As the saying goes, there's tired…and then there's teacher tired.
I mean, I am teacher tired as I write this over Labor Day weekend! I’ve been back for three weeks now, one week without students prepping for the year, and two with students - and I feel like I’ve crash landed into three days of bliss. It’s been great going back to school - I’m very glad to see the kids, see colleagues, have the energy of being on a schedule and in a new year - but there really is no tired like teacher tired, especially back to school teacher tired.
Yes, I know that other people in demanding professions deal with extreme fatigue as well, but this blog is about teachers and helping them navigate our unique circumstances. Other professions are going to have to get their own spokesperson, because I’m yours.
Want to listen to this message instead of read? You can hear the audio version in my podcast or click the Mp3 below.
I used to think there was something wrong with me because of the teacher exhaustion I would feel at the start of the school year - and honestly, throughout the year. Teacher tired may be extreme those first couple of weeks back, but it really continues throughout the year to varying degrees. I thought that maybe this was proof that I was in the wrong profession, that I couldn’t handle the demands of teaching.
Being teacher tired doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good teacher or that teaching isn’t for you, because there are things about teaching that aren’t good for anyone and need to change or be viewed through a different perspective.
Teacher exhaustion doesn’t do anyone - teachers, students, or schools - any good. It’s just a recipe for more teachers facing burnout and more teachers feeling they have lost their purpose or desire to teach. There are demands you shouldn’t be able to handle because they are outrageous. I said what I said.
But back to teacher tired and how it’s different from just everyday “Yawn, I think I need a nap.” Being a teacher is exhausting - you are NOT imaging things. This is how I feel when I’m teacher tired, and you probably can relate:
Fuzzy. I feel fuzzy, and not like Berkeley the Bear cuddly fuzzy. I guess a better word may be static like - I just can’t clearly focus on anything, verbal or visual. Everything just starts to run together.
My reaction time is down. Way down. I drop stuff, don’t pay as close attention, and start making careless mistakes.
My reaction time is down, but I am WAY more reactive - meaning that little things are more likely to upset me, I’m more likely to explode (yeah, I’m a real person, I get mad sometimes) or cry or get upset in general. It’s like everything I’ve learned about managing emotions and regulation from living on this earth for 41 years goes OUT the nearest window. (And I don’t mean yelling at students, although I’ll admit I am less tolerant of certain behaviors when I’m teacher tired and I use my big teacher voice. I’m more reactive in my personal life when I’m off duty, and I release how I’m feeling onto someone else).
I’ve already touched on this with feeling fuzzy, but it’s worth repeating that I can’t focus - not even on simple household tasks. It’s like my motherboard is completely overloaded.
I get very anxious and things that I normally wouldn’t be bothered about suddenly seem huge. An impending sense of doom kicks in.
And perhaps worst of all, when I’m teacher tired…I have trouble falling asleep! I can’t turn off to let my body rest and repair because I’m so caught up in how I’m feeling and if it’s really teacher tired or if it’s time to hit up WebMD for a diagnosis.
Which leads to the most unfortunate things about when I’m in teacher tired mode…I can count on catching some kind of sniffle, cold, or other revolting virus because my body can’t repair itself or fight it off.
Does this sound like you??? I hope not, but I am sure that if you have taught for a week or more, you know these feelings all too well. Teacher tired tends to have similar symptoms regardless of grade or subject you teach.
So let’s talk about why - besides the obvious - teaching is so exhausting.
Teaching is its own brand of decision fatigue. Standing, talking, listening, teaching, correcting, writing, creating, disciplining…you’re a one-woman or one-man circus act. It’s very little time to yourself to process or recoil during the day - and after eight hours of that, day after day, it quickly takes its toll.
Also - this is especially true at the start of the year - you possibly (if you aren’t on a year round schedule, but even then…) are coming off of an extended break where you weren’t on a strict schedule, didn’t have 20-30 kids in your personal space at once, and could pee whenever you liked. It was almost…adult like, for a few weeks or months.
