Dealing with Burnout and Exhaustion (Ep. 054)

Sometimes, February and March are the most difficult time of the year for teachers. It’s been a long year already, and the end of the year is still a long way off in the distance. So how do you keep from feeling those effects of teacher burnout? Tim and Andrew talk about how to recognize when you are starting to get burnt out (4:00), ways to keep from feeling overwhelmed (7:45), and how to keep those feelings from affecting your teaching (14:45). Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for Art Teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education and I’m your Host, Tim Bogatz. Teaching is one of the most visceral things you can do. The best teachers are the ones that are totally committed, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Teaching, so often, defines who you are, what you think about, how you act, and what you do. That’s amazing, because all of us are so proud to be teachers and we don’t mind spending a little extra time at school or a little extra money for supplies. Our going that additional mile to help the student whose been struggling. But, what happens when you begin to struggle yourself? What happens when your commitment to teaching and to your students becomes this overwhelming burden?

You just have this deep, deep fatigue and you can’t get out of it, no matter how badly you want to. It’s that kind of tired, where you just want to disconnect from life. You’re anxious and there’s this constant feeling that you can and should do more, even if you’re doing enough already. It’s this weird sense that you need to unplug, you need to get away from it all, but you just can’t stop worrying about all the things you think you should be doing. You’re overwhelmed. You look at a to-do list and you think that you’re never going to be able to get it all done, and when that happens, you start settling for lower quality work, just so you can check off a dozen more boxes, and get to the dozen below them.

The whole time, you have this nagging feeling that the list is never really going to go away. You’re slumping, teaching isn’t as fun anymore. You’re losing your creativity, your imagination, your patience, your enthusiasm for the daily challenges. In short, you’re burned out. So, how do you get out of that? How do you break the cycle of negativity? Get your mindset right and take care of yourself enough to move past those feelings of burnout. I’ve got some ideas on what this means, how you can deal with it, and I’ve got Andrew right here, for a face to face conversation, so let’s go ahead and turn on his mic and we’ll bring him on to talk about burnout.

Okay, everybody. A big change today, Andrew and I are recording in the same room. Usually we do it remotely, we’re talking to each other over the computer, but we are face to face today, so we’ll see if things are more exciting or if they change at all, but Andrew, how are you?

Andrew: I’m good, but it’s a little weird looking at your face when you’re talking to me. Usually, you’re just this like disembodied voice, so this might take a while to get used to.

Tim: I think we’re going to, yeah, get a little tired of each other, so we may be a little more combative, but we’re going to be talking today about dealing with burnout and what we can do to combat that. I’ll just start by asking you, personally, I know you’ve had a ton of experience teaching, different levels, different places, but have you ever personally experienced burnout? How did you know that that came about? What did it look like for you?

Andrew: We were kind of talking about this off mic, and I don’t know if I’ve ever hand burnout, but I’ve had other things, and maybe we’re getting into semantics and defining what burnout looks like, but I know I’ve had some moments where I’ve felt down, low, depleted, but I don’t know if it’s been … The few times that I can really point and say, “Whoa, I was really like down on myself, or down on my abilities, and feeling low energy, or whatever.” I don’t know if it was a result of, “Oh, it’s February and I’m so fried, and I can’t wait until spring break.” That’s usually not the case. I think the few times where I’ve felt defeated and down, it was actually early on, and maybe because things were not fitting the way I thought they were going to.

Like, I had high hopes for the beginning of the year or the beginning of the semester, and then it’s like, “Oh, crap.” It’s like this slap in the face of like, “Oh, my fantasy of what this was going to be like and the reality are not mixing,” so I don’t know if that’s burned out or if that’s just never even got started.

Tim: Yeah, it may just be kind of a disappointment or just kind of disillusionment, I guess. Like, for me, I think, I was starting to get burned out. Once upon a time, I think I was five or six years into teaching high school. It was tough because I just was spending so much time on school stuff, and even when I was outside of school, I couldn’t stop thinking about everything that I had to do. I was really dreading going to school in the morning, because it’s so overwhelming. You just feel like it’s piled on and that there’s really no way to kind of get out of that. So, I think that, for me, is what burnout looked like, and when I really got to that point where I’m thinking, “I don’t know if I want to go into school today.”

Like that’s when it really hit me. Like, “I need to make some changes here.” Let’s talk about if you are feeling a little disillusioned, whether it’s a short-term thing, or if you really are burned out, and you really need to make some serious changes. How do you think people can recognize that? What does it look like for you as a teacher? How does that affect your teaching and how do you think it affects your students?

