October 3rd, 2012

When Teaching Grows Tired: A Wake-up Call for Faculty


Bea Easton, the adjunct English teacher in Glen Chamberlain’s short story, “Conjugations of the Verb ‘To Be’,” is doing a crossword puzzle instead of grading English essays. She hasn’t touched the stack of papers since she read the first page of Staci Cook’s composition in which definitely is spelled defiantly and points are emphasized by using really twice.

Bright and articulate, Bea attaches Staci’s inarticulate phrases to her complex and nuanced feelings about teaching, her marriage and life in general. She doesn’t relate to Staci as an individual with life experiences that may be relevant to her inability to write and you don’t get the sense that Bea thinks Staci can learn to write better. Her role as an adjunct is a source of embarrassment. Her institution supports a student success mission. “Bea understood this to mean that Staci better not flunk the class; the administration, ubiquitous and growing by 10 percent over the course of five years, did not like students (could it be a verb?) attriting. Failing. Dropping out. Transferring. ‘Things like that,’ as Staci might say, ‘defiantly makes them really, really unhappy.” (p.134)

It’s not a bright happy story about teaching, but instead an uncannily accurate portrait of a burned out teacher. How do teachers reach this point?

Teacher burnout is a gradual process. It doesn’t happen overnight, in one course or one semester. It starts with getting tired—teaching too many courses, too many students, for too many semesters, and sometimes in environments not supportive of teaching or otherwise organizationally dysfunctional. But this kind of tiredness is easily ignored. Most of us do work too hard. We lead complicated lives and being tired comes with the territory. We confuse physical tiredness with emotional exhaustion and think we’d be fine if we could just get to bed earlier.

Emotional exhaustion isn’t something that jives with the objective, rational academic culture where the focus is on teaching powered by the intellect—how well we have mastered the material. In reality, teaching most of today’s college students requires a great deal of emotional energy. We need to genuinely care about and connect with students, especially those who don’t write well, can’t calculate and seem unable to think critically. We need to believe that students can learn and that our teaching promotes their acquisition of knowledge and development of skills.

How do you know if your tiredness is emotional exhaustion and should be of concern? Are you too tired to make changes? Are you teaching courses the same way because doing things differently seems like too much work? How long has it been since you tried some new instructional strategy? Since you changed books? Since you taught a course you haven’t taught previously? Since you had lunch with a group of students?

Some of the solutions to tired teaching are easy. They start with recognizing that it’s a problem—that teachers get tired gradually, that burnout results from a smoldering fire rather than a blazing conflagration. Like physical health and well-being, others can’t take the actions that will make and keep us instructionally healthy. It’s something we do for ourselves and it may involve making behavior changes. Some of us need to learn how to say no. All of us need to know what keeps us fresh, what sustains and strengthens our commitments to teaching and to students. All of us need to recognize the importance of emotional rejuvenation and make emotional sustenance a priority.

Other solutions aren’t so easy. Many of us teach a lot of courses out of financial necessity. We don’t decide who gets admitted to our institution and we might not be able to move to a place that better fits our priorities. Those kinds of external factors are not easily altered. We have to do what we can to work around them for the time being and start planning for change in the future.

How many teachers are as burned out as Bea Easton? Not many, but I do worry that a lot of us do get emotionally tired. We run on empty and don’t take care of our instructional health with mindful purpose.

What are some things you do when you feel your teaching may be growing “tired.” Please share in the comment box.

  • Laura Cruse

    I'm so glad this was posted! I think there are trends occurring in higher education itself that contribute to tired teachers. Sometimes institutions focus so much on growth of students and service to students that we can forget that growth happens holistically among all the members of an organization. Students grow and thrive with instructors. If institutions want students to blossom, they need to foster instructors, too, and right now there is so much pressure on meeting a bottom line that it is too easy to demand of instructors and not invest enough back in them. A gardener can't expect hosta to flourish by watering them alone and not water the tree that shades them, too.

