If you burn out, catch fire again

I’ve always associated burn-out with some kind of depression. To me it represents the end of passion, some kind of death, void, and emptiness. I don’t think I have ever felt to be really that far but I remember days when I thought: This must be burn-out. I walked out of the building (school) on a cold winter day feeling totally empty – with no energy and enthusiasm. The worst thing was that I had no particular reason to feel so. I wasn’t even tired, stressed or overworked. I only felt I didn’t enjoy the work as much as I had before.

At that time my sons were 10 and 12 years old. It may sound ridiculous but I felt that there was no more for me to accomplish. Every day was the same, with no more challenges. I should stress that I’m the kind of woman who gets no satisfaction from cleaning the cupboards or sweeping the floor (I admire those who enjoy doing housework and have green fingers).

But then our third child was born. I was 35 and my life changed completely. Firstly, I learned to drive a car. Secondly, three years later, I applied to university to finally get my MA degree. I always say that my MA studies were the best time of my life. It was huge – stressful but incredibly enjoyable for me. I met a lot of new people – fellow teachers of my age, much younger students and our inspiring university teachers. I learned about new methods in ELT and I improved my English. But most importantly, I was finally a fully qualified teacher, which, of course, affected my self-esteem in a positive way. The last but not least, I had found a new job in a well-established secondary school where I currently teach.

What I described earlier was not really burn-out but more of a life crisis. I guess it was some kind of frustration resulting from the lack of challenge. But a situation like this can also teach you a lesson. The thing is that I have certain needs to feel happy. Food, water, shelter over my head and warmth are great but I need more; I need to be respected for what I do, I need inspiration and opportunities for being creative.

There are teachers at my school who can’t wait to retire. I understand but I sometimes feel sorry for them. They go to work because they have to while I go to work because I can’t wait to enter the classroom. I can’t tell them because they don’t want to hear this; and I know what they would tell me: Wait a couple of more years and you’ll see!

To concude my post, this is my personal advice on how to avoid burn-out:

  1. Keep changing
  2. Keep learning and exploring new things
  3. Keep being challenged
  4. Create new things
  5. Discover and pursue your inner talent
  6. Find balance and system in your life


My personal failure

To be honest, when I heard about Goal 16, I wasn’t exactly keen on writing about my personal failure. We experience lots of small failures which we believe are not worth mentioning. If we really fail, sharing such experience may be as painful as going through it. However, when putting my thoughts together, I realized that talking about my failures can, in fact, be therapeutic.

This happened a few years ago when I was teaching private ‘evening’ courses full time. I worked with students of all ages and teaching kids was particularly enjoyable. But it was also challenging. Those kids had their compulsory lessons at school and then, when all the other kids went home, they had another lesson of English. My job was to teach them the language and entertain them at the same time. And I had to entertain them well because they paid tuition fees. I didn’t evaluate my students with marks; I gave them small things (pictures, cards, pencils) to motivate them. We usually played games and sang songs. Most kids loved the lessons and they carried on attending them for many years on.

Helen (not her real name), a very intelligent 12-year old girl, was a little boisterous, but otherwise she was OK. Normally, she was lively and responded well; on some days, however, she could be very disruptive. Her parents told me that she had even had to change her primary school because she was a terrible troublemaker.
Once, we were sitting in a circle on the floor, doing a matching activity using little word cards. When one of the students had matched a few pairs, Helen suddenly mixed them all up. I told her not to do it but she wouldn’t stop. Then, when the activity was nearly finished, she grabbed the cards and threw them in the air with a crazy smile. She actually spoilt the work of all the other kids. I reacted spontaneously – I gave her a little slap on the cheek… All the kids went silent and I suddenly realized what I had done. I said immediately that I’d like her to talk to her parents about the incident. I sent her to her desk and I actually don’t remember what happened next in the lesson. I just remember walking out of the school totally desperate and depressed. I felt really guilty and was afraid of the consequences. On my way home I happened to meet my colleague and friend so I could confide in her. She was very supportive and understanding.



Well, believe it or not, this story has a happy ending. Helen never did anything like that again. I felt we even got on better with each other. We probably realized that we had both crossed an imaginary border. She never told her parents about the incident because she felt as guilty as I did. Now, when she is already a grown-up person, she always greets me with a broad smile on her face.

I’d like to stress that this is by no means an excuse for what I did. I still feel a little guilty now, many years later. But the truth is that I have never been in a similar situation again since then and I believe that it’s mainly because I realized and ‘processed’ my failure. I can control the classroom much more effectively and I hardly lose temper because I can foresee trouble or deal with it immediately. Back then I let things go too far; instead I should have stopped the activity, taken her out of the class and talked to her. I didn’t want to sacrifice a nice activity, but I actually sacrificed the whole lesson in the end, and much more.
To conclude with, I believe it is not acceptable to use physical force when dealing with children (let alone students), even though they may seem to deserve it now and then. I would only use physical force if I wanted to protect a student against another or if I wanted to prevent something really dangerous from happening. Otherwise violence has no place in modern society.


Dust off your violin (lesson plan)

This idea occurred to me when I was dusting off my flute. I wanted to record my favourite piece of music by Mozart via Audacity when I realized how easy it is to make learning more personalized in the classroom. Most students I teach play, or used to play, a musical instrument. For those who don’t there are triangles, drums, various sticks, etc. The thing is that in an EFL classroom, certain grammar points and vocabulary will be learned and remembered easier if put into meaningful context. Why should the students just sit at their desks, with their books opened, doing exercises and discussing what a John and a Mary can do? Of course, I always ask my students to talk about themselves as well, but is it enough? Why not ask the students to learn by doing – by recording a short video or audio of them playing a musical instrument? The kinaesthetic learning type students will be excited. Give your students an opportunity to use technology and be creative. 
It is highly motivating if the teacher plays a musical instrument as well and makes a recording himself/herself. It might be easier for some to record the sound only; some students may be more courageous and make a video. But it’s always safer to make a recording at home than to perform live in front of the whole class.

There are lots of things that can be done with the recordings.

  1. After having created the videos, they can be shared online (on GE.TT, for example). 
  2. For the speaking activity, students watch or listen to the recordings in the class and produce language such as Jana plays the guitar. In the video she was playing her favourite song. Martin doesn’t normally play the drums but in the video he was playing a short piece. He was good. I can’t play the piano but my mum had taught me a short piece of music for this project. With appropriate scaffolding, this language will naturally emerge. You can always adjust the language to the level you need.
  3. As their homework assignment, students can write about the recordings: they can listen to them again at home and comment on each (or they choose one or two). As this is a very sensitive subject, students should be reminded that they can only give positive comments.
  4. You can ask your students to take pictures of their instruments, and various parts of the instruments, and display the pics on the board with word tags. This board can be placed in the classroom together with the photos of the students who play the instruments.
  5. If you feel up to it, you can make a band and practise some music for the class performance (and again share it online, e.g. make a YouTube video). Your students might feel hesitant at first but they’ll love it in the end.