7th March 2017

How to stay motivated and avoid teacher burnout

By Sharon Maloney

As a teaching employee, I have gone through a few spells of demotivation in my career. The most recent one was a few months ago. Feeling demotivated with my job, very unappreciated and generally overwhelmed with my workload, I woke up day after day dreading what lay ahead for the next 9 hours...this is a common symptom of teacher burnout.

It got to the point where I got bad insomnia and anxiety. I began hating the people around me at work, even my friends. I genuinely felt it was a horrible place to work and every day I wanted to throw my resignation letter onto my boss’ table and walk away without a glance.  On the very worst days, I cried in a coffee shop before I got into the office, and felt close to just picking up my things and walking out the door without telling anyone.

This resulted in me switching off mentally from work and putting in the bare minimum. I disengaged with colleagues and was not invested in my career at all, not caring what my seniors thought of me.  It is the worst kind of autopilot behavior one could display. Insignificant things blew out of proportion and I was on a hair-trigger with my reactions to people. Looking back now, it must have seemed to everyone around me that I radiated only darkness and negativity.

Things came to a head after a few months, when I broke down and cried to my partner about hating my job and life. It was horrible, ugly crying that left me empty. I felt like I had really reached the proverbial bottom of everything. When I calmed down, he sat me down and made me write a list of every single thing I hated about my job. Surprisingly this was a very short list.

Essentially, it boiled down to my responsibilities not fitting my strengths or personality, because my role was seen differently by different people in my organisation and they gave me differing expectations. This resulted in me being stretched too thin on too many fronts and no one being happy at the result. 

And when it was there in black and white, the fog lifted. You see, I’d managed to talk myself into such a dark hole of despair that I could no longer think or see things clearly. Everything felt magnified and insurmountable. When the fog lifted, I realized that solutions had been there all along and I could have reached for these immediately at any time.

I then scheduled a chat with my boss, psyched myself up to baring my soul and got everything off my chest. I had prepared myself with some options to present to him such as new responsibilities, how I would work with my teams and pathways and options for other roles. We discussed them and he was open and receptive. It wasn’t an easy chat, he probed me on issues I had and questioned me at every turn and what I had planned. For the most part, I held myself together and held the longest deep breath waiting for him to say something. I knew I was ready to walk away but this time in the right way, if I wasn’t heard. Thankfully, he agreed to what I asked for.

The sense of euphoria was incredible afterwards. It was like setting down the heaviest bag and finding relief. I realise also it was a seminal point in my life and career; facing up to something difficult, uncovering parts of myself I didn’t like and showing them to people, trusting them to listen to what I had to say and trusting them to see a way forward, even if I couldn’t. It felt incredibly grown up and adult – ‘Look Ma, I’m ADULTING!’. But confronting yourself and finding solutions, and then taking them to a boss and asking for something different, is a very hard thing. If you’ve ever done it, I applaud you. Not every boss is like mine, but being prepared with options certainly puts them on the right foot and shows a willingness to work and find solutions for difficult issues. If you haven’t, and are struggling, just take the leap. Your life will change, I promise you.

What you can do to stay motivated and reduce burnout

Sit down and breathe. Then think about what the issue REALLY is.

If there are issues with your role, research other roles in the same company that would be more compatible with your strengths and try your hand at some of the tasks involved in these areas, e.g. if you enjoy materials development, try creating some sample material to show your boss. If there are other roles open, research the merits and disadvantages of each honestly. It’s important to know the day-to-day responsibilities of each role before you ask for a change. Do you know all the good, bad, ugly and boring parts of the roles you want? If it is still tempting afterwards, then go for it!

If you struggle with your responsibilities, sit down and write a list of all your responsibilities and work out how much time is spent on each, and how much time you are actually given by your seniors and your timetable.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you pinpoint where the overload is?

  • Is it a lack of time? Is it organisation?

  • Are you being stretched too thin?

  • What are you fire-fighting most of the time and why? Where is the problem?

  • Are you spending too much time on one area?

  • What can be trimmed in your day to streamline things?

When you have put things down on paper, it’s generally much easier to see what can be reduced or discarded. Think about and ask around for solutions and alternatives that will help you save time, organise yourself and help reduce the load where possible. Start with your peers and move on from there.

If you are dealing with staffroom culture, is it a personality clash or something more severe, such as bullying? If it’s a personality clash, remind yourself that all working environments have their share of challenges, including people. If it’s relatively small and can be ignored, then do so. It’s not worth giving up a good job over something petty. If it’s more serious, it could be considered bullying and if you have evidence of it and its effects on you (doctor’s notes for stress, anxiety, etc), you need to go to a senior manager and explain the situation. Ask them specifically how they will resolve this or take the necessary action to stop it. 

If it’s classroom culture, ask your peers for advice and read as much as you can on classroom management. Try using positive reinforcement techniques frequently in every lesson and look at how to manage the problematic behavior of your learners. Focus on taking care of yourself, get enough sleep, eat well, stay fit and don’t dwell on these issues outside of the classroom, leave them at the door.

In fact, when you start a new job, you should be made aware of who is your line manager or mentor, in case issues do arise. If not, ask!  Make sure you build a good rapport with them so that you feel comfortable discussing all aspects of your job. When issues arise, explain the situation. Be honest and have options prepared.

Stay on top of current industry news and methodology and experiment in different areas of teaching. Sign up for professional development workshops, classes and webinars – if these don’t invigorate you, perhaps you need to change industry and look at what DOES make you happy.

Create challenges for yourself with clear parameters and deadlines as these will help you stay focused and keep you productive. Challenges can be as small as moving your position where you teach from in class, or using more positive reinforcement to something bigger like leading professional development workshops for your colleagues, e.g. using ICT in the classroom, or exploiting story-telling, etc.

Find peers that support and encourage you. If it takes a while, look at how you are supporting and encouraging them and be vocal about it. People are often reticent in building each other up until they are first shown it. Create a network that will help you push through a slump. Help others when it looks like they’re also struggling.

Underlying this all is the message that you need to help yourself first. Be proactive in finding solutions that will help you and show your school your worth. Look at responsibilities that play to your strengths and creativity.

Do what you love to do and find moments of small joy in each day – this will see you through dark times until you get back on track. Keep a record of your achievements, whether it be positive feedback from staff or students, or material you have created, or great lessons you’ve planned. You will soon find your list is longer than you thought and this will help you stay focused on producing more of the good stuff.

If you´re looking for new ideas, sparks of inspiration or new pathways for your career, check out some of our upcoming information sessions for teachers in Hong Kong.

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 a BA, Trinity CertTESOL, Cambridge Post-Graduate DELTA, and MA TESOL.