Why Teachers Are So Tired

tired teachers.

Are you tired after teaching?

Better question: When was the last time you weren’t tired after teaching?

If you’re like most teachers I know, including me and my wife, being tired at the end of the day is a way of life. We’ve become so used to it that it’s hard to imagine how it could be any different.

Our non-teacher friends have a hard time understanding how we could be so exhausted. After all, we’re not building houses, or working under tight deadlines, or competing with co-workers to sell the most widgets, or working in some ultra-competitive office with an unreasonable boss breathing down our necks. We work with kids! We work seven-hour days! We have a lot of control over our own schedules. We have summer vacation!  Some teachers have these thoughts themselves and wonder what’s wrong with them. How in the world can we be so tired?

There are three reasons.

Decision Fatigue and Willpower

Psychologist Roy Baumeister coined the term “ego depletion” after he found that humans have a limited supply of willpower.  He compares willpower to a muscle, which can strengthen but also wear out with use. Ego depletion has a general effect, meaning that using self-control in one area of your life erodes your ability to self-regulate in other parts of your life. Baumeister found that exerting self-control results in a significant drop in blood-sugar levels.  Low blood sugar leads to physical fatigue, which is why you’re so tired, even though the heaviest thing you lifted was a textbook.

As a teacher, think of how often you use willpower.  We censor ourselves all day.  We hold back a sarcastic remark, walk away from a lazy student when we what we really want to do is lecture her, keep our honest thoughts about the principal’s latest idea to ourselves, respond professionally to a disrespectful email from a parent, work with a student when we want to do anything but, plan the next day when we’d rather check Facebook, hold it in when we’d like to drop an F-bomb. Teachers use willpower constantly.

But here’s the real kicker: making decisions uses willpower.  Researchers call this decision fatigue. The more decisions you make over the course of the day, the more willpower you use. There’s strong research that shows criminals are far better off going before a parole board early in the day than near the end of the day. Similarly, there is research that suggests the student’s paper that gets graded first gets a fairer score than the one graded last. After a day of making decisions, we don’t have the energy left to make good ones.

It’s estimated that teachers make about 1,500 decisions every school day. When you combine those decisions with all the necessary self-regulation involved with teaching kids, it’s no wonder our willpower is gone by five o’clock. We are exhausted.

High-intensity emotions

A second reason teachers are tired is the effect of high-intensity emotions. High-intensity emotions like anger, frustration, excitement, and elation are physiologically taxing. Positive emotions arouse the same physiological response as negative ones: our heart rate increases, our sweat glands activate, and we startle easily. Since it activates our body’s stress response, high-intensity emotions–whether positive or negative–wear us out.

Teachers are instructed to be enthusiastic in their lessons. Many teachers believe that to be their most effective, they must be energetic. They have to bring it! That might be true, but just know that your excitement, combined with your moments of anger, frustration, and even elation, will tire you out.


Not surprisingly, worrying is linked to fatigue. When we worry, we imagine and anticipate negative events. Our stress levels elevate and our bodies activate their fight-or-flight responses. Our hearts beat faster, we sweat, and our immune systems prepare to fend off threats. As a result, we get physically tired.

Teachers worry for all sorts of reasons:

  • students aren’t learning
  • behavior problems
  • a lesson is bombing
  • there’s a sub tomorrow
  • a parent is angry
  • the principal is coming for an observation
  • the copy machine is down and what am I going to do now?
  • my colleague is mad at me
  • I showed a movie and a character said “hell” and now the kids might go home and tell mom and dad and they’ll call the principal and I never even filled out the stupid form I’m supposed to fill out for the movie and…I’m sure you can think of many more.

So that’s why we’re tired all the time: we make a ton of decisions, we cycle between high-intensity emotions, and we worry too much.

There’s a lot more to it, and there are steps you can take to be less tired. I write about them in my books, Exhausted ,  Leave School At School,  and The Teacher’s Guide to Saying NO. Check them out on Amazon.

What do you do to feel less tired at the end of the day? Leave your ideas in the comments so other teachers may benefit!

Related Content:

Fewer Decisions = More Energy

How Teachers Can Use Less Willpower

Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm


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10 Ways to Stay Motivated About Teaching

Being motivated about teaching is easy in September. You’ve just had a long summer of relaxation and you’re looking forward to starting fresh with a new class. Like a Detroit Lions’ football season, it doesn’t matter how bad things sucked last year, there’s hope that this year will be different.

However, much like those hapless Lions, by the time winter hits, hope has been replaced with reality. Those new ideas you couldn’t wait to try didn’t exactly turn out the way you imagined. Your resolution to be more positive, or show more gratitude, or not let stupid district initiatives get under your skin has been forgotten. The precocious kid you thought was so much fun the first two months is now just an annoying know-it-all who takes great pleasure in correcting your every mistake. You’re not even halfway through the year and you’re not sure how you’re going to get through the rest of it.