Andrew: Well, I don’t know. I think I said, I’ve had some moments where I’ve been disappointed or low. I’m going to be honest with myself here, and this may sound like I’m blowing sunshine or I’m being immodest maybe, but I think I’ve done a good job of not letting that ever spill over and affect my students, because I think I’m a professional and it’s like even if I’m not feeling it, or I’m a little discouraged or defeated, I’m going to work my butt off to make sure that my students’ learning is as high as it can be, that their experience is as great as it can be.

I think, for me, and maybe this is worse, is I felt like there were times where that whole work-life balance was out of whack, and I actually felt like that’s where it was more affecting me, feeling frazzled at home, feeling stressed at home, feeling like you’re spread so thin, so that’s where I felt like I realized, “Boy, I got to step back on some things, because I can’t even be, like you said, like be at home without being stressed or thinking about stuff.” That’s where I noticed I had to step back.

Tim: Yeah, and I think that is when things start to get to a kind of unhealthy level, when it’s affecting things at home, because I think a lot of us, as teachers, no matter what level you are, it’s just so hardwired into your brain that you’re always going to be on for students. You always want to do things right when you’re in the classroom, and it’s one of those places where you really can control everything that goes on. I think a lot of people, maybe if they are feeling burned out, it’s not going to affect their teaching as much, but it can manifest itself in other ways, outside of the classroom. Like I said, I think that’s where it can start to get a little bit unhealthy.

Let me ask you this. If it is starting to become overwhelming, if it is starting to be too much, what are some ways that you can cut back on everything that you need to do at school? How do you get out from feeling overwhelmed? How do you change things up and get rid of some of those requirements, some of those things that you have to do, so you can get back to where you need to be?

Andrew: Well, I’d be lying if I said I’m an expert at this, because it’s taken me a long time, I think, to realize that you don’t have to say, “Yes,” to everything. You can compartmentalize a little bit. I think we did a podcast a while ago, where we said, “It’s okay to say no.”

Tim: Yeah, I was just thinking about that one and how to say, “No,” to all those stupid requests.

Andrew: Yeah, and sometimes, I think, the longer you’ve been teaching, and I think I probably couldn’t say, “No,” to things when I was in my fourth year, or it felt like everything had to be done to the perfect level of everything. By year 12, you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to get to that when I get to it and I’m going to kind of strike a balance. Sure, there’s somethings that if I gave all of my time and attention to, I would do better,” but it’s the balancing act that I think you learn with more experience in teaching.

Tim: Yeah, I think so, and I think you need to kind of prioritize what you want to take on, so I think the biggest step is saying, “No,” to all those extraneous things. The things that don’t affect your classroom, that don’t affect you, that don’t affect your students. When people are asking you for all of those things that are outside of what you should be doing. I think that’s a good place to start. Just say, “Hey, I don’t have time for this. No, I’m not able to do that.” I think learning to say, “No,” is a big key there. Yeah, like I said, if you can just kind of pare things down. You don’t have to teach a spectacular lesson every single day.

Like it would be nice if you were able to, but if there are times where you need to cut back and maybe your presentation isn’t quite as good. Maybe your example isn’t all the way finished. It depends on how you do things in your classroom, but look for those spots where you don’t have to go 100%. If your lesson is 80% as good or 90% as good, with half the effort, give yourself permission to put in half the effort, because long-term, that’s going to be so much better for you. I think it’s worth, I guess, exploring those ideas, and seeing where you can cut back. I guess thinking a little bit more about that, just kind of taking care of yourself, making sure you’re not doing too much. For you, personally, what do you do to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself outside of school?

Andrew: Well, I try, as much as I can, to listen to my wife when she tells me that I’m too involved in stuff and over-committed. I’ve been doing a better job of that the last couple years. I think that’s the smartest thing I can do, but in all seriousness, I know a lot of people, not that this needs to be an exercise podcast, but a lot of people, they try to get that sort of physical activity. That energy. Making sure that you do something at least once a week that’s just for you. Whether it’s going out with friends. Saying on Friday, “Nope, I am not going to bring my work home with me,” every once in a while. Now sometimes you do have to do that.