  • Gail Leonard

    This problem is more present than you think, Especially for those instructors that work for "For Profit Schools". I have worked for those types of schools for the past 12 years and I was completely burned out and so were most of the instructors. Many of us began to have serious health issues. I along with others have been carried out by ambulance for high blood pressure, stress, etc it was ridiculous. In those types of schools there focus is on getting the money and keeping students no matter what. Most of us eventually resigned or are fired because we could not perform at the level we once were hired.

    This article was excellent in making everyone aware of this issue but it stated that most do not get burned out but in fact most do. I had to make a decision regarding my own person health and well being because nothing on my job was going to chance. Now I am doing much better no more back spasms, no more headaches, my blood pressure is back down and no more stress. Yes money is tight but I am so much more happy and well off mentally, emotionally and physically. Sometimes you just need to LEAVE. I will teach again but only part time and only classes that I enjoy but for right now I am just working on my business.

  • Bill Coach

    As Ms Cruse commented "Students grow and thrive with instructors" That statement I believe is true. However Instructors need to be motivated. I believe teacher burn out is a result of "environments not supportive of teaching or otherwise organizationally dysfunctional" PERIOD! We all come into this with great energy and imagination as to how to stimulate and promote successful learning. But when we are tethered to the bureaucratic hitching post by over zealous ms-informed administrators the outcome is a poisoned environment that affects both teaching and learning. Burn out starts at the administrator level.

  • Leslie Korb

    The problem is really present in small, private colleges as well where compensation barely begins to cover the teaching load, committee work, and scholarly activity required for tenure. When I begin to get tired I talk with colleagues in other departments and find out what they are doing and ask how I can use their ideas in my courses. I have developed teaching circles to stimulate my curiosity, and I have gone back to school and attended conferences. My final resort – sitting down with a romance novel and letting the drivel take over for time.

  • Robert McConkie

    Good article.
    It asked how to avoid burnout. Here's a small idea–with small but pleasant results. If you get a compliment from a student, then hang onto it. Think about it. Share it with your family. Pats on the back may not lighten the load, but can make the load seem lighter–and sharing them with loved ones is kind of like getting the compliment twice.

    • Leslie Korb

      Really great idea and you are so right!

    • Heidi

      Lovely suggestion. I have a "happy box" that I keep with student comments and student successes. It is sometimes necessary to remind ourselves that we make a difference for students by holding on to a copy of a struggling student's successful essay or an email asking us to write a letter of recommendation.

      I sometimes just put everything aside, dim the lights, put on some gentle music and jump feet first into a book for an evening or sometimes a weekend. The housework, papers and everything will be there when you jump out of the book, but for a little while, you get a great escape to battle orcs, find romance, solve a crime, defy a dictatorship or what have you. I find it refreshing and a nice little vacation, and sometimes, that is all we need.

  • Maryanne LeGrow

    Prof. McConkie's suggestion is a good one. I teach on line and keep a "kudos" file of cut and pasted comments, along with the occasional thank-you card that I get from especially thoughtful students. I don't often read through the file's contents but it helps to see that it's fat and growing every term. It's a constant reminder that I do make a difference, that my profession is needed and valued, and that whether tired or energized I am daily contributing to a legacy of intellect, civility and hope for the future.

    BTW: In this article I stumbled over glaring typos and a misused word that I would not accept in a student paper: a reminder that we ourselves are not above reproach. Keeping a sense of perspective along with a sense of humor can do a lot to combat burnout.

  • Jane Gordon

    If I sense over time that students are bored or just tolerating me, I ask students what they like/dislike about the class. I do it in person, as a group, rather than in an anonymous survey. I tell them I would appreciate honest answers and that I am asking only to improve the course. Usually there are at least two or three students very willing to give their opinion, and before long, others will speak up. Written surveys are one-dimensional, but if it's in person, they can listen to each other and feel that it's safe to really give an opinion. Then I try to use some their suggestions that are easy to implement, and I hope that they feel that I am listening to them. I think it makes them more respectful and cooperative, and it makes me feel good to ask them. And, I often get great suggestions.

