5 pm: The twilight hour when most workdays end and people look forward to a warm soak and dinner with their families. Yet, for most teachers, 5 pm is when a new workday begins: marking homework, preparing lesson plans for the next day, or drafting a question paper for the upcoming exams. Indeed, a teacher is always thinking about work. A trip to the local supermarket inspires a lesson on money or the economy; cooking a new dish stirs the potential for an excellent class on proportion or recipe writing!
A teacher is one professional who is always on the job, even outside work hours. This can take a toll on their physical and mental health. Passion alone cannot hold down a teacher to the profession, it’s essential to sustain it over a long period. Sadly, ever-increasing responsibilities and lack of recognition lead to burnout from which many teachers do not recover.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I went through the same despondent state, where I started feeling overwhelmed and was completely indifferent to my work. I was showing the classic signs of burnout, defined as a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job (Christina Maslach and Michael P Leiter). It was hard to summon up my usual enthusiasm and none of my ideas felt worthwhile. Despite my love for the education field, I was dreaming of being far away from the classroom! However, a few activities that I accidentally stumbled upon during that period helped me tide through. While I am still not there as yet, I can see a little of the excitement from my early years of teaching come back.
Here are a few things I did which helped me and I hope they will prove to be worthwhile for other teachers too.
Become a student
During those days of gloom, I signed up for a short course on Coursera, just to take my mind off my own classes. The role reversal helped me relax and proved to be beneficial. Even if it is not a formal degree, just a few hours of learning something new can renew your zest for life, and who knows, it may even be handy for a lesson someday! Explore sites like Udemy and Coursera for enriching classes, where you can forget being the responsible one and just focus on yourself.
Change up your lesson
After years and years of teaching the same concept repeatedly, we all fall into a set pattern. I realized that I had been using the same introductory document and the same set of exercises for over three years! It was time to look for new resources and in doing so, I felt refreshed too. Even if the textbook is the same, finding new material and maybe just one new exercise/activity goes a long way. For example, I don’t usually use bodily humor in my classes, but I decided to try. I still am not good at it, however, the change worked wonders, both for my students and myself.
Put your chores on hold
Teachers are notorious for biting off more than they can chew! After a gruelling day of work, we also want an organized wardrobe or a sparkling kitchen. This only adds to the mounting pressure. It is okay to put these chores on hold and just take a walk. I also read a few books for pleasure, with no agenda, even as the pile of unfolded clothes around me grew! Trust me, nothing major happened. I still went to work the next day, we still ate our regular meals and things were normal. It is important to cut yourself some slack and do things that make you happy.
Teachers hold their students to high standards, which is crucial for their development. They do the same for themselves, hesitant to turn in less-than-perfect work even at the cost of their health. I strongly recommend having a few ready-made lessons for those days of low energy, even if they are not perfect. A worksheet downloaded from the Internet, a pre-recorded class, a borrowed PowerPoint presentation or even assigning group work – nothing is wrong! I keep an emergency folder for this purpose and it has bailed me out on so many occasions.
Teachers are not paid by the minute
Personally, this has been a tough lesson for me to learn. I always believed that every minute of my class must be accounted for with a learning objective attached to it. I wanted to ensure value for every second of my teaching time. This approach often undermines the teaching or learning that happens when no one is looking. A child that sees a teacher comforting a friend, or a teacher that allows children to write their answers sacrificing class time – these are extraordinary moments, impossible in a class where every minute is accounted for. It is okay to send the students to the playground once in a while or to close class five minutes early and allow them to chat! This will also allow the teacher to gather his/her thoughts, allowing for more mindfulness.
I sincerely hope these tips work for you too and help you combat this insidious malaise that grips teachers at least once in their careers. Teachers create the future and taking care of themselves is the biggest way they can contribute to the well-being of the upcoming generations.
The author is a teacher and mentor who is extremely passionate about pedagogy. She enjoys long conversations, writing and music. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and runs her own website at www.alearninghut.com.