How to Prevent Teacher Burnout (Or Dig Yourself Out of the Teacher Depression Pit)

When our wonderful principal asks, “Who wants to present at a professional development day?”, I typically duck my head, avoid eye contact and make all sorts of excuses.  Really, they are not excuses. They are very valid reasons.

I am old.  I have taught for 25 plus years.  I feel that the young puppies know all the latest tech stuff.  When I first started teaching, we ran papers off on the purple wheel thing.  I believe it was called a ditto machine. Computers weren’t even around. Ancient. (Why am I still teaching, again?)

So when our Technology Integration Specialist asked me to present, I was slightly taken aback.  Her suggested topic made it worse: engaging students in the classroom. On my last evaluation, guess who got the comment that some students were not engaged and, of course, work on that.  I could tell you why two were not engaged and sometimes their disengagement is a blessing. One of them has stood up before and had the entire desk attached to his body on purpose. I think you get the picture.

I laughed and said, “No, I don’t think I am the person for that.” I replied that I am accustomed to speaking to small and large groups of women through the avenue of our church.  My husband is a minister, and he and I have been in ministry for around twenty-three years. Through that ministry, I have developed a blog, have written several books (self-published) and have been asked to speak for ladies’ prayer breakfasts, retreat breakout sessions, and bible studies at my church.  

That’s more my comfort zone.  Speaking to teachers who can be harsh brings out the middle school girl in me.  But here goes: the topic became all about encouragement. The intention is self-preservation.  Survival. The avoiding or slaying of burnout.

How about five easy strategies for preventing burnout?  Nope, I hate the word strategy.

Five tips for avoiding or slaying burnout:

  1. Accept that you are where you are for a good reason.  How many of you knew early on in life that you wanted to be a teacher?  How many of you entered college with that in mind? How many of you are an accidental teacher like me?  I do remember that when my great uncle would ask me as a wise little 6 year old what I wanted to do I would say, “Be a teacher.”  That faded. I went through college clueless, student taught on a whim and then took a job working for the state for Tennessee. I had an office and a secretary.  Boring. I realized quickly that I am a people person. I enjoyed my student teaching, but never really thought about teaching as a career. I ran into a former student from my student teaching days, a foreign exchange student,  and he asked,”Why are you not teaching? You are a very good teacher.” Divine revelation. Out of the blue, I was offered a teaching job: the teacher had left, and I would start ASAP. So I quit my job and literally in a matter of days, I was in a classroom.  Again, I had put very little thought into this. But God had a plan. He was working His plan. It is no accident that we are teachers. You are designed specifically for your job.  Embrace it.

2. Be grateful.  Throughout my life, many tragedies have struck.  One of the most difficult ones occurred during the Christmas season.  Forevermore, Christmas is difficult for me. All around me, happiness is exploding, but my emotions can go down a dark path.  I have to choose joy. I have to focus on the blessings all around me and live in the present.  Kelsi Worrell Dahlia, an Olympic Gold medalist, recently spoke at my middle school and FCA. She stated that when training and competing, she must focus on what she can control, not what she cannot control.  She can control her attitude and how hard she works. I can go into that classroom each day, grateful for a job at the best school in my county, grateful for the my fabulous 8th grade team and teachers, grateful to have a job, grateful to have a chance to change a life in some simple way everyday.  Like a rock thrown into a pond, every action makes a change for the good or bad. I can choose which it will be and be grateful. Some of my kids just need a smile, a hug and an encouraging word. When my personal life has been difficult, I had teachers that held me up at school and at school, I had a chance to lay aside the personal struggles and just do my job.  It was my savior. Kids come to school each day with horrific conditions at home and need us to help them have relief at school and a good place to land. I am grateful for a chance to be a part of that.

3.        Forgive yourself.  You didn’t win teacher of the year.  Your last evaluation wasn’t your best work. Students and parents are frustrated with you. You know you can do better.  You have messed it up.  An entire semester of bad teaching.  Let it go. Sometimes your  best doesn’t measure up.  It’s ok. You are still standing, right? You make mistakes.  We all do. It’s fixable.  Relax. It’s going to be ok.  My favorite saying is “In five years, will this really matter?” Some of you would say, “No.  It’s actually doesn’t matter right now!”  I will repost the blog about that just in case you want the extended version, but I had two administrators in trying to knock out an eval,  one nose bleed, one teacher friend who burst in the room to tell me something and turn around and run out, another visitor to my door with a situation  to handle, and a 3rd administrator open the door for a quick check/walk through who never noticed the other two administrators in the room, all ending with my principal in a corner laughing.  It was a stellar performance.  My students adjusted with every new obstacle like we were a part of some crazy video game.  Did I receive high scores? No. For once, I deserved them. I was told that “we cannot give out too many high scores or leave nothing to improve”.  Later that same school year, I had one more eval to go.  I did nothing. No prep. No pre plan.  Fly by the seat of my pants. My scores?  Perfect. This administrator didn’t share the same beliefs as the previous one.  Forgive yourself and move on.


4.  Take time for you.  As my 25 year old daughter said, “Don’t let school consume you.” We teachers are perfectionists, and our work is never done.  Take up small projects so that you can consciously think about something else besides school. Even if this means chocolate in your desk drawer, stopping by Starbucks for coffee or McDonald’s for a dollar Coke, or taking advantage of Sonic’s Happy Hour, do something that is all about you.  It will make a world of difference. Don’t get sucked in to grading papers all evening long. This has to happen sometime, but don’t make it your habit. Set boundaries for yourself, and make yourself mentally “go off the clock”. Beware talking about school all the time. Your spouse, friends or significant other can’t take it.  Remember, this is a forced action. Don’t think on school situations or that student situation long after that student has forgotten about it. Replace those thoughts as they come with something more productive, such as you, your family and giving back.

5.  Have a pep talk with yourself every now and then.  Do not let the voices of negativity that so easily discourage us all to control what you think of yourself or your teaching ability.  

So on that note, I would like to offer a declaration:

“I declare/commit/will think consider that I will breathe each day when I arrive at school.  I will look at my students through the lens of love, the lens that remembers that the last voice they heard as they left for school might have been harsh, coming from a stressed parent or that some of my students may have gotten themselves out of bed and on a bus independently.  I will remember that some of my kids do not have running water or electricity or a suitable bed in which to sleep. I will speak encouraging words to them, helping each child understand that he/she is special and created for a purpose. I will remember that their making bad choices quite possibly comes from no example of an adult making good choices, and I must model a caring adult that makes good choices.  I must also remember that I have made many bad choices in my life, and how nice it is to meet with someone who forgave me and taught me better. I commit to being consistent with consequences and showing tough love. I commit to remember what it’s like to have someone believe in me, and I will be that person to my students. I will not let unit or lesson plans, testing, data or any other teaching vices cloud my lens of love.  For today, I will teach because I am awesome at it. I will walk away, having changed someone today. As I teach year after year, I pledge to remember that simple math would show that I have changed many lives, possibly changing the trajectory of those lives completely. This possibly changed entire future families. The effects of what I do everyday is endless. I pledge not to forget that and thereby accept that teaching will never be easy.  But that’s ok: I am made of tough stuff, and no bad evaluation, test scores or rude comments about my profession will deter my obedience to my calling.”

Now, let’s go change the world.

Don’t let the kids have all the fun.

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