Exhaustion is a feeling every teacher can relate to! Exhaustion is different from just being tired. Exhaustion is defined as the state of extreme physical or mental fatigue, also “the state of using something up completely”.
…used up completely.
When something is used up completely there, by definition, is nothing left! So what happens if you hit the exhaustion point halfway through the week? How do you give more to your students when there is literally nothing left to give and you are – by all accounts – an exhausted teacher?
There are two key approaches for addressing exhaustion as a teacher – prevention and rejuvenation.
First and foremost, we want to prevent exhaustion as teachers. Exhaustion leads to burnout. Burnout leads to disengagement and resentment – which we need to prevent at all costs. If you are resentful or becoming disengaged (saying things like “whatever…I don’t even care anymore” or “I’m done with this”) then you should skip right down to the rejuvenation section of this post!
Tips to Prevent Being an Exhausted Teacher:
- Cultivate Healthy Boundaries
Healthy and realistic boundaries are key to preventing exhaustion. Boundaries help to define what you are and are not willing and/or able to do. As teachers, virtually all of the demands on our time can be justified – extra time designing engaging lesson plans, providing thoughtful and thorough student feedback, spending extra time tutoring students who aren’t at mastery etc. All of these things are important to do – so we must do them within the time we can allot personally and professionally for our role as teachers. OR we have the choice to adjust our expectations of ourselves.
Professionally, most of us have contracts that dictate how many hours per week we need to work – usually 40. Personally, we may also be able to put in a few extra hours each week. You have to find your personal tipping point. Lord knows we could be at school 24 hours a day and still not feel like it was all “finished”. Use exhaustion and resentment as your cue that you have gone overboard with your time or expectations.
Let’s use 40 hours as the example here because that is our actual obligation. I challenge you to actually hold yourself to a 40 hour work week for a couple of weeks in a row. Feel and see what happens. Do you find yourself naturally cutting some activities out? Do you find yourself becoming more efficient with your time? How do you have to restructure your schedule in order to do that? What do you have to prioritize? To keep that up, would you need to let some activities, expectations, or commitments go?
If you placed healthy boundaries on your time at school, how would that change things for you?
- Cultivate Work/Life Balance
Now that you are placing more boundaries on your time at work, look at how you can cultivate work/life balance. Namely, how can you add more life back into the equation?
Reflect on life activities that fuel your spirit. Make a list of those things and begin to schedule them into your day. That’s right – actually schedule them into your day.
- Spending time with family and friends
- Playing a board game or puzzle with your kids
- Doing a hobby
What will that look like for you?
- Cultivate an Outside Support Network
An outside support network of family and friends is crucial for addressing exhaustion as teachers. No doubt you have plenty of teacher ‘friends’ from school – but those are colleagues and should be separate from the group I’m talking about. When you seek support from friends and family members, you are able to let off steam to someone who cares but then let it go. You find yourself talking about other things, other interests, and other parts of your whole self. This is an important thing for balancing you out. And these outsiders also provide the added bonus of being your friend first – not your students’ or colleagues’. This is an important perspective if you are prone to promoting your students’ needs over your own (as most teachers are). These supporting outsiders have a unique way of speaking into your heart and encouraging you from a deeper place.
- Cultivate Time for Self-Care
And here is the kicker – you must find time to refuel your tank in order to prevent exhaustion. First, reflect on what activities help you feel reconnected to yourself and “filled up” personally. Reading? Taking a bath? Working out? Spending time by the pool? Journaling?
After you’ve made your list, look at your schedule and actually schedule time to do these things. Prioritize it like it were something your students needed – because it is! You have to take care of yourself in order to put your best self in front of your students day in and day out. More on this in my next post on self-care – stay tuned!
Tips for Rejuvenating an Exhausted Spirit
That’s right. Stop. This is the simplest and most difficult step. Hear me here – don’t disengage emotionally. Just stop the run around. Right now. Crash yourself down on the couch and listen up. Remember that the definition of exhaustion is “completely used up”, so no matter what emergency copying or grading needs to get done, you have now escalated your SELF as the emergency. So just stop. Give yourself the freedom to let some things go for the moment and take a personal ‘time out’.
- Get What You Need
Now that you’ve stopped, evaluate what you truly need. A nap? A moment alone? A day off? Words of encouragement? All of the above? If you don’t know what you need, calling one of your outsider friends or a personal coach can help you determine this. Amidst exhaustion it can be hard to articulate what exactly you need.
Take the next couple of hours (or day if you can) to do just that. Allow yourself to get those things and get “refueled” like an empty gas tank. And no – it’s not selfish. It’s the opposite. The alternative is burning out and being no use for anyone.
- Reevaluate with a Supportive Outsider
Seek council and support from your outsider support network or your coach. Owning your struggle allows you to write the end of the story (paraphrased from Brene Brown). That means, talking about your struggles – no matter how difficult it may be – will help you to realize that the story doesn’t have to end like this. There is always the “so now what?” moment of deciding how to move forward and reframe your life in a way that doesn’t exhaust you. Yes, even teachers can reframe their lives and jobs to not exhaust them – I promise!
- Evaluate realigning your time, energy and activities
There are 168 hours in a week. Assess how you spend them currently (the now reality) and then determine how you want to realign your time to be more sustainable (your future vision). For example, if right now you are spending 60 hours a week working (either at school or grading, prepping, planning etc.), but that is burning you out, then you need to try to scale it back. You don’t have to go drastic yet – just try out 55 hours (one less hour per week day) – or 50 hours (2 less hours per day). Again, you will have to make decisions about what to “get rid of” in your schedule. Truth is, if we force ourselves to leave at a certain time, we actually reallocate our time to prioritize our activities and increase our efficiency. Amazing! If you have trouble developing an action plan here, you may want to see a coach. I’d be happy to help you with this.
- If necessary, talk with your leadership
I know none of us like to admit we can’t do it all. I know I don’t. I call this the “saint syndrome.” Saying things like, “oh sure – I can add one more committee,” and, “certainly I’ll take your after-school duty so you can go to your doctor’s appointment.” You need to think long and hard about what is and what is not your responsibility. This isn’t about skirting our responsibilities. Let me make that perfectly clear. We have certain responsibilities to our students, our school, and our colleagues. And we oftentimes say ‘yes’ thinking that the commitment will be a one-time thing that won’t exhaust us. What I’m talking about, though, is the habitual pattern of overcommitting and taking on extra things that are not truly our own responsibilities. Use resentment as your guide. If you say ‘yes’, but really feel like saying ‘no’ in your heart and you are not happy to take on that task in service of those people mentioned, then that’s your cue that you have overstepped a personal boundary.
It may be necessary to take commitments off your plate that are burning you out. If you decide to do this, develop a plan to transition out of the role. Talk with your leadership about it so you are responsibly taking ownership for your needs and decision while also getting the result you need. If you go in with a plan and you calmly explain what you need, you will get far more respect than if you come in during the moment of exhaustion and threaten to “quit cold turkey” all of your extra responsibilities leaving your leadership to hold the bag for your over-committing. You have more power and options if you address the situation before you are completely burned out. Try to identify these areas that create burnout and exhaustion before your energy is “completely used up.”
Exhaustion is something all of us teachers deal with at some time or another. Use it as an opportunity to “retune” your dial back to a pattern of balance and joy that allows you to be the most wholehearted teacher you can be. Only YOU can prevent yourself from being an exhausted teacher! It’s in your control. I know you can do it!
~Alison, A Teacher’s Best Friend