Waking up to Tired Teaching

Teacher sits at desk looking tired

This article is part of The Path to Wellbeing: Overcoming Burnout and Reigniting Your Teaching special report. Download a FREE copy here.

I have been wanting to do a blog post on tired teaching for some time now. Concerns about burnout are what’s motivating me. Teachers can reach a place where teaching does nothing for them or their students. They don’t just wake up one morning and find themselves burned out; they’ve moved there gradually, and it’s a journey that often starts with tired teaching.

There’s nothing on the subject in my big file of articles and resources. I can’t remember having read about it, and I’m not sure how much we even talk about it. We do talk about being tired. Teaching is relentless. It happens every day, several times a week—or potentially 24/7 if it’s online. And it’s demanding. There’s so much more than the actual teaching. There’s considerable planning involved before each class. Plus, we need to spend time with students—those who want to talk, those needing help, and those with questions or, sometimes, complaints. There are assignments to grade and feedback to provide—all carrying the expectation of a quick turnaround. With multiple courses to teach, we do get tired, but I think we regularly confuse physical fatigue with the more serious emotional tiredness that comes from a heavy workload of always being there, always giving, and always juggling multiple balls in the air.

Sometimes teaching gets tired because we’ve done what we’re doing a hundred times before. Many of us teach the same courses year after year. If they are those bedrock, foundational courses, the content typically doesn’t change all that much. We march through the material along well-worn paths. We know the way; we’ve seen all the sights before. Every student is a unique individual, but collectively they’re all novices who ask the same questions we’ve heard before, who get stuck in the same places, and who repeatedly make the same poor decisions about learning.

In the beginning, tired teaching comes and goes. We may feel ourselves falling into a rut, but it’s usually temporary and we’re soon back on track. But later, the tiredness returns. At some point, a kind of paralyzing inertia can settle over us. We no longer have the energy or motivation to change the syllabus, alter course readings, or update the assignments or activities. Add new content? No way, the course is already too full with essential material. Offer online quizzes? Who has time to figure how that works? Besides, the students will cheat.

That’s why and how tired teaching happens. The more important question is: What can we do about it? I think we have to start by recognizing that some form of tired teaching happens to all of us at one time or another during our careers. It’s an occupational hazard when you work in environments that prize always being rational and objective. A quiet assumption prevails that it’s the intellect that powers teaching. Content carries the day. We deny or diminish the importance of teaching’s affective demands. We may be physically tired, but we may also be emotionally drained and running on empty. The two can happen simultaneously, but they aren’t the same.

We can start by facing the reality of tired teaching, no longer pretending everything will be OK if we just get to bed earlier. We can follow that acknowledgement with purposeful efforts to take care of our instructional health and well-being. As many of us have learned, it’s not enough to know we need to eat well and exercise regularly. Both depend on consistent action and, like poor health, tired teaching is more easily prevented than cured. Let me start a list of ways we can respond to the possibility and reality of tired teaching. Please add to the list by sharing the preventive steps that work for you.

  • Purposefully make changes—not always big ones, not always a lot, but always some.
  • Regularly infuse teaching with ideas and information (not just techniques) sourced externally.
  • Engage in collegial collaboration—positive, constructive talk about teaching and learning with colleagues (occasional complaining permitted).
  • Take time for the pause that refreshes: regular reminders to yourself that this is work that matters and that what happens to many students in college changes their lives. You are a central part of students’ experiences in higher education.
  • Be in the moment—in that time you and students share, be present! Listen, observe, and be alert, alive, and focused on what’s occurring in that moment.
  • Celebrate successes—even small ones. The question that generated good discussion, those three papers showing significant improvement, that student who finally mastered a specific skill—all are moments to be savored.