As we move into the school year towards what I call, “The Dead Zone of March,” teachers start to get a little…grumpy. It’s still a few months from the end of the year, there are few holiday days to take off the edge, and you’ve run out of ideas for your students who are just not on track. Many teachers are busy with extracurriculars and gearing up for big end-of-the-year projects. It can be too much, so much that some teachers just walk out in the middle of a lecture, never to return.
No, seriously. That has happened every year I have taught.
Teacher burnout is a common phrase flung around at pissy staff meetings, but it nothing to be taken lightly. Especially if you are a new teacher, don’t underestimate the ability of the year to take its toll on your body, mind and spirit. In order to keep your head above water and to power through that March of Death, here are some actual things that work (compiled by me, but stolen from every experienced teacher I know).
Bribe Make Some Friends
Especially as a first-year teacher, it is vital that you make some friends. I know, I know. It can be a little scary. No one wants to eat lunch by themselves, even as an adult. I can’t tell you how many times as a first-year teacher I felt like I was back in high school, trying desperately to earn a seat at the cool kids’ table.
Here’s the secret about making teacher friends. Listen carefully…chocolate bribes.
With a jar of readily-shared chocolate and some dedication, you’ll find your niche eventually. Whether you are embraced by the artsy geeks (the music, english, theater and art teachers), the jocks (social studies and PE teachers, cheerleading coaches) or the nerds (science, computers, home ec and band teachers) you WILL find people who you can relate with on some level. Then, make sure you have at least one person you can trust in your hall. You never know when you’re going to lose your sh** and need to have a backup take your class so that you don’t have to kill anyone.
2. Find a Happy Place
Sometimes, you have what I call “A Rager.” For whatever reason (your students are smoking crack at lunch, Josepha and Shaquan just broke up or everyone decided it was “Make Your Teacher Cry Day”) some days just suck. Maybe your lesson bombed every. single. period. Maybe you had a kid call you a fat Mickey Mouse and you couldn’t think of anything to do but screech unintelligibly. I don’t know what your bad days are like.
My worst ones were when I felt like I was invisible, like the kids just pretended like I wasn’t there breaking my back to help them.
When this happens, you need a safe place. Maybe it’s the room next door, where your cool teacher buddy does his grading. Maybe it’s the janitor closet that is usually unlocked. Wherever you can find solace, go there. It will give you a chance to have your emotional breakdown in a safe environment. And, when you’re done, not only are you more prepared to face the rest of your day, but you’re a little giddy from the bleach fumes. Score!
3. Do Something Nice for Yourself
PBIS stands for Positive Behavior Intervention Support. It’s one of those acronyms that gets bandied about regularly, but not many people really know what it is. What it means is that positive rewards and reinforcement can be used to change behavior.
PBIS isn’t just for students. It is also vital for teachers. Although it’s best when adopted by administration (think gift cards to Applebees for least students killed in a week), it can be something that you do for yourself. Make goals for yourself, like taking a deep breath and answering gently when a student shouts the F-word across the room. If you do it, celebrate your small victory. Take yourself out to eat, give yourself a Twitter break or get a massage. Every moment you are working for those kids is important. Treat yourself like the VIP that you are, or you’ll forget that you really are changing the world, one kid at a time.
4. Have a Preparation Day
One of the best ways to burn yourself out is by teaching by the seat of your pants. Especially as a first-year teacher, structure means safety. Although you might envy that amazing 10-year teaching vet who hasn’t written a lesson plan in years, you will find strength in carefully organizing your lessons.
That being said, spending hours each day to prepare your lessons is insane. Since first-year teachers usually get the worst of the worst schedules (think 4 preps and the Debate Club), you won’t have time during your prep periods to get all of your stuff in order. Instead, take one day a week as your “Prep Day” and give yourself a time limit. For many, this is on Sunday night, for about 3 hours. That gives you enough time to jot down your lesson plans for the whole week and go to the store to buy whatever supplies you still don’t have. Then, you won’t have to scramble for supplies or ideas throughout the week.
5. Design with Interaction in Mind
Teaching is about communicating, not talking. If you’re the kind of person who feels complete responsibility for the entertainment of the class and your students’ learning, you’re not going to last more than 2 years, I guarantee it. It’s just exhausting and incredibly stressful.
Instead of lecturing for 1 1/2 hours, 4 times a day, consider breaking each of your block schedules down. Even if you’re not on block, every 50-minute period should have a few segments built in to each period. Then, only spend about 15-20 minutes doing direct instruction. After that, let the students interact. Whether you do a Q and A session, a group project or play Simon Says, all the moving around will send the blood back into your brain, increasing endorphins. And, if you smile during your interactions, you will have additional positive hormones dumped into your system, which makes your outlook brighter and your class much more fun!
6. Start Trippin’
No. This is not a section about how cool weed is. You can leave right now.
For the rest of us, this can be trip of the body or mind, preferably without chemical additives. Taking a calculated journey with your class can be a great way to break up the monotony of these last 4 months of school. A lot of first-year teachers avoid field trips because the bus requisition lady seems like she might eat nails for breakfast. Don’t worry, it’s not true. In most cases.
Anyway, even if you can’t get a bus, don’t fret. There are a million different ways to get your kids traveling without getting them on a bus. You could set up a QR Code scavenger hunt around your part of the building, or in the library. You could take them on a visualization journey, where they stay in the room, but get to travel to the farthest reaches of the Kaipur Belt. You can have an outside speaker come in and whisk their imaginations away to turmoil-ridden Darfur or the ghettos of Brooklyn. Not only are these journeys completely transforming for your students, but you share an experience with them that strengthens your classroom community and builds your personal spirit.
7. Create a Positive Moment
Sometimes, the work is boring. Sometimes the kids are like little zombies who are only able to mutter mono-syllabic words and grunt at you. Sometimes, a particular student has made your life miserable over and over again, and you just don’t like him at all.
It’s time for a positive intervention. But this time, it’s for the kids.
Your students need positive reinforcement to be happy, just like you. Consider a system where you reward good behavior regularly. In my high school English classes, I have found that cool, iridescent frog stickers from Michael’s are a big hit. It seems stupid, but they love the recognition and often proudly flaunt them on their smart phones. Other ideas include small candies, high-fives and specially chosen words. For example, if I say “great job,” the kids appreciate it, but if I tell them “fantastic,” they know that they’ve done something amazing. Earning a “Fantastic” is a big deal, and could even be celebrated with a class-wide Skrillex dance-off!
8. Go Out to Lunch
Oh, you poor teachers. Stop grading in your classroom at lunch time!
Go out. Talk to the other English teachers in your department. Grab your favorite science buddy and hop on over to the Apple store to check out the new devices. Whatever you do, leave the school building and go somewhere else once in a while. You can bitch about the administration without feeling nervous that they’re lurking over your shoulder. Or, just check out the sexy sandwich guy at Quiznos. Just make sure that you are maintaining your humanity, and remind yourself that you are much more than a teacher: you are a person.
9. Leave On Time
My first year of teaching, I stayed after school for 3 hours every day. Mostly because it was the only time I could work on lesson plans and do the piles of grading that threatened to avalanche. Although I managed to keep my head above water, I was tired, cranky and burned out to the extreme by the time I left each day.
Although it is difficult, I suggest that you find a way to leave on time every day. If that means assigning less homework, so be it. If it means grading projects during free writing time, so be it. When it’s time for you to go home, you need to have the self-control and self-respect to just go. You are not here to dedicate every minute of your life. You are here to give what you can and then move on. If you devote all of your time to your teaching, there is no time left over for your family, your friends or yourself.
10. Have a Life Outside of School
Stephen King said, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” The same goes for teaching. We teach to enhance the lives of ourselves and the people around us. Unfortunately, not everyone practices this. Those who focus only on teaching often find that they have pushed everything else out of their life.
So, go home. Go out on the weekends with both teacher and non-teacher friends. Have parties where you eat and drink too much. Read books in your bathtub. Go to Disneyland. Get married. Get a dog. Write that book you’ve been thinking about. Go to Japan. There is a lot of world out there to see and you only get 100 years, at best. Every experience you have will help to fill your life with joy and laughter, and makes for a great story to tell your students when you return.