Published Online: February 5, 2014

How to Avoid Burnout and Maintain Your Teaching Groove

It's nearly impossible to deliver a 4-star lesson every day.

You know what I mean. The type of lesson you want to share with colleagues. The type of lesson that adds a bounce to your step when you stroll across the faculty parking lot to your car. The type of lesson that goes so smoothly, you remind yourself how much you love your job. A lesson during which even the most comatose students are active and participating, heads up, hands raised, conversing with classmates ... rather than requiring your constant proximity or shoulder taps to check for a pulse.

But the required time and energy, along with factors out of our control—absenteeism, snow days, technology glitches, among others—converge in complex ways, making the 4-star lesson elusive to facilitate day in and day out.

And I’m OK with not being an amazing teacher every day. It’s simply not sustainable.

The myth of the super teacher is a problematic narrative, a standard that’s unrealistic for all of us. I've learned during my 10-year teaching career that in order to thrive in this profession and remain positive and effective most days, I need to regularly ask myself a few questions. Here’s what keeps me fresh:

Do my classroom actions support my pedagogical beliefs?

There's always a new trend, a new initiative, or a new demand on our plates. I don't shrug off these changes; instead, I seek ways to integrate new ideas within the teaching paradigm that I feel comfortable implementing. I believe in balancing teacher-centered instruction with project-based learning and other constructivist approaches. And I believe in intrinsic motivation. Traditional grading practices trouble me.

When a new demand heads my way, I need to take the time to consciously reconcile my pedagogical beliefs with creating an efficient way to implement the idea. I won't be comfortable unless I'm acting on what I believe.

Am I comfortable with an administrator or guest visiting my class, any time, any day?

See above. If you're doing things in the classroom that you aren't proud of or cannot justify, then you should be worried. But if you can back up what you do and demonstrate student engagement and learning, having visitors is just fine. It's a chance for others to see what's going on, to allow other adults to converse with students.

When visitors or evaluators drop in, it's not always the ideal time. That's OK. Anybody with a sense of how demanding teaching is knows it's only a snapshot.

What are the most important things on my to-do list?

Educators' to-do lists are never-ending. Lesson plans, parent contact logs, PLC meetings, grading papers, mentoring students, writing recommendations, and countless other tasks fill our plates. Trust me, you can still thrive day in and day out without checking off every item on your list. No, really, it's true.

Evaluate your list. What is truly necessary in order to have a productive day in the classroom? Is it more important to grade a stack of papers or to make sure that you have an engaging lesson plan for the next day? Is it more important to call parents of struggling students or to analyze assessment data?

These can feel like tough choices, but make them. Coming to a decision—and sticking with it—will help you to avoid burn-out. Set your priorities so you can feel at ease even when your workload is high.

Am I willing to admit I don't have all the answers?

In her wonderful reflection about working to change the culture of a struggling class, my colleague in the CTQ Collaboratory, Ariel Sacks, writes, "I think what's really changed is that now I'm listening to the students and I'm committed to the process of reflection and problem solving."

I'm guessing that we all have amazing colleagues who are willing to collaborate on issues ranging from discipline challenges to technology implementation. You don't have to work on an island. Seek out coworkers who enjoy team problem solving: This not only lessens your workload but is also energizing. I've never left a productive collaborative meeting feeling exhausted; on the other hand, working in isolation has often left me with glassy eyes and mild headaches.

In the midst of what most of us consider the most difficult stretch of the teaching year, these questions provide me with guidelines to maximize teaching and learning in my classroom. Join me in working smarter, not harder.

Fellow teachers, what are some of your tenets that help you remain effective and satisfied with your work day in and day out? What consistent actions or beliefs help you establish your groove in the classroom?

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