Overcoming burnout

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I remember very clearly a conversation that I had with my school’s former Headmaster. He asked me, “What do you think would surprise most people about teaching?” Without blinking an eye, I responded, “The level of energy it requires.”

When that conversation occurred several years ago, I was at the height of my game. My classes were fun, exciting, innovative. I spent a considerable amount of time revamping every lesson. I tweaked everything. I added meaningful uses of new technology as they became available. I attended training classes to learn new skills. I led training classes for other teachers to hone their skills. I led clubs and activities. I gave presentations. I organized field trips. I graded papers quickly, efficiently, yet with thoughtful feedback included on every page. I did it all with a smile. I was on fire.

I also went home everyday exhausted. Sometimes, I came home and continued to work. Lessons were always in need of tweaking. Papers were always needing to be graded. Often, that meant late nights for me. Despite the exhaustion, I loved my job. I woke up ready to face every new school day. I felt like I was living up to my calling. I was giving my all to my students.

Unfortunately, this kind of energy is not sustainable. I had little to give my family in the evenings. I also began to resent the amount of time it took to tweak and grade. Over time, my health began to suffer. However, it wasn’t until this last school year when I experienced some very significant medical issues that I realized I was burned out.

In graduate school, they offer all sorts of tips to help prevent teacher burnout. I heeded a lot of that advice such as not teaching summer school to allow for mental and physical rejuvenation. In fact, it is quite easy to find tips on how to AVOID teacher burnout. The reality is that the teaching profession has a notoriously high burn out rate. We can talk about ways to avoid burnout, but what do we do once we are there?

Here are a few things I have learned while on this path. Hopefully, these ideas can help another teacher.

Communicate.-Last year, I knew that I had to reduce my work load. I was facing some very serious health challenges. Reducing stress was a high priority while I worked on resolving these health issues. I had an honest conversation with my division director (principal). I let her know the issues I was facing, and that I would not be volunteering for as many activities this year. I assured her that I my classroom would still be as upbeat, but I just couldn’t do as much outside of the classroom. I also let her know that I would be having a lot of doctor’s appointments. I always tried to schedule them after school, but that isn’t always possible.

Side note: I spoke with my director a few times regarding my health, but I didn’t do it enough. I tend to be a fairly private person, and I don’t like people expressing concern for me. It isn’t the type of attention I enjoy. However, I really should have shared my challenges with my team and colleagues. I also should have not downplayed my health concerns with my director. If anything, my desire to be private and not trouble others might not have worked in my favor. It is important that we share with our colleagues, even when we don’t like it.

Get support.– This one seems like a no-brainer, and it is very closely connected with communicating. I had a lot of support at home from my husband and daughter, so I wasn’t taking on quite as much at home. However, I didn’t elicit enough support at work. In reality, I felt like everyone was having some struggles last year, but isn’t that always the case? I didn’t want to burden anyone with my own issues, but I should have talked to a few close colleagues. On mornings when my body just didn’t want to work, I should have had someone I could tell. For instance, when you are in pain (or just overly tired), your tone can sometimes be a bit harsh. I know that is true for me. It would have been nice to tell one person in the morning, that that day was starting off with difficulties. If I sent an email later that day that seemed terse, she could have asked me to tone it down. Having a person who knows what is going on AND can gently put you back on the right path is something I wish I had last year.

In addition, support can be informal (a group of colleagues who help lift each other up) or formal such as a Professional Learning Networks (PLNs). It is important to be uplifted intellectually, professionally and emotionally.

It is okay to have an off year.– Really great teachers are constantly evaluating their work. Rarely do they do the same lesson twice or in the same way. We as a group tend to look for ways to be better and tailor to the students that are currently in our classroom. That being said, many of us have filing cabinets and hard drives full of great lessons that have only been used once. It is okay to re-use some of those lessons. Once I gave myself permission to stop tweaking everything, I was relieved. Yes, it isn’t how I normally operate, but my students enjoyed the lessons still. I didn’t need as much prep time before or after the lesson. I knew exactly what the learning outcomes were, and I could identify whether students were on- or off-the-mark much faster. It isn’t something I would do all of the time, but I was glad to have a little reprieve from all the planning. Had I elicited more support, I could have used my colleagues as resources more as well. An established PLN could have been extremely helpful to me.

