Four Signs of Teacher Burnout: Signs and Solutions

Teacher burnout is more than just a buzzword. Every teacher and educator, especially in the current educational climate, is at risk of experiencing it.

Signs of Teacher Burnout

Crystalee Calderwood, TeacherVision Content Contributor, English (ESL) and Creative Writing teacher for grades 9-12 for eight years, shares her tips for what to do when you realize you’re experiencing teacher burnout so you can find the joy in teaching again.

Causes of Teacher Burnout

Teacher burnout results from experiencing a high number of stressors on a daily basis. The profession demands so much, in addition to the typical classroom management concerns that they face day to day. Teachers constantly work outside of contracted hours without compensation to keep up with paperwork and licensing requirements. Between submitting lesson plans and attending professional development workshops, it’s no wonder they don’t have enough time for their own families and hobbies.

Don’t ignore the warning signs! When stressors are kept inside, they grow larger and take over. Holding onto guilt only leads to more serious mental health struggles.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of expectations on already overworked teachers. In March of 2020, teachers suddenly found themselves managing fluctuating class sizes and new responsibilities like taking student temperatures and ensuring that all students wore their masks properly. They had to adapt their teaching methods to include simultaneous synchronous and asynchronous learning environments. For many older teachers, these challenges created self-doubt about their teaching abilities. One challenging school year has left a lasting impression on how to educate students for years to come, and some teachers aren’t confident about its trajectory

Related article: Helping Kids Cope with Traumatic Current Events

It’s not just seasoned teachers who struggle with change. New teachers also face unique stressors in the classroom. Many young teachers are reluctant to ask for administrative support with concerns like student behaviors. They believe they should be able to handle classroom issues independently, or they don’t want to bother administrators who seem too busy to help teachers. As a result, they sometimes ignore the signs of stress early on in their careers.

Teachers in economically disadvantaged schools may have to support students with a variety of emotional and physical needs before they can get to classroom instruction. Students who live below the poverty level may arrive at school hungry or tired. Their teachers often dig into their pockets to provide breakfast and snacks, or allow students to nap instead of completing an assignment. They are also more prone to experience disruptions or unprecedented threats of violence in their classrooms; which is a recipe for teacher burnout

Related article: Maintaining Your Mental Health as a Teacher

These examples only scratch the surface of the causes of physical and emotional exhaustion that teachers experience regularly. Teachers are only human, and when their students struggle, they experience struggle themselves. It is not uncommon to absorb these moments and take them home, which leads to the domino effect in how they treat their friends, spouses, and family.

It may be impossible to completely avoid teacher stress, but there are ways to heighten awareness of when that stress begins to have a negative impact on emotions, work, and interactions with others.  

It is natural to feel guilty for experiencing anxiety or stress. Teachers are so used to putting others before themselves that it could feel “wrong” to complain about their issues.

Signs and Symptoms of Teacher Burnout

Wondering if you are burned out or just having an off day in the classroom? The key to differentiating between a bad day and true burnout is to look at the duration of your stress or frustration.

Here are some clear signs of teacher burnout based on my teaching and experience:

  1. Perpetual emotional exhaustion. Do you feel overwhelmed all of the time? If you feel like you’re losing control and can’t function in the classroom, you might be experiencing emotional exhaustion. These overwhelming feelings can affect other parts of your life, such as your self-esteem and your relationships with loved ones.
  2. Physical exhaustion. Sometimes, stress manifests itself in the form of physical exhaustion. If you feel worn out all of the time or as if your limbs are too heavy, this could be a sign that your body(and mind) need rest.
  3. Physical symptoms of stress. Some people experience headaches, body aches, an upset stomach, or even hives when they are stressed out. If you have any of these symptoms, it might be time to take a break.
  4. Disassociation. Or, A sense that you are just going through the motions. If you no longer feel passionate about teaching or like you no longer feel a connection to your students, that clearly indicates there is something wrong.

If any of these describes your experience over a sustained period of time, you may suffer from teacher burnout. If that is the case, you’re not alone.

