Student Teachers how to Avoid Burnout

1. Pretend the phrases “I will”, “I promise”, and “I can” are the vilest profanity imaginable, especially when they proceed the word “by” and a date. Students will understand if you don’t get their papers graded, and they’ll be content to do boring book work. However, if you promise you’ll have grades calculated or a fun activity prepared, they’ll resent it if you don’t follow through. Promising things you may or may not be able to deliver is a losing proposition. If you do make good on your promise, you won’t get any “extra points” for having made the promise in the first place. In fact, your good deed will be more appreciated if it comes as a surprise. On the other hand, if you fail to live up to your word, you lose trust and credibility. Working your tail off to keep the promises you can and feeling guilty about the ones you can’t are two sure-fire ways to burn yourself out.

2. Minimize paperwork. The Supreme Court has ruled that it’s ok for students to grade each other’s papers. Some teachers and students view this practice as lazy, but in reality it’s both an efficient grading strategy and a good way to review material. Have the kids trade papers and read off the answers to a quiz or worksheet. Hearing the answers and having to check the classmate’s paper will reinforce the objectives of the graded assignment.

Have students keep notebooks or journals of daily work. You can collect them at the end of the quarter or semester and glance over them rather than rigorously grading. The notebook should not be a large part of the grade, but it is a good way to keep students doing daily assignments.

Give multiple-choice tests with scantrons whenever possible. If you want to ask the students to show work on a math problem or write a paragraph, give the test in two parts, one scantron, one written. Teaching communication is important, but if you’ve graded one or two essays or long problems, you have a good idea of the student’s abilities. The rest of the test can be composed of brief questions that assess basic skills and knowledge.

Use problem sets and worksheets that come from the text or a related teachers guide. A lot of teachers feel like they can and should write better materials than those that come with the text. The “can” part is probably true, but the “should” part is just silly. After all, do the textbook authors come to class and teach your students? Do they grade your papers? Go to your faculty meetings? Didn’t think so. They don’t do your job, and you shouldn’t have to do theirs. Use pre-made materials most days and save your energies for creating an occasional special activity or assignment.

3. Base your expectations on the abilities of the students in your class, not the so-called “course objectives”. Maybe the kids are supposed to be learning algebra or reading Shakespeare, but if they can’t add, subtract or write a complete sentence, you might as well be trying to teach a politician to tell the truth. It’s pointless.

You have an opportunity to help the students come out of your classroom knowing more than they did before. They can’t do that if you’re so caught up in what they’re “supposed to be” learning that you ignore their needs. You’ll only frustrate your students and yourself if you hold unrealistic expectations.

4. Clear your schedule when you first start teaching or are doing your student teaching. Don’t volunteer to teach Sunday school or watch your niece on Saturdays. This is not the time to enroll in an evening yoga class or start a major home improvement project. (I can just hear the cries of “Butbutbut ! You need baaaalance!”.

The thing is, you need unstructured balance. You’re going to have lots of grading and planning to do, and you may want to attend events like band concerts or athletic games. Your students will appreciate it if you support their activities, and it can be fun. Having a specific commitment on a specific day will be a horrific source of stress, even if it involves doing something you like to do. Find some “balance” activities that you can do on the spur of the moment and put down whenever you feel like it. Reading a book or playing a video game is a nice evening off, but you can cut it short or skip it without letting anyone down. Make sure your friends and family know you’re busy and can’t make any promises or commitments. Also tell them you might occasionally call and invite someone to get together that same day. Explain that you’ll understand if they can’t do things on short notice, but you hope it’s ok to ask.

5. Use videos and educational movies to give yourself a relaxing class period when you need one. Of course, you always need one, so schedule a few movie days throughout the semester. I know you can do a better job teaching than a video can, but the students get your wonderful instruction most days. A little variety won’t hurt.

6. Don’t worry about doing all the things you learned in your education classes. The moniker “ivory tower academic”, when applied to education professors, is well deserved. It’s trivial to stand up in front of a class of college students and tell them that kids need a variety of activities, can’t listen to lectures, can’t do the same activity for more than fifteen minutes, etc. Coming up with interesting ways to teach your subject, especially on a budget of zero, is anything but easy. If you can do one or two innovative activities or assignments a semester, you’re doing more than most teachers. If you don’t do any, you fit right in.

While I agree that hands-on, relevant, interesting, fun lessons are more memorable than reading the book and doing worksheets, the truth is you really can learn a lot with plain old boring bookwork. Just because kids think the world must be entertaining doesn’t mean teachers have any obligation to indulge them.

7. Lean on your best students. If your class is mature enough to work on assignments in groups, it can make your job much easier. You may need to assign groups in order to avoid unproductive socializing or student personality conflicts, but when you get the combinations worked out your classes will be much more pleasant. Students often learn more from their peers than from instructors and at the very least you’ll be free to help the kids who really need you. The students who have minor difficulties can usually work things out by discussing the assignment with their classmates.

8. Avoid negative, cynical, burned out colleagues and give the arrogant blowhards a wide berth too. Some teachers will drag you down with their gloomy view of the school, the students, and life in general. Others won’t miss an opportunity to brag about how much their students love them or how great their lesson plans are. The latter can be intimidating and depressing, but I’ve learned that the people who brag are usually mediocre. Sure, some students love them and some of their lessons go over well. But there are other kids who can’t stand them, many who are indifferent, and a plethora of ho-hum days in the classroom. Try to find some colleague’s who are more levelheaded.