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I've Been Teaching Online for Years. Here's How to Prevent Burnout During a School Closure

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5 essential tips to structure your day in this unstructured time

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Yes, it is possible to experience burnout while teaching online.

With the current surge in schools turning to the web to keep instruction going while physical buildings are closed, many teachers are being thrust into teaching 100 percent online for the first time. For some, especially those on the outside looking in, this may seem like a dream. But this shift may take teachers who are already quite exhausted to full-fledged burnout.

In 2011, I made a bold move and began working completely online. My family and friends thought I had miraculously scored a piece of heaven when they saw me working in my pajamas, but what they didn’t know was that the reason I had on those pajamas was because I had been up for over 24 hours straight trying to meet a deadline that had crept up on me—and I was severely burned out.

I know what you’re thinking: Why did you wait until the last minute to get all your work done? Why hadn’t you organized your time better?

"You have to treat working from home the same way you would in your classroom—pajamas or not."

It started innocently enough. I would wake up early to usher the kids off to school, then as soon as I returned and logged into the computer, I found myself answering one email after the next, clicking one link after another, browsing one website for information after another. Then, somehow I’d end up scrolling social media in the name of “researching to find valuable resources.”

Days would roll by this way. Just because I was working from home didn’t mean I was getting more rest. Then add a few all-nighters or near all-nighters, and you have a volatile mix of burnout juice.

So what can you glean from my experience?

You have to treat working from home the same way you would in your classroom—pajamas or not. Even though I was working from my dining room table and not my desk in a classroom, I learned that structure and time management are two of the most essential skills for efficiently teaching online.

I learned some important strategies along the way.

1. Conduct essential self-care activities first, preferably right after you wake. Yes, you should still get up and brush teeth, comb hair, shave, and/or even put on makeup (where applicable) if you know at some point you’ll need to be seen—even if only by video. (Importantly, during this time of uncertainty, you do not want to find yourself in an emergency situation in which you have to leave your home quickly. If you’re already dressed, you’ll be able to do this at a moment’s notice.)

You will be tempted to just roll out of bed and tiptoe downstairs for some coffee. Then while you’re conducting your morning browse of your notifications, news, and a myriad of other things we check on our phones when we have a quiet moment, you’ll be tempted to respond to emails. That morphs into trying to problem-solve, and then you’ve somehow shifted into completing work activities.

2. Plan your week, and schedule the tasks you need to get done. That means you need to set specific times for specific tasks to maintain structure for your day. While a to-do list is a useful visual tool, if your tasks are not set for specific times and lengths of time, you will ultimately find yourself struggling to get things done.

Schedule the most important, must-get-done today, essential activities first. Checking and responding to emails can seem essential, but it can become a rabbit-trail activity that leads to more rabbit-trail activities that could likely end in hours passing of unproductivity.

Remember to schedule your household chores to determine which chores will get done and when.

3. Set some alarms on your phone to enforce structure. There will be no bells ringing to remind you that valuable time is passing. The key to making this work, is setting realistic time limits on your work. We often underestimate how long a task will take.

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4. Meal prep the night before or first thing in the morning, especially if you have children at home. And then be diligent about scheduling those meal and break times logically throughout your day.

Working from home can easily become a marathon of sitting in a chair and snacking while typing away at the computer until your body suffers. Just mindlessly snacking while you work can easily usher in an unhealthy eating habit. You can ward off burnout by carving out adequate time to take a break, actually enjoy what you’re eating, and rest your brain.

5. Get out, and get some fresh air as much as possible. Seriously, take advantage of the flexibility that comes with working from home. You could even choose to set up your workstation on your patio or in your yard, if your internet range will allow it. If you have the capability to go to a park or another place you enjoy, do that, too.

Even though structure and time management are important, this is an unusual time in history, so allow yourself some flexibility. Every day won’t go exactly according to plan, and that’s okay. The point is to keep yourself healthy.

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