Thoughts on avoiding burnout in teaching

For those on the semester system, your term has likely ended and you’re feeling a bit frazzled—or perhaps more than a bit frazzled. While it’s no secret to fellow educators that teaching is intense, it’s worth discussing ways to keep the intensity from taking over your life!

Back in March, we asked “seasoned educators” who frequent our Facebook page to respond to the question, “What advice do you have for new faculty to avoid burnout?” David M. Koeth of Bakersfield College responded to our query with a list of seven recommendations. We liked his perspective so much, we asked him to expand upon those suggestions here.

Let’s start with a definition of the term “burnout.” A quick Google search reveals numerous articles about burnout, but I was surprised to read that it is not an official mental disorder. I called my friend Lynne Hall, a licensed psychologist and retired community college dean to get her take on this phenomenon. Hall told me: “It does not have a formal diagnosis in the DSM5, although there are times when the symptoms can approach a diagnosis of say: anxiety, frustration, or depression.”

I asked Hall how she defines burnout. She said: “It’s a state of being that includes feelings of worthlessness, it frequently involves repetition of the same task. It’s a time of life when your being is not happy.”

I shared my list of ways to avoid burnout with Hall, and she agreed with my approach and made some observations: “New faculty don’t usually experience burnout; most cases that I’ve seen happen at about 5, 6, or 7 years, as the realization sets in that these courses are all you’ll be teaching. It’s especially true for those teaching foundational courses, because you are covering the basics over and over. If you have no choice of your classes and you teach the same thing over and over, it can lead to burnout.”

I don’t know about your teaching situation, but I work at a transformative community college; I have a supportive Chair, Dean, and Vice-President, and an energetic and progressive President. I work with honest and conscientious colleagues, I teach generally engaged students, and I don’t feel that I suffer from a lack of control. I think that it is partially my choices and my decisions which lead to mental exhaustion and burnout, and partially the nature of teaching.

Here, in a slightly expanded version, in no particular order, are my suggestions for avoiding burnout in your teaching career. Please note: this is in no way a definitive list, and I’m not a mental health professional. This is just what works for me.

1. Don’t work every weekend on college-related projects/be aware of your work-life balance.
Teaching is tough, and I need weekends to rest. Sometimes I work all Saturday and Sunday on reports, syllabi, grading, project creation, lectures, committee projects, etc… When you need to work on a weekend, take the next one off. Use office hours or non-class time to get these tasks finished during the week. Work during a weekend when you must, but don’t make a habit of it.

 2. Travel and take real vacations on your breaks.
My wife (a first-grade teacher) and I usually leave town on winter break, spring break, and for at least a few weeks during summer break. A change of scenery is something I look forward to during a long semester. According to another quick Google search, the research is mixed on whether vacations help burnout in the long term, but they certainly help my attitude. As far as sabbaticals, few are granted at my college these days, but if you can manage one, research shows generally positive results following one.

3. Do personal art or design.
A great way to relieve stress for me is to work on my own art. Focusing on the piece at hand helps me to leave work at work. It’s up to me whether the piece works or not, and it’s up to me when to start or finish it. Over the years I’ve painted, done many explorations with materials, and worked on public art.

4. Learn the signs of burnout, and don’t be too hard on yourself if it happens.
Sometime you need to just take a day at a time—I just accept that as a fact of life. It is not a sign of weakness to reach burnout. Hall said: “Always happy people who deny burnout rob themselves of living in the moment.” She recommended that faculty reach out to others, work on creating a well-rounded life, or seek professional help if needed.

5. Find something (a ritual) to do that relaxes you.
I’m currently roasting coffee beans as I write this article, as I generally do on Saturday mornings. I’m also a big fan of isolation tank therapy and I enjoy working in our garden on the weekends. Some colleagues meditate regularly or schedule massages. Other faculty members are involved in their places of worship.

6. Be selective about service to your school.
There are many opportunities to give back to your institution, and service is usually embedded in the faculty contract. Over the 15 years that I’ve taught, I’ve served on formal committees and helped the college informally with small design projects. During your first few years of teaching, you will probably be eased into college service, and you need to be careful to be engaged, but not overly involved.

7. Take care of your health.
Your mental and physical health can strongly affect your attitude and stamina levels. Get regular checkups (medical, dental) and if needed when you’re feeling particularly down, seek out a professional to talk with. Burnout is a real thing and your health is connected to everything.

8. Keep it fresh in the classroom.
You are a creative individual—use that creativity to keep things fresh in the classroom. Try new projects, ask colleagues about their projects and approaches. In my department, we encourage each other to share best practices, projects, exercises, critique techniques, etc…

9. Get to a least one design conference every year.
Over the years, I’ve attended SIGGRAPH, TYPO, and AIGA conferences. The annual AIGA San Diego “Y” conference is my current favorite. It’s a two day event that brings together internationally known designers. It always energizes me to see strong work, and who doesn’t love sunny San Diego?

David M. Koeth David M. Koeth is a recovering department chair who spends his days teaching the basics of graphic design at Bakersfield College. He earned a BFA in graphic design from The University of Akron, and earned an MFA in graphic design from California State University, Fullerton. His badly neglected website is located at Find him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

By David M. Koeth
Published May 31, 2017
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