It can be tough to stay motivated during the long winter months. So if you find your energy sapped and your greatest fear is that the principal is going to walk in and see you delivering an uninspired lesson to an inattentive class, you might try some of these ten ideas to stay motivated.

1. Change Something

Part of the problem with the middle of the year is that you’ve settled into your routines and every day can start to feel the same. To break the monotony, change something. Swap subjects in your schedule. Start something new, like student blogging or scheduling a Skype with an author.  Start playing music as students enter in the morning. Do a lesson in the gym.  Perform a science experiment that isn’t part of your curriculum.  Make the days less predictable.

2. Address Problems

A mistake I made early in my career was avoiding problems in my class. I’d think to myself, well, the year’s half over now. I’ll just change how I do things next year so I won’t have these problems again. Hopefully, you’re smarter than me. Your motivation to do the job well will be destroyed if you have festering issues. Face them head-on.  Re-work a routine. Change your attention signal if yours isn’t working. Sit a student by herself if she can’t sit by others. Think of it as testing solutions. You have 4-5 months to try out new interventions. If they fail, try something else. If they work, you can add them to your toolbox and use it the rest of your career. Get testing!

3. Experiment

Just as you can experiment with solving problems in your room, you can experiment with the curriculum. Instead of waiting for a new class to try out that thing you heard about at a conference, implement it right away. If you come up with a new way to teach something, try it! Collect some data. See if it works. Tell others about it. Turn your classroom into a testing ground for innovation.

4. Reread a Favorite Teaching Book

An easy way to rekindle your idealism and pump up your energy level is to read books that motivated you in the past. No teacher can go wrong with Teach Like a Pirate or The Essential 55. Other books that I return to are The Promise of a Pencil, The First Days of School, Best Year Ever, and Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire.

5. Watch an Inspirational Movie or YouTube Clips

Every once in a while, one of the networks will do a feel-good story about a teacher who made a difference for kids. They always give me a shot of motivation about what’s possible. With the video-on-demand services available today, you don’t have to stumble on these. Hop over to YouTube and do a search for “inspiration for teachers” or search for keynote addresses from some of America’s most inspiring educators.

You could also watch a full-length movie. Teachhub.com has a good list of 12 Must-See Movies for Teachers.

6. Pick a Stretch Goal

A stretch goal is a goal that can’t be achieved by incremental changes. It’s a popular business concept that will undoubtedly make its way to our schools. Before you groan, consider choosing a stretch goal for your class to inject a dose of significance into everyone’s work.  It should be difficult, but not impossible to achieve. It should require serious commitment. A couple of possibilities are:

  • Every student will ace the next biology test.
  • Every student will read 150 words per minute by the end of the year.
  • Every student will be able to recite Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”
  • Every student will know their multiplication facts by June.

Having an ambitious goal to work toward–something that will necessitate changes to the way everyone does things–can be a great way to up everyone’s motivation, including yours.

7. Teach Meaningful Things

It can be hard to get excited about teaching decimals or heredity.  Some of the required content is just not very inspiring. So teach something that is meaningful to you. I like to carve out 20 minutes a couple of times each week to focus character traits.

59% of respondents to CBIA’s 2013 Hartford-Springfield Business Survey indicated they were having trouble finding and retaining qualified workers because applicants lacked “soft skills” like punctuality, interpersonal skills, teamwork, leadership ability, and work ethic. So teach students stuff that actually matters, like how to shake someone’s hand, the importance of appearance, working with others, and perseverance. Read picture books about honesty. Show video clips of people achieving their goals through hard work. Share life lessons about how you handled adversity in your own life.

Teaching these kinds of important lessons can remind you about why you became a teacher in the first place–to improve kids’ lives. In the end, it won’t matter what your students know if they don’t know how to comport themselves. So motivate yourself by teaching traits you’re passionate about!

8. Learn Something New

Pick up a book on using technology in the classroom and then try it out with your students. Go to a workshop or conference and let those new ideas inspire you to make changes. Follow people on Twitter who are constantly innovating (I recommend Alice Keeler for all things Google Apps for Education). We lose motivation when things go stale.  Keep learning and trying new things and you’ll always have a reason to get up and go to work in the morning.

9. Improve the Life of Just One Student

As much as we like to think we are making a difference in the lives of kids, the truth is that a lot of variables come into play and we can’t control most of them. To instill more meaning into your job, choose one student and dedicate yourself to improving his or her life. Talk to this student about his personal life. Listen to her stories. Give him extra help. Do little things that make a big difference. Write her a thank you card when she helps pick up the classroom. Challenge yourself to see what you can do to make just that one student’s life a little better.

10. Fake It

Sometimes you’re just not feeling it. You’re tired. The damn sun has been hiding behind clouds all week. Your class is acting up. Your motivation is at zero. The last thing you feel like doing is delivering an energetic lesson on the Civil War. This is when it’s time to fake it until you make it. Remember, you’re a teacher, which means you’re an actor. So put on your game face and perform. Sometimes, just pretending to be excited can actually make you more excited.


If all else fails, take a day off. If you’re a low-energy dud who’s snarling at your students and grumbling at your colleagues, no one wants you there anyway, and you probably aren’t doing anyone any good. Take a day. Recharge. And come back with renewed vigor.

Question: What do you do to stay motivated during the winter? Leave your ideas in the comments!

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Why You Should Greet Your Students with a Smile

A Bad Greeting

When I was 10 years old, my dad took me to a Detroit Tigers spring training baseball game in Lakeland, Florida. We went early so I could collect autographs. While huddled around rookie catcher Matt Nokes with a group of 15 or so other kids, I heard my dad call me.

I turned, and he nodded toward the best former ballplayer in the entire state of Florida at the moment. Hall of Famer and former Tigers great Al Kaline was striding across the blacktop. He was wearing a suit and holding a briefcase. I knew Kaline best as the Tigers’ TV color commentator. But he had always been my dad’s favorite player. Dad’s softball jersey still bore Kaline’s number six even though the legend hadn’t played in 12 years. Dad was probably more excited about Kaline’s autograph that I was.

I left Nokes and walked toward Kaline.

Kaline visibly sighed.

Now, looking back as a 41-year-old man, I get it. Kaline made the big leagues at age 18, so he’d been hounded by autograph seekers every day for the last 34 years. I’m sure he just wanted to get up into the booth and start preparing for the game without being waylaid by a pack of kids.

But at the time, I noticed that sigh. So did Dad. In the blink of an eye, Al Kaline destroyed my dad’s idolatry of him.  I still can’t think of the man without remembering this moment, the only time I met him in my life.

The Right Way

Contrast this with the day my daughter was late to preschool. She had an appointment that day, and even though Mom and Dad had the day off, she wanted to go to her preschool class, which she loved. I soon saw why.

The preschoolers were acting like preschoolers–active, loud, messy, and loving every minute of it. And in the middle of the chaos, the teacher, Miss Ashley, looked up and saw us.

Well, not us.

She saw my daughter. And her whole face lit up. She came over to us with a huge smile on her face and told our daughter how happy she was that she was there. With a classroom of four-year-olds, her complete focus was on my daughter for those few moments. She barely acknowledged us.

If it was an act, it was a damn good one. I’m sure it made our daughter’s day. I know it made mine. I never once worried about sending her to that school after that day. And when I think back on her preschool days (many years ago now), I can relive that moment like it was yesterday.

How you greet people matters. It matters a lot.

How to Greet Your Students

So before your students enter the classroom for the day, get in position and get in the right frame of mind. You are about to set the tone for the entire day. You’re about to leave a lasting impression and you get 180 days to solidify it.

Don’t sit at your desk. Don’t hustle around the room preparing some last minute thing. Don’t check your phone. Don’t do anything other than stand outside your door with a smile on your face.

And don’t miss any of them. It didn’t matter how Al Kaline greeted every kid that came after me. Not to me. His actions had sent a clear message: I was an imposition. My presence was not wanted.

As each student arrives:

  • smile
  • greet them by name
  • shake their hand
  • make it known by words or tone that you’re happy they are there
  • compliment some of them and compliment different students the next day

When I greet each student, I am modeling the kind of behavior adults expect. How many times have you greeted someone only to have them grunt or ignore you? How do you feel about that person?

I shake hands because it’s a professional way to greet someone and I want to set the tone for the school day that we’re about to get down to business. We have serious learning to do. I also use the handshake as a teachable moment. Teach students how to shake hands and look people in the eye. Teach them acceptable responses to someone saying good morning or complimenting them. Don’t assume anything.

If people were born with this knowledge, we wouldn’t have adults that don’t know how to return a greeting.

I also greet my students because I know there’s a good chance it may be the only time all day when they feel someone is happy to see them. And if nothing else–if I don’t get the chance to make another personal connection with a student throughout the course of the school day–at least we had that moment before school.

Finally, when you’re feeling rushed or when the room isn’t quite ready for the students and you feel tugged in another direction, remember this:

The only reason you have your job is because of your students. That’s why you’re there. When you’re doing anything other than greeting your students, you are sending the message that something else is more important than they are.

Nothing is.

So don’t be like the Hall of Fame outfielder. Be like the underpaid preschool teacher: Take the time to greet your students enthusiastically.  Because it’s true what they say: They will remember how you made them feel. I know I did.

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