a new experience
This is my seventh year in the secondary classroom. When I began teaching, I didn’t imagine I would be teaching this long. In fact, nearly 1 in 5 teachers tap out by year 5. I didn’t know what I would be doing, but I packed up my classroom each spring vaguely wondering how many more times I would do that. While I have LOVED the experience, this year, more than ever before, I am experiencing the clear signs of teacher burnout. I can tell because I am not having as much fun as I used to, and that terrifies me.
Teacher Burnout & Solutions
Signs of burnout…
Even as my own kiddos finally start to sleep better, I haven’t been. I sometimes find myself sitting in the back of my classroom, staring off into space while I hope my students are accomplishing useful things.
I always had grand plans to accomplish feats of grading, curriculum mapping, and extra enrichment sessions for my students. In the past, I’ve lead lunchtime sessions on inbox organizing, college application planning, and time management. I haven’t felt motivation to do any of that this year.
Last year I presented at two different teacher conferences. This year I haven’t registered for a single professional development workshop.
I used to leave school between 4 and 4:30, only to pick up my kids. This year I often leave by 3:30 PM — not because I finished my work, but because I know I will be useless anyway if I stay.
I’ve hardly blogged at all this year. After spending so much time this summer getting a new website launched and being so excited to do new things with Pinterest, Instagram, and learning web skills, I rarely find time or energy to write.
I don’t feel this way all the time, and I don’t think I need to be screened for depression (although my family is keeping an eye out for sure). I love spending time with my family, going to church, and working with students one-on-one. There are still lessons I enjoy teaching, but I am not doing a lot of NEW stuff. I am less excited to go to work every day, and I have done math to see what our expenses might be if I did make the decision to stay home full time at some point in the future.
My course load
One cause of my teacher burnout is course load. Most teachers at my school teach one or two different classes, with five or six sections. I teach four different classes: 3 sections of AP English, 1 section of English 9, sociology, and my Life101 course. Of course, it is a rare teacher that says her job is “easy,” but I’ve never had four preps in the same semester before.
In the spring semester I have my 4 preps the same DAY without a break (that’s four 80-minute blocks of teaching), and that is physically and mentally exhausting! I have two free periods to plan and grade, but they are at the end of each two-day rotation. I literally teach six full 80-minute classes before I get time to breathe.
While I am the only teacher for my AP English, sociology, and Life101 classes, I work with two other teachers on the freshman English 9 course. This has added stress, because we have to closely align material and grading, and since we don’t have classes on the same day this can get hairy. I am also learning that I am perhaps not the easiest co-teacher to work with.
My grading load
A second cause of teacher burnout is the grading load, especially for English teachers. Grading essays takes FOREVER.
Even when I set a timer to attempt to minimize the crazy amount of comments I want to write, I find myself spending 10-15 minutes on an AP essay, easily.
When I have 75 AP students, this means a 5 page essay can take anywhere from 12-18 HOURS to grade. Since I don’t have that time built into my daily schedule, it can take me a month or more to grade, which hurts my students because they don’t get feedback or realistic grades entered in a timely manner, and it hurts me because I am constantly dragging piles of essays back and forth, doing just a few at a time.
I am sure there are many ways I can reduce my grading load (“Stop assigning so many essays” is my students’ popular answer), but this is a constant stress.
Teaching my English 9 course has also added more paperwork. As a grade-level class (not honors), I have more students with IEPs and specialized accommodations. This means more emails and contact with our resource room, parents, counselors, and completing paperwork to ensure those students are getting every opportunity to do well academically. Important work, but very time-consuming.
Hubster is wrapping up his final year at seminary, and this spring he will receive a Divine Call to serve as a pastor…somewhere. We won’t know for sure until April 30 where.
We have requested a local call so I can keep my job, but we don’t know yet if that will be possible. So we are planning for next year not knowing where we might live, where Spartacus might go to school, if I will have a job, if we have to sell our house…as one colleague told me, “Gee, you have a lot of spinning plates!
