Teacher burn-out and how you can avoid it

Written by: Victoria Hewitt | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Burn-out is a clear and present danger for teachers and is something that Victoria Hewitt – who you might know as @MrsHumanities – has experienced. But it is possible to protect yourself and pull yourself back from the brink...

Being a teacher is fulfilling. It is an ever-changing career that inspires and educates. But it is exhausting, mentally and physically.

It is no surprise that so many leaders and classroom teachers, both new and experienced, face burn-out at some point in their career. But what is it and how can it be avoided?

Occupational burn-out is considered the result of long-term work-related stress that leads to exhaustion and the inability to function effectively.

While at times we may become stressed, burn-out occurs as a result of our inability to recover and return to normal conditions one week to the next due to prolonged periods of stress and excessive demands on energy, strength and resources.

Herbert Freudenberger coined the term in the 1970s, recognising that professions which entailed high morals, dedication and commitment from workers that sacrifice themselves for the good of others were most at risk. It is no wonder, then, that burn-out is so high in our profession.

Education Support Partnership’s Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018 found that 67 per cent of education professionals describe themselves as stressed, 57 per cent of whom have considered leaving teaching over the past two years.

Spotting the signs

We need to look after ourselves and those we work with if we are to keep great teachers teaching. The three main signs of burn-out are:

Depersonalisation: This may develop through cynicism and detachment. Evidence of this may be pessimism towards teaching, students, colleagues or the school, a lack of contact and involvement with others, increasing isolation or a loss of enjoyment from the things that once brought pleasure.

Reduced performance: This may develop through negative feelings, lack of productivity and poor performance. This may include feelings of hopelessness and apathy, low self-confidence, increased irritability with one’s self and others, increased time spent completing tasks and apathy.

Exhaustion: This may include emotional and physical exhaustion. Evidence of this may be frustration and irritability, mood swings, impaired concentration, chronic fatigue and insomnia as well as physical symptoms such as increased illness, palpitations, gastrointestinal pain, headaches and dizziness.

Avoiding burn-out

My top tips for avoiding burn-out would be as follows:

  • Be aware of your emotions, stress levels and health. Ensure you make time to “check-in” with yourself. Mindfulness, mediation and journaling can be helpful, as can talking to others (or even yourself). When I reached a state of burn-out, I did not know until after the experience, almost a year later. Having an awareness and understanding of stress, burn-out and mental health is invaluable.
  • Take charge of your wellbeing. As teachers and educators, we must remember that we are only human. We need to balance both our work and our own lives, while also fitting in rest and relaxation. Take time doing the things you enjoy; spend time with family and friends, get outside, plan holidays and weekends in advance. Give yourself a break.
  • Question the impact before taking on new work. Before my breakdown, I did everything I thought I had to do to succeed, yet too much of that work had little impact on student outcomes. Learning to question the purpose of tasks and other requests has helped reduce my day-to-day workload. If you are asked to do something different or beyond the normal responsibilities of your role, question it in relation to its purpose, impact on student outcomes and the time it will take. If the time vs impact is limited, consider alternatives and the necessity of the task.
  • Accept that sometimes you just have to say no. It is okay to say you cannot do something, whether it is due to limited time, an already huge to-do list, or the limited impact it will have on student outcomes.
  • Take mental health days. If you feel like you might be reaching a point of burn-out, take a day or two to recuperate. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.
  • Get support when you need it. Sometimes it is hard to speak to people you are close to and even harder to speak to a stranger. But the counsellors at the Education Support Partnership are fantastic. A call to their helpline helped keep me in teaching.

Conclusion

If you reach burn-out it does not need to be the end of your career. It just means you might have to step back for a little while. Whether that means taking time off, relinquishing a responsibility or changing schools, it is possible to continue a successful teaching career after burn-out.

After my experience, I was torn between moving out of teaching or trying another school. During my time off, I was encouraged to apply to one more school. I panicked that it would be more of the same – relentless workload, high expectations and limited support – so at the interview I asked how they support staff wellbeing and found that I was pleased with the response. If a school is worth working in, they will understand your experiences. Be honest, as it is the only way to reduce the stigma surrounding issues of wellbeing and mental health.

  • Victoria Hewitt is a secondary school teacher. To read more on Victoria’s experiences and for advice on tackling workload visit her blog at https://mrshumanities.com, follow her on Twitter @MrsHumanities or find her book, Making It As A Teacher, due for publication in May 2019.

Further information & resources

This article is an edited version of a blog that Victoria Hewitt wrote for the Education Support Partnership newsletter. For help or advice on any issue facing those working in education, contact the Education Support Partnership’s free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561 or visit www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk


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