How to Cope with Teacher Fatigue and Depression
This article was written by Adam Hatch - UC Berkeley graduate, son of a teacher, brother of a teacher, and a teacher himself.
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Teacher fatigue, or teacher burnout, is a creeping struggle that just about every teacher has felt at some point during their career. It can last a week, it can last a semester, or it can nag at you for years. Regardless of its duration, it’s a serious problem and one that needs to be addressed head-on. If you or a teacher you know is experiencing it, here are a few ideas to help you get past it:
1. Get organized
Do you remember how relatively chaotic your first year teaching was compared to your second? This was because you weren’t quite as prepared, quite as organized, and the details weren’t all worked out. One major reason teachers experience fatigue is because their classrooms, curriculums, and lives have become cluttered. There is too much to think about and anticipate and make up for. Perhaps it’s time to approach your job with a critical eye and see what you don’t actually need to be doing, or how doing some work in advance could save you time down the road. Maybe it’s time you just got a mug filled with pencils for students who forget their own instead of having to stop class every time a student neglects to bring something to write with. Whatever it is, eliminate the tiny drags on your work and see if that doesn’t give you more breathing room.
2. Give yourself something to look forward to each day
There are days that teaching is simply a grind. No matter how much you care and how great your classes are, you can still drag your feet when walking into your classroom. To address this, give yourself a daily reward or a daily indulgence. Maybe that means a sweet coffee treat from Starbucks in the morning (along with a healthy breakfast of course!), or maybe it means a glass of wine once you get home. Whatever it is, counteract the difficult with the easy, the dreaded for the highly anticipated.
3. Talk to your principal
Many teachers who experience teacher fatigue can’t seem to put a finger on why they feel that way or what to do about it. If this happens to you, talk to your principal. It won’t have been their first time hearing about teacher fatigue and they probably have some solid insight, both from a perspective of experience and just as a second set of eyes on your particular job. If they are any kind of administrator, they’ll take your concerns seriously and will work with you to solve them. If not, perhaps that was the root of the problem in the first place.
4. Take a day
Sometimes teachers need what some call a “mental health day.” This can be difficult for teachers to do considering all that’s on your plate - lesson plans and grading and class prep and PTMs and meetings and conferences and (you get the picture) - but it’s important to take some time to yourself. If you are feeling overworked and under-appreciated and the frustration is mounting, take a day to just do you. It can make a huge difference to your outlook on the job, and a happier teacher is a better teacher.
5. Take a break
Sometimes a day or two simply isn’t enough time to shrug off the difficulties of the job. What some teachers need, and many have done, is take a semester or even a year off. It won’t ruin your career, and it will help you come back with renewed vigor for the job you love. Consider travelling, trying another job, refocusing on family, or even just subbing, and see if you don’t miss teaching sooner than you think. But being able to step away from your career can sometimes be the move that ultimately helps you save it.
6. Consider a different type of teaching
If you feel stuck but know you still want to teach, your issue could be that you’re teaching the wrong subject or in the wrong environment. You might find yourself a high school English teacher, but perhaps elementary school or junior high would be more rewarding for you. Maybe you are a math teacher, but are trained in science - talk to your administration about being an electives teacher rather than struggle through the grind of algebra. Sure, there might be some limits as to how you can move around at your school, or even to a different school, but perhaps all you really need is to change the kind of teaching you do rather than leave teaching altogether.
7. See a professional
It’s astounding and disheartening that there is such a strong stigma against seeking professional help from a psychiatrist, but for people with careers as intense and thankless as teachers, it can be a godsend. Just having someone, with a disinterested view of your life to discuss issues and bounce ideas off of, can be a true help. And if you are experiencing genuine depression, it is critical that you see a professional - you owe it to yourself, and to everyone around you, including your students, to be happy. Because if you aren’t, you aren’t your best version of yourself, and everyone deserves a chance to become that.
The School of Life offers online therapy sessions, and there are a range of other services that also cater to distance therapy. This can be pricey, so you can also speak to a doctor or a counselor at your school to find a specialist near you that your insurance policy will help to pay for.
You got into teaching for a reason - you love to enrich the lives of students, you love your subject, you love to watch young minds blossom, all of the above. Whatever the reason, it was a good one, and you can’t let fatigue, burnout, or depression get in the way of that reason. Take a hard look at what is causing it, and have the courage to admit it’s an issue and the patience to address it. Because, in the end, your students, your school, and your profession need you.
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