The struggle is real. Teacher burn out happens to the best of us. Nea Today has mentioned it. NPR has reported it. The Atlantic has talked about it. Twice. Personally, I know a double handful’s worth of teachers who have decided to no longer teach because they are just. Tired. Of. It.
The ‘it’ part is fairly clear, as stated in the linked articles above. I’ve gone into some depth with that topic here, here, and here. Considering everything, I’m constantly amazed that I’ve lasted into the 8th year of teaching myself.
And because it’s my 8th year, and I no longer consider myself a newbie (although I also do not consider myself a veteran yet), I think I can offer a few pieces of advice on how to NOT burn out.
1. Be aware of who you are.
Knowing who you are will help with using the remainder of the advice on this list. Take the modified Myers-Briggs here. Know what your love language is using this tool. Take this quiz for your enneagram type. Figure out your core values, and this might help. This entire playlist has some goodies that might speak to you.
Currently, I’m an INFJ-A (in the past, I was an INTJ-A), my top two love languages are quality time and receiving gifts, I’m an enneagram type 5. I value family, loyalty, resourcefulness, generosity, and consideration. I grew up as a Southern Baptist, and I currently attend a non-denomination protestant church, but those are just labels I tell people. I am Christian, but I don’t like some of the connotations that the word can bring, and prefer to call myself a Christ follower. Some people would say those two terms are the same, but I find them to be slightly different sometimes…I also digress. Anyway, my faith is also a value I hold close.
2. Take the pressure off.
Let’s face it, current American culture and societal norms expect the school and teachers to do for their students what a generation ago the school and teacher would have expected parents to do. I’m trained and practiced in teaching listening and speaking skills, sharing, conflict mediation, organization, basic hygiene, asking questions skills, stress-management and mindset. I can spot physical and mental abuse, I’m always on the look out for bullying incidents and am expected to act when I see it. I’ve coached boys to be gentlemen and girls to be self-confident, and I’ve fielded questions from middle school kids about relationships and sex, religion and spirituality, even when I’m not really supposed to. Once you’ve built a good relationship with your students, it’s unavoidable that they ask some off the wall questions that no math pedagogy class can ever prepare you for, but life has. It’s also unavoidable – at least for me – to NOT reply in a matter-of-fact, you-are-old-enough-to-hear-this, well-you-ARE-asking-for-life-advice-and-I-AM-your-teacher kind of way.
Never mistake any of the above for feeling like you have to save anyone. I am not anyone’s savior, and I kind of hate that starfish story now with a passion. Which is funny because I used to be so into it way back when I was a newbie.
I’m now more in the camp of ‘I’ll lead a horse to water, but I can’t make it drink.’ What I am here for is to teach students something meaningful and empowering so that they can learn to take care of their academic and social needs themselves.
And if you’re still not convinced, think about it this way:
Deal with the circus when it’s yours and within your reach. When it’s not, then let it go.
3. Relay with colleagues.
Yes, I meant relay and not rely. I love working with my colleagues because we each take turns being a rock star for each other. Someone all of a sudden needs to be out on maternity leave early because their water broke during class – the rest of the team has it covered with sub plans, xerox copies, making sure there is something on the desk for the sub to do each day. Someone’s grandmother died overseas and need to be out on bereavement leave to support the family – same. I’ve got the Math 8 lessons and materials done. My Accelerated Math 7 counterpart covers making the assessments and doing some forward planning. I’m not by myself, and neither are you. It doesn’t even have to be the people at your site. Whole circles of support can be found with the click of a mouse.
4. Do what you NEED to do.
If you are starving, and it’s lunch time, but there are kids in your room asking for this and that, then kick them out and EAT YOUR LUNCH. If you just need your prep period to be by yourself to decompress, then LOCK THAT DOOR AND TURN OFF THE LIGHTS. When you finally get home after a 16 hour day at school, and there’s a pile of laundry on the floor and it bothers you to no end, then suck it up and GET IT DONE.
There are days when I get home after work and all I can manage to do is get dinner together, take a shower, and plop in my bed to be dead to the world until the next morning. On those days, that is what I need. Are there friends going out for a birthday celebration that night? Maybe. Do I go? No. Because that is not what I need. I need to sleep. Even if I went, I wouldn’t be very good company at all and I’ll just ruin the celebratory mood.
And that kind of choice is tough, it really is. Especially when I also need social time. I just don’t need it as much as I need to eat properly, sleep properly, and take care of myself properly. Which is where knowing yourself is important. There are people who need to have a conversation with someone other than a 12-year-old. Go and get what you need. Take care of yourself.
5. Do what you WANT to do.
That sheet mask? Go for it! That week in Cabo over Thanksgiving break? Book that flight and hotel! Splurge on a round of drinks for your friends to make up for all the times you bailed on them (see #4 above)? Cheers, mate!
I’m not talking about blowing your entire pay check on frivolous things or being irresponsible about the resources you are blessed with. I’m talking about letting yourself revel in the little luxuries when the time to afford one arrives.