Find a self-care practice that works for you.- Outside of the education world, people rarely understand how much work teachers actually do. Even though we dated for several years prior to getting married, my husband was astonished by how much work I actually brought home once we were in the same household. In the corporate world (where I was before teaching), it isn’t uncommon for companies to boast their commitment to work-life balance. This is something rarely heard in education circles. Great teachers care a lot about their students, which translates into a lot of work being done at home. We have to find ways to care for ourselves, especially at our lowest points. Here are a few ways that I have attempted to create a self-care practice, but remember that there isn’t a right or wrong way, only your way:

  1. Sleep: Sleep cannot be overrated. Do a Google search on the importance of sleep. You will find any number of illnesses related simply to a lack of sleep. I find a way to make this a priority. My body wants me to get 8-9 hours of sleep a night. This can be difficult with a family with teenagers or very young ones. My husband even got me a fitness tracker that can monitor my sleep, so that I can improve my sleeping habits–getting to bed earlier, avoiding caffeine after 5pm, etc. I also turn off all electronic devices in my room. We have a home office in our master bedroom. I turn off the UPS to the devices to avoid any LED lights or humming. We purchased black-out curtains to keep outside lights to a minimum, as well.

  2. Meditative practice: I have also adopted a regular meditative practice. This has been a great tool for controlling stress reactions. Most people think of meditation as sitting cross-legged, straight-backed on the floor in silence for 30 minutes. Let’s be honest, who has time for that? Clearly, I didn’t, or I wouldn’t have needed to find a way out of the dark. There were times where I did what many would consider a traditional meditation practice. Often times, I found a few minutes or even seconds to simply close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. You would be surprised at how refreshing that can be. Some days, I took a short walk (or even a long walk) or did a few yoga stretches. Some days, I read a book. Some days, I took a nap. Other times, I thought about all of the things for which I was grateful. Whatever I did in the moment, it helped me clear my mind and focus on myself for even just a few seconds.

  3. Diet and exercise: This is the first thing that goes out the window when we are stressed, tired and/or depressed. If we don’t have enough energy to make it through a single class, how could we possibly have the energy to cook or work-out? I think the trouble is that we think it is all or nothing. If we are eating right, then everything has to be “right”. I was put on a very restrictive diet to deal with my health issues. I won’t lie. It added an extra level of stress at a time when I was trying to reduce stress. It required a lot of cooking because restaurants that can accommodate me are few and far between. Dealing with grumpy teenagers who don’t like what is put in front of them at the dinner table adds a whole new level of stress too. And, let’s not forget the time for meal planning, shopping and food prep that goes into a restrictive diet. For a moment, take out those restrictions. What if it is as simple as swapping water for a soda or coffee. Or, what if it is as simple as packing your lunch two days a week to have better choices during the day. What if a walk qualifies as a workout (it actually does in my book). Take a walk through the halls during your planning period while sipping a water bottle. You can also use that as opportunity to clear your head (see #2). Fifteen minutes is better than nothing.

  4. Say “no”.  Independent schools are also notorious for expecting teachers to take on many roles. This isn’t good or bad. It is simply the way they operate. (It is the way all schools operate, not just independent schools.) Most years, this practice has made me feel valued. I have always had the opportunity to do new things that keep me challenged and interested in my work. It has to be up to the teacher to know when to say no. This is where communicating with your admins is very important. They won’t be as alarmed when you say no. Some colleagues who have known me for a long time were concerned by my lack of involvement last year. I took it as an opportunity to let them know that I was taking care of myself to heal.

I know I did a lot to help myself during that rough time, but that is a short list of the most important items. It isn’t just enough to prevent teacher burnout. We have to recognize when were burned out and when we need to find a way to love our profession again.

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