Then suddenly - BOOM! Back in action - no easing in to it, you’re back full force in the school zone (and kiss that free pass to the bathroom goodbye). Even if you did work this summer in some capacity, school setting or not, it probably wasn’t at this intensity. That jolt to your body and soul would make the most hardcore business CEO run and hide on the last seat of a school bus.
All that to say - teacher tired is for real, you aren’t less of a teacher for feeling it, and it’s understandable if you feel like the melting emoji right now.
So what do we do about teacher tired? Because living in a state of exhaustion and extreme fatigue is no way to teach and certainly isn’t going to make students learn better.
There are LOTS of things that need to happen to make teaching more sustainable, but we’ve got to do something in the meantime if you want to have a healthy, happy existence. Your health matters. You are NOT a martyr - please check out this post on boundaries and the martyr mentality, because the mindset that you have to accept feeling poorly and being brain fried is just a one way ticket to burnout. When you don’t get enough rest and you operate in a state of perpetual teacher tired, your immune system is weakened and you WILL get sick. Sick teachers, sad teachers, and unhappy teachers aren’t what is best for you OR your students.
Okay, how do I avoid teacher tired? Maybe it’s not about avoiding it, but how to contend and prepare for it. This is how I have come to deal with teacher tired over the years, so I can still love teaching and keep myself well:
Accept that teacher tired WILL happen. It’s not a reflection of your abilities when you have extreme fatigue.
It’s the nature of the beast that is teaching everyday with the demands it brings. You are not a superhero (you can also learn more about superhero syndrome in this podcast episode). Those feelings you have of being unable to concentrate, crying, stuck on the couch and not willing to get back up…that’s a normal response to the amount of stress you’re under. Normal, but unacceptable. Like I said, things need to change in teaching - we’re just going to work together to get through it in this moment.
Anticipate how teacher tired is going to make you feel.
It’s a bit like preparing for an inclement weather event. I think of it as emotional preparedness. This involves taking action and doing some things preemptively so when the teacher tired hits, I’m not without my emergency kit, so to speak. So that means:
Talk to your spouse or partner (if you have one) about what you need in order to get through the teacher tired.
No one knows what it’s like to live in your body but you. If you are both teachers…well, then you’re both going to need to talk about what is best to sustain each other through an exhausting period. I know that it’s difficult to make a non-educator understand what it’s like to feel the way you do, but you do need to (calmly) explain what you go through when school starts and the help that you need in order to stay present and healthy for your relationship and for yourself.
Think about what meals will be easy to have on hand when you're too teacher tired to eat and prepare those first weeks back to school (or when it’s time for report cards, or the holidays…).
I also think about what I want to bring with me to eat during the day to keep my energy up (NOT junk - I am actively working on bringing healthy food to school to eat and not emotional foods with no nutrition). While I’m not the MVP of healthy eating, I do try to stock up on produce and decently, acceptably healthy frozen foods to have on hand for when I know I will be too tired to fed myself well.
Plan what you're going to wear and have it ready when you feel teacher tired coming on - because that usually means you won't even be able to match socks at some point.
Hey, it’s one less thing to think about. I make sure I’ve got what I need clean for that two week stretch (or whatever stretch it may be during the year) so I don’t need to do an emergency load of clothes. (And maybe the lack of sock matching skills is just an area where I'm lacking...)
I go into why I don’t bring work home anymore in this post on what kept me from quitting teaching, but when you're operating in extreme teacher tired mode, be even more firm about not doing school work outside of when it’s required.
Otherwise, my brain would never repair itself and I would just run myself into the ground until I was unreasonably emotional, depressed, and resented what teaching was doing to me (when it was partly me doing it to myself). This also includes not thinking about teaching. No laying in bed ruminating about what I need to do tomorrow, or thinking of new things, or, or,…no. I actually will tell myself “no” when I’m in bed and start doing that. Otherwise, my brain won’t turn off and I’ll finally go back to sleep…thirty minutes before my alarm is going to go off. I seriously say (to myself) “Shh, go to sleep.”
