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.

Natives vs Non-natives: Our experience in Spain

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The battle rages in Spain between natives and non-natives. The streets run with blood and Euros fly out of the hands of desperate parents looking for a good teacher for their precious little ones. Working and toiling together in Spain as a native and non-native pair has given us an interesting insight into how the two, completely random coincidences of where you are born, are seen and in turn respected/disrespected in Spain. A little background to the situation, for prospective teachers:

Countless times have we seen teachers refused jobs or not even given a job due to them being ‘non-native’. A case in point; myself a native Greek with a CELTA (B) with 3 years experience have been passed over for multiple positions simply because of the elephant in the room. What is driving this cult of the native is, as one director said “ The parents want their children to be taught by natives” So, the parents push the idea and of course the academies have to oblige. This makes business sense but does it give the students the best experience, in this supposed meritocracy? It is easy to sound bitter about such a matter but one cannot fault an academy for providing a service suited to what the payers want. It’s business and perhaps that is that.

However an interesting point to note is that in private classes the parents in Spain are more than happy to employ a ‘non-native’ if the price is right and they come recommended, as a good teacher to trust in your house with your kids is hard to find. So it is not all one big conspiracy against johnny foreigner, there are positions for ‘non-natives’ and don’t despair because in Spain the private market is strong for ‘non-natives’ with some business nous, and there are of course some academies more than happy to employ the right person for the right job regardless of where your choice less birth, within man-made borders happens to have been.

This gives you some background and perhaps some hope when looking to move to sunny Spain (despite at the moment of writing there being only rain). We want to help start a greater discussion about this topic wherever you may be reading this, so below we list some pros and cons, that we hae come across in Spain, for the age old topic of ‘natives’ vs ‘non-natives’ and your opinions are more than welcome.

Pronunciation, real life vocabulary and the accent

Natives speakers have the accent, they have the pronunciation, and the semantics of the language. This is a built-in system learned from early age through constant exposure, which in Spain is highly desirable for parents, as they believe that it will perhaps rub off on their children who they think will be drinking a cups of tea with their pinky finger sticking out before they know it. Having these skills however, are inherently useless unless a teacher knows how to transfer these skills to their students and also how to focus on inherent language specific problems for example, the ones that Spanish people have when it comes to the English accent and pronunciation. Furthermore, an accent is a double edged sword, it is great to have it but doesn’t a CD also have that and the Internet too. I used to live with a guy from Liverpool and even when toning down his accent I still needed a translator so now, somewhere out there, are a group of Scouse Spaniards, the benefits of which I will let you decide.

Natives on the whole have a stronger vocabulary, especially with those torrid phrasal verbs that one only comes across when living in England, but on the other hand, the system of learning vocabulary can completely elude natives, whereas a non-native has been there done that and got the T- shirt. A well prepared and clued up ‘non-native’ is more than a match for any ‘native’ in the classroom but the Spaniards love a good conversation class where a natives fluidity can really make the difference. The benefits of such a class are cause for another post.

Prestige

For better or worse the academies want that prestige. “We have a native speaker” they cry from every Spanish techo. “Come to our language school we have natives” as if they are some Zoo animal worthy of letting your child see if they pay the ticket price. Parents love it too, “oh did you hear that Maria has a native teacher for her child?” NO I did not and I don’t really care. Prestige is everything in Spain and if you live by the sword you die by the sword. If it is what they want then it is what they get, but to overlook a more experienced teacher for the sake of prestige lowers the overall teaching efficiency of your school. The key to getting a job here as a non-native is to play the system. Around the start of the academic term the schools are desperate and also in January when the teachers decide that life in blighty is better than Spain, that is when prestige goes out of the window, and they will hire non-natives and rightly so because they may just get someone to step into the breach and make a real difference in their school as in Spain doing a good job and having the students like you counts for so much more than what passport you have.

