Being an English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher is no walk in the park, we all know that. Being a TEFL teacher requires patience, dedication, hard work and stamina, there’s no doubt about that – even if you have done an internationally recognised TEFL course (like ours!). But not many people realise just how taxing this job can really be. In fact, teacher burnout with TEFL teachers – or any kind of teachers – is a thing.
A little bit of stress in our lives is not necessarily a bad thing and can push us to be more productive or make necessary changes to our daily lives. However there comes a point when stress becomes a very negative force in our lives and it is essential that we know when this point is and we know how to deal with it. In this piece we will look at some ways to avoid burnout as a TEFL teacher.
Even better, we need to be aware of our stress levels before this point so we can avoid total meltdown altogether. Being a TEFL teacher can at times be a dream job. Generally speaking you should be enjoying every day at work and looking forward to walking into your classroom. With so many amazing travelling opportunities and cultural experiences on your doorstep, how could a TEFL teacher be stressed, right?
Wrong. Being a teacher can be stressful in itself but add on the experience of living in a new country and you’ve got a recipe for burnout.
Read more: How to Deal With Culture Shock
Imagine this: you wake up at 6 in the morning and go to school. On the way to school you are going over in your head your plans for your different classes for the day. When you get to school you need to make photocopies and prepare your classroom. At the same time, students who have come to school early are asking for your help with their homework. During lunch, you have a staff meeting. After school, you mark some tests and prepare your lessons for the next day. When you eventually get home, you think about what happened in your lessons that day and try think of ways to make them better next time, and what you are going to do tomorrow.
And the cycle continues, day in and day out.
The only real time you get off is on weekends and during holidays. During term time you are consumed by your lessons and your students. You can’t stop thinking about them and your mind is always going over lessons, past and future. Even when you’re not in class, you’re probably doing something related to school. Which means you never really get a break, or some time to look after yourself and your own mental wellbeing.
This can sometimes lead to burnout.
Teacher burnout is a real thing, though many people may not even realise it.
What exactly is teacher burnout?
Burnout is, essentially, physical, and emotional exhaustion. It can look different from person to person but if you suffer from any of the following symptoms of teacher burnout you may need to re-consider your self-care routine:
- I find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning.
- I get irritated with my students very easily, often for no reason.
- I complain a lot about my school and/or my students.
- I don’t really care if my students are learning.
- I live for the weekend and holidays.
- I want to leave this country and go home.
In fact, here are five symptoms of teacher burnout:
All. The. Time. We all have moods but when you find that you’re in a bad space every day from the moment you wake up, then it’s time to consider whether something in your life needs to change. If you find yourself snapping at your housemates, colleagues or students for no clear reason, you might need to consider whether it’s stress-related. In other words, it’s not you, it’s me!
You can’t sleep, or you can’t wake up
Stress affects our sleep in different ways. Some people can’t fall asleep when they’re stressed or they keep waking up during the night. Other people will be tired all the time and will have problems getting out of bed. Any change in sleep patterns should be considered a possible indication of stress. Getting too little sleep is likely to change your mood, increase your appetite, and affect your brain function – all of which can have serious consequences for teachers.
Men as well as women can be more emotional than usual when they’re stressed, and this is only exacerbated by sleep problems. If you feel like your hormones are out of whack or you’re prone to emotional outbursts with little provocation, you can thank stress for that.
You can’t seem to shake that bug
When we’re run down and stressed we get sick more easily but we also find it harder to get well again. Do you have a niggly cough that just won’t go away? Are you blaming allergies all the time for your congestion? If we’re feeling ill a lot of the time it’s natural to not feel great because you’re, well, not feeling great.
Our diets go out the window
Stress can make us eat and drink more than usual. Many of us eat for comfort and drink to relax, so when we’re stressed we make ourselves feel better by having that piece of chocolate cake or pouring ourselves another glass of wine – which is totally fine, just not every day.
What causes teacher burnout?
As you can see, many of the symptoms of burnout relate to depression. However, when teaching English abroad, long hours and hard work are usually contributing factors. You’re not just depressed, you’re exhausted.
What can you do about teacher burnout?
As always, prevention is better than cure. Try to look after your mental and physical health so that you don’t experience teacher burnout in the first place. Try not to take on more lessons than you can handle, even if that means saying no to your Director of Studies (hopefully your school will be understanding). Try to take a break from teaching every day when you don’t even think about teaching English.
If you think you already have burnout, you may need to take a break. If you can take some time off to recharge and get your enthusiasm back for teaching English as a foreign language. If you can’t take time off, at least try to plan your days so that not all your time is spent at school or preparing for your lessons.
Whatever you do, always remember: you can’t be an effective teacher if you are not yourself and if you’re exhausted there’s no way you can be the teacher you want to be.
Self-care tips for TEFL teachers
If you are experiencing a few of these symptoms then chances are that you are stressed and are on the brink of burnout if you’re not already in the depths of it. Self-care is nto only a current buzzword, it’s essential for TEFL teachers. Here are a few things you can do to keep your stress levels in check to make sure you avoid teacher burnout:
Clear your calendar
If you find yourself doing something every minute of every day, this will prevent you from taking the time to just be, which is very important when it comes to self-care. We’re not saying you need to meditate or stand on your head or anything, but you should make some time every day to do something you enjoy that’s not related to work. Read a book, have a bath, go for a walk, watch Netflix – anything, as long as it’s what you want to do.
Read more: Solo Travel and Self Love
Be mindful of what you eat
Easier said than done, we know, but it makes such a big difference. We’re not saying you need to survive on lettuce leaves and kombucha, but try not overindulge every day. Be good at least 80% of the time and allow yourself a few treats here and there, but pizza should not be your go-to dinner – and don’t even get us started on coffee and a cigarette for breakfast!
Talk about it
Stress multiplies when you don’t talk about it. Chatting to someone about your heavy workload, your relationship problems or your difficult students will make the issue more bearable. It will also give you ideas on what you could do about the situation. If you feel like you might need a more serious conversation, there is no harm in going to see a professional therapist.
Get up and about
Some days it might feel like you just want to put your head back under the covers and sleep the day away. Don’t get uw wrong, sleep is essential for your health and well-bring, but too much of anything can be a bad thing, right? If you’re teaching you’re probably spending most of your day indoors. You might have a long commute to work, which leaves little time for exercise. As much as you can, try to get outside. Going for a short walk can do wonders.
This is especially important for online English teachers who probably spend hours sitting at their computers talking to a screen.
Being stressed is a slippery slope – once you become stressed it can be difficult to control and it can blow up into something much more serious. Self-care should always be a priority to make sure you are living the best life, and not burning yourself into smithereens.
The TEFL Academy alumnus Albert Rawlings spent five years teaching in China. This is what he had to say about the experience:
Be prepared to adjust to a new environment, food, language and other aspects life. It’s a big part of the TEFL experience that’s often overlooked. The great thing about TEFL is you usually already have a built-in network of people at your new place of work. I found it really useful to make connections with Chinese colleagues as well as more experienced TEFL teachers. Making these connections was useful as I had an instant support network and people to show me how to live in a new country. I found it didn’t take long to adjust and gain the skills required to live abroad.