Embracing the teaching marathon with joy and well-being - SmartBrief

All Articles Education Commentary Embracing the teaching marathon with joy and well-being

Embracing the teaching marathon with joy and well-being

Focusing on the heart of teaching instead of the metrics can increase teacher joy and benefit students too.

5 min read


Portrait of elderly man with eyeglasses talking selfie in studio for article on joy of teachers

Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Imagine teaching as a marathon — a long, rewarding journey with its share of challenges. But what happens when this marathon transforms into an unending obstacle course laden with ever-changing rules and unforeseen hurdles? The educator’s dilemma is maintaining a balance between the relentless demands and the personal joy without succumbing to the productivity-at-all-costs mindset.

Revisiting efficiency and the productivity trap

headshot of Jason McKenna for article on teacher joy

Education, rooted in industrial-age thinking, has long been entangled in a web of efficiency. This often overlooks the emotional and creative aspects that are the soul of teaching. In our pursuit of quantifiable success, we risk losing sight of the essence that makes education transformative — the human connection.

In the quest for innovation, the focus often shifts to creating smarter tools and software. However, it’s crucial to realize that the transformative potential in education lies beyond these tools. The relentless drive for technological advancement, while beneficial, can inadvertently add to teachers’ workload, exacerbating stress and hastening burnout. True innovation in education involves breaking free from traditional assumptions and designing classroom models that leverage technology to enhance, not hinder, the learning experience.

Rediscovering the essence of teaching

The focus on efficiency often leads to a profound misunderstanding about what truly constitutes a teacher’s worth. It’s not about the sheer volume of tasks completed, like grading papers or covering curricular milestones. After years of experience in teaching and observing classrooms globally, I’ve realized that great teaching cannot be confined within the limits of quantifiable metrics. It’s more akin to an alchemy combining expertise, empathy and the ability to spark curiosity. The standard rubrics used in classroom observations are often inadequate in capturing this intricate tapestry, reducing the art of teaching to mere checklists.

The emotional undercurrents in teaching are fundamental to effective learning. A nurturing environment where students feel seen and valued paves the way for exploration and growth. In contrast, an excessive focus on data and practicality can sideline these essential emotional aspects, leading to a disconnect in the holistic development of learners.

This realization calls for a paradigm shift in education — one that equally honors the art and science of teaching. A more holistic appreciation of educators, valuing their impact on students’ hearts and minds, is not just idealistic but necessary. However, it’s crucial to juxtapose this ideal with the stark reality many educators face. The challenge of preserving this essence becomes evident when we look at the alarming rates of teacher burnout.

Teacher burnout and strategies for balance

A stark reality faces educators today: burnout. Recent data paints a concerning picture — a June 2022 Gallup poll revealed that K-12 teachers report the highest burnout rates among all US professions. This crisis is compounded by factors like the COVID-19 pandemic, teacher pay and political scrutiny, solidifying stress as a consistent part of the teaching experience. 

In light of these challenges, it’s vital to explore approaches that foster both professional efficacy and personal well-being. The following five strategies are designed not just to combat burnout but to reinvigorate the passion and joy at the heart of teaching.

  1. Create a not-to-do list. Identify and eliminate tasks that drain your energy and contribute little to your or your students’ growth. This approach helps in focusing on what truly matters.
  2. Embrace periods of unproductivity. Allow yourself time to unwind and be creative. Creativity flourishes not in incessantly busy schedules but in moments of calm and reflection.
  3. Redefine success metrics. Include qualitative aspects like student engagement and your own emotional well-being in your measures of success.
  4. Prioritize dialogue over data. Foster meaningful conversations with students, parents and colleagues, transcending beyond mere numbers to understand the deeper impacts of your teaching.
  5. Protect your personal time diligently. It is essential for rejuvenation and maintaining the passion that brought you to teaching.

Balance makes room for passion

These strategies are not mere tips for efficiency; they are a call to embrace a more holistic and fulfilling approach to teaching. They remind us that productivity should not overshadow our well-being and passion. As educators, it’s essential to find joy in our journey, to nurture our creativity and to engage with our students and colleagues on a deeper, more meaningful level. This balanced approach not only renews our passion for teaching but also enriches the learning experiences of our students.

Let’s not forget that teaching is a marathon, one that should be run with joy, balance and fulfillment. By redefining our approach to productivity and embracing these strategies, we can reignite the passion that is the heartbeat of education. Remember, it’s about the journey as much as the destination. Let’s run this marathon with a renewed sense of purpose and joy.


Jason McKenna, an experienced educator and author of “What STEM Can Do for Your Classroom: Improving Student Problem Solving, Collaboration, and Engagement, Grade K-6,”  specializes in curriculum development and global educational strategy, focusing on STEM integration and 21st-century learning. His work involves engaging with educators and policymakers worldwide.


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


Subscribe to SmartBrief’s FREE email ASCD newsletter to see the latest hot topics in education. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.