How to Handle Teacher Burnout: What the Experts Say

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Updated | 7 min read

Teacher burnout. They’re two words we’re hearing more and more as the pandemic wears on, and we get it. Wearing a mask all day. Suddenly switching between teaching in-person and trying to manage virtual classes. Mounting mandates from the administration. And oh, right, actually educating students … the reason you actually became a teacher.

There are some alarming teacher burnout statistics out there — including the fact that education is in the top five when it comes to industry burnout rates. Which exactly why we called on Danna Thomas of the Happy Teacher Revolution to chat with our own Teach Starter podcast host Bron Brady. A former Baltimore City Public Schools teacher, Thomas now hosts mental health and wellness support groups for teachers around the world. She worked with the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab to create a system that supports teachers struggling under the weight of the classroom. Also joining us was Angela Watson, a teacher and host of the Truth for Teachers podcast whose work is focused on helping teachers “take charge of their time and energy so they can prevent burnout.”

We wanted to know: What can teachers really do to keep it together? Even when they can’t control their board of education or administration’s decisions?

We’re not just talking about lighting a few candles and saying some affirmations here (although they are both great if they work for you!). We mean truly finding that passion for teaching again in the midst of all the turmoil and reigniting the passion. Here are some of our favorite tips from Thomas and Watson.

How to Manage Teacher Burnout

Recognize the Signs of Burnout

You’ve heard the saying — the first step to recovery is knowing you have a problem — but how can you tell if you’re really burnt out? For some people, this seems obvious, but remember we’re all different people, and burnout is different too. What Thomas calls “emotional weight” often presents as fatigue or a feeling that — as she puts it — “no matter how much sleep you can get … it’s that still this feeling of mental, physical, emotional exhaustion at the end of the day.” 

For some teachers, it can go even further.

Burnout was officially added to the Classification of Diseases, or ICD-11, a diagnostic tool for medical providers from the World Health Organization, back in 2019. The WHO’s guidelines actually go into effect next year, but they include signs for practitioners to look out for, including:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy

If you checked yes on any, some, or all of the signs, you may want to talk to your primary care doctor. You may also want to check your feelings against the Teacher Burnout Scale (a PDF download is required, but it’s free) or print our free Teacher Mental Health Checklist.

Loving Your Students

If you bristled at even the slightest insinuation here that you don’t already love your kids, hold on! We know that teachers love their students. You wouldn’t have gone into the profession if you weren’t going to fall in love all over again every year, right?

But as Watson reminds us, well, sometimes teaching some kids is hard.

“There was always at least one child in my class that I just had the hardest time getting to know connecting with, you know, there’s always that one personality that just does not match with yours. You are just not a good fit,” she explains. “Those kids can really sort of burn you out. You know, focusing on those kinds of behaviors. So I feel like one of the biggest keys for me in avoiding burnout was really enjoying and growing with my students.”

Easier said than done?

Watson’s tip may come in handy when you’re just tearing your hair out over one or a few students:

Focus on the individual child. 

When you’re so focused on what you need from a student — for them to stop talking in class so much, for them to pass their tests, for them to demonstrate progress — that little kid can get lost.

“That’s a draining relationship, right where you’re just trying to get the other person to do the thing you want them to do,” Watson explains. “So any opportunity to really connect with your students as individuals and get to know them as people obviously has tons of benefits for them and for their own growth.”

As for how it can help you with that teacher burnout, Watson says really seeing the child can help remind you why you got into teaching in the first place.

“To be able to greet them by name, to have time to … have fun together, to be silly, to have moments of play, to listen to their stories that have nothing to do with school,” she says. “It just reminds you, OK, these are actual people in my classroom. They have wonderful things to share beyond just what I’m expected to get them to do.”

Give Yourself Kindness

One of the signs of burnout can be compassion fatigue, Thomas says. In fact, there are studies that show teachers who are feeling higher levels of burnout and lower job satisfaction, are more likely to suspend and refer and enact disciplinary action on students, especially students of color and boys.

But there isn’t just a loss of compassion for students that comes with burnout, Thomas warns. There’s also a loss of compassion for yourself.

Many teachers are juggling not just their classroom responsibilities but home responsibilities and perhaps even a second job (one in six teachers in the US have a side hustle).

“There are lots of things going on in teachers’ lives other than what is actually happening in that classroom immediately every day,” Thomas says.

Giving yourself a bit of grace may sound simple, but it’s part of seeing yourself as a whole human, just like seeing your students as whole humans.

Make Your Smart Phone Less Smart

This is truly the simplest approach to helping manage teacher burnout, and yet it’s somehow one of the harder things for teachers to do. But if you’re inclined to jump up every time your phone dings, you’re not getting real rest and relaxation outside of the classroom. Set your phone to airplane mode, and leave it in another room. No. Really. Walk. Away.

And just so you don’t have any excuses, here’s how to do it on an iPhone, and here’s how to do it on an Android phone.

The email from your principal can wait. Trust us.

Take Control Where You Can

The standardization of education is draining, and it’s frustrating to be told you must follow one specific way to teach — whether it works for your kids or not. This is where you need to find your wins, Watson says.

“Even with these types of restraints like, you know, you may be taught told that you have to teach a specific skill at a certain time, but you still have some flexibility,” she reminds teachers.”Do you want to bring in apps? … You want to bring in games, manipulatives, group activities? Do you want to have music playing in the classroom?”

You may not have ultimate control over how you teach, but where you can take control, grab it by the horns!

Find Something You Love Outside of School

You may not have a whole lot of money or time for outside hobbies, but there’s something out there … even if it’s just binge-watching Netflix. Finding the “you” outside of school can help you inside the classroom too.

“When I think back to when I was in school, the teachers that had the hardest time connecting with were the ones who really just seemed kind of like they just didn’t really do very much,” Watson recalls. “The only thing they really cared about was school, and it sort of made them like hyper controlling in the classroom because their whole life revolved around work.”

But when Watson started having more of a life outside of school, she found herself better able to bring that piece of her into school too.

“I was able to then bring those experiences into the classroom and that would reinvigorate my teaching, and that would also make it more fun for me because now I’m getting to actually show up not just as Mrs. Watson, but as Angela,” she says. “I’m getting to actually be my whole authentic self.”

Find Your People

When Thomas entered the classroom as a first-year teacher she recalls how tough it was to walk into a classroom with virtually no support system.

“I thought, Oh my gosh, nobody’s asked me if I’m OK, I’m the adult in the classroom who I feel like is on the verge of a breakdown,” she says. She wasn’t alone.

“A lot of teachers, my friends, colleagues, people I was in grad school with or I sat with during lunch … would share with me their own struggles with anxiety and overwhelm as it relates to the job,” Thomas recalls.

She created the Happy Teacher Revolution as an answer to that  — now she trains “revolutionaries” to start their own Happy Teacher Revolution in their own districts, bringing teachers together. You can check out and even join the revolution here.

Not your speed? Talk to your current colleagues, to past colleagues, to some of your friends from grad school, or even join a Facebook teacher group. You don’t have to go it alone.

One final note

Finding a way to reinvigorate your teaching isn’t just good for you. It’s good for your students too.

As Thomas says … “happy teachers equals happy kids.”

We can’t agree more.

Listen to the full podcast interviews:

And catch our interview with teacher Erin Castillo about how to help students with their own mental health.

Finally, print out our free Teacher Well-Being reminder list — post it somewhere obvious so you don’t forget.

How do you handle your stress in the classroom?

Banner image via shutterstock/halfpoint

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