Battling Burn-Out

Samuel Owens

"Your life force is running out."

So went the warning of a coin-operated video game called "Gauntlet". As a solitary player or one of four possible players, this menacing announcement told you that the monsters had nearly beaten you. Upon hearing this, you knew it was time for another "life", another quarter or maybe even another game.

This is what it's like when we teachers are about to "burn out". We've taught valiantly against such monsters as "monotony" and the ogres of "office politics" but there's a voice saying that there isn't much fight left in us. What will we do? Will we bounce back in the next round? Will we dig into our pockets to find sufficient resources for another play? Will we move along to the next game in the career arcade?

Unlike many colleagues, I don't want to change careers. I like teaching English. Furthermore, my pocket is full. I'm able not only to support my family but also the families of my creditors. However, in spite of my good salary and benefits, I feel my enthusiasm waning. Daily duty among the educationally unmotivated has steadily drained my mental, emotional, and even spiritual resources. Soon "the force" will no longer be with me. Somehow, I've got to score another "life" to remain in the game. The question is how?

Most teachers find themselves in this situation periodically. Since moving to the Middle East, I've faced this problem several times. My first attempt to avoid burn out was to take on a new task. My school was looking for teachers to join a curriculum development committee to produce culturally relevant, in-house material. A colleague encouraged me to join, so I did. For about nine months, I worked only on this committee, taking a well-timed break from the classroom. The challenge of creating useful and interesting material helped me tremendously. When my part in the project was completed, I felt ready to get back in the classroom.

Later, when my stamina was declining again I realized that part of my problem was not merely battling adverse teaching situations. Reluctantly, I admitted that I was being subtly sabotaged by my peers. Not maliciously. They weren't meaning to do it. They were simply "venting", "commiserating", and "telling it like it is". Like a tornado watcher, I stood by as the dark clouds gathered. Before I realized what was coming, I was caught in a whirlwind of negativity. Grumbling had become my second language and my L2 community was dragging me down. Consequently, I went into self-exile. I cut out trips to the cafeteria for coffee talk. I avoided mass mailings from known dissidents on staff. Whenever whining reached toxic levels in the office, I tuned into a CD and dropped out. All this and large doses of encouragement from my wife allowed me to get a grip on my degenerating attitude. My strength renewed, I returned to (im)polite society.

You're reading my most recent effort to stave off a melt down. As "Spring Fever" turns into the "Summer Time Blues", student motivation and institutional morale seems to be plummeting. "Vacation" is a mantra that I hear teachers chanting in the hallways and offices in an effort to help them keep it together. However, I am starting to come apart. Feeling a bit dull-witted, I'm scrounging around for something stimulating to keep me professionally engaged. I've been reading research and trolling the Internet for articles on burn-out. I've also been searching for avenues of professional development that are more than just steroids for my CV or feathers in the institution's cap. Recently, I decided to try to write an article or give a presentation about dealing with professional lethargy.

As you can see, I've attempted to stay alive by: taking on new, challenging tasks, avoiding negativity and engaging in some form of professional development. While these schemes have worked in the past, experts on motivation say that variety is also necessary to keep jobs interesting and people motivated. So, I'm on the look out for other strategies to employ the next time I hear that voice warning me that my "life force is running out."

Anyone out there got a quarter?

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & Articles© Samuel Owens 2002
Samuel Owens began his teaching career in Eastern Europe in 1994. After receiving his MA in English (ESL/EFL emphasis) in the United States, he returned to Eastern Europe. Recently, he's been living and working in the Middle East.