    Sitting informally with students and chatting is so much fun for me. Knowing students individually is so much more rewarding that seeing them as a herd of cattle. You probably can't know everybody, especially if you teach a lot of courses, but connect as much as you can.

    Also, when you hear something good from a student about another instructor, tell that instructor. Everyone wins that way.

    • Leslie Korb

      I've tried the eliciting feedback from my students and it depends on their level of comfort with the instructor, I have found. but you are right Jane, sitting informally with students and chatting is a lot of fun and their problems and successes become very "real" then – just as we become real for them.

      • Dot Galas

        I have also tried this and found that most students will not speak honestly in a group but more in a one-on-one situation. One way that I have tried that seemed to work: I have a flipchart posted on the blackboard that says "Parking Lot." Post-its are provided at a table, so students write what they like or dislike (don't sign it), and stick it on the flipchart. Then I review their thoughts and try to make decisions that are best for the entire class, not just one student.

  • Old Teacher

    "How many teachers are as burned out as Bea Easton? Not many . . " Seriously? Even the normally clueless Forbes Magazine talks about teacher dropout/burnout rates: http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/03/08/h….

    In public schools, about 46% of teachers leave the profession after 5 years experience; about the time they should be figuring out how to teach. At my school (a for profit college), we've had a near complete replacement of technology instructors every 3-4 years. There are a few of us who have been at it for a decade, but most of us are near retirement age and simply ignore administration when they stack on more paperwork or procedural silliness. The worst that can happen to us is that we'll get fired and have to find a real life or go on Social Security. The worst that can happen to younger teachers is that they will have to completely re-think their life's career plan in a depression economy. Try that on for a valid source of mental distress.

    It helps to know why you are a teacher. If financial rewards are your motivator, you're going to have an uphill climb because Americans have never valued teachers or intellectual achievement. If your students' success is your grip on inspiration, you'll have to ignore the current academic/administration delusion that "everyone can be a successful student." In a typical class about 10% of the students are actually interested in anything other than a passing grade and there is no fix for the 90% until they find some self-motivation for their participation. Adolescence has been dramatically extended in the Boomerang Generation and children are more interested in playing than working. Higher ed is work.

    I can't help but believe that there is a direct connection to the proliferation of "business schools" and the associated degrees and the failure of management throughout the country. It was hard to find "businesses" more poorly managed than colleges and universities 20-30 years ago. The gall expressed when those organizations decided to brand their particular collection of foolish notions about business and innovation seemed almost unbelievable at the time. Today, corporations take for-granted that an MBA is a requirement for management positions without noticing that MBAs are particularly clueless and unskilled managers. We have looped back on ourselves and academia regards the worthless pieces of paper and credentials inappropriately assumed with an MBA and universities are picking these fools to mismanage academic organizations. Inside education, it's taken as assumed that administration will "grow itself exponentially" without regard for function, cost, or need. There is no wonder that teaching is more difficult and less rewarding than working at Starbucks when management is completely useless. In a national environment when unions are repressed and workers are powerless, checks and balances are non-existent and solutions are unavailable. It's going to get much worse before it gets better.

  • Darlene Gravenmier

    Burn out can be avoided by implementing new ideas within the classroom. Try adding a fresh approach to presenting lesson plans. Visit another instructor's classroom and observe their delivery, dynamics of the classroom etc., If you don't know how to use the equipment in the classroom, ask someone to help. Ask your students what you can do to help them learn better. Activate student's prior knowledge and write it down, so they can bask in the knowledge they have gained thus far in their journey. Then, show them what they have learned after the lesson, so you can bask in teaching them something new. Enjoy life by living each day as if it were your last!

