For most of us this time of the year is a well-deserved holiday season. What do teachers do to clear their heads and unwind after a day, week, or whole semester of hard work? In this issue, Chris Mares, Aziz Soubai, and David Dodgson share with us their ways to restore energy.
“But you only teach six lessons a day and you have a guaranteed summer holiday…”
Ah, the common misconception that being a teacher is somehow an “easy” job!
We all know the truth, however. We know that those six hours in the classroom are intense, full hours; we know that those six hours are supported by more hours of planning and preparing; we know that those six hours are followed by marking and reviewing; and we know that those “guaranteed” weekends and holidays often include training and development.
We devote ourselves to the task regardless. We take it all on for the benefit of our students, coming in early and/or taking work home when necessary. For dedicated teachers, it can be difficult to let go.
But we have to let go sometimes… Work too hard for too long and the energy and enthusiasm needed to help ourselves and our students develop starts to wane. Maintaining that interest in development while also finding time to relax can be a tricky balance, so in this post I will share things I do at work and away from it to avoid burning out.
At work – Time to rewind
As mentioned above, a teacher’s day can be a busy one and we are often as keen as the students to head on home once the last lesson has finished. I worked for many years in a school that let teachers do just that but I often found that once I was home, my head was still full of thoughts about the classes I had taught and ideas for the next day’s lessons. It was then easy to fall into the trap of taking work home and, although I was physically at home, mentally I was still at work.
In my next job, the system was different. Teachers were required to stay behind after the final class for an extra hour. My initial reaction was that this was a terrible idea but I soon realised the benefits. For me, it was not so much the intended time to plan for the next day that had a positive impact but rather the chance to sit down and rewind – think about the day’s lessons, what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what I could do differently next time.
Now I find myself a few months into another job where once again we are free to go as soon as class is over. However, I find that I still stay in the teacher’s room for a while longer to reflect on the day and clear my head. How? Well, there are two main ways I go about this:
Writing a journal
Talking to like-minded colleagues
After a hectic day, finding a quiet spot to sit down and write my thoughts out on paper helps in a number of ways. First and foremost, it is cathartic – I revisit moments in class, positive and negative, and release them onto the paper. It also provides a record that I can come back to and use to reflect, develop, and inform future lessons. Finally, as I am the ICT Coordinator in my school, it is nice to take 15 minutes away from the glare of a PC screen or interactive board and put pen to paper (sometimes, I later take these journal notes to form the basis of my blog posts and articles meaning a return to the screen, but that’s another story!).
Of course, journal writing is something of a solitary act so it is good to take time to talk to colleagues who are also still present after the students have left. They are often around for the same reason as me and are more than happy to engage in a quick but fruitful discussion about the day’s teaching. This is a great way to not only release your thoughts for the day but also to hear about another person’s class, exchange some ideas and advice.
After Work – Time to Unwind
There was a time when I used to take work home – written assignments to mark, lessons to plan and materials to prepare for the next day- but no more! I make sure I use my time during the day to get all that done (and if there isn’t enough time, I speak to my line manager about it – say nothing and you will only get more work!).
It is impossible to fully switch off, of course. Ideas for activities in upcoming lessons still pop into my mind at random times and I do still on occasion talk about work with my family when I get home but I don’t let that take up more than a few moments of my free time.
In my current job, on some days I finish in the afternoon and on others I go home late in the evening. On the days when I finish early, there is ample opportunity to unwind and plenty of time to spent with my family. When I work evenings, however, the kids are often asleep when I get home and there are only a couple of short hours to unwind before heading to bed.
I recently purchased a fitness and activity tracker (one of those that you wear like a bracelet), which gives me data on my sleep patterns and it revealed an interesting insight -when I was working evenings, my quality of sleep was much lower than the other day. I woke up more often in the night and had fewer hours of “deep sleep”. I did a little research on this and found that my mind needed to be less active when I got home. I would often watch a football match or an episode of a favourite TV show but this would leave my mind buzzing right before bedtime.
I found the best way to relax was through another digital hobby of mine – video games. Now, you may be thinking that those would surely be just as stimulating, if not more so, than watching a TV show or a live match. It’s all a matter of the kind of video game you play. A fast-paced action adventure game will get your mind racing rather than relaxing but there are also games which don’t demand much of the player, or at least give the player the option of not doing much. So, sometimes, I log into World of Warcraft and simply go fishing or I load up Euro Truck Simulator (my current favourite) and just drive, admiring the scenic European countryside as I go. Not exactly demanding but that’s kind of the point!
Teaching is demanding for many different reasons. Any of us could quickly make a list of what it is in teaching that can tire or drain us, from the mundane to the serious. For example, the preparation, the teaching itself, the grading, the paperwork, the administrative duties, and the many side issues. All of these responsibilities over the course of time will sap us of our zest and spark and eventually we will burn out. For this reason, we must be preemptive and build effective unwinding into our lives. This is not an option. It must be done so that we have more energy, more enthusiasm, and are able to teach more effectively for longer.
I get tremendous pleasure from working with students and from teaching which is why I am still doing it after more than thirty-five years. Perhaps one of the reasons I still get such satisfaction is that early on I discovered the importance of unwinding. In my case this means recharging my batteries and getting rid of my baggage.
The google online dictionary offers some pleasant synonyms for unwinding: relax, loosen up, ease up/off, slow down, de-stress, unbend, rest, put one’s feet up, sit back, take it easy, take a load off. It also includes one of my students’ favorite weekend activities, “to chill”.