The Teacher Burnout Rate is High

Teacher turnover has soared; partly because of the pandemic. A RAND survey from January 2021 showed that almost one-fourth of the educators surveyed had some thoughts about leaving the teaching profession at the end of the school year. This number was up from only 16 percent of teachers before the pandemic. Although COVID-19 is not the only reason teachers cite for wanting to quit, it continues to be one of the major, contributing factors influencing their decision.

All teachers face some level of stress, anxiety, or hopelessness at some point in their career. In fact, a recent poll by Education Week shows that ninety-one percent of teachers say they have experienced stress that prevented them from sleeping or relaxing. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared burnout an, “occupational phenomenon” back in 2019, long before the pandemic began. Clearly, the pandemic has only exasperated an already existing problem.

Not everyone who feels burned out has to leave the teaching profession, however. Burnout can be temporary;  if you love what you do as an educator and want to continue in the profession, you can take some steps to recover from temporary burnout and ensure that you don’t experience it again. 

Once you figure out a plan that works for you, it is important to stick with it if you want to diminish the warning signs of teacher burnout.

How to Recover from Burnout

The tendency to neglect yourself is common in all helping professions but seems especially true for teachers. That is why the first step to recovering from burnout is to acknowledge that it is happening. This might actually be the most difficult step. It is natural to feel guilty for experiencing anxiety or stress. Teachers are so used to putting others before themselves that it could feel “wrong” to complain about their issues. But a problem can’t be fixed without first acknowledging that one exists. 

Don’t ignore the warning signs! When stressors are kept inside, they grow larger and take over. Holding onto guilt only leads to more serious mental health struggles. Colleagues can make great sounding boards; they can empathize. A therapist is another option.  In addition to allowing you room to share they can help come up with a long-term, self-care plan.

Your self-care plan might include some of the following action steps:

  • Rest and relaxation. Set aside time each day to do something for yourself. Self-care looks different for everyone. It doesn’t always mean meditating or taking a hot bath. Use the examples in our Teacher Self-Care Workbook to find what works for you.
  • Develop boundaries and systems inside the classroom. Have a clear routine or schedule for your students and keep one for yourself as well. Don’t grade outside of your scheduled grading time and limit the amount of work you take home with you as much as possible. Stop working long hours, and use that time for hobbies, family, and social gatherings instead. Creating these boundaries will help you name what you need to feel healthy. Then, you can take action steps towards further progress.
  • Get organized. Change aspects of your routine to help you become more strategic in your planning.. Prepare lunches for the week on Sunday evening or pick out your clothes the night before. Ideas for  new systems and strategies for your everyday life can be found in our time-management workbook. Try streamlining the way you grade and assess student work so that it becomes more efficient and less time consuming. Our grading and assessment workbook can give you some helpful ways to batch grade or use formative assessments that you may have never thought of before. These routine changes may not be easy at first, but they will turn into healthy habits, which in turn, will reduce your stress.
  • Prioritize sleep. Eat healthy meals and exercise to help yourself get more sleep. We all know that stressful situations feel worse when we are hungry, sick, or tired. When we neglect our physical health, we are not our best selves.
  • Take mental health days; just as you would a physical sick day. Watch for the warning signs and react to them right away. Don’t wait until you feel overwhelmed to take a day off. It can be difficult to not worry about your students or how you are going to catch up on grading, but these intrusive thoughts can really ruin a relaxing day off. One day with a sub will not greatly impact student learning; a teacher who is never present, awake, or at their best, will. You should never feel as if you have to justify using your personal time or sick days!
  • Acknowledge what you do well. It’s natural to want to compare yourself to your co-workers or a well-known teacher on Instagram. The reality is, no one is perfect. We all bring unique strengths to the teaching profession. You might create amazing projects for your students, whereas another teacher excels at classroom management. Not only is teaching not a competition, but it is also not an exact science. When you can acknowledge your strengths in the classroom, it makes the bad days feel just a little bit better.

Once you figure out a plan that works for you, it is important to stick with it if you want to diminish the warning signs of teacher burnout. By creating schedule adjustments, establishing boundaries, and making healthier lifestyle decisions, you can create long-lasting changes. You will find the joy you had thought you had lost, and your students will reap the benefits too.

Visit our self-care hub for more help managing your stress and preventing teacher burnout. While you’re there, don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter, which is chock full of tips, printables, and lessons that will make your teaching and personal life a little easier.

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