Bulletin Boards are Overrated: A Highly Subjective Guide to Avoiding Teacher Burnout
Teachers are stressed. If you needed evidence to convince you of this fact, other than the dark circles under your eyes or the time that you spent last night worrying about whether or not today’s lesson would go over well, a recent Gallup report found that teachers’ stress levels match those of nurses and physicians “for the highest stress levels among all occupational groups surveyed.”
I won’t say that I know how to teach without ever feeling stress, and yet I managed to avoid burnout in sixteen years in the classroom.
What works for me might not work for everyone, but these are my highly subjective commandments for avoiding burnout:
Bulletin boards are overrated.
I never bought cute border paper or stapled scrapbooking sheets to cover the ugly brown bulletin boards in my room, and I don't think that my students cared one bit. Any energy that I saved by not hanging glittery snowflakes on the wall went towards teacher conferences or coming up with new innovative writing assessments, and I think that we were all better off for it. If you aren't into decorating your classroom, don’t feel pressured into scrapbooking your entire room.
Skip some after-school events, or all of them if you don't enjoy them.
I went to a handful of plays and zero sporting events. I actually hate watching sports, so attending a two-hour basketball game never would have been fun for me. I gave my students lots and lots of support during school time. And then I went home. You can’t give and give forever without burning out, so giving yourself the gift of skipping after-school events that don't nourish you in some way is a good idea.
Don't bother calling parents.
I made a bunch of phone calls home about an especially problematic class over twelve years ago. And after all of those voice messages and tense conversations and afternoons spent looking up numbers after the last bell, I decided that it was a waste of time. For me, it has always been more effective to deal directly with students rather than getting their parents to discipline them for me. When I called home, parents got defensive and students felt like I was talking about them behind their backs. I never called home again, and I have not regretted that decision.
Spend minimal time commenting on summative assessments.
I would rather spend a half hour talking with students about their drafts or the early stages of a project than spend five minutes writing out comments on their finished product that they won’t really see. Comments on summative assignments don’t help student learning, and they aren’t worth much effort.
Find a way to like every single student.
This is best trick and most important element of classroom management. When I genuinely like each and every student in the room, I am much happier to spend time answering the same question for the fifth time. When I can empathize with my students and understand why they do the (crazy and annoying things) that they do, I am much less stressed and a much better teacher.
Do something for yourself before school.
This could be anything from a slow breakfast to a workout to getting to school early to take a quick walk. This doesn't mean getting a jump start on grading or cleaning the room before students arrive. You’ll be giving and giving and giving all day long, so starting off the day with something just for you is key.
Go to bed, even if you haven't finished grading the quizzes.
Yes, I know that students want to know what their grades were on the quizzes, but it’s also okay for them to wait. Instant gratification is not always going to happen, and that’s a good lesson for them to learn too. I know that the exhausted teacher with the giant cup of coffee might look like the picture of dedication, but you’ll always teach better on a full night’s sleep.
Get them to do the teaching sometimes.
Activities such as jigsaws, presentations, or cooperative learning are exhausting in their own ways, but they take the stress off the teacher and put the onus for learning on the students. That’s always a good thing.
Pick out five work outfits, and leave it at that.
Some people might enjoy shopping and putting together varying outfits and ensembles. I am not one of those people. I have two pairs of work pants, one skirt, and six or seven shirts. I look put together and professional, but I’m probably not fashionable. and that’s okay.
Lunch with colleagues or drinks after work is cheap therapy.
No one will ever truly understand what you’re going through quite as well as a fellow teacher. Venting to your colleagues is a great way to reduce stress, and it’s also a great way to bond with new friends.
I guess what I’m saying is to let yourself off the hook. You don’t have to have a beautiful classroom or a fancy new outfit or extensive knowledge of last night’s basketball game to be a great teacher. You just have to care about your students and do the best you can for them.
Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids, meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village, or writing in her blog, Gil Teach.