How Close Are You To Burn Out?

Melanie Barrett

November 27, 2020

Are you feeling the fatigue of teaching during a pandemic?

The fatigue of constant virtual meetings that feel somehow “less than human”?

The fatigue of reinventing everything you’ve ever known about good teaching practice?

The fatigue of remaining resilient and positive for others, of putting on a brave face, and of constantly taxing your capacity to build connection?

Never in my career have I seen so many secondary school teachers so close to burnout as I have during the past few months as we teach in the impossible, ever shifting reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By our very nature, secondary school teachers tend to be planners, organizers, and driven individuals who are always searching for new material and new ways of helping our students grasp concepts and apply their learning. In more “normal” times, we are also people who give of our time to volunteer to run clubs and teams outside of our teaching day because we understand the value of such things for students social, emotional, and personal development. We have always been stretched thin and we have always carried the weight of our students’ individual lives, their challenges, their pain, and their fears. At the best of times, many high school teachers are suffering from vicarious trauma and emotional exhaustion. I say this, not to evoke sympathy or compassion for the teaching profession, but to express the reality that teaching secondary school is much more than the time we spend in front of classroom, and teachers are typically creative and caring individuals who give of themselves because they know the impact their contributions can have in the lives of their students.
But for all of the compassion we show our students, teachers are notoriously poor at self care. Between juggling their professional duties, their extra contributions, and their own families, many never find the time to decompress until they take a few breaths in the summer.

The pandemic has, as it has with so many people, thrown teachers for a loop. It has meant a constantly changing environment, new structures, new ways of doing things, new expectations, and a complete lack of the order, organization, and careful planning on which teachers thrive and survive. For many, it has meant trying to teach from home while their own children are learning from home at the same time. For others, it has meant going into schools where social distancing is difficult and returning home to care for elderly parents. The constant shifts in timetables, struggles with technology, and absence of teacher school communities for collaboration and support has meant new types of daily stressors and a sense of loneliness. All of this while trying to alleviate students’ anxieties, motivate students’ engagement, and stimulate students’ growth. It’s a lot.
I’ve seen my colleagues, who are often the brightest and most enthusiastic lights, sink into a malaise I’ve not seen before. They are overloaded, overburdened, and overwhelmed. They are trying their best to make things work for students, often at the expense of things falling apart for themselves. They are tired in a way that usually doesn’t happen until much later in the school year. Their own families are suffering so that they can support their students’ wellbeing and growth.

So why am I saying this?

Because teacher burnout happens in the best of times. How much more likely is it now? How will you ensure your physical and emotional health in the midst of a global pandemic?

Start with four simple rules:

  • Set Boundaries. Establish a clear start and end to your day. Truly log off at the end of the day. Emails, phone calls, and texts can wait until tomorrow. Remember the things that truly matter in your life and take time each day to appreciate them.

  • Be Forgiving. You are being asked to learn a completely different way of teaching while trying to teach at the same time. You will do some things well and you will fail at others. Show yourself the same compassion you show your students.

  • Prioritise. There is a global pandemic happening! Stop trying to do as much as you could do before in less time and with fewer resources. Let some things go. You may not be able to cover all of the curriculum, or have all of the teachable moments you once had. Prioritise and do what you can.

  • Connect. Make time to connect with colleagues and friends. Support each other, share your emotions, and laugh as much as possible. Despite the feelings of isolation that the pandemic has reinforced, you are not alone in this. Reach out and connect.   

If you feel yourself slipping into burnout… take time out for you. You cannot be the teacher you want to be if you are falling apart. Put your own needs at the forefront and put some self care strategies in place. Rest.  

Teachers are some of the most resilient, adaptable people I know. You’ve got this.