Consider this hypothetical yet could-be-you scenario: Jennifer, a high school English teacher, adapted quickly to remote learning. She transformed her syllabus, set up a Whatsapp group for parents, and began to hold regular Zoom check-ins with students. But lately, Jennifer has been tired all the time. She can’t seem to focus when she’s grading student essays, which she is falling behind on. To make matters worse, there is an office holiday party happening next week over Zoom, and she’s simply dreading it.
Does any of this sound familiar? If it does, it’s because Jennifer is going through something very common for educators -- teacher burnout. According to Psych Learning Curve, teacher burnout is the emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that comes from extreme work-related stress. It’s real, it’s serious and it’s closely related to clinical depression.
If you’re reading this, chances are good that you can relate to our hypothetical Jennifer. We’re glad you're here and hope that the following advice will help you address teacher burnout, especially during this interminable pandemic and the often emotional holiday season.
Recognizing teacher burnout
Pre-COVID studies indicated that 61% of teachers said their jobs were always stressful -- and 58% said that they suffered poor mental health as a result of this stress. It’s too soon to have research data on how much this has increased due to the demands of remote learning and the many other COVID-related stresses, but we all know the answer will be A LOT.
Teacher burnout is closely related to clinical depression (which it can develop into). It often feels like you are:
• Constantly overwhelmed or exhausted
• Unable to take pride in your accomplishments or believe in your abilities
• Detached or pessimistic about your purpose in life
Teacher burnout can be severe, so please don’t try to ignore it or wave it away because “burnout” sounds less serious than what it may actually be -- something that may require assistance from a medical or mental health professional.
Teacher burnout + COVID-19 = a recipe for disaster
Usually, when teachers face burnout they can chat about it with a friend in the teacher’s lounge, over dinner with non-work friends, or in-person with a therapist whose face they can see without a mask. But the pandemic, as Patti Ellis describes in this article, has worsened the effects of teacher burnout for many educators because of the massive amount of added stress and pressure to address new challenges both in the classroom and in their personal lives.
The holidays will make it better, right?
If you’re hoping seasonal holiday traditions will lift your spirits, be forewarned: the holidays come with challenges for most of us. You probably already know this. We want to remind you to prepare for your own particular holiday challenges, whether they be intrusive relatives, the pressure to keep up traditions, or the prospect of loneliness during this season of supposed cheer.
Thankfully, there are some specific things you can do to combat teacher burnout this holiday season. Here are our top three tips.
Step one: Draw and Maintain Boundaries.
Saying “no” is difficult for many of us, but it’s critical to taking care of yourself. Do you feel like you need space? Find a way to create it, literally or figuratively. Declare a room off limits to the rest of the family, or establish you-time when interruptions are banned.
When it comes to work (and even those intrusive relatives) decide on time limits -- for example, not checking email after 6pm-- then stick to them! Committing to “e-boundaries” for yourself and others by unplugging, has been shown to make people happier and more productive overall.
E-boundaries can mean snoozing your work notifications after 6 PM. It can even mean telling parents that you will only respond to relevant correspondence during set times in the week. Remember that when you draw boundaries, you are announcing that your time, energy, and needs are just as important as those of others -- and that’s not a bad self-care message to model for your students.
Step two: Start with your body
Has anyone said to you on a bad day: “Oh, don’t be sad!” If so, it probably didn’t help. Teacher burnout is complex, and addressing it requires energy that you may not have right now. Sometimes it’s even a matter of lacking the resources to access outside help like therapy.
So, when life seems too overwhelming, what can you do? Try focusing on your body, through movement and paying attention to your senses. Simple changes like going for a short walk every morning, focusing on the aromas, tastes and sounds around you while you eat your lunch, and getting up from your computer to stretch your legs and ask yourself how your body feels can make a big difference. This is the kind of mindfulness that Harvard researchers have shown will help reduce stress and improve quality of life.
Step three: Find Community
You don’t have to force yourself to go to any Zoom parties you don’t want to. However, make sure to distinguish when you’re drawing boundaries versus when you are socially isolating yourself.
Try to reach out to friends and family that you truly want to connect with. Now isn’t the time to maintain the weekly talk with the friend who always points out the worst in things. Try to let go of any guilt around letting go of these relationships -- at least until you’re feeling more on top of things.
Another way to maintain social interaction is by joining virtual communities. Try building a community around your hobbies and interests -- these groups are detached enough to eliminate the emotional obligations that can come with long-standing relationships, yet connected enough to build bonds around mutual interests. You may also want to check out support groups for teachers online. You can find these communities through a simple google search or setting one up yourself for your co-workers and friends.
Finally, seek professional help
If you find your struggles are veering toward the extreme, find a way to get professional help as soon as possible. Talk to your primary care physician, look into your state’s resources for low-cost mental health providers or contact your district’s Employee Assistance Hotline.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States at 800-273-8255.
Take the actions you need to support yourself -- you’re worth it!