It’s no secret that teaching has always been a challenging profession. You didn’t become an educator expecting an easy job. But in recent years, you may have found yourself facing even tougher challenges: budget cuts, bigger class sizes, adjustments to virtual learning, and back again—the list goes on.
If you’re stressed, you’re not alone: K-12 teachers report twice as much job-related stress and three times as much depression than adults in other professions.
Teacher burnout is a real issue for educators. So what are the options for preventing teacher burnout from affecting your well-being and passion for teaching? Keep reading as we answer these questions and share 5 ways to achieve work-life balance and how to avoid teacher burnout before it begins.
Symptoms of Teacher Burnout
Teacher burnout is not simply feeling wiped out after a long day working in the school district. When you’re experiencing normal levels of stress and tiredness from disruptive behavior in the classroom or having limited prep time, you’ll generally feel better after a good night’s sleep or a restful weekend. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
So, what is teacher burnout exactly?
In burnout, you’ve reached a state of physical, mental, emotional, and mental exhaustion after experiencing a long period of sustained teacher stress. This type of teacher demoralization is especially common in helping professions like medicine and education.
Symptoms of burnout include:
- Feeling overwhelmed, drained, or depleted
- Losing interest or motivation in your profession
- Having negative or cynical attitudes toward students, colleagues, or parents
- Feeling ineffective or incompetent
- Having difficulty concentrating or remembering things
- Experiencing headaches, insomnia, gastrointestinal symptoms, and other health problems
What is the Difference Between Depression and Burnout?
Burnout shares many similarities with depression, so it can be difficult to determine which you’re experiencing. Both burnout and depression can cause:
- Loss of interest and enjoyment
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling worthless
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
The big difference is that burnout stems from the workplace. If you can take an extended vacation or leave during the school year, you’ll typically find yourself feeling reenergized. Depression, on the other hand, isn’t related to one specific setting or situation.
Both burnout and depression are serious health problems. It’s best not to self-diagnose if you’re experiencing symptoms like apathy, exhaustion, and loss of interest in your work or home life. Instead, reach out to a professional for help.
What are the Main Causes of Teacher Burnout?
It’s all too easy for teachers to blame themselves for burning out. However, what causes teacher burnout is usually a combination of factors that are beyond your control.
Some of the most common factors teachers struggle with include:
- Systemic issues – In schools across the country, teachers face larger class sizes, less funding, less support, lack of autonomy, and lack of recognition. Perhaps worst of all, teacher pay continues to fall behind in a time of high inflation and rising cost of living.
- Pandemic-related issues – The COVID-19 pandemic created ripple effects that are still affecting schools everywhere. Teachers have had to adapt rapidly to remote learning, hybrid learning, and new health risks and difficult safety protocols when returning to school. On top of that, teachers face a generation of students who have experienced as much as two years of isolation and disrupted learning.
- Overwork – Contrary to the popular image of knocking off work at three and having summers off, most teachers find themselves facing long hours dedicated to preparing for lesson plans and a curriculum that’s impossible to fit into the school year. Increased class sizes and students who have fallen behind due to the pandemic only add to the issue.
- Classroom conditions – For many teachers, especially in an underfunded school district, the classroom itself is a major cause of stress. Lack of resources, broken equipment, and badly maintained supplies can all contribute to a feeling of being unappreciated and powerless.
5 Ways to Prevent Teacher Burnout
Burnout is essentially work-induced depression. Like depression, recovering from burnout is a long process. It can even require professional intervention. That’s why it’s so important to avoid educator burnout before it sets in rather than trying to manage it after it happens.
With that in mind, let’s look at five key strategies to support your well-being as an educator so you can care for your students and yourself.
#1 Set Healthy Boundaries to Protect Your Time
One of the most essential steps to avoiding exhaustion in your teaching profession is learning how to say no to endless special requests and extra responsibilities. Focus on leaving work at work, and give yourself permission to be protective of your personal time. You can even find ways to implement outdoor learning activities with your students if you seek a break from being indoors all day.
You can fight against educator burnout and build a stronger boundary around your personal time by:
- Saying no to inessential tasks, extra duties, committee assignments, etc.
- Asking for help and delegating tasks when you feel overwhelmed
- Setting firm limits on time spent grading, planning, or emailing outside of school hours
- Turning off your phone and email notifications after school hours
#2 Don’t Shoulder All of the Stress and Responsibilities
Teachers are pulled in a lot of directions—you have students to teach, district and state requirements to meet, parents to keep happy, and administrators to please. It’s easy to fall into the mindset that you must carry all these responsibilities and expectations alone.
