Friday, 15 June 2012

The worst thing about being a teacher

Being a teacher has its ups and downs, but the one thing I never get used to is saying goodbye and today I've had to do it twice.  This morning I had to say goodbye to my lovely International Diploma students at INTO - I was the invigilator for their final exam, and now they are all going back to their own countries for a well-earned holiday before continuing their degree courses at various universities around the UK. Then this afternoon I had my last IELTS lesson with K, and I'll miss her so much. She's got her IELTS exam tomorrow and four gruelling A level exams next week, then she too will be moving to London to begin her degree after spending the summer with her family in China.

It's wonderful being part of students' lives for a time and helping them to achieve their goals, but I'm never prepared for the sense of sadness I feel as they move on to the next stage.  It doesn't last for long - after all, Facebook enables us to keep in touch with each other and it won't be long before I'm busy with my next groups of students - but it does remind me to enjoy and appreciate every day rather than complaining about how much marking I have to do!  My life is so enriched by the people I meet from all over the world, and I have learnt so much from the students I have taught over the years.

So, to those who I saw for the last time today: goodbye, have a wonderful summer, thank you for being my students, and I wish you the very best of luck!

Friday, 8 June 2012

Burnout - what it is and what to do about it

I can't believe it's already 8 June - and I haven't written a word on this blog since 24 May.  I've been up to my eyes in planning, marking, teaching and training, and I've hardly noticed the days passing.  I've always had trouble sleeping, but it's not been a problem during the last two weeks - in fact, I've fallen asleep relatively easily every night.  However... I've been so tired every day.  I feel like my iPhone battery - I run out of energy in no time at all.

This morning I was talking to T, one of my INTO students.  He's got an incredibly tough week of exams ahead of him next week, and he told me that the last day or two he has been completely wiped out, unable to do anything at all.  I can really relate to that, as I'm rapidly getting to the point where I'm just not able to focus on anything long enough to achieve the things I need to achieve.  I'm pretty sure that not only T and I, but also many of my other students, are suffering from the early stages of 'burnout'.

A psychologist called Maslach defines 'burnout' as a syndrome with the symptoms of exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy (that's how I'm feeling right now), and identifies 'engagement' as the opposite of this, characterised by the much more positive qualities of energy, involvement and efficacy (that's how I normally feel about my life and work).  I got this information from Wikipedia, but I'm too exhausted to give you the proper reference, and in any case it's not a reliable academic source ;-)

I think I have got this way from the sheer volume of work I'm doing at the moment, combined with possibly not taking good enough care of myself.  I've been too busy to shop for and cook good food, my apartment is a mess, and I've not been finding the time to relax and just do nothing.

I've got another two weeks before my holiday and my heavy workload is going to get even heavier next week.  From past experience I know that I'm at risk of catching a cold/flu/stomach bug and that could ruin my trip to Munich.  Many of my students have also got various types of exams and important essay deadlines over the next couple of weeks, and we all need to find ways to rediscover our energy, involvement and efficacy.

I've found a great website which gives some helpful advice about how to recover from burnout, and you can read all about it here.  If you're too tired to read it now, I'll sum it up for you: 
  1. Slow down.  Cut back whatever commitments and activities you can.  Give yourself time to rest, reflect, and heal.    I've just gone through my to-do list on my phone, and deleted quite a few things.  After I finish this, I'm going to do absolutely nothing for the rest of the evening, and only what is absolutely essential over the weekend.  Not easy when you're a perfectionist!  If you're struggling with your studies, try to focus on the essentials - throw away your revision plan if you can't cope with it and it's making you panic.  If you really can't afford to have the weekend off, use the timer on your phone to really, really focus on your studies for 15 minutes, and then do something to relax for 15 or 30 minutes.  You can do a lot in 15 minutes when you know that you can switch off your mind after that.  Repeat the 15 minutes of study if you can - and the 15 or 30 minutes of rest.  When you know that you're not taking in anything more, go for a walk, listen to music or chat to a friend - for real or online.  Get enough sleep, good food and some fresh air every day.
  2. Get support.  I'm lucky that my husband is happy to do anything he can to help when I get like this.  I always feel like I should be able to do everything, but I have to admit that I just can't.  If you're an international student away from your family and your closest friends, you may be short of people to turn to.  Try to tell somebody that you are not coping - someone you live with, or maybe one of your teachers.  Don't be afraid to admit that you need some support.  
  3. Reevaluate your goals and priorities.  I know that my most important work goal has always been to feel like I am the best teacher I can possibly be - the problem with that is that it combines with my perfectionism to make me never satisfied!  I know that I'm a much better teacher when I'm not worn out, so maybe I need to change my goal to something more like this: to be a good, happy and relaxed teacher who is still learning and not afraid to make mistakes. That feels like a kinder and more realistic goal.  If you're doing IELTS, or something equally stressful, try to remember that there are many paths through life which will bring you happiness.  You may feel like everything will fall apart if you don't get the score you need, but who knows?  Maybe Plan B will turn out to be even better than Plan A.
And now I'm off to sit next to my husband on the sofa (with the cup of coffee he has just made for me) and watch TV.

See you soon!