Ajarn Street

The dreaded teacher burnout

How is it caused and how can you avoid it?

"I'm a new teacher about to start work in Thailand in April. This will be my first full-time teaching gig. I often see more experienced teachers refer to 'teacher burnout'. Just out of interest, what are some of the things that contribute to such a condition? I'd very much like to avoid them if possible"

Cheers. Sadie.

Well, let's ask some teachers.

Khru Pete says "I tell all the new teachers at my school to be flexible. You are in Thailand so don't expect things to run any way but the Thai way. You're not going to change it, so go with the flow, not against it.

Buk also has some direct advice. "Live a balanced lifestyle, don't neglect your health and go out on the piss too often. Hit the gym as often as you can"

It's all about a work / life balance according to James too. "Only work 5 days a week and try and keep your workload to a maximum of 22 contact hours (depending on how much planning is required) Keep fit and don't take the school issues home with you. Your biggest issues may be with people who seemingly don't know anything about TEFL or teaching but still tell you what to do. Also don't say 'yes' to every request. That's a trick that employers play (you usually don't get any more money for it either). Do things and acept more work on your terms. Meet people and don't drink too much because teaching with a hangover is terrible. I also keep fit. There are loads of 10k runs in Thailand that you can paticipate in. 

Frustrations are always likely to creep in according to Kenneth. "Professionally, many a time you will have great ideas with the best of intentions (with the students in mind) and you will be told no (repeatedly) by your bosses. You will be asked to do things that make little or no sense and your opinion, no matter who good it is, will be disregarded because you aren't Thai. Thais most of the time have their way of doing things (even though detrimental to their goals) and most refuse to change. Personally, it is easy to party and go boozing on a daily basis and some teachers do start doing that"

"Teaching the same level for many years can often lead to burnout" reckons Bernard. "In addition you have unruly students, a poor syllabus or a complete lack of syllabus, unsupportive management, no Thai teacher present when you teach, lack of resources, homesickness. The list is endless"

"Knowing how to disengage from work" is the key says Rich. "The best advice i can give is to plan well and be organized (get a routine where you are at work early in the morning and keeping on top of the workload). Expect that you will make mistakes, and don't beat yourself up when they do happen. Set achieveable / realistic goals, and really think hard about the way you can best achieve them. Also just try and enjoy the experience. As a plus, avoid taking on extra / private classes too soon. The extra time needed to prep for them and actually teach them can and does take its toll"

Teacher Jey has a personal experience to relate. "At my former school in Pattaya, I had one particular student called Federica. She was a half Italian/Russian girl who spoke several languages. She was 10 years old but stuck in Pratom 2 with a class of 8-year olds. She always did her homework, classwork, spellings, always asked if she could help in any way and always helped her classmates who struggled. Federica was the archetypical perfect student. Only she was held back two grades because her Thai language was deemed insufficient (this being an "international" school). 

These faceless school officials who'd never set foot in a class decided this girl was too stupid to be in her own grade based on stupid numbers on paper. The foreign teachers continuously objected to no avail. The biggest problem many foreign teachers face is "white knight syndrome" - going with the best of intentions, thinking they can change or "save" these kids from their oppressive culture somehow or change Thailand and their ways. The big barrier comes when you realise that no matter how hard you try, you won't make a difference. I find those teachers are the quickest to burn out"

Jim also puts the blame on school admin. "Mostly it's the administrators of the school for which you work and basically anyone there who has power over you. You can't avoid them and you might well grow to despise them if you are not careful"

"For me burnout meant teaching too many hours and having to create my own new curricula for 6 grades" says Cassandra. "I was given no assistance in the classroom and received no feedback. No one monitored my lessons or commented on them either critically or positively. Having to do extra activities at weekends for not enough pay was another factor. 

Also the Thai teachers not talking to me at school (I speak Thai). They avoided me. I am the only foreigner at my school and have been for six years. How did I manage the burnout? Being organised, flexible, prepared to change last minute, taking my relationships with my students more seriously than with the teachers, implementing really fun lessons and projects and displaying them around the school feeling proud of my students as well as myself and finally ...... not taking work home, sleeping and eating well - and taking holidays!

Matthew has some direct advice for when it comes to avoiding the dreaded burnout - "recognise who pays your salary and do what they want you to do" 

Liam sums things up in one word - "Perspective!"

Have you suffered from teacher burnout? How did you deal with it? Put your thoughts in the comments section below.


