Thursday, May 1, 2014

Staying Motivated

 Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you'd like to contribute to next month's Blog Carnival, please contact Dean at, and he will let you know how you can start participating!

"How do you keep yourself from becoming burnt out and how do you stay motivated to teach?"

This month's topic for the blog carnival couldn't come at a more appropriate time.  At this point we've had  two solid months of classes without any long weekends.  Thankfully, we do have one right around the corner, but these past few weeks I've been struggling to keep my motivation to teach.

There's no way around it: teaching is exhausting.  I think few people understand just how draining teaching is until they are teachers themselves. Teaching is more than just planning lessons and lecturing.  You have thirty or more students who all need your attention, sometimes all at the same time.  You're pulled in a million different ways each and every class. Teaching is emotionally draining, and it's only a matter of time before you just need a break to rest and regain your passion and enthusiasm.

When it comes to the inevitable problem of feeling burnt out, here's what works for me:

1)  Take time for yourself.

As an introvert, this is something I always have to remind myself that's it's OK to do.  The wonderful thing about being in Korea is that there's always something going on.  I feel like I always have friends that I can meet up with. However, just because you're  invited to do things doesn't mean that you have to so say yes every time.  It's perfectly OK to say no.  It's OK, and in fact, even prudent to sometimes spend your day in your pajamas, watching TV, reading, listening to music, whatever it is you need to do to just unwind.

Sometimes alone time works wonders for recharging my motivation.  However, other times I find that nothing can rejuvenate my enthusiasm for Korea like going somewhere or doing something new.  Sometimes a change of scenery really ignites my passion for being here, and that can carry over into the classroom.  Sometimes taking time for yourself means sucking it up and spending a lot of money on the weekend to get out of town for an adventure.

2)  If possible, teach what you're passionate about and don't be afraid to try new things. 

I'm fortunate to teach high-level high school students, so I'm guessing that this is a little easier for me than it is for elementary or lower-level teachers.  However, this is one of the main things I try to do to keep my enthusiasm in the classroom.  Before I came to Korea I was a social studies teacher.  This means the things I'm  passionate about teaching are history, politics, culture, etc.  While I don't mind teaching things like English grammar, it's just not what I'm passionate about.  Luckily, in my position I'm not expected to strictly teach grammar, which has allowed me to create lessons about things I'm more passionate about.

I teach some of my lessons six times a week, so in order to keep my motivation it's essential to create lessons that can not only get the students to practice English, but that I can also find interesting and feel passionate about. Trying new teaching techniques and topics for discussions definitely keeps the atmosphere of the classroom interesting.  Sometimes a lesson can take a few times to get right, but finding something new that works great with the students is a really rewarding feeling that can boost your enthusiasm for being in the classroom.

I suppose the fact that I had teaching experience before coming here probably affects the types of lessons I make (once a social studies teacher, always a social studies teacher), but in my experience there's nothing worse than teaching a lesson you're not passionate about over and over and over.  Mixing up lessons and keeping them interesting to you makes the days much more enjoyable.

3) Remember your impact on your students goes beyond what you do in the classroom. 

Out of all the ways to keep motivation levels high, I would say this is the most important.  When the days start to all feel the same, it's easy to lose sight of the impact you can have as a teacher.  When you teach classes in which the students are always falling asleep because they got five hours of sleep (or less) the previous night (and every night before that), it's easy to feel like you're wasting your time by putting so much energy into your lesson plans and time in the classroom.

However, that couldn't be less true, especially while teaching in a school where you're the only foreigner.

This was illustrated for me last week as I was walking home from school. I was on my normal walk home  when one of my former second grade students caught up with me. She continued to walk with me because she was heading to the doctor and it was in the same direction as my apartment.

 During our walk, she told me that she and her classmates often talk about me with their other English teacher.  This of course surprised me and  made me hesitantly ask why, at which point she told me it was because her class is very fond of me. Apparently they often talk about how they worry that I am sad because I miss my family.  I assured her that even when I miss my family, I am happy to be here because I have many friends and enjoy seeing everyone at school.  She then told me she was glad and that I shouldn't ever be sad because they all love me and don't want me to leave Korea.

Moments like these are important reminders that although sometimes students are shy and afraid to talk to you, you have a real impact on their lives. Lately, many of my students have been asking me questions about America.  They are curious about everything--especially the lives of teenagers.  Sometimes I forget that these kids have no idea what life is like outside of Korea.

Although sometimes I doubt how much I really help these kids improve their language abilities, the main thing I hope many of them take away from their time with me is an understanding of the world outside of Korea.  Or should I say, an understanding that there is a world outside of Korea.  Don't get me wrong, I love Korea in many ways, but it's an incredibly intense country to grow up in.  Students don't often get a glimpse of the outside world, except through their native teachers.

Sometimes I need to remind myself that my role as a teacher here is way more than teaching students English.  It's introducing them to what's out there beyond the confines of the school walls.  It's reminding them that someday the unbearable monotony of high school will be finished, and there's a big world waiting for them.  It's reminding them that they're more than their imperfections.  It's reminding them that they're more than just their test scores.  It's making them believe that life is exciting and wonderful, because many times they really don't believe it.

No teacher has perfect lessons every single day, but that's not all there is to teaching.

What is the main thing that keeps me motivated to teach?

Without doubt, it's my students.  While students are often what make me feel burnt out, they're also what restores my motivation and passion for teaching.  Always telling classes to be quiet and juggling the classroom management of apathetic students takes a serious toll on you.  However, looking for the growth in every student is what makes it worth it.  It's watching them become a little less shy to speak English.  It's in getting to know them and their aspirations.  It's watching them become more curious about the outside world.  These are the things that make me come back to school day after day, and these are the things that I will keep with far long after I leave Korea.


  1. Great post! I'm also an introvert so need more solo "recharge" time than most of my friends here. It's hard to have to be "on" all day at work sometimes. I also agree that your interactions with students outside the classroom can be just as, or more, important than your in-class interactions. Some of my best memories in Korea are the informal conversations/interactions I've had with students outside of class.

  2. Great post, Sarah! You've really captured what makes teaching so exhausting - emotionally and physically. Like you, spending time alone helps me reenergize, and it's the students that keep me going.

    It's so great that you can bring your social studies passion into your classes here. Also - how wonderful that your former student shared her appreciation of you. Feeling gratitude is so important, but expressing it and telling others you're thankful for them can have such a huge effect. ^^