  • John Oughton

    I feel some of the burn-out comes from the fact that teaching has a big "homework" element as well time spent in class and at the office. When I taught English, I spent many evenings and some weekends simply keeping up with the task of giving detailed feedback on writing assignmnts. When I got seconded to a faculty and curriculum development role, I had much less homework. My leve of stress dropped and I felt more fulfilled by the work, instead on noting the 100,000th run-on sentence. On a more general note, one of my my hobby-horses is te degree to which the affective side of learning is igonored, exspecially in higher education. This is true not only with students' feelings. Teaching is demanding work emotionally, yet how many teachers get any training — or on-the-job help — with managing stress, finding a balance between lefie and work, or taking a humour or stretch break every couple of hours?

  • another old teacher

    Been at it for forty years–and just today was thinking how this year I am doing Composition I in new ways for me, taking objects to class like hammers and decks of cards and whatever else seems to fit the lesson. One of the things that has helped lately is that I lent my textbook to an adjunct whose text hadn't arrived. I know what the book says, and without it, I find that I'm teaching the textbook material in my own ways more and having a lot more fun. And, yes, it still takes a huge amount of energy, and, yes, I'm still behind on marking essays. But even us old dogs can find some new (or renewed) tricks if we'll listen for inspiration, wherever that happens to occur.

  • RH, MA

    I appreciate this article because it is easy to become burnt out if you continue doing the same mundane activities and using the same methods of teaching. An instructor can become burnt out when trying to teach the same way to all students. It can't work. We have to be creative and constantly adapt to new techniques and fressh technology to help us promote a better learning environment. Also, when you work around people that complain and try pulling you down, you have to stay focused and avoid them. I love to sit with my students and communicate with them. I ask them often, what can we do to work better, closer and more comfortable together. I let them share in decisions but not dictate them. This keeps it fresh and fun. RH MA

  • wholly

    Don't forget the burnout that affects individuals in small schools who must carry a full teaching load and administer an academic program. Does the constant administrative work load negatively affect their teaching?

  • Noor

    Naturally people get bored and tired doing the same thing over and over again. Having group of dedicated colleagues to motivate each other will be helpful. I frequently share & discussed what we did in class to make the teaching and learning session more enjoyable and beneficial to my students and off course myself.

  • Adri Mitra

    Very True.

  • Ian Hughes

    I like teaching, probably more than I like the dry content I often find in "suitable" core text books. I like history (I teach business subjects), so I teach busines ssubject matter through analysing historical events. I am more enthusiastic and motivated, the students have a better time, and they learn to really use the tools and techniques in a messy problem – rather than through a carefully constructed scenario where they practice lower level skills of searching for keywords that have been planted to make marking easier. Future employers get a person capable of recontextualising problems rather than looking for easy solutions. What does this mean in practice ? Using a model trebuchet to investigate causes of variation in output, studying Henry V's key speaches in Shakespeare's play as examples of adaptive leadership, getting students to analyse DVDs like Thev Great Escape. Heck, we all have great fun.

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  • Dorothy Galas

    I keep a folder in my computer called "Special" and save appreciate notes that I receive from students. When I feel 'burn out' or discouragement, I read some of the notes students wrote about how much my class has helped them. Like the starfish on the beach, we can't save them all, but we can help so many! Each of us can make a difference in so many lives, and as Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his poem "What is success?" knowing that even one person's life is better because of us, we have achieved success.

  • Debbie Bennett

    When I begin to feel like I am beginning to burn out it is a warning sign to me that I have been working too hard, and it is time for me to free up my schedule and play. The child in me needs to play. I take some time to play -enjoy nature, go on a hike. I Go swimming. I Attend a yoga class or go dancing. I do something that brings the joy into my life again. . It makes me feel like a new person after I have allowed myself to play a little. I then begin to enjoy teaching again as well.