Like, let’s not fool ourselves, but there’s just some night where it’s like, “You know what? If I don’t get a better night of sleep than I have been getting, I am like going to be paying for it later.” So, I’m kind of a night owl and I know you are, too. There’s plenty of nights where I don’t go to bed until midnight or one, because I’m doing other stuff or working on stuff. But, then, there’s usually about one night a week where it’s like, “8:30, I’m out. I’m good.” Because you just got to get caught up on that stuff and you got to know to take care of yourself. Like you said, it will start to affect your students if you’re not watching out for yourself.

Tim: Yeah, and I think you’re absolutely right. Where you need to take the time to take care of yourself, and it’s okay if you let stuff go a little bit at school, because I know I always felt the pressure of, “I have to get these graded. I have to get these rubrics filled out. I need to discuss these with the kids.” I came to the realization, eventually, that it’s okay to say, “Hey, guys. I’ve been super busy, I haven’t had time to grade your stuff. I’m going to get to it as soon as I can, but right now, it’s just not done.” They understand that. A lot of times, kids don’t even want their work back, unfortunately, but they’re never in a hurry to, I guess, get things back. And, so, that’s an easy place to cut back.

Like I said, if you can make lessons a little more simple. Everybody has those Sunday night stressed out emergency, “What am I going to do this week?” If you can just try and ignore stuff for that whole weekend, or just Friday before you go home, say, “Oh, what am I going to do on Monday?” Get it figured out real quick and then just leave everything at school. Come in Monday, deal with the rest of it once you get there. Maybe that’s for the whole weekend, maybe that’s just for a night. Maybe your computer and that pile of grading stays at school just for one night, so you can go out with your significant other, or you can spend more time with your kids, or you can hang out with your dog and go for a big walk. Whatever it is.

It’s worthwhile to just kind of leave stuff at school. Just make sure that you’re focusing on taking care of yourself and what you can do. I want to kind of shift it, but still taking care of yourself. What are some ways that you take care of yourself while you’re at school? Like, for me, there’s a lot of times where on the plan period, I just get up and take a walk. Just go outside for a little while. Sometimes after school, I’ll hang out for a little bit, but rather than being in my room, I get out and talk to people and go socialize, which is not me at all.

I don’t like people. I don’t like talk talking to people, but I know that it’s good for me, and so I make myself get up and do some different things. That way, you’re not trapped in your room. Get out of there for lunch every day and just kind of let yourself mentally take a break from everything that you have on tap, everything that’s overwhelming you. What about you? Are there things that you like to do at school to kind of clear your head or make sure that you’re in the right mindset for teaching?

Andrew: Yeah, so I think one of them is more so this year than in past. I’ve had more work or more opportunities to do my own work in the classroom, and what I mean by that is basically I’m just working on my demonstration pieces a little bit more here and there.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: I do feel like that has been sort of like a nice calming affect. Now I don’t want it to sound like I’m one of those teachers who works for 30 minutes on my own work out of like a 45 minute class period. I’m talking like three or four minutes a couple times a period, where the kids are cool, the students are all right, and even I’ve done a thing where like maybe the students are kind of getting on my nerves a little bit, and I’ve already told them, “You’re doing X, Y, and Z behavior wrong,” but it’s not the worst thing in the world.

Tim: Right.

Andrew: Rather than jump to battle, because we’re just going to keep butting heads. I’m just going to work on my artwork right next to them for like two or three minutes.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: Usually they’ll kind of simmer down a little bit. We get into some interesting conversations. Sometimes some of my students who have the most behavioral issues have some of the most interesting stories, shall I say. I think it’s helped keep me level to where I’ve had some behavioral issues this year. No joke, or no doubt about it. It’s kept me a little more even keel and not taking it so personal and not getting so upset about, “Oh, these students are just not connecting.” When I sit down and work next to them, there’s a reason why most of them are not connecting and not excelling in school. There’s one other thing I do that I think is weird, and sometimes I think I get in my own head too much, and I can kind of be my own worst enemy about what’s not right and what I don’t like, and I wish I could fix this, and yada, yada, yada.

I think a lot of times, it’s what you see in a classroom for 43 minutes, 45 minutes. At the end of the day, I really enjoy going out into the hallway with the mass of students. Just hundreds and hundreds students filing out of the building. I feel like I see a different side of them. That they’re, unfortunately, they’re happy, because they’re leaving, but a lot of the students will let their guard down and I can let my guard down a little bit. I actually think those moments of seeing your students in passing or outside of the normal classroom context has been where I’ve been able to build and rebuild rapport with my students, and it’s given me a better outlook on humanity than if I only judged humanity by the students I see during that 45 minute class period. It could be a little bleak sometimes, so I try to find the goodness in them.

