There’s a chill in the air, leaves are turning red and gold, supermarkets are full of turkeys, pumpkins, and apple pie — it can only mean one thing. Fall is here! But for educators, fall isn’t all leaf piles and cozy sweaters. With fall can also come fall burnout, something every teacher wants to avoid. But what is burnout? Is it even possible to avoid it? If not, how to solve it? And how can educators prevent burnout going forward? These are all important questions, but luckily, there are answers waiting for them. Let’s have a look and see how to tackle fall burnout head-on:
What is burnout?
Feeling tired? That could just be a long day… or it could be burnout. Occupational burnout, or burnout syndrome, isn’t just another term for feeling worn down; it’s an actual medical issue recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in their International Classification of Diseases. Burnout is categorized as the result of “chronic workplace stress” and can result in “feelings of exhaustion or depletion… increased mental distance from one’s job… [and] reduced professional capacity.” Burnout can be an issue in any profession, but high-stress, high-responsibility careers, like medicine and teaching, are at a particularly high risk.
In short, burnout is a lot more than feeling tired after a tough week in the classroom. If you find yourself asking, “Is it burnout?” it can be helpful to check the WHO page and ask yourself what applies to you. If you’re feeling tired, but after a restful weekend, or a day off, you’re re-energized and ready to get back to your students with vigor, hooray! You probably just had a rough week, which happens to us all. But if you’re feeling chronically exhausted, losing your motivation in the classroom, and find you’re not teaching up to your usual standard, take note. You might be suffering from burnout.
Why is fall a high-risk time for educators to face burnout?
There’s no rule that says burnout must happen in the late fall, or that that’s the only time teachers ever burn out. However, fall burnout is common enough among educators that it’s been written about, and is an acknowledged phenomenon in the teaching community. Some call it burnout, some call it the “November Blues,” but the fact remains: this time of year can be a tricky one for educators at all levels.
Why is that? There are a few reasons. After a summer away from the classroom, many teachers start the season keen to “hit the ground running” and overextend themselves. Fall is also a legitimately hectic time in education: the start of the year means getting to know a whole new cohort of students, while often dealing with things like writing college letters of recommendation for previous students, and potentially helping your current class with college applications and test prep, alongside the classes you’re teaching. It’s a lot for anyone to deal with! Throw in the fact that, from the start of the school year to Thanksgiving, teachers and students alike are going roughly three months without any significant breaks to recharge, and you have a recipe for potential burnout all around.
How do I know if I’m in danger of burnout syndrome?
Burnout syndrome doesn’t strike all at once. In fact, when dealing with the concept of burning out, it may be useful to think of a candle. Even a tall, thick candle can only burn so much before it burns out. However, a candle doesn’t go from fresh out of the box to burnt out at the drop of a hat. The wax melts down as the candle burns, and with each drip, you can see it growing shorter and closer to burning out.
This is where it becomes important for you to watch your “inner candle.” Don’t wait until you’re completely depleted to address a potential burnout situation. That means knowing yourself, and your stress symptoms, which can look different for everyone. Some people react to stress with major changes in appetite; others either have trouble sleeping, or find themselves sleeping too much. Sometimes high-stress situations cause people to become irritable and short-tempered with their loved ones, while others are at risk of depressive symptoms, and losing interest in their hobbies and things they enjoy.
If you feel like any of these have begun to apply to you, it’s important to check yourself and your circumstances. While burnout isn’t the only reason these symptoms could come up, it is a potential one, and it’s good to take time to reflect. Are you working too hard? Have you been getting adequate sleep, nutritious food, and some “down time” every day? If not, you may be in danger of burnout.
I’m suffering from burnout. What do I do?
Burnout may be an internationally recognized disease, but there is one good thing about the prognosis: it is treatable. If you’re suffering from burnout, this doesn’t mean your teaching career is doomed to suffer — just like having a nasty case of the stomach flu might put you out of commission for a little while, burnout may be a speed bump, but you can get back on track.
If you’re feeling the burnout blues, you will need rest. Thanksgiving break can be a great time to turn your brain off of “work mode” and reconnect with your loved ones, make time to do fun, relaxing activities, and eat some delicious food! You may want to hold off on assigning your students too much homework over break. This will keep you from coming back to a massive pile of grading — and they’re likely to appreciate the break too!
The main thing with burnout is to give yourself the time and space to heal. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you deserve to recover at your own pace. Just know that, so long as you give yourself some space, the storm will pass.
I’ve had problems with burnout in the past. How do I prevent repeating them moving forward?
If you know that fall burnout has been a problem for you in the past, it’s good to approach it with a preemptive “plan of attack” moving forward. That’s where two things come into play: self-knowledge and self-care.
Self-knowledge is self-explanatory. There’s a reason “know thyself” is ancient advice. To avoid future burnout episodes, it’s important to know your limits and not push yourself too hard. It’s also important to know what comes easy to you, and what depletes you — everyone has bits of their job that come more naturally than others, and structuring your autumn in a way that maximizes your energy can only help.
Self-care, on the other hand, is a concept that’s been getting a lot of attention recently. It’s something that may also, at first glance, sound self-explanatory. Self-care means taking care of yourself, whatever that may look like. You may have seen products advertised as “self-care” items, which focus on creating a relaxing environment: bath products, fluffy slippers, cozy escapist novels. But self-care can also mean the day-to-day, bread-and-butter business of keeping yourself healthy: eating right, making time for physical exercise, and saying “no” to things you don’t have the energy or time for. Making sure you have a good self-care routine in place can help ensure that you’ve built healthy routines that can prevent burnout symptoms before they start.
Burnout may seem scary, especially when you’re in the throes of it. However, it doesn’t need to ruin your academic year, or get you too derailed. Whether you’re feeling burnt out, trying to ensure you don’t suffer from burnout as your stress levels rise, or trying to prevent future burnouts after a nasty battle with burnout in the past, you have to be kind to yourself. You love your students and work hard for them, but you owe yourself the same consideration. So long as you remember to take care of yourself, you can go from surviving burnout, to thriving, burnout-free!
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