Education Commentary

How to Avoid Burnout

By Perry Oldham — September 01, 1993 4 min read

Another excellent teacher, a good friend and colleague of many years, is leaving the profession. The signs were already in place. Last fall, in a burst of enthusiasm, she had agreed to chair a crucial committee aimed at keeping at-risk students in school. This, in addition to an already heavy teaching load—10th, 11th, and 12th grade English, as well as a writing lab—plus serving as faculty sponsor of the 10th grade (her favorite), giving individual help to students whenever she could find a minute, attending plays and athletic competitions, and so on. Predictably, the result was burnout. Instead of teaching school next year, as she has done for the past 20 years, she will be moving to Florida, where she hopes to find a job working in a bookstore.

There are no two ways about it: Teaching is a grueling occupation. Not only do we have to deal all day with children’s academic and emotional needs and the often irrational demands of their parents, not to mention administrators, but we also have to maintain the energy level required to survive long days that begin before school with last-minute prep and meetings with students and don’t end till late in the evening after more school work and conferring on the phone with parents. These demands are not exceeded by any other job or profession of which I am aware. “What about all those vacations?” you hear frequently. Yes, there are the wonderful Christmas and spring vacations, when you patch yourself together before once again leaping into the breach. For many teachers, though, long summer vacations are largely a thing of the past. With the trend everywhere toward a longer school year, teachers increasingly work year-round.

How do we do all this and still retain a zest for the classroom? A wise teacher in college told me, “Leave it at school.” As a goal, that advice is golden. For if we teachers are to make the long haul, we must learn to reserve time for ourselves and not take school home with us every night. (I say “goal” because, of course, teaching never was—and never will be—simply an 8-to-5 job.) Prep time does not count. A good teacher loves his or her subject. Time spent at home preparing lessons in that subject—and I am not talking about grading papers—should constitute a regular opportunity to revive the spark of our own delight in learning. After all, love for a subject is what originally pulled many of us toward the classroom.

Nor am I suggesting that we avoid our fair share of the duties that go along with teaching school. You cannot sit around drinking coffee in the faculty lounge during your prep period (if you are lucky enough to have one) and expect to go home that night with an empty briefcase. I believe in working hard and working to capacity while at school. Our duty to our students, the school, and ourselves demands no less.

But when it is time to go home, we should make it a goal, indeed a policy, to walk out the doors and enjoy the other parts of our lives. For many of us, that means first of all being a parent and spouse. It may also mean doing yard work, taking the dog for a walk, driving down to the shop that sells baseball cards, practicing with a jazz band, or writing. If your favorite coffee shop is frequented by patrons of the school, and if you want to avoid spontaneous inquiries about their children’s progress, then you might ask yourself if that is where you really want to go for coffee. Furthermore, I suggest that you disconnect the phone at whatever time you consider to be a reasonable hour. After making ourselves available to students and their parents all day at school and part of the evening at home, none of us is obliged to be accosted by the telephone as we gear down for sleep.

I also suggest that you take advantage of every professional conference, convention, and seminar that is available to you. Yes, some conferences are pretty awful. However, to misquote a fellow Oklahoman, I never met a conference or convention I didn’t like. That is, I have never attended one from which I did not bring home something of value—some teaching tip or idea for a new course or insight into what makes kids tick. In addition, there is the built-in vacation, the chance to live for a day or two in a different place, stay in a hotel, and use those fancy little soaps in paper wrappers; you just have to learn to appreciate the little perks provided by teaching. The bottom line is, you return to school refreshed.

Most of all, you should be aware of the splendid line-up of summer seminars for school teachers provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. For those who apply and are accepted, these four- to six-week, expense-paid courses offer the chance to study classic works in the humanities at colleges and universities from Maine to Mississippi to Oregon. Working on a topic of common interest with an intelligent and fun-loving group of professionals under the guidance of a notable scholar, and being paid for it, is guaranteed to pep up even the weariest among us.

A quiet voice may be asking: “But aren’t these suggestions selfish? Doesn’t the profession of teaching necessarily require an open-ended commitment, in the form of endless involvement in the activities and problems of the school?” I would ask in return, “Is it preferable to allow ourselves to be consumed prematurely?” Who wins then? Certainly not the students. Next year and the year after, five English classes at my school won’t have the privilege of working with my friend, one of the best teachers I have ever known.

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1985 edition of Education Week as How to Avoid Burnout