How I Survived The First Few Years of Teaching and Didn’t Burn Out

Earlier this week, a close friend and fellow teacher posted about her very, very long day at work. When she got home that evening it was far from over because she had lesson plans to finish, grades to submit, parents to call, and probably tears to cry. I could literally feel her pain because my feet hurt just as much from an equally long day of working as a public school teacher.

I liked her post because I could identify, remembering my first year of teaching as painfully similar. But several years later, with a little bit of experience acquired, I’m in a very different space. Having “survived” that very trying and emotionally exhausting first year or two, I feel less inclined to glorify “the hustle.” Instead, I think it’s more important to highlight the self-care and balance I achieved because it helped me avoid the burnout that is too common for new teachers working in a climates that are often hostile, unsupportive, and demoralizing.

So how did I “survive” my first few years of teaching? First, I did more than survive. I made a decision to live. And that’s probably why I survived. It wasn’t easy, but I had lots of help and supports in place.

So here are are my 10 tips for new teachers to avoid burnout:

1. Take care of yourself

Self-care is mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. Get a therapist. Go to self-help support groups. Go to the gym. Eat good. Drink less. Read some books for pleasure. Make sure you are always working on yourself. Those of us who work as healers, like teachers, therapists, and social workers, should always be engaged in the important inner-work of loving and caring for ourselves. Otherwise, we have nothing to give. Pray or meditate if you value spirituality. Go to church if you are religious. Most importantly, do something good for your spirit. Usually this means getting out of yourself and serving others in some capacity outside of work.

2. Be gentle with yourself

Put down the baseball bat and stop beating yourself up! After each day, write down three things you did well, even if that means including the fact you simply got out of bed and showed up. Try some positive affirmations. Instead of mumbling to yourself, “God you’re such an idiot,” try saying, “You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.” It might sound corny, but reframing the way we speak to ourselves is really important. It’s also important to find humility. That doesn’t mean hanging our heads and denying our good qualities. It means embracing our humanity, our flaws, our imperfections, AND our assets so that we may come to see ourselves more accurately. The truth is we’re probably not doing that great OR that bad. If we bombed that lesson during third period, the kids are probably over it by fourth period. You’re the only one losing sleep later that night! Being gentle with yourself means forgiving yourself for being imperfect, which is to say, for being human.

3. Leave your work at work

I know it might seem impossible right now, especially if it’s your first year, but eventually you’ll get better at managing your time. Maybe one day you’ll even be able to leave the huge boxes of papers at school and go home to watch Netflix. Well, maybe not if you’re an English teacher! I spent far too many weekends grading papers, planning lessons, reading, answering emails, and essentially working the entire time I should have been recharging my batteries. This is not good for you or your students. Set some boundaries for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with an hour or two of lesson planning every Sunday morning if that’s what works for you. Eventually you’ll get better at using free periods to get a lot of that work done, especially after a few years when you have lots of older lesson plans to draw from. That makes a huge difference. When you’re home, do your laundry, watch TV, hang out with your significant other, and be as fully present as possible. It’s good for your well-being and your students need you to come back energized.

4. Disconnect

This one is a 21st century phenomenon that isn’t exclusive to teachers. How do we disconnect from technology in a world that is connected to it at all times? I don’t have a clear answer for this one. I still take out my phone during dinner once in a while. I’m getting better though, especially with work related connectivity issues. It’s tempting to answer your vice principal’s email or respond to a student who is freaking out because Turnitin.com isn’t working on Sunday night at 11:30 PM and the deadline is 11:59 PM. But guess what, that student shouldn’t have waited until 11:30! You have a life. And should probably be sleeping by this point. You have a big week ahead. And the same goes for your administrators / bosses. I answered them quickly my first year, even on weekends because I wanted to be rehired, ya know!? But then I set some boundaries. Now I rarely respond to work emails on the weekend. That’s my time. I give enough extra, unpaid time during the week to double my salary if it was tallied up as overtime. I respond to those emails first thing Monday morning and the school still functions just fine.

