For more than a decade, Janet has worked as a high school art teacher and loved her job. She was constantly redecorating her classroom, staying late to help with extra-curricular activities, and looking over the shoulders of her students to offer the same hands-on guidance she appreciated when she was in school.
Today, her classroom looks a lot different. Hunched over a computer in her living room, she has found herself giving even more energy than she knew was possible to keep the kids on the other side of the Zoom call even remotely interested. Many don’t show up for her class at all. She wonders if she’s even making a difference anymore.
For the first time in her teaching career, she’s experiencing teacher burnout. And she’s not alone.
With the advent of interactive online learning, teacher stress and burnout are at record-high rates. But instead of considering other careers, you can focus on improving your mental and physical health while connecting with ways to regain that spark that made you love teaching.
What Causes Teacher Burnout?
Is there anything more motivating to a teacher than connecting with a student whose eyes brighten with an “aha!” moment? That’s much more difficult when everyone is just a picture in a little box on a computer screen. This lack of connection is just one way that online teaching fatigue can start to creep up on you.
Here are some other ways that an interactive remote learning environment can cause teacher burnout:
Your Routine Is Out-Of-Whack
If you’ve worked in a school environment for years, you’re probably used to having a bell alert you when time passes throughout the day. When you’re at home, you may find that the day slips away without even knowing.
At-home work takes a level of discipline and organization that can take time to develop. You may find that you struggle to separate your work life and your personal time. That’s a recipe for burnout.
It’s All Business
Teachers must work to create a fun atmosphere, and that’s easier when you can share your personality, charm, and learning exercises in person. Anyone who’s been on a Zoom call knows how easy it is for jokes to get lost and confusion to rule the conversation.
When education is all business, it’s boring. Educators know they need to make learning fun; when stress takes over, nothing’s fun.
Mixed Messages from the Administration
Are you going back to in-person teaching one week, and then going back online the next? The politics of teaching is always tricky to navigate, but today’s leadership is more tested now than ever.
When you don’t know what’s happening with your career due to mixed messages from your administration or political leaders, it’s tempting to throw in the towel.
Endless Parent Emails
Young children may be tech-savvy, but that doesn’t mean that a fourth-grader knows how to properly respond to a Google Meet invite. This means parents are more involved than ever in their children’s learning process — a situation filled with pros and cons.
If you’ve found yourself spending hours replying to parent emails, you’re sure to burnout. It’s like two steps backward, one step forward as you try to grade assignments, encourage your students, and field questions from their parents.
It’s Too Easy to Be Distracted
Is your cat sashay-ing endlessly in front of your computer’s webcam? Is a delivery person knocking at the door in the middle of your lesson? What about your own children, begging for a snack?
If you’re not in the controlled environment of your classroom, you may find that the distractions are winning your attention. When you’re pulled in so many directions, something has to give. That’s when burnout begins.
Your Body is Strained
The mind and body are connected. If you are craning your neck to see a student’s work, straining your ears to understand a digitally garbled answer, and staring at a screen until your eyes are blurry, neither your mind nor your body will be happy. Online learning scenarios can tax the body, even though you’re just sitting there.
Look for Early Warning Signs
Fear you are developing teacher burnout? Look for these early warning signs to diagnose it.
You Have New Aches and Pains
Take a moment to close your eyes and feel your body. Have you developed new lower back pains or headaches? Are your shoulders more tense than usual? Bodily pains are one of the first indicators that your mental health is at risk.
You Skip Meals … or Eat Constantly
If you don’t have a set lunch break, you may find that your eating schedule is all out of whack. People who are on the cusp of burnout may try to make up for it by either eating more than they need or sacrificing their mealtime to catch up on work.
You Feel Dread Before Class
Pay attention to your mental state before you log in for class. It’s likely much different than you felt when you were walking into school a year or so ago. You are more likely to fall victim to teacher burnout if you don’t like what you’re doing anymore but still have to show up excited and encouraging for your students every day.
You Doubt Your Teaching Abilities
Educators need to be trusted leaders to their students, but what if you start to doubt yourself? Changing the medium of the academic platform — from an in-class experience to engaged remote learning — isn’t easy. If you don’t think you’re reaching your students, you might question whether it’s worth continuing.
Steps to Prevent Burnout
You don’t have to give up a meaningful and rewarding career due to online teaching fatigue. If you can catch your symptoms early, you’ll be able to take steps to prevent burnout and do a better job with your students. Here are some steps to take to feel better.
Set a Schedule
There aren’t bells ringing in your house, but there could be. Set your alarm throughout the day so you know when to eat, when to log on for class, and when to take a break.