In general, I’m a big self-denier. I’ll resist getting the more expensive meal, or the nicer (more expensive) home item. I’ll go for the cheapest option, or go without it completely. But I’ve learned to not feel guilty for getting the taller boba cup. I know not everyone has that kind of financial security, let alone independence, and every situation is different. At the same time, I work really hard not just for my pay check, but also for its investment and growth. Being responsible and enjoying some creature comforts are not mutually exclusive.
You’ll also notice that my ‘luxuries’ may not actually be considered luxuries. To me, the cost of an item doesn’t make it a luxury – to me, it’s a bit more than the item itself. It’s the feeling of allowing myself to say yes to something that my hyper-frugal side would say no to. In general, I go for experiences (and food) rather than things. Even better if I can share it with my family or a friend.
6. Practice gratitude.
I’m also very thankful for all the things I’ve been provided. Meaningful work! A home to call my own! Multiple homes around the world in which I confidently know I’ll be welcome! A car that works well with passenger space! Family whom I’m close to! Health and all my limbs working properly! Friends! Colleagues I love! Challenges to conquer! The kookiest, cutest pet chinchilla ever! But for the grace of God, my life would be very different indeed.
So I remind myself to not take anything for granted. And when I do run across a struggle or something annoying, I try to turn it into something positive. A helpful exercise I’ve used is to make a list of the things that annoy/depress/make me feel sorry for myself generally, and turn them around with a positive line, like so. This week:
- I’ve hated the heat and relentless beating of the sun…but have been so thankful to enjoy powerful a/c and cool summer nights
- Been a bit peopled-out with both social and work things non-stop…but that means I get to celebrate and enjoy good friends and hold trusted responsibilities with decision-making power
- My place is a mess…but that means I’ve been doing the things I enjoy and having people over to spend time with
- I’ve felt like I’ve constantly had to do dishes today…but that means I have more than enough to eat, and family and friends to share a meal with
Just the act of writing that has lifted my mood, which in turn helps with my energy level TONS.
7. Say no in order to say yes.
This video explains the first part of this piece of advice. It’s meant for entrepreneurs, but it’s still meaningful for other professions as a lesson on saying no. This section is also slightly different from #4 above, where it’s more of a case of prioritizing.
This no is a HELLZ NO. As in “I don’t wanna because I just don’t.” I don’t want to be on that committee that takes up 5 hours of unpaid work each week. I don’t want to be cheer coach where I’m traveling to each and every sporting event all year with the team. I’m gonna have to say no to leading whoseits to do whatsit wheneversit.
And as teachers, I know it’s hard to say no. But think of it this way: saying no would free up so much time, energy, brain space for the things you really want to say yes to. When my hands are completely full, I don’t have room for anything else, especially #4-6 above. Sometimes, it’s good to let something go, even your deepest, longest held hopes and dreams. Because something new and wonderful and unexpected is just around the corner waiting for you. Or because it’s time to simply rest and take a break from the world. Or because letting go will allow you to do a set of core things really, really well.
Here are some sentence frames to help you say no:
Thanks for the invite to the _________ committee. It sounds so interesting and has so much value for our site. However, I’m already doing ____________ for another committee at this time. I might be interested at a later time, but right now, I’m going to say no.
Coaching would be a great new thing to try for me. However, I’ve decided to focus on my classroom and teaching practice this year. I’m afraid doing both would not allow me to concentrate on either in the way each deserves. Perhaps you should ask ________? I heard him/her expressing interest before.
It’s ok to say no. It’s ok to put your foot down and draw a boundary, even with admin. ESPECIALLY with admin. Even when you are new to teaching. ESPECIALLY when new to teaching.
8. Have an exit plan.
Still, even implementing all of these things to prevent burn out, there could be a chance that it’ll happen anyway. Besides experiencing it myself, I’ve also seen it happen to many, and to the best. One day, teaching is just no longer your passion or drive. It can happen over decades, or overnight.
People sometimes look upon quitters as wusses – especially in any field that centers on helping people, like medicine or education. Why would you be so selfish as to quit helping kids learn? How hard could it be, playing with glue and paint and ball all day?
On the contrary, it takes tons of courage to quit, especially if it’s all one has ever known. It’s scary, that big wide unknown. And sometimes, it’s easier to stick to something familiar, even if it makes you unhappy or stresses you out constantly, than to leap into the void.
I’ve found that branching out makes that leap less scary. It’s kind of like having a back-up plan, something on the back-burner. But it’s still something you enjoy and have interest in exploring rather than something solely for the purpose of safety. And it can be the most mundane thing. If Marie Kondo turned her cleaning quirks into an industry, then I can do the same with my penchant to make everything into a chart. Oh wait, someone already did.
For me, I’m going to see how far I can take this little blog. There’s a bunch of other projects I would like to explore as well, including getting certified to be a pilates instructor, and participating in baking competitions. But for now, I’m going to say yes to one thing at a time.
How have you dealt with burn out?