The secret is to just say "yes" and then do whatever you want.
I never get stressed due to the fact I do not care; in fact nobody cares. As long as the money keeps being deposited in my bank account, I will pretend to care. I will even join in the staffroom chat about teaching techniques, even though I don't know what I'm talking about.
Everything is for show in Thailand, so just relax, hand out worksheets that will never be graded and surf the web to pass the time.

By Freemo, Bangkok (12th May 2018)

I worked in Thailand for 4 years and I fully agree with what Thomas said. Go with the flow and do not try to make rational sense of the workings of the school (This is Thailand after all) and definitely don't try to make waves. You will just cause yourself unnecessary stress and problems otherwise, which may end up making it impossible to continue in your current school (Thai management is seldom forgiving once mistakes have been made).

When/if you reach the point of burnout its time to switch venues and try different management or maybe call it a day and move on from Thailand. There are plenty of other places out there that have a more serious/organised work ethic.

By Tom, Back Home (11th May 2018)

Maybe another suggestion is to avoid any gloomy Gus your school has. These guys (usually Farang guys but can sometimes be gals) feel the need to constantly complain about everything about the school, the country, the weather, the food, the students, the fellow teachers and seem to be constantly seeking confirmation from you or anyone else of his or her negative attitudes. Negativity breeds negativity. Stay away from these people as much as possible, and it seems every school in Thailand has at least one of these people, usually more than one.

I have to agree fully with Thomas, try to do your best but don’t take it too seriously. Think about how much influence your own foreign language teacher in high school had on your life. Maybe for a few people it was a major impact but my guess is that for the most of us the impact was quite minimal. At best, some of your students will improve their language skills incrementally over the course of a school year, at worse you babysat some of the students as they were growing up.

By Jack, Near the beach taking it easy (16th April 2018)

After teaching in Thailand for almost 8 years the best advice I can give is just relax and do not take things too serious. Try your best when teaching but there will be a lot of nonsense that goes on in Thai schools. Just ignore it and do not get too stressed out over it as your not getting paid enough to let it upset you. Like the move The Game it is just a game so enjoy it.

By Thomas , Thailand (13th April 2018)

Sadie asked for the things that cause teacher burnout and wishes to avoid them. For me, the root cause lies in the 'shoulds' you may carry in your head; if you are from the UK or the US you may be especially prone to such idealism. Here is a list of unhelpful beliefs and some examples of their more realistic counterparts. I'm sure readers will be able to add many more!

1. 'I have qualified as a teacher, with honours, and expect to make a difference'.
Reality check: ' although over the long term I may make a difference through my work, until I have experience as a teacher I cannot be sure whether I am a good fit for the role and I'd better be a bit cautious as a relatively large number of teachers quit the profession within the first 5 years'.
2. 'The owners of the school and/or the agencies that supply teachers should care about the quality of the students' education'.
Reality check: 'It would be great if those who make the decisions shared my ideas about education, but I may have to live with the fact that they don't'.
3. 'I have just completed a 4-week TEFL course. I'm well-set to teach.'
Reality check: 'I have started my journey as a teacher and though I will pick up some useful skills from my course most of my development will come from learning on the job'.
4. 'If I show enthusiasm the manager/owner will approve of me and I will be rewarded'.
Reality check: 'Whether the manager/owner approves of me or not is outside my control; I can only make a reasonable effort to meet the expectations set out in my contract and hope for the best'.
5.'All my feedback on the course was excellent; the students will respond well to my teaching inputs'.
Reality check: 'The chances are that some students will respond well to my teaching, especially if I make a good effort to make it fresh and fun, but there will always be some who don't and I may sometimes be in a class where the majority have been compelled to study english'.
6. 'All the websites and blogs show teachers and students in Thailand smiling and having fun. I'm going to have a blast'.
Reality check: 'the experience of many teachers worldwide is that it is a hard job and only those who are a good fit stay in the role long term; therefore, I'd better reserve judgment and take these websites with a pinch of salt'.
7. 'I'm passionate about education and expect to find fulfilment in my day-job'.
Reality check: 'If I find that many of those I work for/with don't share my vision then I'd better try to find some who do, possibly in another country'.
8. 'I've tried being strict, and being thorough in my lesson plans, and still these students are not paying as much attention in class as they should be'.
Reality check: 'There is only so much influence I have to get and keep attention, and if after a reasonable trial it doesn't improve then I will try to find a teaching role with better prospects (eg smaller classes, younger students).'
9. 'Some of my lessons have been cancelled and nobody has had the courtesy to give me notice. How disrespectful'.
Reality check: 'I would prefer to have been given notice of cancelled classes, but some things seem to be done differently in this country and I could focus on the fact that I have more free time now!'
10. 'The reality here is that I am being paid to babysit the students, rather than teach them anything useful. This is demeaning and must change.'
Reality check: 'It may be, unfortunately, that the school owners/managers don't share my ideas about useful education. I wish I'd known that before I agreed to do the job. Now, how can I find an environment that better fits me?'