Even though you can technically wear your pajamas for your class, don’t. Instead, keep your in-person routine that includes morning showers, wearing a nice outfit, and even putting on makeup, if that’s what you prefer. Sticking to a schedule can help make extraordinary situations feel more normal.
Get Active Outdoors
If you haven’t been moving your body as you did walking all around school, you probably feel it. To improve both your physical and mental health, take short walks throughout the day. Breathe deeply when you’re outdoors and be near nature whenever possible.
If your fitness level allows, try lifting weights, performing calisthenics, or taking a short jog to get the blood pumping.
Create an Ergonomic Desk
If you were always standing in front of a classroom, you may have never learned the importance of having an ergonomic workstation. But if you’re hunched over with your laptop on the coffee table, you’ll notice a difference by improving your posture.
Create a space where both feet are on the ground. Set your computer on a stack of books so that it’s at the same height as your face. Do not rest your wrists on your keypad. Bad posture habits can add up quickly to pain, which transfers easily to burnout.
Practice Yoga or Meditation
If you are struggling with stress, anxiety, and chafing against what seems like endless changes to your life, you need to find a way to clear your mind. A yoga and meditation practice has helped thousands do just this.
Find YouTube videos for gentle yoga, which is accessible to all body types. If you have trouble getting up easily from the ground, try chair yoga. New apps make guided meditation easier, too. Commit to your practice for at least a month before deciding if it works.
Connect with Other Teachers
Remember that you’re not alone — even though it may feel like it. The more you reach out to other teachers struggling with online learning, the more you’ll find ways to address some of the problems. You may be surprised at ways that other educators overcame feelings of burnout.
Encourage your co-workers to schedule a weekly Zoom call. Instead of it just being a venting session, create an agenda around a specific theme. Ask what your group wants to address. Sometimes seeing and hearing from others in the same situation can provide the compassion you need for yourself.
Ask for Help in Other Areas of Life
If you find your teaching schedule is overwhelming, you must advocate for yourself before you completely burn out. Talk with the administrative staff about how you’re feeling.
But in challenging times, sometimes nothing can be done workwise. That’s when you need to get creative and look for relief elsewhere in your life. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your family, housemates, friends, and neighbors.
Many people reach burnout because they feel they must “do it all.” You don’t. It’s perfectly acceptable to get your groceries delivered, hire a babysitter, let the dishes stack up for a day, and ignore socially distanced get-togethers so you can luxuriate in a hot bath.
Resources for a Burnt-out Teacher
Maybe all of this is well-and-good, but you’ve already reached your breaking point. There are plenty of resources to help you feel better and regain confidence in your abilities to be a great teacher.
One of the best ways to remain engaged about the work you’re doing is to remember that, like your students, you’re always learning. Academic trends are always changing, and you can evolve with them. To overcome burnout, read blogs like those from Caduceus International Publishing to see what’s new when it comes to reaching students.
For example, the CIP blog offers expert advice on how to keep students engaged in online learning, ways to choose the right material that translates well remotely, and new technology you can integrate to become more a more effective remote teacher.
Incorporate Coping Skills
If you cannot change your workload, administrative policies, or anything else in your life, you can still change how you react to it. When your cortisol level is through the roof, you can practice strategies to serve as a stop-gap measure.
For example, “cleansing breath” helps reduce anxiety naturally by inhaling through your nose for four seconds, holding your breath for seven seconds, and then exhaling through your mouth with a “whoosh” sound for eight seconds. Continue this pattern for at least four full breaths.
Journaling can help you track changes and improvements along the way. Try implementing a gratitude journal practice to focus on the positive and let go of what’s not working.
Advocate for Your Rights
Many school leaders may not consider the mental and physical health of their teachers until it’s too late. It’s up to you to speak up for yourself before you get lost in burnout, which will just leave you feeling unfulfilled, frustrated, and exhausted.
To do this, you’ll need to first identify what area of online learning isn’t going as well as it could. Then, come up with some potential solutions for the situation. If you work within a union, you may have representation to speak on your behalf. If you must go it alone, remember that vulnerability is a challenge that is often rewarded with help.
Focus on Healthy Habits
To look at the big picture, you need to first focus on your own health. Thankfully, there are many resources available in today’s marketplace to help. Download free apps like MyFitnessPal to track eating habits, SleepCycle to help you prioritize rest, and Insight Timer to support a new mindfulness practice.
Nothing is forever, and sometimes the best way to move forward from burnout is to redirect the focus away from struggling against the demands of your newly remote job and toward your own health. Creating new healthy habits means trusting the process. Those small steps will help improve mental health — and reduce burnout — before you know it.