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How to avoid burnout: a guide to combatting stress

Posted by. Lucy Chaplin
Posted on 20 May 2019


​​40% of newly qualified teachers (NQTs) leave the profession within five years*, with many citing burnout as one of the main reasons for this.

Unfortunately, it's not surprising. In today's ever-demanding working environment, we all are susceptible to feeling tired, or occasionally exhausted, due to increasing workloads and social pressures outside of work. For some people, this feeling of being overworked and tired can lead to professional burnout; a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Burnout happens when people feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and incapable of meeting constant demands.

Below, we caught up with two leading practitioners to talk about their experiences as teachers, coping with stress and how they maintain a positive work-life balance.  

Combatting Stress – How to square the circle of a job that is never done

Hannah Collins, Assistant Head at Royds School Leeds:

I have worked in education for the last decade, after completing my PGCE at Leeds University. My initial plan was to travel and teach abroad but from my very first step inside the classroom, I was hooked. I realised that education is a powerful tool to improve the life chances of young people; I never looked back.

I believe teaching is uniquely stressful as you are never 'off'. During the working day, when you are not teaching, you will be supervising children, meeting colleagues, deciding whether a cup of tea or a toilet break is more pressing, as you only have time for one! When the working day is over, you will still mentally be at work, as you reflect on the lessons, consider how you need to rejig your planning and complete what is still left to plan for the next few days. You will also be trying to manage your marking, a feat that has taken me a decade to (almost) achieve.

Aside from workload, you are in the privileged position of being a stable role model for many young people and this brings its own unique burden. You will notice a child who has recently lost a lot of weight, a child who has become more introverted than usual, a child who is crying out for help. You will do everything in your power to help that child, alerting the correct people and keeping a quiet eye on them, offering tacit support but you cannot take them home and right the wrongs that have brought them to this dark place and that can be heart breaking.

When I first started teaching, I did not feel the same pressure to reach targets that exists today. You were aware of results and wanted the children to do the very best that they could do but there was an understanding that children do not learn in a plottable, linear pattern. With greater accountability, teaching has certainly improved but the onus is too heavily weighted on outcomes. I have always chosen to work in schools in challenging contexts, but current performance measures make this a very difficult task. Vast academy chains have replaced LEAs in many areas and too many schools are run like businesses. The chronic underfunding of schools has seen schools hold non-uniform days to buy books, this would simply not have happened when I first joined the profession. The latest Ofsted material suggests a move away from outcomes and a much-needed focus on curriculum provision and the whole child. If this comes into fruition, it will be very welcome.

Resilience is key as you will inevitably make many mistakes (they are the best teachers!) – you will see beautifully planned lessons fall apart and feel the wrath of angry, disenfranchised young people. It is also important that you model failure and resilience to our young people – show them that mistakes are learning points. I have built resilience by seeing every set back as an opportunity; a chance to learn and grow. You also need to maintain the other parts of your life, your friendships, family relationships and any hobbies.

Overall, despite the ever-shifting educational landscape and the ever-moving goal posts, teaching itself does not change. Students need to learn how to acquire information and skills that they can recall and apply in their lives. If you know that you are doing the very best for your students, everything else will take care of itself. If we get teaching and learning right, we can ignore the vagaries of performance measures."

Physical de-stressing for tired teachers

Bridget Rowan, co-founder of Om Yoga Works, Farsley:

"As a society we are experiencing more stress; our lives have become busier and busier. People have less leisure time and are spending more time at work. Everything that's meant to make our lives easier makes it more complicated – trying to fit everything into our schedules with little time. In yogic terms, we grasp onto things in society that are transient and ever-changing. When we hold onto these things it causes us a lot of stress. We aspire to get the perfect job, a house, a family, a better car. Once we have those things they don't bring us happiness or contentment and we just perpetuate more things. We forget that these aspirations are impermanent and what truly matters is what's inside of us.

From my own experience of practising yoga, I have learnt that we need to acquire a set of tools to be able to cope with the challenges of everyday life. At the start of a new career, we walk into the unknown world faced with the unfamiliar and this can be overwhelming. If we walked into these situations equipped with a set of tools to use in stressful situations – we have something to support us and fall back on. Without these tools, we can fall into a spiral of stress, anxiety and panic. It is important we have these tools to help with our relationships and how we deal with other social pressures – not just those we face in our career.

Yoga is my passion and I believe that is something everyone should incorporate into their lives. I have more energy, more strength, more flexibility than I had when I was in my twenties, and I'm in my fifties. Other than the physical benefits associated with yoga as a form of exercise, yoga is also about being aware, mindful and present. Yoga helps us to connect fully with our mind and makes us more effective in our careers. More importantly, it helps us to achieve peace of mind. I first started practising yoga in my twenties and it really resonated with me – although it does take a while for us to learn how to relax and relieve tension. No matter what life throws at me yoga is my constant and helps me to tackle any obstacle. It has taught me what is important – fulfilling my life – being kind – being compassionate to other people around me. It makes me a better person.

Teachers are dealing with younger people who have lots more energy and keeping up with their needs and your own daily routine is hard. Yoga can help to manage these demands in a physical, mental and emotional way. It's a whole practice for the whole of us. Anything that makes their job easier, more effective, and makes them happier has got to be a positive for them and the pupils they're teaching."

Hannah and Bridget are leading workshops at Leeds Trinity University's NQT and Early Career Teacher 'Career Illuminations' Conference on Thursday 27 June. The conference will support career progression, showcase invigorating ideas within the education landscape and provide NQTs with an opportunity to network with like-minded professionals. Read more here.

*Eyres, C. 2015. The Elephant in the Staffroom. Oxon: Routledge.