Bad years happen. It’s hard to go many years in any career without a few slumps. But in the moment, those bad years can feel impossible to survive. In this post, I hope to share a few mental health tips for teachers who might be having a bad year.
Mental Health Tips for Teachers #1: Beg, Borrow, Steal, or Buy Your Lesson Plans
When you’re having a bad teaching year, the first thing you need to do is to get as much off of your plate as possible.
The quickest way to do this is to eliminate some of your planning.
A great lesson can take me hours to create. I need to gather the content, put together slides, make everything pretty, create an activity, think of an exit ticket, etc. It’s a lot even when you feel great. But when you’re already feeling down, this can be impossible.
So don’t do it.
It’s ok some years to just get by. You don’t have to be Teacher of the Year every year. Sometimes survival needs to be the goal.
So get your lessons somewhere else. Know a teacher who already taught your class? See if she’s willing to share her plans.
Try and salvage what you can from your school’s textbooks or canned curriculum. It might not be your students’ favorite lesson ever, but it meets the curriculum and has also already been approved by the district. (This has the added bonus of not getting you in trouble if you’re in a conservative school.)
Try to find a free unit online or in a teacher Facebook group.
And if all of that fails, buy a unit on Teacher Pay Teachers. Your mental health and hours of your time are totally worth that money. I promise.
Mental Health Tips for Teachers #2: Grade Less
The next best way to get some of that workload off of your desk is to grade less. You really don’t have to grade all of the work your students do!
I know that when I was in the classroom, I couldn’t get my students to do anything unless they thought there was going to be a grade attached. That meant requiring notes any time I taught a lesson and even giving them exit tickets for independent reading.
When you have to grade every activity students do, you’ll spend hours every week doing just that.
Instead, find a system that works for you to cut down on grading.
If you have repetitive activities (like bell ringers or exit tickets), maybe you only grade those every other time.
If you want students to do some practice work, but don’t want to grade it, maybe grade it on completion instead of mastery. Or maybe you even just put a checkmark at the top and hand it back to students.
When it comes to work you have to grade well–like an essay–create systems to cut down your time. For example, I saved common comments like “missing a comma here” or “fix citation” in my Google Classroom comments. Then, all I had to do was type a few letters to create a comment that was specific and helpful for my writers.
You can even have students swap papers and grade one another’s work for low-stakes assignments.
Grade what is important, but try to cut down on everything else.
Mental Health Tips for Teachers #3: Lean on Your Teacher Friends and Community
Sometimes, the only things that get us through a difficult time are the people around us.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you might be tempted to spend your whole lunch working in your room. But this might be the time when talking to your coworkers during lunch will do you the most good.
If you’re lucky enough to have great coworkers, spend time with them. They’ll understand your struggles and any complaints you have about the current year. They might also have some solutions or resources to share.
You don’t want this to become a time to just complain, of course. But finding a sympathetic ear from someone who truly understands can be therapeutic.
If you don’t have colleagues you can lean on, try joining a teacher Facebook group instead. These groups are a great place to find solutions to professional problems. There are even teachers in these groups sharing lesson plans, useful websites, and teaching ideas.
And lastly, if you need someone to talk to, there’s no shame or harm in seeking out a professional. Check your insurance plan or give HR a call–chances are therapy is even covered in your insurance.
Mental Health Tips for Teachers #4: Update Your Resume
Sometimes a bad year is just a symptom of a bigger problem. If your entire school or district has become a toxic place to work, it might be time to seek greener pastures.
Keep your resume and cover letter updated. Discreetly ask some colleagues if they’d be willing to be a reference or to write a letter of recommendation.
Then, see what other options are available. Who knows. The district next door might be hiring and paying better.
Or maybe you’re ready to make a switch from an in-class teacher to an instructional coach or dean.
Sometimes, just changing your role or your building is enough to refresh yourself and bring new energy into your career.
And if you suspect that you might need an entire career change, that’s ok too. Teachers are shamed for not wanting to be teachers forever even though tax accountants aren’t shamed for not wanting to be accountants forever.
If you’re thinking about making a change in your career, I highly recommend checking out the work by the Teacher Career Coach. She has resources for teachers looking for a change inside or outside of the classroom.
It’s ok to want to make a drastic career change; it doesn’t make you a horrible person.
Mental Health Tips for Teachers #5: Use Your Sick Time
Lastly, when life is stressful and overwhelming, you need to be kind to yourself. Feel free to use your sick days for mental health–not just physical health.
Don’t feel guilty for taking a day for yourself. Resting, taking care of yourself, and doing what you can to prevent burnout means better teaching late on. It’s important.
I know too many educators who hoard their sick time. When they finally retire or decide to leave for another district, they have more than they can use and the time goes wasted.
Your sick days are part of your compensation package. If you’re not using them or saving them for a specific reason, then you’re effectively taking a voluntary pay cut.
Take a day. Rest. Clean your house. Do something that brings you joy. It’s ok.
Trying to push through or teach at your very best when you’re stressed and overwhelmed is a guaranteed way to burn out.
Trust me, you’re not going to be teaching amazing lessons if you’re working through burnout. And allowing burnout to settle in might even mean having to leave the profession altogether.
If you want a long career–or just to survive this year–taking care of yourself needs to be your number one priority.