There’s a certain ritual I used to perform each morning. I’d pull into the school’s parking lot and sit in my car for several minutes, slowly turning myself into the teacher I wanted to be. I’d slip my lanyard around my neck as if it were another layer of thick skin. I’d turn off my jazz and soul playlist to organize my schedule in silence, picturing when to meet students and grade papers and plan lessons. I’d let my outside memories recede, forgetting my husband, my breakfast, the novel I’d read for pleasure over tea that morning. In other words, I’d try to transform into Mrs. Wilson: unbreakable, organized, and full of enough energy to help 150 high school students learn and achieve their own goals, in turn.
But what I’ve learned through four years of teaching is that we, as teachers, must nurture ourselves as often as we nurture our students. When I watch my students grow fatigued—worn out by endless papers and class projects and lectures—I recognize that sort of exhaustion in myself. Teachers give all we can. We research student interests and work them into lessons filled with memes and top 40 hits. We comment on their assignments in careful colored pens, urging them closer towards perfection with every mark. We give up our lunch breaks to listen to their anxieties, ignoring our growing awareness that we too are fading, so strapped are we for free time.
It’s a delicate balancing act, being a reliable teacher while also avoiding burnout. Here are a few tips I’ve learned in those years since I’ve stopped playing at perfection. No matter the subject you teach, these simple strategies can help you maximize your time and reduce your workload as an educator, ultimately improving your mental health.
Use Groupwork and Group Assessment
It’s easy to collect far too many assignments from individual students. We want them to gain practice with solving algebraic equations, writing literary analyses, and organizing lab reports—though these later become the same documents that weigh down our totes and briefcases.
Instead, I’ve found it helpful to maintain the rigor of my assignments while requiring students to submit fewer hard or digital copies. If students are answering close-reading questions about a novel, have students work in pairs and trade handwriting for each response, cutting your grading load by half.
If students are analyzing a historical primary document, have them jot down their observations in a group, rather than independently. Though you certainly want to give students regular independent formative assessments, occasionally assessing students as a group cuts down on the number of assignments to grade—and not to mention, groupwork gives students opportunities to refine their answers and recognize gaps in their own knowledge.
Build In Breaks
When lesson planning, build in periods where you won’t collect assignments from students. For example, if you plan for students to submit work on Mondays, rather than on Fridays, you ensure you won’t spend the weekend repeating your weekday grading routine.
In particular, avoid the temptation to collect major assignments and projects right before the holidays. This is a common practice we use to make sure we fit in all of our lessons before the semester’s close, but this usually means that we spend long weekends, Thanksgivings, and holidays grading on our kitchen tables while our families celebrate in the next room.
Instead, collect assignments two days after returning from break. This allows you to enjoy your holiday—or focus on lesson planning if you must get work done—while also giving students additional time to complete more demanding work. Similarly building in breaks for yourself during smaller holidays like Labor Day or Presidents Day can help you recuperate during other points in the school year.
Open Class with Discussions & Visual Learning
Many teachers enjoy using written "do-nows" and "wrap-ups" to informally check students’ understanding of content. Instead, consider giving student discussion chips-- either digital or Styrofoam tokens from your local office supply store-- that they must use within the week, during opening or closing sections of the lesson. (Two to three chips are plenty.)
You might have students submit a token to solve an equation or provide the definition of a scientific term. You might have them discuss how a piece of artwork reflects the historical time period or the portrayal of a Shakespearean character.
Either way, you’ll get students to think critically without the burden of grading do-nows or wrap-ups.
Finally, Model Self-Care for Students
Most importantly, teach students the importance of self-care by modeling such behavior. If you’re up late answering student emails, establish a firm no-response policy after 6 or 7 pm. Give students a friendly smile and tell them that you don’t want them to be up late working, and therefore neither will you.
Greet students at the door and if they ask you how you are, be honest. It’s okay to admit to students that you feel tired and stressed, because they feel that way too. Share with them your hobbies and interests, mention movies you’ve seen.
The more you model for them what it looks like to have a full life, the more they —and you— will embrace that too.
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