By David, UK (4th April 2018)

The best way to avoid burnout is to need your next paycheck to pay rent and buy food. Burnout is a luxury of the moneyed classes. There is nothing like not knowing where your next meal is coming from to remove any thoughts of burnout.

There are some good suggestions here, but we also have:

Teacher Jey “These faceless school officials who'd never set foot in a class decided this girl was too stupid to be in her own grade based on stupid numbers on paper.”

Jim "Mostly it's the administrators of the school for which you work and basically anyone there who has power over you. You can't avoid them and you might well grow to despise them if you are not careful."

Cassandra: "I was given no assistance in the classroom and received no feedback. No one monitored my lessons or commented on them either critically or positively. Having to do extra activities at weekends for not enough pay was another factor."

I think we need a little cheese to go with the "advice" to really get much out of this one.

By Jack, Relaxing (1st April 2018)

Check your contract!

Are they asking you to do gate duty every morning and after school for a total of 2 hours a day? Are they saying, 'some weekend work will be required'? How often? Are they paying you? (probably not). If the school won't tell you how often you'll need to work for free at weekends, run for the hills! How many hours teaching will you have? There is a big difference between 25 x 1 hour lessons and 20 x 50 minute lessons, even though it doesn't seem much when you first look. Are they asking you to 'help slower students' for free after school every day? Do you need to do stage performances with a different class twice a month, which will involve practicing during your lunch break, for pretty much every lunch break all month long? How many kids in the class? Over 30 kids and no Thai assistant? Forget it. Taking on 50+ kids with no microphone and no Thai assistant will drive you to insanity. How is the school for resources? Do you need to make your own? For every single class? What about photocopying? Do they have a room you can take your work to be copied by admin staff? Or do you need to do it yourself?Sounds easy enough until you realise you have to copy 250 or so sheets per day and the photocopier is always on the blink.

Sounds far fetched? I've had most of those above and have friends who've had the others.

Check your contract carefully before signing. Take it home and question anything which seems a bit OTT. Check the facilities at the school and speak to the foreign teachers. If there are none, it's a bad sign. I once worked at a school with no native English speakers. Complete nightmare as they were happy just to have a job teaching 'English' and created a culture of saying 'yes' to absolutely everything. Ask how long the serving native English speaking teachers have been at the school. All newbies? Alarm bells should be ringing. Plenty of staff been there for years? That's a good sign. Are you paid during the holidays? If not, it will probably mean you have to work during summer school to pay your bills. So no holidays if you're not careful.

Failing to follow such things would probably lead to burn out quite quickly. Oh, only drink once a week at the weekend if you like to drink now and again. If you come in to work hungover every morning then you'll get no sympathy from me for your 'burnout'. Eat well, sleep well and be careful in the job you choose!

By Ben in Thailand, Bangkok (1st April 2018)

As one who just ended her 1st yr of teaching. I felt burnout and excited to go home, take a vacation and in search for a better contract, which isn't in a gov't school in TH of course.

It's mainly for the experience for non-teachers like me who realise they still want to teach after the chaos, where the students have taught me important life lessons of patience, flexibility, etc.
However, long-term plans for career development and financial stability are out of the window with wages being driven down and schools are looking for more qualifications- 35k for PGCE, etc. Hahahah!
There are many options to teach in SEA where they do care about making progress. Jump ship!

By Cha, KL on vacay (31st March 2018)

Have interests that will make you forget even if only for a while the difficulties you might be encountering.Positive interests,health and fitness,explore your location,learn Thai language,buy a guitar.Most of the teachers I worked alongside were borderline alcoholics on the sauce every evening.

By Stuart Branwhite, Greenock (31st March 2018)

If you're just starting out on the Thai TEFL adventure I wouldn't worry too much about burnout. Seriously, 'burnout' is something that should only affect people who are here for a while doing jobs they don't enjoy.

Some good tips here, but the best one is what Matthew wrote...

"recognise who pays your salary and do what they want you to do"

By Mark Newman, A. MUANG (31st March 2018)

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