Thursday, October 31, 2013

How to Avoid Burnout as an English Teacher

The first week of instruction of the new term is nearly at an end, and I feel like a new kind of teacher. Right now, I'm very enthusiastic not only in my demeanor and energy in front of the class, but also in my preparation, understanding the material and whole attitude towards teaching. It's a good place to be! The students also have come off a three-week break and are more attentive than usual. Now, I understand that as the term progresses, the latter will drop off. The students will get bored of school and might get bored of me. It happens. One might think my enthusiasm might diminish as well, but I'm not concerned about that for two reasons. First, gotta live in the moment. Second, last term, I think my skills, energy and power to hold teenagers' attention actually increased as the term progressed.

This improvement towards the end of the term likely had something to do with learning the job. I've never taught before this year, and I had to figure out what I was doing. I learned what works and what doesn't. I learned class control. The stick and the carrot. Techniques like not standing in one spot while lecturing, and how to use my voice to both command attention and be understood by beginning to intermediate English speakers. Yes, by the end of the term, I had become a teacher (admittedly, I've still got lots to learn).

Now, I'm very excited to apply my new found proficiency for an entire semester.

Mind you, I am aware of the phenomenon of burn out. Many teachers, both ESL teachers in a foreign land and teachers in their home countries, start out enthusiastic and gradually get worn down by the challenges of the profession to the point where it becomes a grind, a job, a paycheck (and not a very good one at that). They become jaded and uncaring. They resent the students and administrators. They complain all the time. I've only been doing this six months, and I've already seen it in others. 

That sort of happened to me in my last profession, but on the upside, it took fifteen years for it to happen. Heck, I've only got 20 years of working left in my life; I'll do what it takes to keep burn out from becoming a factor.

So far, in my limited experience, I see two attitudes that need to occur to keep this level of enthusiasm up. Mind you, I say 'occur', as neither can really be forced; they're hard mindsets to just adopt on cue. First, is you have to love your subject matter. A genuine interest in what you're teaching makes a big difference. Since I was a kid, I've loved words. You can tell by these lengthy blogs I write I'm a fan of the English language. How things fit together. The subtle differences in definitions that can make all the difference in what you're expressing and your ability to make your English more interesting through using synonyms. When it's okay to use a sentence fragment for affect.

One of my pat lines I tell my students, and maybe through repetition I've come to believe it myself, is that my FAVORITE PART of English is the use of prefixes and suffixes! In a couple of my classes, a third of my lessons are about prefixes and suffixes. When the teacher is excited about something, the students tend to be as well, and I hope I've instilled in some of them at least, a sense of how cool and amazing prefixes and suffixes are.

Why are they cool and amazing? Well, think about it! It takes something as weird, complex and irregular as the English language and gives you a tool to take it apart and understand it better. Take one word, stick this or that onto it, and you have an entirely different word, and as long as you understand the root word, you know the new one! It's formulaic! How cool is that!?

When it comes to English, perhaps the only thing that excites me more than prefixes and suffixes is etymology, and maybe one day I can teach a class on that.

The second thing you need to have to avoid teacher burnout is a love of your students. As I've already mentioned, subtle distinctions in meaning mean a lot in the English, and I'd be hard pressed to find a word more complicated in degrees, distinctions and dimensions that the word 'love'. Perhaps I should say you need to care about your students. Generally. What have you. Point being, you have to want your students to succeed, not because it's your job, not because the school looks good when they do, but because... well there's lots of explanations as to why:

  1. (Epigentic) He or she is a young human being and you, as a more experienced human being, feel a biological need to maintain the health of the species by ensuring they learn when they are young.
  2. (Spiritual) Love thy neighbor; teach thy neighbor's kids. It is my dharma to be a guru, and for the love of God, I fulfill my dharma.
  3. (Parental) These are my boys! I don't have kids, but in some ways, I now got 300 of them.
  4. (Personal) They remind me of me at that age, and if (or when) some teacher had said or done this for me...
  5. (Academic) My expression of love for my students is an extension of my love of knowledge and learning

A quick note on number 4 up there. I don't remember much from my interactions with my high school teachers some 25 years ago, but one exchange that stands out was with my senior year English teacher. I shoulda been in the AP English class, but because I had gone overseas junior year, I got clumped into the general classes. I had a bad attitude about English in my final year of compulsory education. Half my classmates couldn't string a coherent paragraph together if their life depended on it, whereas I thought I was going to be a professional writer. Maybe. I wasn't sure. In any case, I didn't do my homework. I didn't care. I was above it all, or at least I pretended I was. My teacher that year, whose name escapes me, was a 50-something man, a lifelong teacher. One day, he came to me after I'd failed once again to turn in a homework assignment and said something I'll never forget.

“Joko, you could be the next Hemingway if you just applied yourself,” he said before explaining that applying myself meant I should turn in my homework on time.

Again, more than half my classmates wouldn't have even known who Hemingway was, so this small recognition on his part made a huge impact on me at the time and for the rest of my life.

Teachers... High school teachers... if they love their students enough to react to not turning in homework with the care and attention that my high school teacher did, can make a big difference in a kid's life.

My senior year English teacher could have come at me angrily and punished me for not turning in my homework. That's sorta how things are done here. Punishment first. If I say he didn't because he loved me, it's only because he loved all his students.

I endeavor to be like that teacher of mine, all those years ago.

Here's a video from this week's Seasons of Ukulele community.  Since it's Halloween, the theme was 'body parts'.



  1. Good for you! I think I tanked as an art teacher because although I loved doing art, I didn't think it was essential to all people. I saw it as a chosen recreation for most.

    But when I was teaching the McGraw Hill Number Skills course, I did a good job, enjoyed it, and had excellent reviews from my students. one major difference was that I felt, and so did the students, that I was teaching something that they could use to make their work and life better.

    English as a foreign language is a very useful tool and you are teaching something that will make their lives better.

    Sorry the pay is not so good.

    1. Ironically, today, the first homework assignment of the year was due for my 11th graders. Of the 22 students, 6 of them handed it in. They can't ALL be the next Hemingways!


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