Teacher Burnout

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Unfortunately this term is not as common as it should be. It can affect anyone at any time and is no different to work related stress or simply being pushed too hard day after day until you break. It is in fact all too common in the EFL world as bosses push employees to their limits day in day out until they either quit or are replaced.

Everybody’s different and some are affected more than others but the toll it can take on people’s lives, no matter how small, are quite frankly unacceptable. Most bosses turn around and say if you can’t handle it then quit, others may say it’s a product of the self entitled millennials who don’t know real hard work but in a world where stress related illnesses are on the rise and where it is being spoken about more openly than ever before perhaps it is time to speak out and address the issue in our field and let employers and employees alike know that teacher burnout is very real and very damaging.

We reached out across the Facebook group sphere, these private groups where every kind of EFL teacher dwells from here to kiribati (shout out to our reader over there), to find out what some teachers thought and if they could take some spare time to answer a few questions about teacher burnout. We asked them to answer four questions and here are some of their answers we received….

1. What is teacher burnout?

Hakan Durmaz, Istanbul.

In my opinion teacher burnout means losing the passion to teach.

Walter C. Anyanwu Native Instructor: Mektebim College, Istanbul,  34 , Nigerian living and working in Turkey

Teacher burnout from my own experience is a mental or physical collapse caused by overworking or stress through class management.

Katerina, 30, Rethymno Greece

As a result of work-related stress and loads of work, the teacher’s mind “shuts down” and they feel exhausted and unable to think clearly, work, or take on any more responsibility. At the same time, the teacher finds no fulfilment at work, and he or she is unable to be inspired.

Flora Michti, Thessaloniki, Greece.

To my mind, burnout is a feeling of total exhaustion, both physical and mental and a feeling that there’s no pay-off from teaching.

Ellen Dubois a semi-retired business English teacher who now lives in Nice, France and writer of BusinessEnglishallure.com

When we slow down or even stop preparing our classes in a personalized, creative, stimulating way. That is teacher burnout.

2. What causes it and what are the signs?

Ellen Dubois, Nice, France, writer of BusinessEnglishallure.com

Burnout is such a strong word. It brings to  mind harried, exhausted and stressed teachers. Usually burnout is caused by overwork coupled with a feeling of not having any control over the situation.

Katerina, 30, Rethymno Greece

Burnout is caused by exhaustion: when it’s accompanied by no leisure time and personal life. It appears after long periods of stress and hard work and, to my mind, not taking care of yourself (both emotionally and physically-which means that you don’t eat, sleep and rest enough) this leads to burnout. The signs can be very clear, exhaustion and inability to feel happy and fulfilled.

Walter C. Anyanwu 34, Nigerian living and working in Turkey

What causes it:

  • Longer working hours for example the standard working hours in Europe  (23 / 28 hours per week) may differ from working in Turkey (30 / 40 hours per week) or China (30 / 35 hours per week).
  •  Mental Stability of the teacher e.g. Emotional trauma, family predicaments etc.
  • Physical Stability of the teacher e.g. Unpreparedness, etc

What are the signs:

After a couple of years of teaching, the signs and causes depend on the mental or physical “metabolism” of the teacher.

  • Tiredness: this is a sign of unpreparedness for the lesson to be taught.
  • Severe Headache: this could be as a result of lack of class management. The ages and levels of the students as well as pressure from bosses and parents.

Flora Michti, Thessaloniki, Greece.

From what I have experienced, burnout manifests itself when a teacher starts to feel more tired and stressed than normal and has no desire to resume teaching. Other signs might be a sense of hopelessness, as if it’s just not worth it and that feeling we get when we hit a wall at the end of a path and have nowhere to go. Personally, I also feel that my energy is drained during classes.

Possible causes could vary, depending on how much one actually likes their job and their own personality. I think that low payment, no sense of accomplishment and development and an exhausting list of responsibilities (ESPECIALLY those that are not directly related to teaching, such as paperwork, meetings and all that) are main contributors to the feeling of being burnt out and are common to most teachers. I also tend to believe that the growing number of duties and tasks that are assigned to teachers lead to more cases of burnout. Finally, Payment plays a major role as it causes the same feeling both directly and indirectly (low salary – need to work all-year-round- no time for vacations or professional/personal development = burnout).

With regards to prevention, well, higher payment would be a good start! Tasks could be divided evenly to groups of educators and teachers should not be assigned duties that exceed their role/abilities (e.g. extra paperwork and grading, integration of technology without proper training, tests-exams-activities that pop out of nowhere, teaching students with SpLDs or psychological troubles without proper training).

Extra benefits and career opportunities would definitely help, as I think most teachers feel stuck in positions that lead nowhere, and groups where teachers could gather and talk and/or share resources would make probably make a difference.

3. How can it be dealt with and prevented? 

Katerina, 30, Rethymno Greece

It’s important to find time for yourself and avoid thinking about work-related (stressful) issues all the time. OK, this may be impossible for a teacher, as we have to worry about each and every student’s progress, struggles, and exam results, but we can try to do only as much work as we can handle. I think the most exhausting part of work is the homework, especially when there’s a lot of tests/essays to be graded, so it would be useful if we could avoid teaching only exam-oriented classes. What’s more, it’s important to sleep well and to eat several (healthy) meals a day.

Hakan Durmaz, Istanbul

Whomever rules the country should do more to increase the respect that people have for teachers. In society if people don’t respect their teachers the students won’t either. A teacher has to be happy, both economically and spiritually.

