Teaching is by nature a high energy profession that demands a lot and while there is much to celebrate there is a real danger of burnout. Taking some time to relax and de-stress is important as is noticing the signs that you are reaching your limit. For all teachers understanding that a break and a change of schedule benefits not just you but your students too can be the catalyst for granting yourself permission for a genuine break.
One way to understand the load that teachers face is to consider the multitude of roles that we are called on to fulfil at any given time. Educator, consultant, guide, counsellor, nurse, coach, art director, accountant, statistician, researcher, manager, leader, author, technician the list seems to have no end. I have found that comparing teaching to the workload of musicians and actors a useful point of reference. In common with performance artists, teachers are ‘on show’ performing their act to an audience. The usual pressures are there; timing, awareness of audience, knowing the script well enough to adapt it at a moments notice, working with small children and dangerous animals (often the same thing) delving into the performers emotional grab bag, knowing the stage and understanding how each act fits into a larger performance. The difference is at the end of the performance the actors go home, the teachers just move on to the next gig and we do this day after day for months on end. Most of the performers I know do one or two gigs a week while they tour and have months off in between.
When our act slows down and we find ourselves lacking energy for the next performance we are seeing the signs that it is time for a break. Our students sense this too and pounce on the opportunity. Smelling weakness, they will seize the moment and push our buttons to explore our snapping point, or so it seems at times. Photocopiers and computer technology seems equally able to sense when we are close to our limits and it is those days when you regret having dragged yourself out of bed that they decide to break, or jam or develop a strange bug that even the IT Department has never seen.
Fatigue brings with it genuine dangers. The biggest risk is the damage you can do to carefully constructed relationships with students and even colleagues. Having made a long string of perfect moves with a child, having said and done the right thing at the right time all term and finally seeing signs of a positive shift in the dynamics between you both, only to undo it all in a haze of fatigue can be shattering. The same danger exists with our relationships with colleagues, family and parents and being able to spot the signs of fatigue is important.
For each of us the signs will be different; trouble getting moving in the morning, a short temper, finding little things overly annoying, putting off routine tasks, shifting your diet towards the cake and chocolate end of the spectrum, clock watching or checking the number of days to the next vacation are all common signs. Knowing yours is the key, the first step towards maintaining your sanity and protecting those you care about. Having a close friend or colleague who knows your danger signs and can point you towards the metaphorical couch of downtime that you need can be a saviour.
Putting a break from work off to the much beloved end of term may not be an adequate solution. A better more sustainable result may be achieved by structuring small doses of downtime into your routine. A walk off campus, some quiet meditation, reading something unrelated to school or engaging with a project of your own design can all help relieve stress. The right solution will be personal and relevant to you, what works for one may not work for others. Understanding that this downtime is not a sign of laziness or work avoidance but a tool you use to maximise the results you achieve when you are ‘on’ avoids any guilt associated with caring for yourself. It is the same line of thinking that makes it ok to put your oxygen mask on before you help others ‘including children’.
A new addition to our workload is the always connected nature of our modern lives. Much has been said about the effects of our constant availability but this connected technology comes with an often overlooked off button. Knowing how to switch off your availability or set time limits is a skill all teachers need to develop. The answer can be as simple as turning off notifications on your phone outside of set hours and leaving the laptop in its bag when you arrive home. The extreme solution is to holiday in wilderness, an option I will be taking this break, as a result there will be no posting to this site next week.
By Nigel Coutts