I’ve taught Earth Science for 10 years and I like my students and what I’m doing. But sometimes I feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Is this normal? How can I avoid burnout and stay positive? —R., Washington
This dilemma came up at a recent event I attended. Most teachers identified with how you feel. One teacher remarked that when he started teaching 20 years ago, teachers were dealing with many of the same issues that we’re dealing with today—increased demands on our time, fewer resources for science, competition from students’ jobs and extracurricular activities, “lazy” students, helicopter parents or parents who don’t seem to be involved, administrators who don’t understand science teaching, the influence of standardized testing, and a lack of respect for teachers. He and the others agreed that a lot of burnout comes not from working with students but from unrealistic expectations and the influence of other adults. It’s not a comforting thought, but teachers have been overwhelmed for years!
We want to do whatever we can for our students but sometimes forget to do things for ourselves. By now you should have a good repertoire of teaching strategies and a comfort level with Earth Science content. If you’re doing schoolwork 24/7, it’s time to re-prioritize and focus on your health, your family, professional growth, and outside-of-school interests.
Here are some suggestions from our colleagues:
- Some unrealistic expectations are self-inflicted. It’s OK to cut back on things that are not essential to student learning, such as creating elaborate bulletin boards or busywork assignments for students.
- Put time for exercise on your calendar. Eat healthy and don’t skip meals.
- Surround yourself with positive people. If the faculty room is a den of iniquity, stay away. Share your planning or lunch period with a colleague or two and share ideas or divide some of the work. Or talk about something other than school.
- Students have one year of Earth science—you’ve already had 10 years of the course. Try a new theme or different big ideas each year to keep yourself from getting stale.
- Take advantage of social media, such as e-mail lists, blogs, discussion forums, Facebook, and/or Twitter for new ideas and resources, advice and suggestions, a few laughs, or a virtual shoulder to lean on. NSTA’s Social Media Dashboard is a good place to start.
- It’s hard for some teachers, but sometimes we have to blow our own horns. If you’re doing a good lesson, tell your principal about it, post a description on your class website, or send a note to parents
- Just as I have advised teachers just starting out in their careers, it’s important to guard your personal and professional time. If you hesitate to say no to a request from a principal because of time, your response could be “In place of what? If I do this, what can I take off my plate?” You don’t have to be on every committee or task force or coach multiple sports. Some teachers deliberately come to school early or stay late to complete their planning and paperwork, rather than taking things home with them.
- Keep a personal diary or journal. Write down the good things that happen each day and save any positive notes you get from students or parents.
- Maintain a professional rapport with your principal or other administrators. If you don’t complain about every little thing, when something important comes along, they might be more inclined to listen to you.
- Each month (or more frequently) set aside a “school-free” block of time. Visit a science museum or park, take a hike or bike ride, participate in sports, work on a hobby, attend a concert or lecture, read a novel, go to the movies—basically allow yourself some time to be a real person. Your family and friends will appreciate this.
Every teacher has had moments of frustration. I was often re-invigorated by attending a conference or working on a project with like-minded teachers. You are not alone, and you have a virtual community of colleagues to support you.