  • Jan Bone

    I work at keeping assignments and lesson plans relevant to current events. My students have to watch one of the four current election debates (their choice), save the analysts' clips from the debate THEY chose, and integrate some of the debate speaker's quotes smoothly into a paragraph or two of their own review of the debate. We'll be discussing online (Blackboard discussion forum) verbs of attribution and their effect on reader perceptions… Did Romney state, say, imply, infer, admit, –etc. – on a particular topic? If you haven't thought about it, subscribe to the New York Times Learning Network – free to teachers/instructors, and look at their lesson plans and concentration of resources, which is superb! It's all free, and offers students 13-25 a chance to post their opinions on question of the day, and unusual activiities like "found poetry" and "poetry pairings." – teaming poetry and a painting, or poems to cook by.,…

  • Jan

    I also keep a "warm fuzzy" file, but usually only open it when adding something to it. While looking through it always has the desired effect, I don't look at it when I need it most, only when I'm already there…

    I think creating a community of fellow teachers is key to avoiding burn-out/staying fresh/staying happy. Teaching circles, website like these, great comment threads, mentoring less inexperienced teachers, and observing current beloved teachers are all activities that provide me with inspiration and energy.

  • Noobie Prof

    I think the Barenaked Ladies said it best with:
    "I love you more
    Than I did the week before
    I discovered alcohol"

  • Mitch

    Get a hobby and put it on your calendar just like grading and everything else. Then, keep that time sacred. Establish a work-out schedule. Have a date night with your spouse weekly – and don't give it up for anything. Find ways to streamline work. Use boilerplate where possible – and spend time on more important tasks like meeting with students who are having problems.

    Remind yourself you DO make a difference to alot of people – you DO matter. Even if your Dean forgets to tell you.

  • ammaskitten

    My Guru says, "Boredom occurs only when there is no love."

  • Lou Maenz

    I choose three students per class and write little mental biographies for them- deciding where they are going, how they got where they are, and what I think I can do for them and how they will end up in the class. I then feed them into a mental matrix and follow them through out the semester, checking how the other students relate to them, what seems to help them, and so forth. I started doing this several years ago. It makes not only these students real, but the whole class real. I also find it is a delightful challenge to see how accurate I am as I follow the student through the semester and learn more about them.

  • andrew m

    I am a university professor, two years into my career. I try very hard to separate my teaching work from research, and all of it from my private life (which includes much of the above: date night with wife, crafts, exercise, reading night, creative writing night, good diet, hobbies, meditation). I have tried to integrate new instructional techniques, tried to get my students to ask the questions that will determine what we do in class, been available by appointment, office hour, email, even had lunch with students. My students had little to say at lunch (and my other colleague spent that time railing eccentrically about all the negative aspects of contemporary American culture – another story altogether, but a repetitive irritant to say the least). Currently few of my students seem even to know what an office hour is; they complain but, when I suggest they come to my office, they smirk and do not show up (or say they will, and do not); they seem unable to use a book or dictionary (I teach German, I should add), they seem lackadaisical in class, uninterested, needy. I admit, they even strike me as incompetent. Incompetent young adults in a mock workplace, unable even to try to function as I repeatedly ask them to. I have to date been the kind of teacher who has thought: when teachers complain about their students, it is really a self-criticism – bad teachers complain about their students without educating them. Now I understand somewhat better why teachers harbor negative opinions, why university faculty cherish research so much more (sometimes) than teaching. For my part, I feel defeated in feeling as I do, but I cannot help it: I no longer care to take what I love (German) and "whore" it to a classroom of students who seem not even to understand why they are there. Yet I am told: connect with them, communicate, understand them, practice love, innovate. Connection, at my university (and at my previous university) seems foremost to mean "use facebook." I cannot communicate with and understand my students effectively if they will not reciprocate this with me. Innovation galore, yet it falls flat. I fear, but think nonetheless, that we might at least need to entertain a controversial idea: perhaps some, many, most of the current generation of students, products of a social/economic/political, educational, and family environment that may be adverse – perhaps these students are themselves just not good enough. Do we really have to accept unabashedly that, one way or another, they will be fit to be the next adult professionals in a world that needs them, their youth, their technological virtuosity and connectedness? At what point will we seriously ask: are our students doing their part to be good students? Do they deserve the efforts we make?

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  • Pramila

    I read books. Preferably novels and inspirational books