Feeling burnt out is a problem most experienced teachers are particularly susceptible to it. How to know if you’re feeling overwhelmed? Just ask yourself this: do you sometimes find yourself snapping at students for asking off-topic questions even though you don’t mind answering such on most days? Do you find that traffic jam is a minor nuisance on your ‘good’ days but can send you spiraling down into a mental breakdown on your ‘bad’ ones?
These are all symptoms of being overwhelmed. Mental burn-out has to do with feeling rushed – if your day is planned to the very last second, even a minor interruption can have a tremendous effect on your daily life. Think about it: if you’re engaging your class in a well-paced lesson, an off-topic question is fine but can completely ruin your plans if you have to go over a whole chapter of the textbook in less than 10 minutes.
Not having enough time results in you feeling highly overwhelmed, which in turn stresses you out so what’s the solution? It’s simple: avoid over-scheduling. This is known as leaving ‘buffer’ time – some space for errors and unexpected delays because, let’s admit it, life often happens as it happens, regardless of our plans.
More often than not, we feel pressured to fill every hour of our day with an activity, so when we – understandably – fail to accomplish all the goals we’ve set ourselves, this fosters a sense of stress and pressure. Leaving some blank space can help you make sure you’re doing the right things in the right ways, and focus on quality instead of quantity.
However, how do you go about making buffer time if you don’t have any spare time, to begin with? The key word here is making – as a teacher, it’s highly likely that you already have a busy day ahead, with little to no time to even take a breather. But building buffer time into your schedule is critical to not only your performance but your mental health as well.
One way to stop feeling overwhelmed is to change your mindset. Most people, and teachers in particular plan their day according to an ideal schedule – if things go right, you should have about this time for every task on the list. But be fair, how often does this really happen? Planning for the best case scenario is a mental fallacy we all fall victims to that can create a sense of feeling overwhelmed: instead, you should account for the most likely scenario and plan your time around it.
You can start doing so by assuming every task will take longer than planned. If you think you can explain a problem in 5 minutes, give yourself 10; if you think you can reach the dentist’s office in 25, make it 30; when planning assessments, go for a shorter quiz instead of a test and a lab exercise for the same period so you can use the extra buffer time for unexpected questions or interruptions. In the worst case scenario, the activity will take about as long as you have planned, so when you’re done, you’ll still be on schedule instead of falling behind.
But more often than not, you might find yourself actually ahead of time and you ca
n use those couple of spare minutes to create a margin in your life. How you decide to use this buffer time is entirely up to you: you can start on your next task, if you feel like it, or just sit back, take in a deep breath and allow yourself to relax, even if for a couple of moments. I have a bit of a beachfront home and like to just gaze out for a while. If you don’t have a water view maybe you have a back garden or a serene image on your computer screen. You’ll find it super relaxing and it’s amazing how quickly the next task is accomplished.
It’s generally a good idea to apply the same principle to create buffer days. As a rule of thumb, aim for at least one buffer day per week to allow you to catch up with less urgent tasks that might have gone neglected over the past days. Think about all those minor, annoying things that keep on bugging you: unanswered snail mail, missed calls, unopened envelopes, that call to the insurance company you keep on forgetting… instead of feeling stressed throughout the week and trying to figure out how to cram everything in the few spare moments you have, give yourself ample time by creating a buffer day. Schedule only minor tasks on your buffer day so when you’re gone, you can either keep on working if you feel like it or enjoy a well-deserved break.
Think about what’s most important. Focus on those tasks that have the greatest impact and build your schedule around them. And remember: we are all human beings, so instead of beating yourself up when life takes an unexpected turn or a delay, learn to make the time to take a breather.