Keep It Burning Bright: How to Hold Your Fire and Avoid Burnout
by Katie Wedemeyer-Strombel, PhD, Kaplan Teacher Manager: In-Person Tutoring, Graduate & Law School Admissions Consulting | May 20, 2020
Work-life balance is hard normally, especially when teaching―but with the added pressure and expectations of this COVID-19 semester, moving all your work online, and feeling the need to be virtually available 24/7, achieving that balance has been all the more difficult. So, I want to start with a big CONGRATULATIONS! Congratulations on making it to the end of this (yes I’m going to use the “u-word”) unprecedented semester. You did it! I hope that you are proud of yourself. We in the education community are proud of you and thankful for you. I hope you hear that often.
The Struggle is Real
In webinars, on social media, and in informal discussions with fellow educators, I have noticed a strong theme: teachers are struggling with work-life balance more than ever. They are tired, overworked, and unsure how to separate work from home now that work is at home. If you’ve felt this way, please know that you are not alone. It is normal and says nothing about your dedication or love for your work. It is, however, an important reminder for all of us to recognize that taking time to care for ourselves―to rest, relax, and recreate―is critical for our own success, and that of our students.
In case you need to hear it: you are allowed to take time off.
You are allowed to disconnect (turn that computer off!). Spend time with those you love (safely), and spend time doing things that fuel you. You are more than an amazing educator - you are multidimensional, please take the time to cultivate those other dimensions. As someone who waited until burnout to put my own needs first, to create and adhere to boundaries in my professional life―I learned the hard way that rest and relaxation are not just rewards for hard work, but are critical components to working hard.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to share what I’ve learned along the way, and I hope that you find the tips below helpful, so that you can care for yourself in the way that you care for others.
How to Hold Your Fire and Avoid Burnout
#1. CREATE WORK BOUNDARIES AND STICK TO THEM
- Set up email office hours
Choose a few 2 hour or so time spans each weekday, or every other weekday (depending on your class sizes) where you will dedicate your time to reading and answering emails. Schedule this time in your calendar too, and stick to these time frames. Put these email office hours in your email signature, and on any student/guardian facing material so that the expectation is clearly set.
Here is an example that I have seen colleagues successfully employ:
“I will respond to emails M-F between 9am-11am Eastern, and will do my best to respond within one business day.”
- Create physical boundaries to shut off work at the end of the day
My desk is smack in the middle of my dining room, between my kitchen and living room in my 1-bedroom apartment where my husband also works from home. When my computer is up and on, it is tempting and easy to “do just a little more work” after I’m supposedly done for the day. Oftentimes this “little more” turns into a lot more. Sound familiar?
Creating a physical barrier to easily logging on has really helped. When I am done with my last necessary task for the day, I turn off all my monitors, close my laptops, and even put books or blankets on top of my closed laptops. That way, it is not easy to “check that one thing really quick”―I’d have to move everything, open it up, turn it on, etc.
This allows for a mental check: is it really necessary for me to login again? Most often, it is not.
- Say “no” more often and do less
Odds are you are already doing more than enough, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Say “no” to projects or extra work that is not essential. You are not required to do “it all”. Most people are understanding when we say we don’t have the capacity to do something right now, and if they’re not that’s on them―not on us.
Recently, Cat Powell wrote that when planning online courses, it’s important to cover less material and schedule more frequent breaks: apply that advice in your lesson planning and in your life.
#2. SCHEDULE TIME EACH WEEK FOR R&R AND ACTIVITIES THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH WORK
- Rest and recreation count
The need to feel productive all the time right now is exhausting and unrealistic. We are allowed to rest and recreate, but if you feel productivity pressure, I say let’s reframe how we look at productivity. Rest and recreation, in whatever form they take for you, is productive.
While you are resting and recreating your brain is still working, as Chris Ryan explained in a recent post on Cognitive Load, “...Brains need relaxed, off-pressure time to make connections to prior knowledge, to wonder about deep, interesting questions, and to synthesize disparate pieces into a powerful whole.”
- Block off time in your calendar for rest and recreation
What is your favorite fun activity that is safe to do right now, and that has nothing to do with work? When was the last time you did that?
If your answer was not in the last 10 days, please open your calendar and schedule in a time to do it this week.
- Let others know that you have an appointment at that time, and respect that appointment like the critical check-up it is
No need to explain further to others, simply let them know you’ve got an appointment and you are not available to help/meet/etc. at that time. You don’t owe further explanation.
Self-care appointments are as important as physical-care appointments.
#3. CONNECT WITH OTHERS: YOU ARE NOT IN THIS ALONE
- Reach out to other teachers and talk about burnout
You don’t need to go through this alone, confide in colleagues you trust and share your frustrations with them. There is a lot of discussion on this in education circles on Twitter, in the chats of our Kaplan Digital Learning Webinars, and in every Zoom happy hour I’ve attended with fellow educators.
We are all struggling, let’s talk about it, bask in the comfort of camaraderie, and share how we are managing all of this―what’s worked and what hasn't.
- Reach out to other teachers and don’t talk about work
Even if your best friend is your colleague, schedule time where you don’t talk about work. Talk about your favorite recent Netflix binge, a dog you saw on yesterday's walk, what you ate for dinner, that you put on pants today―anything but work.
We are all more than our work, let’s revel in the little things and celebrate them together.
- Make time to connect with non-work friends and family
Now that work is at home, it’s easy to get lost in work-land. Make sure that you hold onto, and spend time with (even if virtually) your loved ones. Schedule in phone calls if needed, and foster the connections to the other parts of your life―they are important, after all they make you, you!
As educators we regularly take on more than expected, work longer hours than we’re paid, and define ourselves by our work. We are proud of what we do, we are fueled by helping our students succeed. Our passion is mission-driven and we often put others’ needs before our own. While we love what we do and are proud of our work - we need to make sure that we take time to care for ourselves, too. It is not selfish to take care of yourself, to put your needs first―in fact, it is important to help avoid burnout. Thank you for all that you do for your students, and all that you do to care for yourself.
Katie has been with Kaplan since 2017 and has worked as a teacher manager, project coordinator, pre-college tutor, and on content development teams, including the 2018 Kaplan Way Award winning “Aztec” project. She holds a PhD in Environmental Science; she studied sea turtle conservation and stakeholder engagement, and is a trusted voice for greater integrity in graduate education. She has 10 years of experience creating, teaching and facilitating education programs at universities, zoos and enjoys applying these skills here at Kaplan.