No one would disagree with the definition of “to unwind”, i.e. to relax, or the various synonyms listed above. However, for us, the beleaguered teachers, something more strategic and intentional is required.
First, let’s consider the goal of unwinding. Clearly, it is to empty our minds and bodies of all the accumulated stress we are carrying. Ideally this would recharge us so that when we return to teaching we are both engaged and excited by the prospect.
Second, let’s consider the different constructive ways we can unwind. As teachers, we vary tremendously in terms of our dispositions, lifestyles, habits, and tastes. As a result, we won’t all unwind in the same way. A dog walk in the woods might work for me but not for you. Some teachers enjoy watching TV while others prefer to read.
Another factor we need to consider is that we are all at different stages of our lives with different responsibilities but what connects us is that we all teach and we all need to unwind. What you do to unwind when you are young and single may be very different from someone who is older, or in a longstanding relationship, or with children.
Given the above, let’s get practical. There are many ways to unwind. Some you can do at your desk or at work, others you would do elsewhere.
You could simply focus on your breathing, take a shower, slump on a couch, run 5km, stretch, practice yoga, take up a new interest, renew an old interest, develop a new skill, join a club or group, cook more, read more, journal, blog, etc.
The important point is to make “unwinding” an intentional and regular part of your life whether at home or at work, or both. The first step is to think about your daily routine and to ask yourself if you unwind enough and if you feel you don’t, ask yourself how you reasonably could. Whatever it is, set yourself a reasonable goal, something you know you can realistically achieve, then monitor yourself over time and see if you are able to achieve your goal and whether it makes a difference.
Unwinding doesn’t always have to be done in the same way. It simply has to be done. You could decide to bake on Sundays and after four Sundays you might be done. That’s fine. Try something else.
The last point is that unwinding is something personal. How you do it is up to you. As John Lennon says, “Whatever gets you through the night it’s alright, it’s alright.”
I see teaching as a very hard and even nerve-racking profession, especially when you daily deal with a classroom full of unruly teens. This situation makes me literally consume all my energy and sometimes results in a burnout. To help myself restore my energy and recharge my batteries, I resort to activities that might seem strange and out of context. I say strange because maybe one would expect re-energizing pastimes like swimming, hiking, or jogging (which are fine, by the way, and I like to do them particularly during holidays). However, in this post I will be talking about my three specific habits which help me to relax and get rid of the stress, anxiety, and nervousness after a day or a whole week of teaching English to sometimes unmotivated EFL learners.
The first practice I engage in is writing poetry. Yes, it is unbelievable therapy and a huge remedy for all kinds of pain and problems. I try to put anything that crosses my mind on paper. I write about both bad and good experiences and try my best to wrap them in the form of beautiful musicality and rhythm. I’m quite a pedantic person, so I choose my words very carefully and this turns writing into an extremely painful (and joyful!) process. It is painful because I might spend a lot of time looking for the right word or an expression that serves the exact purpose I have in mind. It is joyful when the fight is over and I emerge victorious. There are some of my poems below and I wonder if you can sense my feelings while reading them…
The life turned sour
The life turned sour!
avoiding a bleak past I abhor
I stroll to the beach; swam ashore
the life turned sour!
My days filled with anger and pain
the sun’s warmth beginning to wane
thunderstorms and ferocious rain
The life turned sour!
looking at the moon distant and pale
like it is willing to cry and wail.
Of these pitiful sights
I don’t want more
the life turned sour!
Seeking a refuge, a little zone
to voice my feelings and moan
to fulfill my belated ambitions
to finish what I started before
The life turned sour!
finding answers is my mission
building a world of my creation
knowing where is the door? ?
The life turned sour!
I wrote a song
I wrote a song
cause I wanted to see what’s wrong
Why there is so much war?
people should love instead of abhor.
So much killing
that has no meaning
This conflict caused a lot of death
by men who have absolutely no wit.
This insanity must have an end
that’s the message I want to send
Love, peace and security
for you for me for all the humanity.
My second re-energizing habit is listening to music in loud speakers. I believe that music is a powerful tool to unleash one’s potential and creativity. There is a saying that “music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” and I believe it to be very true. Listening to one of my favorite songs, such as Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, boosts my motivation to keep working, increases my energy levels, and makes me totally relaxed. I mentioned loud speakers because they can make you enjoy the musical piece even more, with all of its hidden soothing sounds and the “spicy” bits which await to be savored.
Music has another strange and pleasant effect on my imagination and creativity. On some level, many of us might have experienced a writer’s block or met a hurdle that kept us from completing a task like writing an article, a dissertation, or a thesis. In this case, I do not continue working on the assignment but rather immediately divert my attention to calm music. Most of the time this strategy helps me get a fresh perspective and overcome the obstacle.
Another way to recharge for me has to do with watching inspirational movies, TED talks, and documentaries to learn about the world. This helps me a lot to get relaxed before facing another day of classroom challenges and humdrum. Luckily, these days the Internet is full of videos of this kind. I prepare a list of the topics or themes that I would like to learn about or that I believe will motivate and empower me. For example, I enjoy watching documentary films showing lions hunt in pairs or groups (cooperative hunting) in the wild. Such shows never cease to amaze me. Do you know, for instance, that these ferocious predators attack and kill hyenas but never eat them, and we still don’t know why that happens?…
The life of a teacher can be quite tiring but we should still live and enjoy every moment of it. No matter what job saps your energy, you should always remember to treat yourself to your favourite things and hobbies that make you feel good and ready for the day ahead.