who really needs a day in bed with all eight seasons of “Breaking Bad” and a mountain of deli food. You don’t have a sub plan? Photocopy a great article in your subject area and have the kids read it, then write a response. A friend of mine who’s a great teacher takes a personal day every month. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. No one will remember that you took a day off. They will remember if you quit.

Listen, second of all, to your colleagues. (If you hate your colleagues, start looking for a new job.) Listen to them professionally: what’s their experience at school right now? What could change that might make things better? If there are concrete issues, maybe it’s time to raise them with administrators. What was your original vision, why are you all here? I was often inspired by my fellow teachers, which reminds again of why I was lucky to work with motivated idealists. I wish I’d taken the time to really see the great things my friends were doing for students and to tell them personally because I see now that teachers don’t always know how good they are.

Finally, listen to your students. I don’t just mean doing one of those activities where you ask for their feedback, though that can be helpful. I mean long-term, looking back over the years, what have you done that’s really helped your students? What are you proudest of? As your students go out in the world, what do they come back and tell you? What is it they needed from you that you gave them? Remember: this is the essence of your job. On a really bad day when you’re living on re-microwaved coffee and Cheez-Its from the snack machine, when your to-do list grips your head like a fever, when you have to throw your top student out of class for cheating, how can you get back to your core work—to the long-term vision of what you do that makes a difference in a young person’s life?

I hope this is helpful. Remember, I’m the opposite of an expert. I speak as somebody who did burn out and is currently sitting at home. No one should ever give teaching advice unless they’ve taught for at least a decade. Including me. With that in mind, I hope you’ll consider this not as advice, but instead as a wish for you. No matter what anyone tells you (and by the way, you’re probably harder on yourself than anyone else is), you’re doing the most important work in the world. Here in L.A., 50 percent of all inner-city teachers quit within three years. If you’re at an inner-city charter, 50 percent quit per year.

So thank you for being one of the people who stayed. Take care of yourself. We need you.

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.


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