Culture

There is so much more to learning a Language than just words and grammar rules. Learning about the culture is equally as important as many students use English to access the culture (games, internet, tv) and this in turn increases their love of it and willingness to carry on learning it. With a native speaker an academy gets instant access to this and students benefit from the direct access they can get between language and culture. If you want to learn about food, customs, music, comedy and so much more, a native speaker can reminisce and instruct about theses matters first hand, and really help bring the language to life. This weighs heavily on academies in Spain and adds another string to their advertising bow when trying to attract students, or should I say parents, to their academy. Can non-natives learn all this….? Yes of course they can but if for example an English joke is intrinsically linked to the culture of the people then isn’t it just the blind leading the blind? Or what about Christmas customs, you really need to experience it first hand in England if you want to bring it to life; I am just not sure that reading about it is enough, however I remember the joy of a non-native teacher explaining to me their favourite English music and how much it meant to them that they could now understand and full enjoy it. And this enthusiasm and thirst for cultural knowledge is perhaps something natives don’t have or indeed take for granted. I can’t tell a student about my journey to understand an English song, about how overjoyed I felt when it finally clicked. It is an interesting issue and perhaps one that affects overall learning in a minimal way but it is worthy of a mention nonetheless.

Teaching of higher levels

The dreaded C1 and C2 class can be the bane of any teachers life. It is generally considered acceptable in Spain to give these higher classes to natives. Some academies may do otherwise but in my experience it has generally been like that. What I don’t understand is why I may be put in one of these classes but my fellow writing partner may not be even though she has done these classes herself and passed the exam. She in fact knows more about it than me! I am not so sure that being a native offers any inherent advantage except perhaps in practising speaking fluidity and really getting into the nitty gritty of when to use words and how to say them. But the C2 seems to me to be a purely academic exercise and if you have already got your C1 then go to England and bloody use it, really get down and dirty with the language. Perhaps these higher levels are the great leveller where natives and non-natives unite in head scratching and bafflement at the ludicrous nature of the English language. I have to study to teach these classes, you have to study to teach these classes and whatever inherent advantage I gain from being a native is immediately destroyed when I realise that I don’t know what half these words are and I need a god dam dictionary! So neither side can win this battle and at times we both lose, therefore native and non-native goes out of the window in my opinion and with these classes the term SURVIVE becomes more and more germane.

Under qualified

So, here is the scenario, I put an advert up for my teaching services at a reasonable price. I listed my qualifications and experience and the fact of course that I am native. I get a few classes from it no problem then to my horror I find that a friend of a friend who works as an assistant teacher in a school is charging more than me and has a sum total of zero qualifications/ experience. Then to top it all off said friend comes in to tell me that he now has a B2 exam class under his instruction and calmly asks ‘ is that a difficult level?’ ‘do they use a book for it?’ and other such questions that make me question all remaining faith I have in the Spanish system. At closer inspection of the website, I then find that a non-native university student, in the town, is charging twice as much as me and in her advert liberally smashes native speakers, with famous quotes from people I’ve never heard of…. that is her whole advert.

What is going on? This is where the moot divisions of who is better meet reality. Every boss is different and so many of them are hoodwinked into thinking they are getting a decent teacher because said teacher struts in and says ‘I am a native and I can teach….’ well welcome aboard I guess. I honestly feel sorry for parents too, who want to find and do the best for their kids, who end up with two bit wannabe teachers. The system here is broken and I don’t know how you can fix it.

The CELTA means diddly squat to parents and when there aren’t enough teachers you can find yourself working alongside someone in an Academy whose only qualification is an American passport. These people in turn push out Spanish native English teachers, who have to work twice as hard to get work and must feel quite appalled when walking past an English academy with a bundle of qualifications in hand, only to see a group of people at the window waving passports at them; an exaggeration but an analogy that sums up the system here quite well. It is not that natives triumph here it is that people with no qualifications to teach are given jobs, paid more than Spanish teachers and quite frankly turn the teaching of English in to one big farce. Some people need to realise that nationality may in fact have little to do with quality and that this nonsense doesn’t pass in any country where English is spoken with a shred of decency.

To conclude this divisive affair, it is fair to say that regardless of where you are from, there are good teachers and bad teachers, teachers who work hard and teachers who don’t. Who is better than whom is a debate that will rage on as long as the market favours one over the other. Don’t be discouraged from applying for a position in Spain as a ‘non-native’, be confident and fight for it. We’ve both worked alongside countless natives and non-natives all with unique strengths and weaknesses as teachers. There is much we can learn from people who were born into English and people who have studied it for most of their lives, a mix of the two in one academy can only lead to success in our most humbled opinion.

If you enjoyed our first blog post then wherever you find this start a conversation about natives vs non-natives in your country. We are interested to know the thought processes behind it in your country and we also like to read internet arguments.