Tim: Yeah, I like that, and I like just the idea of changing your mindset, so you’re not only focused on the behavior. Whether that is in your classroom or in the halls or after school. That’s a really good idea. Last question before we get out of there. If there are teachers out there who are feeling really burned out right now, just have too much on their plate. What do you think are maybe one or two of the most important actionable steps that you can take to kind of shift that momentum and maybe get yourself out of that rut? Get yourself back where you need to be, so you’re not feeling so burned out?

Andrew: I think my answer might surprise you. I feel like I’m trying to spin this forward, or imagine if I were really frazzled, and really upset, and I’ve had some lows this year, but I don’t think I’ve ever been that serious, but I think one of the things is like, weirdly enough, like try to limit how much sort of social media and screen time you’re having. I think when you are sort in this downward spiral of pessimism and bleak, and everything that’s wrong, I think it’s easy to rely on social networking and social media to echo that back to you.

Tim: Right.

Andrew: So, to get out of that stuff and find real people, like real, tactile human beings that you can like shake their hand, and talk to them, and maybe there’s a little bit of a venting session. Maybe there’s a little commensuration, but also, like talk about what you can work on and try to rely on fellow teachers in your building. Maybe teachers who are more experienced than you. Maybe it’s a coach and just say, “Listen. I’m struggling. I’m getting my butt handed to me this year.” There might be some veteran teachers that can give you some perspective, some context on how to get through it. They’ll kind of tell you that they’ve been there, too, and some tricks in how they got through it.

Sometimes I can rail and bemoan on people who talk about how much they love Fridays and hate Mondays and can’t wait until summer break. Oh, that ticks me off, but at the same time, there’s no shame in, “Hey, man. It’s 10 more days until spring break.” Like, use those little opportunities. A three-day weekend. A mental health day to get yourself kind of recharged and rejuvenated, and give yourself some perspective on everything.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s a really good strategy. And I would say, just one thing that always helped me when I was feeling super overwhelmed, and feeling really burned out, is just making a list. Like I have three columns on there of which, stuff I have to do, places I can cut back, and places I can cut out. If you really think really hard, “Do I have to do this? Where does this go in each of those categories?” Obviously, you have those responsibilities to your students, to your classroom, that you can’t and shouldn’t get out of, but there are a lot of places where you can cut back and there are more places that you think that you can cut out, and it’s not going to affect things that much.

So, I think it’s worthwhile to kind of reflect on literally everything that you’re doing and kind of put it into one of those three categories. Whether you have to do it, whether you can cut back on it, or whether you can cut it out. I think that really gives you some focus on getting things where they need to be. I think that is about our time right there. So, Andrew, I think this was a good discussion and I appreciate you having it with me. So, thank you.

Andrew: Hey, no problem. But, before you go, on-air high five.

Tim: Yes. All right. Andrew has a lot of good points there and I hope that our conversation gives you some good advice on how to deal with burnout, or better yet, how to take action before you’re to the point where you are feeling burned out. Before I let you go, I want to tell you about one AOE course that can really help you with burnout. It’s called Creativity In Crisis. It is an amazing course that not only helps you develop a more creative classroom, but it helps you rekindle your own creativity. I’ve taught the course multiple times, and every single time, I hear from teachers who appreciate the opportunity to get back to making art, get back to being creative, and most importantly, get out of their teaching rut.

To try new things and fight the affects of burn out. Hey, if this sounds like something you need or something that might help you, check out Creativity In Crisis on the It’s worth three credits. It runs for three weeks and there is a new course that starts the first of every month. Now, if I can just re-up one point before we go. Along with all of the advice we’ve given here about taking care of yourself, focusing on the things you enjoy, et cetera, it would be this. You need to stay away from the negativity. It’s so easy to be sucked into gossip, and moaning, and complaining about every thing wrong that’s happening. You just have to get away from that. It is defeating emotionally.

It is defeating mentally and it keeps you stuck in the cycle that, eventually, will lead to you becoming burned out. So, don’t be afraid to walk away from negative talk, to get away from complaining, and keep your mindset in the right place. Because when your mindset allows you to see past the temporary struggles, to see the big picture, that place where you love teaching again- that’s when you know you’re on the right track.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education with Audio Engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember, that you can sign-up for our email list at Last week, we sent out a survey about the podcast with a few questions for you. Just about what we do and how we can improve this show.

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