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How to Break Out of a Teaching Rut

error correction praise professional development reflection Dec 20, 2021

It’s no secret that teaching can be an incredibly fulfilling job, but creating a positive learning environment and delivering stellar lessons day after day requires a high level of effort, commitment, and heart. All of that hard work can wear us down and take a toll, so if you’re feeling worn out and lacking inspiration for the classes awaiting you in the new year, read on for some tips to break out of a rut and handle teacher burnout.

We’d describe a teaching rut as that autopilot routine where you’re teaching with the same materials and using the same approach class after class. It’s where you’re not growing or challenging yourself or your students, and your lessons lack real engagement and inspiration even if they can be considered effective classes. The result is a string of lessons that all seem to blend into one and you can’t differentiate one from another. We’ve most likely all found ourselves in a teaching rut at one point (or many!) during our teaching careers; there’s no shame in it, but there are a few things you can do to break free from the teaching rut or avoid it entirely.

Make some adjustments
We’re not talking a total overhaul here, just some tweaks. If your lesson material is top-notch quality (and if it’s not, sign up for a free account to check out some of our ready-made lessons!) think of small ways you can change up your delivery of the material or approach activities in a fresh, new way. The key is to start small by choosing ONE thing you can try out or approach differently each week or even each lesson. Maybe you implement a new way of teaching or testing meaning, correcting errors, including students more, you name it! Be open to trying new approaches as this will keep your students on their toes and it will push you to experiment and grow in the classroom. Need some ideas? Try these:

For building vocabulary: ask students to search for synonyms or antonyms for new words they learned in class; show word class changes or common collocations for new vocabulary; ask students to find words that rhyme with new vocabulary.

To increase student talking time: have students read all written instructions for activities; create a turn-taking system where a student chooses a question to ask another student who answers and then chooses a question to ask a different student; use phrases like “tell me more”, “expand on that”, “what else?”, etc.

For error correction: try out some new non-verbal cues for correction (think raising your eyebrows, implementing a hand gesture, etc.) and see which approach your students respond to best; ask students to provide constructive feedback after activities; include error correction check-ins throughout the lesson to review common, stubborn errors.

For online lessons: test out some of the functions on your virtual conference platform that you may have avoided using before (polls, breakout rooms, emojis and icons as participation or feedback, virtual backgrounds, etc.) and/or implement the use of collaborative or quiz-like tools like jamboard, mentimeter, kahoot, miro, and others. There are many ways to bring new life to your lessons so don’t be intimidated to try new things. Do your research, prepare, and test it out with a teacher friend before you bring a new tool to your students

Connect with others
Connecting with other teachers can provide a lot of comfort, not to mention new ideas. If you work in a language school or institute, reach out to your fellow teachers to ask what they’re doing in class (Which warm-up activities are their favourite?; What’s their favourite error correction technique?; How do they get their students to participate in class?, etc.). If your school doesn’t host workshops or other opportunities for teachers to collaborate and connect, propose the idea to your supervisor/academic coordinator. Sharing activities and tips with other teachers can bring about new ideas and perspectives on teaching which inspires experimentation and growth. If you don’t have access to a physical group of teachers, take to social media where you can look for English teachers or mentors that have inspiring or creative content. Don’t be afraid to comment on their posts, ask questions, test out their ideas in your classes and even send them a message to let them know how it went. Don’t just limit your streams of inspiration to English teachers either; you can find lots of creative ideas from teachers who approach their role differently from you and that’s where the sparks of inspiration come from.

Focus on progress and celebrate wins
If you’re in a rut, you’ve likely been forgetting to celebrate teaching and learning wins after or even during class. Reflecting on your lessons will allow you to really understand your students’ progress and celebrate their wins. Remember to be present and specific when giving praise in class to really identify your student’s strengths and keep the motivation alive. Doing this consistently will not only help your student feel more confident, but it will boost your confidence as a teacher and give you the added motivation that you’ll need to test out some new approaches in class. If your student has been struggling recently in class, it’s likely a sign that they need a change in approach so don’t be discouraged if you can’t find any big wins to celebrate; remember too that small wins are just as important as big ones.

Create an after class habit
Rather than finishing a lesson and diving right into the preparation for your next class, try to set aside some time for yourself. Reflect on your performance as a teacher from the lesson and pinpoint just one thing to improve on for the next class and something (or multiple things) you feel proud of. After, make yourself a cup of tea, go for a short walk, watch something that makes you laugh, do something creative, read, or do something else that helps you to unwind. We put our students first so often and it’s easy to forget about our own needs. Setting up an after-class (or after a series of classes) habit to help you unwind and put yourself back on your priority list is so important in maintaining motivation and being able to show up for your students the next time you see them. Just make sure the activity you do is intentional, brings you joy, and allows you to unwind.

Set some goals
With the new year approaching, a lot of us are in the headspace to set new intentions and goals for the next year. It’s important during the academic year to do this often and not just as we approach New Years Eve. Implementing a goal setting and checking routine will help you to stay on track, be motivated to reach your goals, and think of ways you can set the bar higher for next time. Goals don’t have to be lofty; take it slow and be realistic. If you’re not used to setting goals throughout the year, start small by making one or two goals for the next month. After the month has passed and you’ve been able to evaluate your ability to achieve your goals, try to create a few more for the next two months. Check in with your goals list and evaluate as you go. Setting goals for each quarter of the year will help you stay in that structured, motivated headspace where you’re working towards something specific and not just getting through your weekly teaching schedule.

It’s normal to feel a little worn out, overworked, and tired throughout the year, especially if you’re a teacher, so remember to be gentle with yourself and reach out to others. How are you going to set yourself up for success in the new year?