One of the great pieces of advice that I received in my teaching career is that at the end of the day students should be more tired than the teacher. The other great piece of advice that I got was from a freshman in one of my classes. She said, “Why don’t you just give us some work and leave us alone.”
So I let myself off the hook.
Before that, my classes were all discussion or whole-class activities with me as the facilitator. I was trying to get students to discuss while also trying to get those not interested in learning this way to keep quiet all while taking notes on the board and moving every student in the room on to the next piece whether they were ready or not. It took a while to learn how to take the burden off myself and put it on my students, but when I did, it was a big moment in my career as a teacher. I still aimed for a discussion every other day, and when I facilitated a discussion with all of my classes on the same day, I was as exhausted as I was that first year teaching, but I also learned a few tricks to give myself a break.
Here are my best tips for avoiding teacher burnout:
Let students teach themselves and each other as often as you can. Jigsaw activities, group questions, partner work—kids love this kind of activity because they get to spend time with their peers without direct adult supervision. You take the pressure off yourself, and you can spend the class checking in with groups and individual students and letting them all go at their own pace rather than trying to get everyone on the same page for the entire class.
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Grade in class once in a while. Truth be told, I don’t like student presentations, and I don’t think that an oral report can take the place of an essay. But every once in a while, I do a group presentation or I have students memorize a poem or a passage from Shakespeare, and I grade them on the spot. For an English teacher who reads upwards of 15,000 pages of student writing per year, this is a great way to take a break.
Throw some money at a problem. When it’s late at night and you don’t have a lesson planned for the next day, just shell out a few dollars and buy one. Yes, you shouldn’t be spending your own money on plans, and yes, in an ideal world you should make them all yourself, but if you just need an hour to watch Netflix or go for a walk or clean the dishes for once, isn’t that time worth five dollars?
Let them work quietly on a handout. As much as students like group work, every rare once in a while I have my students work silently on a handout. It might be a creative writing exercise or questions on a poem, but it is something that needs their concentration and honestly, I am pretty sure that many of those teenagers appreciate the silence as much as I do.
Watch a film. I never did what I called “movies as babysitting.” No Elf or Finding Nemo. I wanted to challenge my students when we watched a film as much as I did when we read a play or wrote an essay. And I never really got much grading done during those films, though that was usually my plan. Instead, I sat back and enjoyed being entertained alongside my students. It was fun to watch them having fun.
Get out when you’re ahead. This might be the most difficult step of all. I was never one of those teachers who participated in what I call those-d**n-kids conversations. I truly liked each and every one of my students. Until about a year and a half ago. I found myself talking negatively about them, and doing it often. And I knew that my students could tell that I didn’t always like them.
I never wanted to be one of those teachers counting the days to the weekend or vacation retirement. So I got out before that was me.
And that’s how I narrowly avoided burning out as a teacher.