29th November 2016

We need to talk about teacher burnout

By Sharon Maloney

Okay, we’re now about halfway through the first term of school and most of you are probably in your teaching groove, so you might be thinking this may not apply to you. But it does. As Benjamin Franklin says, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

Burnout is a gradual thing, not happening overnight and making sure you are aware of the signs of burnout and how to prevent it will help you survive the rest of the academic year. Teaching stress and burnout is a serious issue with many international studies showing the effect on teachers and the education industry.  In one study, almost 25% of teachers leave teaching altogether because of burnout.

Whether you're a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong or elsewhere in the world, whether you teach in a mainstream school or a language institute - burnout can effect anyone, especially those who have a very high student/teaching load

So what is burnout?

Ever feel like you’re swimming upstream, delivering lacklustre lessons, unable to find inspiration, difficulty in coping with your workload, struggling to connect with your students, generally feeling like you hate everything and everyone, or wanting to cry at a moment’s notice?  Even if you feel only one of these, it could be a sign that you are suffering from burnout.

Where does teacher burnout come from?

Burnout comes from a variety of factors:

  • personal health and wellbeing issues (e.g. insomnia, chronic conditions, migraines, issues at home, etc.)
  • classroom management issues
  • poor teaching support environment
  • heavy teaching schedule and no time to plan effectively
  • pressure from above – senior management or school directors
  • taking work home with you
  • boredom
  • feeling like you have a lack of support from management and senior management

Does burnout effect all teachers?

It's not that burnout effects all teachers, but rather it can effect all teachers - mainstream teachers, TEFL teachers, educational support teachers, principles, managers and even teaching assistants. The most important thing is to keep an eye on how you're feeling, and keep an eye out for your colleagues as well.

How does burnout manifest itself?

Burnout appears in a few different forms, but the most common are:

The spark is gone

This is probably one of the easiest signs to spot, because the spark is basically motivation. You can see it in teachers’ eyes when they are motivated, in how they conduct lessons and respond to learners and their colleagues. When the spark has gone, teachers are demoralised and demotivated, their will to inspire others has disappeared and this leads to other issues (see below). The motivation to inspire others is arguably the most important drive for teachers to do what they do.  Once that is gone, it is difficult to get back. It needs the help and support of other teachers and senior management to reignite that spark again.

Unable to contribute and share

When teachers feel stressed and burnt out, often they withdraw and shut down. This is particularly evident in school meetings, planning sessions and social events, where they appear mute and don’t contribute anything. This can often be attributed to feeling overwhelmed, unable to understand how everyone else is so motivated and happy in their job and wanting to get away from it all.   

Negativity

When teachers suffer from burnout, they often stop talking to others. When they do, all that pours out from them are complaints about everything. They can be intensely negative and resistant to any form of solution or positive support. Their negative attitude is pervasive and infectious to those also prone to burnout. This negativity is hard to change, because once there, it’s there to stay – until the end of the school year.

So what can I do?

There are a few things you can do when you see the signs of burnout.

Perhaps the most important of these are:

Take time for yourself

You can’t be a good teacher if there’s no petrol in the tank. You need to stay healthy, both in mind and in body. Keeping fit, watching what you eat, making sure you get enough sleep, and switching off from work when you are home, are common no-brainers.

A quick look around any staffroom will show you who is physically taking care of themselves. These healthy teachers are also more active in the classroom, able to stand and walk around the room for longer, take part in games, and so forth. Eating well is a part of this. Teaching takes up an immense amount of energy and surviving on chocolate and cookies from the staffroom pantry will only end in sugar highs and crashes, that don’t see you through a long day.

Sleeping well is another essential part of well-being. Get your 8 hours of shut-eye and make it properly restful – no electronic devices in your room distracting you. Your body will thank you the next day.

Getting out on your days off, hanging out with friends, mini stay-cations, new hobbies will all remind you there’s life outside the classroom that is waiting to be enjoyed.

Deal with anxiety

Practicing mindfulness and meditation techniques are a way to distance your mind and keep your inner self calm and free from the stresses at work. Try to project an image of confidence and authority. I’m a big believer of “faking it till you make it”, because when you start to believe in your teaching abilities, learners will respond accordingly. Again, talk to others – peers, colleagues, friends, senior management – listen to their experience and advice and try them out.

Improve your teaching skills

Often burnout can occur when we feel out of our depth because we don’t have the tools to teach particular classes. Staying abreast of the latest teaching developments, through courses, workshops, lectures and honing your skills will make you a more confident teacher. Be open to change and improvement. If your classroom management skills are in need of some help, check out positive reinforcement techniques. When your confidence is high and you are flexible to change, it is hard to feel demotivated and negative.

Be the change you want to see

While it may sound cliché, if staffroom politics are getting you down, then ignore those being negative around you and focus on being the positive influence in the classroom and making it a brighter place for the people around you.  

Talk to senior management

If your workload is too heavy or the pressure is getting to you, talk to the ones above who can actually do something about your workload. Write down the areas which you are struggling with, and come up with some action points or suggestions that could improve the situation BEFORE you talk to them.  Having a plan of action will show that you are open to remedies and compromise. If they refuse to listen, then you will have to ask yourself if that’s a place you want to continue working. Don’t quit without having tried to ask for change, but do look around and keep your options open. Often senior management have no idea what goes on at classroom and staffroom level and will be willing to help where necessary as they don’t want to lose good teachers.  

Keep an eye on your stress levels and those of your peers. If you suspect burnout, try to stop it in its tracks before it gets worse. If your peers are suffering, step in and talk to them about it gently before offering advice. It may be just the thing they need. 

Sharon is Director of Studies for English for Asia and a teacher trainer on the Trinity CertTESOL course. She has over 14 years of teaching and teacher training experience in TESOL. Sharon specializes in teaching young learners and creating material for teachers and students, as well as running professional development workshops for local teachers of young learners in Hong Kong and Macau. Her qualifications include the Trinity CertTESOL, Cambridge DELTA, and she is now finishing her MATESOL.