Burnout? – act before it strikes

Swamped? Exhausted? Awake nights with work on your mind? Fear you might walk out of the class one day, and keep on going? Burnout is marked by anxiety, tiredness, frustration,…

Swamped? Exhausted? Awake nights with work on your mind? Fear you might walk out of the class one day, and keep on going?

Burnout is marked by anxiety, tiredness, frustration, impaired performance, and a sense of hopelessness” and results from a long period of stress.

One description is that the teacher no longer considers themselves a worthwhile professional, but simply a paid individual, with a diminished feeling of accomplishment.

A report by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research shows that less than half of primary teachers feel they can manage their workload and their work-related stress, and less than a third felt they had a satisfactory work-life balance.

Other research shows New Zealand primary teachers work on average about 50 hours per week. Many report working an additional 11-20 hours outside school hours. Not surprisingly, teaching has one of the highest degrees of career turnover of any profession.

Jill Merrick from Titahi Bay School has been in the job for 40 years and believes the stressors have intensified steadily, particularly in the past five years or so.

They include having more special or high needs children in the classroom” children who hurt others or have communication difficulties. Teacher aides are a huge help, she says, but they’re not always there. Teachers must also prepare work plans for the teacher aides and meet with parents and special education agencies.

Numeracy and literacy projects are also stressful, says Jill, with facilitators coming in to watch your teaching and all the extra preparation work.

In her view, the expectations of parents and the work which goes into parent teacher interviews and children’s learning portfolios have become huge stressors.

“Some parent interviews are now 45 minutes long and you have to have so much detail and evidence to support your comments. Other parents are emailing teachers continually and expect immediate answers.”

Mentoring new teachers can be difficult and while it’s worthwhile, it can also be time-consuming. Problems getting relievers may mean you suddenly have an extra five or six children appearing in your class on any given day.

Then there’s all the extra curricular activities which teachers are expected to take on, such as productions, end of year concerts and sport. “Some of them are like full-time jobs in themselves in terms of the organisation that has to happen.”

Overall, Jill says sometimes you seem to be doing a lot of things not directly related to children. “It’s much harder to do things just for fun. A few years ago if you saw a bulldozer out on the road you might take the kids out for a look and consider it a learning opportunity, but now you’re rushing to get through the curriculum and everything has to have a learning outcome.”

If it all gets too much

Researchers point out that it is easier to prevent teacher burnout than it is to reverse it. So if it’s getting too much, what can you do? For schools, the answers lie in:

  • Professional development
  • Stress management workshops
  • Relaxation training
  • Collegial support
  • Time management workshops
  • Nutrition, exercise and coping skills training
  • Improved working conditions.

On a personal level, it’s all about:

Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your health, wellbeing and stress levels.

Think yoga, meditation, essential oils, massage or simply keeping a stress ball in your desk drawer.

Get some sleep
The average person needs eight hours of pure, uninterrupted sleep a night and without it you’re not at your best and stress can get the best of you.

Limit overtime and prioritise
Work smarter not harder. As much as you can, stick to your normal working hours. This will improve your work/live balance by allowing you time to wind down from your day and spend time with family and friends.

Create a pleasant work environment
Make sure your classroom has a little bit of “you” to remind you of your life and loves outside of school.

Deal with alcohol or addiction issues
Getting blotto might work the first time, but it’s a downward spiral that leads to more stress. If you think you’ve got a problem, get some help.

Have a laugh
It might sound simplistic, but sometimes laughter really is the best medicine. Share a joke with colleagues or do something to make you laugh out loud.