Knock-Out Teacher Burn-Out

07/12/2016 06:13 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2017

Henry James said the two sweetest words in the English language were "summer afternoon." For educators, perhaps the sweetest words are "summer break." This is the time of year many of us recharge our batteries as we vacation and take time with family and friends.

But what about those of us who are contemplating not returning to the classroom in the fall and becoming part of that sad statistic that half of all teachers quit in the first five years. Or what about those of us who are dreading getting back in the classroom because even after summer break, we will still feel burned-out?

Can we recapture the energy and enthusiasm that brought us into the classroom and help our colleagues when they start to get discouraged? Yes, we can become revitalized and help others keep growing through the roller coaster ride of the school year by becoming aware of what leads to burn-out and then becoming more resilient as we add some of the following tools to our teacher's tool-kit.

What is "Burn-Out?"
According to a top burn-out researcher, Carol Maslach, "Burn-out is more than feeling blue. It is a chronic state of being out of sync at work and can be a significant problem for educators. People feel constantly overwhelmed, stressed, and exhausted. Teachers may try to get away from it for a while, but when they come back, it is as bad as ever...Burn-out is loss of enthusiasm. The original passion to teacher has faded or gone away completely. Teaching feels like a burden and a chore. Instead of doing their best, they do the bare minimum."

Here's a link to take the Burnout Self-Test from the Maslach Burnout Inventory for yourself:
https://www.aap.org/en-us/Documents/soim_abbreviated_maslach_burnout_inventory.pdf

Five Steps to Knock-Out Burn-Out

Step #1. Reach out for Help
Even though burn-out makes us feel isolated, we are not alone. Reach out to mentors, trusted colleagues, administrators, counselors, and friends to start getting help and support, and don't be afraid to get professional help. We can help others who are experiencing the same thing and create networks of colleagues and friends. A study by Figley (2012) shows that we can heal from "compassion fatigue" before it becomes full burn-out.

Step #2. Be Grateful-Look for the Positive
Research (Emmons, Froh, Bono) shows that practicing gratitude helps restore our energy. Gratitude is much more than a pleasant emotion; it is a potent action. Start to practice gratitude: write a gratitude letter to a colleague, or make a gratitude list about things in your classroom and life. Do it on a daily basis for two weeks and watch your classroom become brighter.

Watch this short video from of a teacher modeling gratitude:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxFRx-87-Qo

Here's an article about implementing gratitude in the classroom:
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/gratitude-powerful-tool-for-classroom-owen-griffith

Step #3) Develop a Growth Mindset
Research by Dr. Carol Dweck affirms that applying growth mindset activities helps teachers avoid burnout and also helps students achieve in the classroom. Dweck tells us that praising the process versus praising intelligence "may involve commending effort, strategies, focus, persistence in the face of difficulty, and willingness to take on challenges." She gives some helpful examples in this article:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-secret-to-raising-smart-kids1/

Step #4) Help Others
In the classroom and in the world, when we help others in big and small ways, we are helping ourselves stay rejuvenated all year. By partaking in altruistic actions, we open ourselves to the profound joy of giving freely as we focus on others and not on ourselves. Write or call a parent and tell them something about their student that you are proud of. Find a student that is struggling and sincerely complement them for something they are doing well. Altruistic giving has been shown to increase positive neurotransmitters in the giver, receiver, and anyone observing the act of giving. People who volunteer or care for others consistently are happier and less depressed. In her book, Raising Happiness, Dr. Christine Carter writes about the "Helper's High" we get when we give of ourselves.

Step #5) Have Fun in the Classroom

Humor is a powerful way to stay fresh and rejuvenated throughout the long school year. Although life can be serious, we can temper that with a sense of humor about situations in the classrooms. We can learn to laugh at ourselves in stressful situations and keep some balance and positive perspective.

Sometimes when I am in survival mode, I forget that teaching can be fun. So, I start every day off with a riddle. Not only is this fun, but it helps students think outside the box. Sharing jokes, brief stories, brain teasers, etc., only takes a minute and can easily be aligned to the day's topic.

Make time to connect with students, like standing at the door at the beginning and ending of class and simply shaking their hand and telling them something you appreciate about them.

Get Through the School Year with a Smile

These suggestions may seem daunting, but we don't have to try everything at once. Take some time to reflect this summer and make a plan to try the easiest of these tips to get unstuck and feel refreshed. Then, try something else from the list to revitalize and keep out of burn-out mode. If something doesn't work, remember that one mistake is not a failure but a step in learning. Keep trying and reach out for help. We can do this! We can get through the year with a smile.