May 1, 2015

An Open Letter to Teachers who may be Experiencing Burnout.


Dear Teacher,

A few months ago, I felt extremely exhausted and fatigued. When I woke up in the morning, it was a chore to drag myself out of bed. The only thing I really wanted to do was sleep.

Sleep was what I needed and yet it seemed like the most elusive thing in the world. Work occupied my mind day and night. When I did eventually drag myself out of bed, I felt like a walking zombie and nothing, not even my regular cup of coffee would perk me up.

I began to feel annoyed at little things both in school and at home—things that never used to bother me. To make matters worse, I felt that my health was deteriorating, battling everything from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, to gastro problems and the common cold.

Everyday on my way to work, I would ask myself existential questions like, “What is my purpose here?” “Am I really making a difference?” And when I could not answer those questions, I wanted to quit and throw in the towel.

It was only after some serious reflection that I realized that I was heading for a burnout. According to Helpguide.org, burnout is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

If you are reading this, you may be able to relate to the symptoms mentioned above or you may know someone who has been experiencing these symptoms.

Therefore, I wish to tell you my story and how I found these tips in helping cope with burnout.

1. Talk to someone who can help

We all have different people whom we turn to for our different needs. There are friends who can offer us valuable advice and then there are those who help by just listening. If you already know what to do and you just need to vent, the latter will be ideal. However, if you have no idea where to begin, you might want to consult a colleague or a friend with a healthy work-life balance. Alternatively, find a support group, consisting of people whom you trust and who will affirm and encourage you.

When I knew I was headed for a burnout, I made an appointment to speak to my direct supervisor about it.  I was direct and frank about the burnout and to ensure that I didn’t sound overly emotional, I came up with a list of work-related factors that could have contributed to it. Thankfully, she was understanding and supportive, helping me find solutions to overcome the challenges that I was facing.

I was hesitant to voice my feelings of exhaustion and fatigue, for fear of being judged, being looked down upon or given a poor performance rating. However, I was extremely surprised at the support and encouragement I received from people around me when I did open up.

2. Try natural remedies

Rather than relying on medication to ease my symptoms like headaches, muscle aches and the flu due to stress and a lack of sleep, I decided to look into more natural remedies that would do more good than harm to my body.

After reading the multiple benefits of the soothing properties of lavender oil, I decided to invest in a small bottle of lavender essential oils. Whenever I felt the onset of a headache, I would put a few drops on my temples and at the back of my neck and within a few minutes, I would feel better. I also tried adding a few drops onto my pillow before I slept and I have to concur that I felt more rested the next morning when I awoke.

After reading an article entitled, “I drank warm honey lemon water every morning for a year,” I decided to start drinking a concoction of Manuka honey, drops of essential lemon oil and warm water the first thing in the morning and I noticed a boost in my immunity slightly after a month. I rarely caught the flu bug and I was slightly more energized in the morning.

3. Admit there is a problem and identify specific causes of the problem

It was extremely difficult for me to admit that I was experiencing burnout. I felt like a weakling who was not resilient enough. I became angry, asking myself how could this be happening? I had only been teaching for nine months in a new school and prior to that, I had a good break and a refreshing time attending grad school. Besides, I had so many more responsibilities and a heavier teaching load in the past and so I couldn’t reconcile myself with the fact that I was undergoing a lot of stress.

However, when I was finally ready and able to confront my problem, I began to reflect deeply on what was bothering me. These questions were useful in my reflections:

How is my relationship with my students and colleagues?
Are there particularly challenging students that I have to deal with?
How heavy is my workload? How many classes and subjects am I teaching? Am I taking on more than one major project on top of my teaching load?
How much time do I spend preparing for lessons and marking?
Are there available resources for me to use or do I have to create my own?

I came up with concrete examples in response to these questions and placed them in two categories: things under my control and things not under my control.

For example, I cannot control the unpredictable behavior of my students, but I can control how I react towards them. I can’t control the amount of work that has been assigned to me, but I could ask my boss for more time to complete the tasks. I can’t control the diverse working styles of my colleagues, but I can be more adaptable and improve my communication with them.

After answering these questions, I realized that the biggest reason why I was feeling stressed is because I had to learn many new things this year and there were a lot of “firsts.” Knowing this helped me to work out feasible solutions. I also made a conscious effort to come to terms with letting go of things beyond my control, as difficult as it was.

4. Take frequent “time outs” from work

Unlike regular nine to five jobs, teaching can sometimes be a job that we cannot leave behind. Our work does not end after our lessons end. We carry scripts that we have to mark everywhere we go, hoping to squeeze in as much marking time as we can. We meticulously prepare and plan for our lessons, write progress reports for our students and dutifully complete our administrative duties while balancing our extracurricular activities.

It really takes a concerted effort to wean ourselves from work but it is absolutely necessary. A colleague of mine recommended a “no work after 8pm rule.” This meant that I had to turn off my email alerts, cease my marking and shut down any work-related programs on my laptop. This took a lot of discipline and it was difficult at first, but soon it became a routine and I found myself having time to do things that I enjoy, like reading for leisure and watching shows.

Additionally, a short getaway to a nearby destination whenever you can will greatly help. Be sure to indulge yourself during the getaway and not worry about the work that is not done. Your students will still learn, life will still go on and the work will still be there when you return. I made it a point to travel to neighboring countries during term break or long weekends and I found myself ready to face my students and the challenges at work after these short breaks.

5. Be mindful of what you do before you sleep

The activity you engage in before sleeping may be crucial in determining how well you sleep at night. It is best to avoid anything over-stimulating, like thriller or fast paced action shows or violent, gory images. Keep it light and tune in to comedies or listen to calming and relaxing music.

If you are a spiritual person, it would be good to do some spiritual reading or meditation before going to bed. In my case, reading biblical passages helped to calm my mind and assuage any fears or anxieties that I was experiencing.

In highly stressful and demanding professions, such as teaching, it is not surprising that many teachers around the world experience burnout. According to the National Education Association, “Most teachers experience job stress at least two to four times a day, with more than 75 percent of teachers’ health problems attributed to stress.”

Furthermore, in the U.S., 40 to 50% of teachers leave the profession after the first five years of teaching, citing reasons such as “individual stress levels and work-life balance struggles.”

So dear teacher, you are definitely not alone.

It’s true that you do make a difference in the lives of your young charges. It’s true that what you say and do can and will affect eternity. It’s true that it’s a big responsibility to shoulder and it is only human to feel tired.  There is no shame in admitting that and there is definitely no shame in asking for help.

If there was anything good that came out of my experience, it was the important lesson that I learned about caring for myself before I could care for my young charges and my loved ones. You should, too.
I wish you well- body, mind and soul.

Yours truly,
A fellow empathetic teacher



I’m “Just” a Teacher.


Author: Claudine Fernandez

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikimedia

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