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.
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 and Leave School At School.
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!
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