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COVID burnout: How instructors can manage stress caused by COVID-19

Burnout can be a dangerous mental health condition. If you feel like you’re struggling with burnout, you are not alone. This article contains strategies that may be useful, as well as links to mental health resources. Please do not hesitate to seek help! We are all in this together.

With the sudden impact of lockdowns during the Coronavirus pandemic, educators who spent their entire careers standing in front of students had to shift to an entirely remote classroom in a matter of weeks. In the wake of this shift, instructors who have spent years relying on traditional assessment methods have had to think outside the box, assessing students entirely online.

Remote education is not a completely new landscape. Still, the change in pace and volume of assessment required for online learning and the fatigue caused by remote teaching have led to instructors facing unprecedented burnout.

Fortunately, there are methods that instructors can use to manage themselves physically, mentally and emotionally during these times. COVID burnout is real. In this post, we’ll offer lesson planning suggestions, tips on remote instruction and how to organize yourself for working and learning from home that can be effective strategies to help you feel less overwhelmed.

How the pandemic led to widespread teacher burnout

In just two weeks, teachers from kindergarten up to post-secondary levels needed to revamp how they teach to accommodate 100% distance learning.

If it was not enough, instructors and students continue to be at the mercy of slow internet connections while working from home and a myriad of technical issues that plague remote environments.

Although many teachers were able to adapt, many have struggled to stay afloat. Some teachers feel incredible stress in the world of remote instruction.

Take, for example, Mary McLaughlin, an Ontario school teacher who has adopted a “round-the-clock” approach of monitoring students after a fatal gym class accident in school in 2006. When she started teaching again in September under the new pandemic protocols, she revealed that the memory of that accident kept coming back. Not being face-to-face with students made her job more difficult.

“When I look at those children, I would see the horror of that day many years ago,” she says. McLaughlin has also admitted that the demand for preparing both online and paper course material is overwhelming.

“The demand that my attention be divided between the students I have in front of me and the students who are online, it became untenable,” She says. “I know what can happen.”

McLaughlin believes that the stress she’s feeling has caused her to consider early retirement—at age 58—and she’s confident that she’s not alone.

“I know my colleagues are burnt out, and I don’t see it getting any better,” McLaughlin said. If you can relate to McLaughlin and her colleagues, then you’re not alone. It’s quite clear that COVID-19-related teaching burnout is the new normal and will continue to remain an issue for months to come.

Signs you’re dealing with instructor burnout

The danger of teaching burnout is that it’s insidious—it creeps into your physical, mental and emotional well-being and goes unnoticed until significant health changes appear. Recognizing the signs and taking action before severe effects take hold is essential.

Signs of teaching burnout

  1. A lack of enthusiasm and energy—just going through the motions and cycles of teaching
  2. More than the usual fatigue and exhaustion at the end of the day, or waking up feeling exhausted
  3. Failure to check necessary equipment/materials and ignoring small details
  4. A decrease in passion for teaching that students and colleagues themselves can recognize
  5. Arriving at the classroom (physical or virtual) at the last minute before it starts and leaving immediately
  6. Dealing with boredom related to the course content and a lack of commitment to the material
  7. Difficulty focusing on students’ questions and ignoring their comments
  8. Forgetting student’s names and essential details about their personalities, needs and abilities
  9. Loss of humour and the inability to smile when teaching
  10. A sense of dread when getting out of bed

Experiencing any one of these symptoms is not due to personality flaws or a “bad attitude”: they’re signs that you’re dealing with teaching burnout, and it’s time to take urgent stock of your self-care.

Practical tips to deal with teaching burnout

Fortunately, you are not alone, and strategies exist for handling teaching burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most effective way to start this process is to take a step back and examine both your approach to teaching and your routine.

Most importantly, remember that what you are feeling is normal, accept that you are not in control of the situation, and understand that you are not the only one feeling this way. When dealing with a mental health crisis such as burnout, it’s essential not to change everything at once, at the risk of feeling further overwhelmed. The best thing you can possibly do is take a break.

If a break is not within your reach, there are ways to help manage your mental health while continuing teaching. Here are five suggestions, many of which have been recommended by teachers. Start small by trying one thing one day and go from there.

Review & revise your routine

  • List everything you have to do at specific time slots to organize your schedule
  • Create a schedule of things you need to do that can be completed with more flexible timing
  • Group related tasks together and execute them simultaneously (i.e. sending emails, marking papers). This way, you can get more done at once.
  • Make sure to schedule a time for breaks, eating and self-care
  • Use technology to automate and streamline recurring processes (i.e. Crowdmark to make online grading faster and easier)

Check your workspace ergonomics

  • Keep your computer screen about 25 inches (arm’s length away) from your face
  • Practice the 20-20-20 rule to reduce eye strain—that’s looking at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes
  • Keep the contrast and brightness of your screen balanced
  • Adjust your seating and screen position so that you’re not slouching or engaged in the forward head posture
  • Consider the use of ergonomic keyboards and mouse to reduce strain on hands

Maintain a healthy relationship with parents (for K-12 instructors)

  • Establish boundaries when answering emails from parents (don’t respond at all hours of the day or night)
  • Avoid checking emails from parents and students at hours designated for personal time
  • Share positive things about students to parents and, when appropriate, inquire about students’ wellbeing
  • Thank parents for their hard work and assistance, especially when setting students in the virtual classroom
  • Express concern to a parent if a student appears to be lagging in their work instead of keeping it hidden

Practice appropriate self-care, both physical & mental

  • Establish a bedtime routine, exercise regularly and eat a balanced, nutritious diet
  • Use apps and technology to help you stay on track with these routines
  • Devote time to an artistic or athletic hobby each day
  • Take moments throughout the week for mindfulness activities such as journaling, meditation, puzzles, etc.
  • Carve out opportunites for mindful reflection or simple quiet time.

Connect with others

  • Speak with colleagues about teaching-related challenges and exchange ideas on how to minimize the burden
  • Meet with new individuals in virtual events or public ones where social distancing is possible
  • Schedule time to speak with your family members, friends and relatives offline
  • Connect with friends, family members and others who are not in your immediate household using messaging apps
  • Visit a mental health professional if you don’t feel comfortable sharing your frustrations with others

Put a stop to teacher burnout before it starts

Teacher burnout is an age-old problem in the education world. Just like remote learning isn’t a new endeavour for students and instructors, neither is burnout.

However, with students and teachers staying at home, wearing a mask if they are going out, or keeping up to date on social media, and feeling the anxiety that can come with “doomscrolling,” it’s easy to see how 2020 may be different.

With many private institutions and public schools across the United States and the world now having specific COVID-learning protocols in place for most of the school year, teachers at all levels can still feel overwhelmed. It will take significant effort and more cooperation from your colleagues, peers and others in your personal and professional life to ward off burnout.

It is possible to minimize the effects of burnout by adjusting your pedagogical approach and methods of self-management. Do what works for you, and don’t be afraid to abandon what does not. Putting yourself first will help to focus your energy.

Creating awareness is the best option to ensure you can manage your feelings and create hopeful moments in times when stress and anxiety may feel the worst.

For help dealing with a burnout-related mental health crisis: