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4 signs of teacher burnout (and how to deal with them)

Amanda ClarkJanuary 22, 2019

Woman Leaning on Table

Did you know that missed signs of teacher burnout leads to 41% of teachers leaving the classroom within five years? A guest speaker mentioned this in one of my education classes, and I thought, “Well, that’s uplifting — but I’m going to make it work.”

I’m proud to say that I taught for 10+ years but teacher burnout did take a toll along the way. I had to discover strategies to keep me going.

There’s no question that teaching is stressful, (what you do is amazing!) but it’s important to take care of yourself. If you’re experiencing teacher burnout, you’re not alone and you can get out of it with the right mindset and strategies. If you feel overwhelmed at work, your first step is to consult a professional.

Not sure if you are experiencing just a bout of stress or burnout? Let’s explore these telltale signs of teacher burnout and see what you can do about them.

woman sleeping in her bed
Photo: Kinga Cichewicz/Unsplash

Sign #1 of teacher burnout: You don’t sleep – like ever

Throughout my teaching career, I’ve always had a constant to-do list that’s followed me home and played through my busy mind. And naturally, I’ve sometimes had trouble falling asleep because of all the pending tasks.

But I knew that there was a difference between having difficulty falling asleep and not sleeping at all. When I was getting burned out, I would wake up throughout the night thinking about my never-ending to-dos, parent-teacher conferences, grades, and more. I felt like a hamster on a wheel that had lost control.

The sleepless nights and hamster thoughts were a sign of burnout, and none of it was helpful because what I actually needed during these stressful moments was MORE sleep.

What can you do? Get better sleep

  • Try writing down all your thoughts before you go to bed. This activity could organize your thoughts and get them off your mind.
  • Use lavender oil. Putting a dab of lavender oil on your pillow can help you catch some Zs.
  • Drink chamomile tea before bed. It works!
  • Exercise. This one can be tricky to squeeze into your busy routine, but any little amount of exercise helps. I jammed in a 10-to-20-minute walk before going home, and it made a huge difference.

Bottom line? Try to take action and get some sleep. Your body, students, and family will thank you.

Frustrated woman looking at laptop
Photo: JESHOOTS.COM/Unsplash

Sign #2: You’re irritable, VERY irritable 

First off, teaching is so demanding that even when you’re not burnt out, there are times when you might still get irritated with co-workers and kids.

Don’t worry! You’re not a bad educator. Teachers aren’t saints (although we’re pretty darn close).

But when you’re facing teacher burnout, this irritability becomes more complicated—you find your threshold of patience getting shorter and shorter.

You may also feel guilty because you snapped at a co-worker or were harder on a student then you would have liked. It happens!

The fact that you feel guilty about this shows how much you care. However, you still need to take care of yourself and make sure that other people are not bearing the brunt of your short-term burnout.

What can you do? Try to stay calm

  • Breathe. It sounds simple enough, but it’s a game-changer when you feel yourself becoming short-tempered with someone.
  • Take a timeout. That’s right, physically remove yourself from the situation, reflect, and then come back and tackle the situation again.
  • Meditate. What also worked for me was setting aside 10 minutes of meditation a day. There was an app I used to make this happen called Headspace. I’d use it either during planning periods, first thing in the morning, or right after school, and it worked wonders. A man with a soothing Australian accent would guide me into another world. This short break provided a sense of calm when nothing else would.

At the end of the day, realize that you’re human, and a little irritation happens. But before you snap, take these steps to hone that superhero patience that teachers like you are known for.

Woman thinking while looking up
Photo: Tachina Lee on Unsplash

Sign #3: You’re constantly doubting yourself

When you’re exhausted, you aren’t thinking clearly. And when you’re emotionally and physically drained, your rational thoughts disintegrate.

You might even put yourself down and question if you’re a good teacher at all (you are — you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t).

Watch out — these actions can quickly have you falling down the rabbit hole.

What can you do? Don’t doubt yourself

Questioning your career choice is a clear sign of teacher burnout. Although this is a typical reaction to exhaustion, it can negatively suck you in. So try to jerk yourself back to reality with these tips:

  • Balance your thoughts. When you find yourself thinking a negative thought, try to offset it with a positive one. Revel in triumphs. This is an excellent time to revisit all of your success stories — you probably have more than you even realized. Think of a successful student, an award you received, or a particularly memorable lesson or unit that you rocked out.
  • Put it all into perspective. One of my most inspiring administrators told me that it’s all about perspective — such a simple quote, but it meant so much. When you’re facing teacher burnout, your viewpoint is not rational, so the best thing you can do is try to put it all into perspective. Think about why you got into teaching in the first place. Remember your successes and combat the negative thoughts with positive ones.

Try these actions, and you’ll discover that you’re really quite brilliant at what you do.

One of the signs of teacher burnout is a craving for sweets like those pictured in this display of candies.
Photo: Luis Aguila on Unsplash

Sign #4: You binge ALL of the sweets

As a teacher, you have more than your share of opportunities to lay on the sugar.

Let’s be real. Kids aren’t offering you apples but rather cupcakes for their birthday parties, cookies for Christmas, and donuts to go with your morning coffee.

You may have learned how to tame your sugar high and pick one chocolate donut instead of three. But when you’re feeling burnt out, your attempts to control the intake could fly out the window.

You might find yourself saying yes to all of those temptations, and your secret candy drawer may disappear after two days.

This sounds funny, but all jokes aside, binge eating is the last thing you need when facing exhaustion. Unfortunately, when you’re on the verge of burnout, you don’t care that its healthy food that recharges your mind.

What can you do? 

  • Try filling that sweet drawer with healthy snacks like raisins and granola bars.
  • Give yourself a limit, like three sweets a week (as opposed to 10). 
  • Choose the healthier of the unhealthy options — meaning if you want a donut, you can choose plain instead of double chocolate. (Yes, it’s a sacrifice).

These changes should help appease your sweet tooth while keeping it in check.

Student and teacher laughing [Google Edu]
Photo: Google Edu

Being frank about teacher burnout

If you haven’t faced teacher burnout yet, there’s a possibility that you will. After all, teaching is very different from other jobs.

Instead of dealing with paperwork, handling money, and interacting with strangers daily, you’re shaping our future generation. And that’s both emotionally intense AND amazing. Of course, you’ll have your highs and lows like any other professional — you’re human, after all.

So, when you notice these warning signs of teacher burnout coming on, try to use these techniques to get through it. Remind yourself why you chose to teach in the first place. The answer is probably a noble one.

Most importantly, do your best to get through this hump and continue doing what you do best: preparing our youth for their future.

Classroom Management