Walter C. Anyanwu , 34 , Nigerian living and working in Turkey

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” — Lena Horne. I’ve done self and class management for 5 years and it sucks at times. I’ve worked on myself through making sure I do thorough lesson plans, get a proper orientation before I move to another job and making sure I have worked the hours signed on my contract before I start working for the school, so as not to exceed my own limits.

Flora Michti, Thessaloniki, Greece.

When dealing with a burnout, I have found nothing more helpful than taking some time off – like REALLY off though, not relaxing-while-correcting-homework-or-tying-up-loose-ends off. Travelling, relaxing and engaging in something productive is the key to handle burnout and is the only way I have found and read about that can keep a burnout from appearing again any time soon.

Of course, even if a teacher deals with burnout but still gets no satisfaction or benefit from doing their job, they are very likely to experience another sense of being burnt out sooner or later – so maybe long-term benefits and prospects would cause the numbers of burned out teachers to drop.

If you can’t take time off, then laying back is vital for a teacher to make it to the end of the year. Maybe picking up a hobby could benefit burnt-out teachers – it has worked for many of us. Counselling is also something one could try.

Ellen Dubois, Nice, France, writer of BusinessEnglishallure.com

A good work/home life balance is critical.  Ask for advice from the teachers around you who seem to ‘have it together’.  Look for a teacher who has a similar home life: a teacher with young kids for example, or who lives far from work.  Set up a lunch or coffee date with him and her: some place where you both feel relaxed and pampered.

Be honest about your feelings of being overwhelmed and ask for concrete suggestions on improving your daily life that you can put into place tomorrow.  It shouldn’t be a gripe session, but a positive one where you will come away feeling invigorated by the new ideas and anxious to put them in place.  Be attentive, take notes and be grateful.

4. Personal experiences and advice for teachers

Walter C. Anyanwu , 34  Nigerian living and working in Turkey

My advice is this; be yourself, get ready to face the challenges without fear and keep your head up.

Katerina, 30, Rethymno Greece

In my first year working for a language school, I taught only C2-level writing classes (lots of them!), so I had to grade about 100-150 essays per week. This means that I was back home (from work) at about 9 p.m. and I had to work for at least 3 more hours. Of course, I had zero social life and I lived to work. I didn’t have time to eat during the day, so I would eat my one and only meal at 2 a.m. Apart from the exhaustion and the burnout symptoms I put on 15 kg and I had some health issues. My advice is to find some tips in order to achieve work- life balance and to fight stress but, above all, get quality sleep and eat regularly!

Hakan Durmaz, Istanbul

This is my fifth year as a teacher. I remember the time when l started teaching. I was really an idealistic teacher but as the years have passed l can now see the exhaustion setting in. Nowadays l am even unwilling to go to school. In my country most of the students are prejudiced against learning English. They think they wont be able to learn. And as a result of this psychological barrier they cant. At the beginning l was doing everything to break down that obstacle but now l see that it is nearly impossible or in other words l could succeed with just a few of my students. After 5 years of teaching, l have become like a robot who goes to school and leaves the school according to a timetable. What l want is ; better classroom conditions, more motivated students and more concerned parents…

Flora Michti, Thessaloniki, Greece.

So, for me: if you get the feeling of being burnt-out too often, then maybe it’s the job itself that isn’t right for you. Finding the cause of a burnout is the key to dealing with it and It will save you some time for yourself which is very important for you and for your students. Happy teachers make happy students – if you’ve long stopped enjoying your own classes, then there’s definitely something wrong and it won’t just stop being there unless you find it and address it.

Ellen Dubois, Nice, France and writer of BusinessEnglishallure.com

I did have periods in my 25-year career in business English teaching  where I had a bad home life / work balance,  especially at the beginning of my career. I was the new-hire and was afraid to say no to courses that interfered with my home life: evening classes or Saturday mornings. I finally set up a meeting with my boss and set very clear limits on when and where I could give classes. I was so afraid she would fire me, but she actually treated me with more respect!

I also spent a huge amount of time on preparation because I accepted any and all classes with diverse subjects such as banking and finance to accounting, without taking into consideration the added prep time needed for such specialized subjects.  I began to say no to those classes, unless there was a good course book and supplementary teacher’s book. For example: a four-hour workshop in negotiating took me hours of extra preparation.  I even read a best seller on negotiating. The return on investment was low, even though I kept everything just in case I was asked to teach “negotiating in English’ again.

Get organized to reduce stress before and after work:  One of my students (a mother of two) advised me to do all preparation on the weekends.  Save the week nights for dealing with family emergencies.   I began to get up early to have enough time to pack my brief case with the class materials needed for the day.  I had a folder for each class, and in the class notes for each session I jotted down a plan for the next lesson.  I only had to read my notes and pull out the corresponding material.

Bring joy to your classroom.  Use fun games where there’s lots of laughter.

To sum this all up: firstly I want to say thank you to all the people who contributed and shared their thoughts both professional and personal. It has been very enlightening for me and I hope enlightening for you the reader. It is clear that teacher burnout/ work related stress is an issue that can’t be ignored and should be taken far more seriously by employer and employee a like.

These testimonials show that we can all be perceptible to this issue and that preventing it and overcoming it is a very real struggle indeed.

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Author: Teaching in Spain

Two teachers who like to write about travelling, and you guessed it, teaching. One of us is from England and one of us from Greece. If you like what we write then subscribe and enjoy!

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