Schedule fewer personal commitments and activities when you're combating teacher tired.
I know that is more difficult to do when you have children of your own who have activities (but…I think kids are way over scheduled as it is). Back to school is hard on everyone, including kids who are getting back into being on a schedule. Free time to play and be and just relax is just as if not more important than keeping anyone - young or older - with a full activity calendar. Quality beats quantity every time.
And the last thing thing to combat teacher tired is to stay active.
Which seems to contradict having less to do, but this is more about moving my body than keeping busy. Over the summer, I tend to be more consistent with exercising and being outside - I’m not on a school schedule, the weather is nice (hot but nice), and I have more time to focus on my personal needs. I love to walk in the evenings - it grounds me, improves my mood, and keeps me moving even when I’m not feeling so great. So even when I’m teacher tired, when I don’t even want to walk upstairs to get in the shower, I’m willing to slink like a snake off the couch if it means I don’t have to take another step…I go for a walk. Sometimes, it’s a short walk, especially when the sun starts going down earlier and it gets colder. But I have noticed when I make myself move, even when teacher tired is running rampant, I will feel better. I’m less irritable, because it stabilizes my mood. I’m proud of myself for doing something healthy and good for myself. And, it helps wear out my physical self to match my mental self so my body is equally tired when it’s time to go to be and I stay asleep! YAY!
So to review, this is how I tango with teacher tired. I’m still tired, but I’m doing things to keep the fatigue from sinking my battleship:
Above all, communicate to your spouse, significant other, or partner about what you go through when you are in the throes of teacher tired. They may not understand perfectly, but there's no way they will know what you need (and why you're crying) if you don't have an honest discussion about how you feel.
I accept that teacher tired is a thing, but it doesn’t mean I’m lazy or incompetent. I’m just dealing with crazy on a minute by minute basis.
I anticipate how teacher tired will impact my life and take action to keep from being a sobbing, cranky, miserable mess. And you’re sitting on your ivory chair over there saying that you never feel that way as a teacher…well, good for you for having anything ivory because I would NEVER keep that clean. And yes you do, too, feel that way way so get off your ivory chair and come sit on the dirty carpet with me.
Think about what you need to have on hand to eat to get through the next few weeks of fogginess. Simple, healthy-ish foods that can be unthawed or are preprepared in some way.
Have your clothing ready and clean. Back up outfits wouldn’t hurt.
Turn off from school and be even more firm about your boundaries when you are teacher tired. Overloading yourself will not make you a better teacher or help you power through teacher tired. It’s just going to make you crash harder.
Schedule fewer things when you are teacher tired fog fatigue. Having a simple evening routine is very underrated. Kids benefit from having time with you at home just as much as a full social and sports schedule - and it can help everyone get adjusted to back to school.
…and move your body. Walk. Do yoga. Lift weights if that’s your thing. It doesn’t have to be overly strenuous, but physical activity gets the brain chemicals that make you feel good circulating and helps prepare your body to want to power down and hopefully get a good night’s sleep.
And just in case you need to hear it…Rest is not earned or deserved. Rest is a right.
Teacher tired is for real and will really wear you out. If we want kids to learn, we need teachers in front of them who are healthy, happy, and whole. While there are things that need to happen in education to relieve teachers of the mental load that leads to exhaustion, addressing the impact of teacher tired is an inside job. Sometimes change doesn’t start with the source of the problem. Sometimes it starts with us.
One thing you don't need draining your teacher battery is classroom management at the start of the school year. Did you get your copy of The Great 88: Rules, Routines, and Expectations to Go Over and Over? It's a free checklist of ALL the classroom management things you need for back to school season! Get your copy below!