Because the timing seemed right, we also decided it would be a good idea to add to our family. We are having our third baby in June, just after my school year ends. We are THRILLED and TERRIFIED for this shift in our dynamics, and I am working hard to keep myself going through the craziness of pregnancy #3, but that doesn’t help my enthusiasm for my job.
Earlier this fall — the same week we discovered we were pregnant, in fact — my grandmother passed away and my mother had brain surgery to correct a neural condition. Of course it was the same week first quarter grades were due. My grandfather is struggling as a result, and I don’t think I’ve actually fully recovered from that hellish month yet either. He later fell while visiting my parents and spent several weeks in rehab. My sister-in-law is getting married this spring and my brother and his wife (now living down in FL) are expecting their first child, so it’s just a fun and busy and stressful time for everyone in my life right now.
What can I do?
Reduce my job requirements
I have formally requested to teach part time next year, assuming I will still be at my school. The thought of having only ONE class to teach, maybe 2 or 3 times, and then being done, thrills me. Keeping AP English classes would be ideal, but I am flexible.
I also have a student service worker this year who helps me with some of my more basic grading. I am grateful to her.
Say “no” to find more time
I have said “no” to a lot. This is my last year as a student council faculty sponsor, so next year I will not have that requirement. Students have asked me for recommendation letters and I’ve actually said no to a few who didn’t give me enough time. I haven’t volunteered to help sub or lead a Dave Ramsey class or present at a teacher conference. I’ve also cut back on my TV watching and tried to go to bed earlier. Hubster sang with a wonderful men’s chorus at the seminary, but opted not to do it this year to give me more support at home.
Ask for help
Grandparents have been a godsend. My parents pick up kids from school and babysitter at least once or twice a week. My mother-in-law watches my kids two days a week and keeps them overnight at least once. A neighbor sometimes walks Annabelle for us when we have long days. The teacher next door will bring me coffee and tea. My students are also helpful, even when they don’t intend to be: one senior brought me a “thank you” gift bag for writing a recommendation, filled with chocolate and tea — with no way of knowing how essential that turned out to be in my day. Hubster has been more of a helpmate than he could possibly know, but he is dealing with much of the same stress and unknowns as I am.
Turn to God
I started a yearlong reading plan in my Bible app back in March of last. I’m nearly done, but stuck in the major prophets to finish the program. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah…they tend to be LONG and often DEPRESSING books; Jeremiah, after all, is known as the “weeping prophet.” Jeremiah basically turned into my Advent preparation for Christmas, and then I fell off the wagon and picked it back up again in February and am chugging through Ezekiel. Trippy Lenten preparation with some of the visions and commands God gives Ezekiel.
But then I realized something. I am dragging through these major prophets. Israel and Judah are getting lambasted by God for their faithlessness. They are promised a savior, but good gracious, WHEN WILL HE COME? I read it and I am anxious for the suffering to end. I feel my own sin and faithlessness, and yearn for redemption and happy things.
…which is what Advent and Lent are all about. Advent, the time leading up to Christmas, is a time of reflection, of preparation for the promised savior. Israel didn’t know when he would come, but they prayed — O Come O Come Emmanuel — that he would come soon. This is what makes the birth of Christ so exciting for those who witnessed it. They suffered, and then came one who took on their suffering to offer life. Lent is a time of reflection on our sinful humanity, of fasting and drawing closer to God, before celebrating the resurrection on Easter morning.
The Bible does not promise blessings for believers; instead, we look forward to persecution. Life is not easy. Teacher burnout happens. But as I celebrate the highlights of the liturgical church year, I also pray that God will show me my continued vocation, that He will use me, no matter my level of exhaustion or excitement, to further His kingdom.
Happy final thoughts
In a recent blog post from Growing Leaders, Tim Elmore shared a poem he dearly loves for looking at our roles as teachers, called “The Bridge Builder”. To uplift me in the midst of teacher burnout, I taped a copy near my desk, to remind myself that what I do may not feel significant, but I never know who my actions will positively affect later:
The Bridge BuilderWill Allen Dromgoole
An old man, going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim, near,
“You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide –
Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?”
The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”