5. Say No

If you already teach three after-school classes, tell your principal “no” when she asks you to take over student council. She’ll respect you for it. It’s easy to get caught up in people-pleasing, especially when we’re new and want to make a good impression. But you shouldn’t say yes to everything otherwise you’ll find yourself overwhelmed, overworked, resentful, and exhausted. Sometimes administrators and other teachers will try to capitalize on your “noobie” willingness to say “yes” to everything. Don’t give in. Teaching an average course load is a full time job. As you gain experience, you’ll free up some capacity to take on extracurricular commitments, but be careful in the beginning.

6. Do side projects

Do you like to write poetry? cook? photography? music? hiking? You should always have a creative side project or two. This can be related to your job as a classroom teacher, but it should be something completely enjoyable and voluntary. I like to make music and recently learned how to DJ with real turntables. Pretty cool, and surprisingly therapeutic! I find so much enjoyment in it. It’s almost like a form of meditation. Recently I’ve been writing a curriculum for Hamilton: The Musical. It sounds like work, but I enjoy every minute of it. It’s fun. It’s pure creation. These things keep us sustained and we need that feeling.

7. Get excited

Excitement and enthusiasm are contagious. Find a way to bring into the classroom those things that make you “falling-off-your-chair” excited. Lately, for me, it’s been the Broadway musical Hamilton that I just mentioned. I’m basically obsessed. How can I fit that into my curriculum? Well, figure it out! Make it relevant. If I’m teaching material I’m not that excited about, how can I expect my students to be? I’ve found that teenagers are pretty easily excitable. Find common ground that both of you will be psyched about. This means investing in the lives of your students and getting to know them. I’ve noticed that if I’m losing my mind about a short story from 1892, they will usually give me a shot to show them why I’m so excited. That’s because they trust me and my judgement, which is partly because I’ve trusted them and theirs. Teaching is mostly about relationships. You know that friend you have who is just sort of “blah” about everything and never gets excited? Yeah, don’t be that guy. Your students’ engagement depends on it.

8. Find professional development that doesn’t suck

You’re probably not going to get that excited at the Blood Born Pathogens training every September. Do some research and find professional development conferences that are really geared towards your interests. Since 2010 I’ve been going to a conference called Preemptive Education in New York City. It brings together teachers who use hip-hop and spoken word poetry in their classrooms. I’ve used so many resources from that conference in my classroom. I’ve even made friends there and met teachers who share a similar vision and pedagogy. I leave that conference every year feeling inspired, refreshed, and rejuvenated. It reminds me I’m not alone.

9. Keep yourself intellectually stimulated

During my first three years of teaching I was in graduate school at the same time, but most of the courses were during the summer. It felt good to be connected to the academy, to scholars who were engaged in serious intellectual projects and research. Much like the professional development conference I mentioned before, it helped me combat the isolation that many teachers experience. In some schools it’s pretty easy to spend every day from 8:00 – 3:00 in your classroom without interacting with many other adults. I can’t remember the last time I heard a really fascinating, challenging discussion in the teachers’ lounge (the one that no one uses.) If your school has a different climate than mine, embrace it! Engage your colleagues in philosophical discussions and make the most of your time with other adults. You’ll be spending a lot of time with children.

10. Keep it about the kids

At the end of the day, we need to remember why we teach. It’s about the kids. It’s about touching lives. For some of us, it’s a calling. There are huge, lasting impacts that we are making in young people’s lives every day. Some of these impacts can never be measured, but will remain with our students for the rest of their lives. If we can inspire students to look at the world more critically and then become active change agents in their communities, we are very literally changing the world. The work we do is important, even when it seems monotonous and we are bogged down by meaningless paperwork and mandated testing. When we get frustrated with colleagues, administration, parents, and policymakers, remember that our teaching is eternal. There is still hope in education. There has to be.

 

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One comment

  1. Lovely and unique advice. More than just the standard “relax and take a break” repeated over and over. Thanks.

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