Instead, find ways to share responsibilities and get support from others who want to see your students succeed. That could include:
- Empowering students – Let your students take an active part in their success. Try assigning classroom jobs and using peer grading to give your students a sense of responsibility in their own learning.
- Seeking assistance from peers – Connect with other teachers who teach your grade or subject and try swapping lesson plans, materials, and activities. For example, ShareMyLesson.com is a free resource maintained by the American Federation of Teachers that can help you find educational resources online.
- Involving parents – Assign classroom jobs to parents or volunteers to take tasks like copying, laminating, decorating, or cleaning off your to-do list.
#3 Remember It’s Not a Reflection of You
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, keep in mind that it’s not a sign of your abilities or performance. Try to recognize unhelpful thought patterns like:
- Teacher demoralization by blaming yourself for feeling stressed
- Comparing yourself or your performance to other teachers or preconceived standards, you may hold
- Taking things personally or letting negative feedback from your principal, students, or parents affect your sense of self-worth
Focus on building a new, more positive mode of thinking by:
- Journaling daily or weekly about times you felt successful or hopeful during the week
- Reflecting on your strengths, whether that’s making effective lesson plans, reaching challenging students, creating a positive classroom environment, etc.
- Seeking positive feedback and recognition from colleagues or mentors when needed
#4 Identify Your Support Person in the Same System
Teaching can be a lonely profession. Much like a stay-at-home parent, you may have whole days where you hardly interact with other adults. Of course, you love your students, but every professional needs to connect with peers facing the same challenges. And studies have found that support from colleagues is especially helpful for preventing burnout among teachers.
So how can you build stronger connections with your colleagues? Here are a few tips:
- Be a listener – Especially when you start at a new school, take time to learn from your more experienced peers.
- Ask questions – Don’t be afraid to connect with peers by asking for help, for input on your lesson plans, clarification on a new policy, etc. People tend to feel positive about those they’ve helped, so this is a good way to strengthen connections with your colleagues.
- Be helpful – Look for ways your strengths may be able to help your colleagues. Maybe you're a veteran teacher who knows the grading system inside and out, and you can give people such as substitute teachers or your not-so-tech-savvy colleague a hand. Showing up for others is the best way to make sure someone will be ready to show up for you when you need it.
- Join in – You don’t need to overload your free time by saying yes to every event but try to attend a game night, happy hour, art show, or educational conferences. It’s an ideal time to build deeper connections with your fellow teachers and other school staff.
#5 Seek Help From Your Administrators
Most causes of teacher burnout are factors you can’t fix on your own. If you feel that you’re beginning to reach burnout levels of exhaustion due to systemic factors, don’t be afraid to communicate this to school administrators.
School-wide change is a slow process, but you may be able to get additional assistance in the meantime if you communicate your needs clearly and firmly. Consider simple, doable requests that might free up your time, such as:
- Relief from extra tasks like committee duties or recess supervision
- Being excused from non-critical meetings
- Access to technology tools that would simplify lesson planning or grading
- Assistance with administrative tasks, data entry, reporting, etc.
- Invest in SEL curriculum resources that supports educators’ mental health with calming strategies and emotional wellness
Don’t Let Teacher Burnout Diminish Your Passion
Teacher burnout is an all-too-common experience among K-12 educators. If you’re struggling with burnout, remember that it doesn’t reflect on you, your abilities, or your commitment to teaching.
Burnout can’t always be prevented, but using these strategies can help you protect yourself from exhaustion and overwork before they get out of control.
If you need more assistance with teacher-scripted, low prep unit plans, activities, and other classroom tools, Slumberkins has a wealth of resources for educators. At Slumberkins, we’re committed to supporting teachers in creating positive and supportive learning environments for their students and themselves.
Check out our resources for educators today and see how Slumberkins can be a part of your classroom.
- Educational Psychology. Emotional labour, burnout and job satisfaction in UK teachers: the role of workplace social support. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01443410.2011.608650?scroll=top&needAccess=true&role=tab
- Frontiers in Psychology. The relationship between burnout, depression, and anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00284/full
- Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Depression: What is burnout? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279286/
- Positive Psychology. 3 stress and burnout prevention exercises. https://positivepsychology.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/3-Stress-Burnout-Prevention-Exercises.pdf
- RAND Corporation. Teacher well-being and intentions to leave: Findings from the 2023 state of the american teacher survey. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1108-8.html