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8 Strategies to Avoid Burnout When Teaching Online

Your writing teachers in high school may have told you to avoid clichés, but 2020 is certainly proving to be a marathon, not a sprint. It’s been a difficult year for many around the world, but in the teaching space, it’s also been a time to rapidly adapt to big changes, such as working remotely. As a classroom-based teacher in China, I was one of the many who shifted their classes online, which has now become the norm. We’re all doing our best to weather these transitions, but sometimes we experience online fatigue, so this article will lay out some simple processes to help you avoid burnout when teaching online.

If you’re new to teaching, you’ll want to get initial training and qualification with a TEFL certificate. You can explore our online TEFL courses to get started!

1. Set your working hours and keep them

Although it may seem like a “duh” statement, working too much is a ticket straight to Burnout Station. There is a pervasive perception, nevertheless incorrect, that the longer the hours one works, the more work one will get done. But in the case of online teaching, it’s not the case.

If you’re teaching with an online company, you may be working a flexible schedule and not know when your classes will be booked through the system that the company uses. The temptation can be to remain open to any class, at any time, simply because you don’t want to “turn down” work (especially if you’re being paid per hour or per class).

We discussed setting a schedule in an article that came out earlier in the crisis about maintaining work-life balance while teaching online from home, but it remains the #1 tip that we could give you in terms of how to avoid burnout when teaching online. In general, set hours that you work each day (i.e., Monday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Tuesday 4 p.m. – 12 p.m.), even if the actual “shift” has to swing from one day to the next. This remains the most common advice from those who work from home.

Allie, an online PalFish teacher, makes her own hours while working from Nicaragua

Allie, from the U.S., makes her own hours as a PalFish teacher working from Nicaragua

2. Maintain a sleeping schedule that is consistent

Online teacher burnout is also up because of the strain of working odd hours. This may be the first time that you’ve ever worked a night shift, in order to keep your hours consistent for your students who happen to be thousands of miles and 10-15 time zones away from your location. As a teacher myself, I’ve learned this firsthand and also heard from many of my colleagues that this is the most draining part of their work.

Working a night shift is psychologically and physically challenging, but it can be done with relative health if you find ways to keep your sleeping consistent.

  • Get into a routine; try to avoid a sleep schedule that “flips” from one day to the next.
  • Make sure that you invest in blackout curtains (or an eye mask).
  • It can be very tempting to sleep less than is healthy when working odd hours, but 8+ hours is important.
  • Whenever possible, try to wake when there is some daylight (harder in winter!) and follow your wake-up routine with tip #3, if you can.

3. Spend time outdoors whenever possible

Early in the pandemic, I read a meme that said, “Make sure you drink water and get some sunlight every day. You are basically a houseplant with complex emotions.”

That rang true at the time, and it’s even more important as the time drags onward. Studies have consistently shown that we humans need to have exposure to the outdoors in order to function at our best, and it is known that the brain and body use cues from the natural world to maintain equilibrium.

  • Simply letting natural light hit your eyes at some point during the day will help you to regulate your sleeping patterns (even if you have a “night shift” schedule) and reduce the potential disruption that sitting in front of a screen all day can do.
  • Get outside before or after lessons and make a point of getting outdoor exercise whenever you can. This is in compliance with almost all lockdown orders around the world, so even if you find yourself in that situation you can practice this type of self-care.
Krzl, from the Philippines, teaches English online as a freelancer in Chile.

Krzl, from the Philippines, a freelance online English teacher in Chile, takes the opportunity to work outside. 

4. Use habit-tracking apps to keep healthy

You may be able to get a grip on what’s causing your ESL teacher burnout by tracking your habits for a few weeks. Sometimes it may appear to us that we’re already doing everything that we can to remain healthy and mentally sharp, but there are hidden habits that aren’t actually serving us.

  • However, some people aren’t comfortable with giving over even more data through habit apps. In that case, you can also use an analog tracker such as those seen on Reddit’s subreddit The X Effect.

Setting a simple goal and tracking it each day for a month is a proven way to build resilience and good habits that help keep you from burning out.

