Preventing Teacher Burnout: Use Your Time Where it Really Matters

Faun Zarge

Burnout is the result of too many demands, too few resources and not enough time to recover. When you consider this definition, it’s easy to see why teachers are at high risk for burnout.

At the heart of being a teacher is giving. Teachers understand they are in a profession where they can always be doing more, and so they try. In the process, they often give their time to everyone except themselves. In my time as both a Jewish day school parent and administrator, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing teachers give selflessly of themselves: providing extra time to a student outside of class hours or mentoring a new teacher during a lunch break, giving up their personal time to speak with a stressed parent or developing an especially creative lesson plan.

These same teachers also navigate busy personal lives. They need to support family and friends, run errands after school and attend to routine household responsibilities that require phone calls during the very hours they are teaching. (Just try reaching the plumber or the bank during the six minutes you have available during the school day.)

When feeling overextended, teachers tend to attribute their exhaustion to poor time management. This often results in one of two scenarios: telling yourself, “I will work harder and faster”; or downloading the latest time management app. The problem with both of these responses is the assumption that the issue will be solved by operating at a superhuman and unsustainable pace, a pace that unquestionably puts teachers on a highway to burnout.

What follows may not be what you expect: time management strategies that focus on best practices for writing “to do” lists, timeboxing your calendar and powering through your obligations with the use of new apps and planners that optimize your efficiency. Instead, counterintuitive time management advice has the most significant impact on preventing burnout. If teachers are going to thrive long term, they don’t need to work faster. Rather, they should recognize when to slow down and pay attention to the fact that sometimes the best investment of their time is in themselves.

The irony is that teachers are already very familiar with how they should use their time to protect their wellbeing and prevent burnout. It’s the same advice they consistently provide to their students.

Make time for sleep

It seems illogical to go to bed early when looking at a stack of papers to be graded or a long to-do list, but sleep is exactly what you need in these situations. Countless studies demonstrate that not only is sleep necessary for physical wellbeing, it is also critical for cognitive health.

When we are well rested, we are sharper, more productive and creative, better able to understand and integrate complex information, and equipped to respond thoughtfully to unexpected stressors. A Deloitte Insights article, “You Snooze, You Win,” notes, “Sleep may, in fact, be the ultimate performance enhancer.” A well-rested body and brain are better prepared to problem-solve and navigate the complex demands of one’s personal and professional life.

It can be challenging to change late-night habits, but it’s possible with small steps. Begin by setting an alarm one-hour before you want to be in bed. This is a cue to log off electronics, stop checking email, wrap up work and begin more relaxing activities. While pre-bedtime routines will be different for everyone, the principle is the same: These should be activities that allow a person to wind down and shift gears. If it’s difficult to change gears, it can be helpful to make a “to do” list for the following day, to serve as both a signal that the day is over and help assure that “nothing will be forgotten.”

Make time to move around and exercise

For the same reasons that recess and team sports are good for kids, exercise is good for adults. Although “adult recess” isn’t built into most schedules, it’s critical to make time for exercise because finding extra time is highly unlikely. Teachers often justify skipping exercise by telling themselves that their time is better spent on their students. However, it’s essential to remember that prioritizing your health and well-being is precisely what allows you to continually support your students.

Exercise has been shown to reduce the body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, and to increase the production of endorphins, the chemicals in the brain that elevate mood. The physical activity and boost of endorphins help reduce our physical reactivity to stress—in the classroom, the faculty meeting or when running into an unreasonable parent in the grocery store. It’s important to choose a schedule and activity that fits the rhythm of a teaching schedule and develop creative ways to make exercise part of the schedule, such as three 10-minute walks a day, walking meetings with colleagues; hand weights to use during TV commercial breaks or a 15-minute yoga video. Starting this habit is the hard part, but take small steps and build from there. Without question, you will begin to experience the benefits to your physical and cognitive health.

Ensure you are spending the right amount of energy on the right things

It’s easy to fall into the trap of devoting excessive time and energy to every task on your list. This will unquestionably result in less time for other priorities, resentment when your extra efforts aren’t noticed and exhaustion—all contributors to burnout.

Instead, each time you begin a task, ask yourself: What kind of effort does this task need? 50%? 80%? 110%? This question immediately helps you determine the amount of time and energy required to successfully accomplish the task. Some activities, such as preparing for parent-teacher conferences, require 100% of your effort. Others, like writing a weekly internal update for your department, might only need 70% of your effort. If you have difficulty determining the amount of effort required, ask yourself if you are holding yourself to standards that you would never expect from someone else; if you don’t have those expectations of others, then they are probably unreasonable for you as well. The key is remembering that if you attempt to give everything 100%, activities that truly need all of your energy and focus will be compromised.

One of the biggest hurdles for teachers is the guilt felt when taking time to rest and recharge. Even as it feels like unproductive time, however, in practice, it’s actually the most productive thing one can do. Making time to focus proactively on one’s well-being and thoughtfully examining if energy is being spent on the right activities are critical to burnout prevention. Teachers will always generously share their time with others, but if we want to ensure that they have the energy to educate our children for the long term, we have to encourage them to be equally generous with time for themselves.

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HaYidion Time Spring 2020
Spring 2020