Teaching

A Professor’s Take on Preventing Classroom Burnout

A Professor’s Take on Preventing Classroom Burnout
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John Tures profile
John Tures June 22, 2019

Even the most inspired teacher occasionally feels hopeless. When burnout threatens to steal your spirit, here's how to fight back.

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Nearly all teachers get into the profession because they love it. They love their subject matter, the students, the intellectual curiosity, the debate, and the ability to mentor, mold minds, and hang out with those who enjoy similar passions for their fields. Educators certainly don’t do it for the big bucks, although the recent trend (however slight it may be) towards higher salaries is encouraging.

But there’s an enemy always lurking out there, one that, from time to time, is strong enough to take down the most enthusiastic educator: the dreaded burnout bug.

A. Gary Dworkin states that the term ‘burnout’ “is usually applied to the work of human service professionals and their loss of enthusiasm toward their work and an increased desire on their part to quit…The malady is characterized by emotional exhaustion and a lost sense of personal accomplishment. The workers no longer perform their roles effectively and sometimes even become hostile or uncaring about those with whom they are charged to serve.” That sounds about right to me.

When I ask my fellow professors and teachers how they beat burnout, I get a variety of answers, ranging from “bourbon” to “therapy” to “retirement.” One former student told me “You don’t. Some survive it and eventually find a balance, but we all go through it to some degree.”

But instructors are hardly powerless against the forces of being worn down. There are several steps they can take to battle burnout.

1. Active approach over reactive response

“I think educators see burnout with a rearview mirror,” my high school government and economics teacher told me. “I don’t know if one can avoid it as much as one tries to manage it.” That’s a sobering thought. But even though you may not see burnout coming, that doesn’t mean you can’t plan for its ultimate advent. Even the most chipper teacher is going to have to combat classroom burnout: you can count on it. Still, there’s no reason you have to be shocked by it when it hits. You should have a plan at the ready for when burnout arrives.

First, you need to recognize when and why that burnout occurs. For many educators, the burnout comes from the paperwork and the “teach to the test” mania that has afflicted our country and cost us so many fine teachers.

A former teacher of mine puts it this way: “The focus for effective teachers is always on individual students, not state-promulgated standards. I ran into the burnout wall after I left the classroom and went into administration,” where he confronted the reality that “teachers have enormous pressure to meet standards set by politicos who know very little about teaching individuals. For them, education is about whole school districts and numbers and percentages.”

Daniel Ian Rubin concurs in his article “The Disheartened Teacher: Living in the Age of Standardisation, High-Stakes Assessments, and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) where he claims that “NCLB is harming teachers, their practice and their long-term commitment to the teaching profession.”

Here and there, the pushback against the standardization of everything is winning battles, but we’ll probably have to deal with the political micromanagement of the classroom for a long time to come. So here’s my two-part strategy to defeat death by “No Child Left Behind Act-ism.”

Healthy Competition

Not everyone likes conflict, but most of us enjoy the competition. I have found I can invigorate students, and myself, by setting targets. It’s a lesson I learned as a runner: sometimes you aren’t just running against others, but rather against yourself.

I administer a pretest to students, then encourage them to exceed their earlier scores on the later test. While I know I’m no Coach Eric Taylor (Friday Night LIghts), I like to think I can give a pretty decent halftime speech. I give my students something to shoot for, and so far the prospective teachers in my education class have responded well to my strategy. They like it, and their performance on our state’s standards in social studies have been off the charts. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

Don’t teach only the subject matter

Sometimes burnout occurs when you feel as though you are teaching to the test. Nothing can be drier than that, for the professor or pupil. The students struggle to stay focused, and the professor’s attention can wane.

One of my students flunked one course and wasn’t doing in others. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said. “I did well in elementary and high school, but I just can’t seem to cut it here. I’m thinking about dropping out.”

“What made you good in school?” I asked. “We learned a lot of mnemonic devices,” she told me. “We don’t have any of those in college.”

So, I suggested she make some. Her eyes widened. “You can do that?” I nodded. “And you can teach them to your students after you graduate.”

Her recovery was remarkable. She went from flunking the course to getting perfect scores on subsequent exams. Since graduating, she has become one of the star teachers whom the program brags about. From her, I learned the importance of developing a teaching plan tailored to students’ particular needs.

Today my students present teaching strategies in class and brainstorm with others on their ideas. As a result, my course is a lot more interesting than it would be with just me up there being the “sage on-stage.”

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2. Turn the classroom into an arena

My sister-in-law, a physics professor, recommended an article in Science magazine by Sally G. Hoskins, a biology professor emeritus at the City College of New York. It’s titled “How I learned to teach like a scientist.” It’s good advice for showing how you can make the classroom more like your favorite place of work.

Learn in the lab

I’m a political scientist by profession, emphasis on scientist. Therefore, I do what the biology, chemistry, and physics professors do: I hold laboratory classes. I have my students run tests of hypotheses derived from theories that book authors or media pundits put forth, like the “Mythbusters” of Discovery Channel fame. Whether it’s American politics, international conflict, trade, terrorism, or making comparisons across governments and countries, we put arguments to the test so students can do the same to their own arguments in their own papers.

Pursue projects

I also used to be a defense contractor in Washington, D.C. We did a lot of group work in that business, and I’ve imported that experience to my classroom. Our “team reports” become columns for newspapers, or research papers for state legislators, just as the Congressional Research Service does for U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate; we also sometimes work for interest groups, on topics ranging from hate crimes to education, from employment to law enforcement issues. Students learn how to do group work, which is in itself valuable, and what they learn also helps them on their own solo projects later in the semester.

Change the classroom

A colleague takes a different approach. A former elected official and business owner, he fills the class with student debates and field trips, bringing in former colleagues who provide their expertise to students. Another adjunct who teaches law runs mock trials after teaching students how to brief and argue cases.

The point is that there’s no one way to accomplish this task. The goal, however, is constant: Make the classroom come alive by making it your arena, courtroom, or laboratory, the way teaching hospitals make their material come alive.

3. Tweak the teaching

“I tweak my classes every semester,” a biology professor at our college told me. She’s always dreaming up a new laboratory experiment or specimen to study, which is probably why students tell me her courses are never dull. As Valerie von Frank recommends at learningforward.org: “Track Data. Tweak Instruction. Repeat.” Changing things up doesn’t just help an educator dodge burnout; it also helps students improve their performance.

Courses taught over and over again, the same way each time, grow stale. So shake up the reading list; introduce a few new sociology articles with the current literature; add a new case study to your business class; teach your gym students a new sport. One of our exercise science professors brought in some pop culture references, teaching torque by seeing if students could determine how much power it would take to get the giant robots from the “Pacific Rim” movies to lift their arms. Do something to make it fresh.

4. TGIF for teachers

A high school classmate of mine who teaches outlined his plan to fight burnout: “Happy Hour on Fridays.” That’s different from just saying “bourbon,” because it involves a group, a band of brothers or sisters, so to speak. “We lean on each other,” writes the wife of one of my colleagues; she teaches in the local schools.

It’s what I learned in graduate school, as professors and graduate schools would have a Friday afternoon colloquium, and then head out somewhere, either to eat, relax, catch a movie, etc. Alcohol wasn’t an essential component, and was frequently absent; at one school, we formed an intramural team. The only essentials are camaraderie and bonhomie.

“As a teacher, I avoid burnout by being able to rely on my amazing colleagues, who always are great listeners and supporters when I need to vent,” my daughter’s high school instructor told me. He’s got a point. Sometimes you need fellow teachers to bounce ideas off of, offer solutions, or just to listen while whatever’s triggering the burnout gets a verbal release.

Indeed, Daniel W. Russell, Elizabeth Altmaier, and Dawn Van Velzen reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology that teachers who had good social support and supportive administrators who provide positive feedback were less likely to experience burnout.

5. Happy hobbies

Another cause of burnout is the intense level of commitment teachers bring to their profession. They spend hour after hour preparing, grading, reading, writing, etc. The flipside of such intense activity is the inevitable crash that comes when you reach overload. The antidote is downtime.

“I love to do things to get my mind off of school, like running, hiking, traveling, and hanging with friends,” one of my wife’s teacher colleagues told me. It’s important to do something outside of teaching, and even away from teachers sometimes. My wife and I play trivia, watch movies, and draw. She’s into painting and I’m a runner. She completes Sudoku puzzles, I play and watch baseball. We both appreciate a good concert and traveling to new places.

In the book A Perilous Calling: The Hazards of Psychotherapy Practice, William N. Grosch and David C. Olsen write that developing hobbies and balancing work and play are among the most-offered pieces of advice to those in helping professions looking to avoid burnout.

So, find a hobby that’s unrelated to what you teach and give it everything you’ve got. You’ll return to teaching with renewed vigor.

The sum of all fun

Burnout afflicts even the best of teachers; expect that it will eventually hit you. Make a plan. Find ways to make your class interesting, even in the era of scantron tests and the one-size-fits-all approach dictated by non-teaching politicians. Turn your classroom into your field of expertise, and shake things up from time to time, even if things are going well. Mix it up with your colleagues, for fun, and for emotional support. They are your teammates in this game. And don’t channel your entire existence into education; having hobbies provides you that additional outlet.

These steps won’t just help you recover from the burnout stretches. They will rejuvenate you. Your students will notice the difference, and they’ll feed off your rekindled spark that got you to sacrifice so much for the greater good of helping others learn, and molding minds in the first place.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.

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