5. Recognize and mitigate potential physical, mental, and professional hazards when working from home

It can be difficult to see the potential for danger in online teaching, especially since you may be teaching from your own home. But the negative effects of being overly sedentary, dealing with possible abuse directed at you or your students, or even just navigating cultural differences between you and employers may affect your physical or mental health during your time teaching online.

Bridge offers a course that will help you identify these risks and avoid them: Health, Safety, and Mental Attitudes while Teaching English Online Micro-credential course. In this course, the cohort of other teachers with whom you study will become a supportive network as well, a key help to avoiding teacher burnout.

6. Practice mindfulness through formal meditation or other means

It’s a simple thing, or so it seems.

  • Sit upright.
  • Remove distractions, such as technology.
  • Breathe.
  • Notice your thoughts, but don’t engage with them or judge them.
  • Come back to the breath.
  • Do this as often as you can, preferably 10 minutes or more each day.

Meditation and mindfulness were already having a moment of popularity among the heavy-hitters of industry, such as Google and Facebook, before the pandemic. This ancient practice, common in one form or another across cultures and times, is one of the best ways to hack your brain and keep yourself from burning out. It doesn’t need to involve chanting, incense, or any “woo woo” at all; the completely secular practice of mindfulness is effective and relatively easy to implement.

There are plenty of books and apps to help teach you to meditate or practice mindfulness, but one popular book/brand/app is 10 Percent Happier.

Hawra, from the U.S., is a kindergarten English teacher in Lebanon

Hawra, from the U.S., is a kindergarten English teacher in Lebanon

7. Establish routines and rituals that center you

We don’t need to make an article about self-care; it’s a hot topic on the Internet and tons of resources are available about how to take care of yourself. But the most important part of the self-care movement is that you establish routines and rituals that make your days centered and to which you can return, regardless of how well or how badly things are going with work.

It might seem a little silly at first, but once you’ve established your self-care rituals you’ll find them automatic and grounding. For example:

  • Make a coffee and really enjoy every step of the process. Take the coffee out of the kitchen, play calming music, and savor it over a period of time.
  • Turn your shower into a relaxing time away from responsibilities by using special scents, lighting candles, or playing music.
  • Other self-care could include regular exercise, yoga, healthy eating, beauty routines, or making sure you get enough water. (You’re a “houseplant with complex feelings,” remember?)

8. Find a narrative that you can hold on to and work to live in line with it

We live in stories. Humans are hard-wired to seek patterns and to make narratives about the world we live in, going back through time. This doesn’t change when we encounter ESL teacher burnout during the coronavirus pandemic. You need a story to help you to keep going when things get hard, but the good news is that you can shape this narrative and choose how to live with it.

Build rapport

One way to work within a narrative is to build rapport when teaching English online. Sharing your abilities and your care for the students will go a long way toward making you feel better about your own part to play in the big story, and this is within your control (unlike so many things these days).

Use symbols in your narrative

For my narrative, I often lit a candle to keep out of sight next to my computer while I was teaching online. It reminded me that I am one person living this history, but that I can contribute whatever good I can through teaching online and participate in the wider story of the coronavirus pandemic. For me, it was key in warding off ESL teacher burnout. I was better able to keep perspective about the ups and downs of individual classes and the boredom that can come with teaching the same lesson over and over.

Find a story to tell yourself about the moment we are living in and try to stick with it. Each step we take now is a step toward the future. This will not last forever.

As the months continue, it may be difficult to avoid burnout when teaching online. Remember that you’re not alone; many people around the world are in a similar situation, trying to maintain mental and physical health while what used to be normal is disrupted. With a few of these strategies in place, however, you’ll be able to keep going for as long as you need to and stay physically and mentally healthy.

Bridge offers a 10-hour Micro-credential course to give online English teachers support as they continue working remotely. Enroll now: Health, Safety, and Mental Attitudes While Teaching English Online.

Coleen Monroe is a Colorado native who has left a trail of new homes for herself around the world. She's set foot in 30 countries and lived on four continents in the last eleven years. Her nomad homes have been in Chilean Patagonia, France, Italy, Switzerland, South Korea, England, and Iceland. Her latest travel adventures took her to Yunnan, Beijing, Jiangxi, and Southern China, where she's currently teaching.