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Teaching Secrets: Managing October Exhaustion

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The exhaustion that typically hits teachers in October assaulted me in mid-September this year. While I will share some strategies that I’ve developed to manage this annual sense of being overwhelmed, I want to preface them with this: The problem is not that teachers and administrators don’t have adequate coping skills to manage our work; the problem is that the demands on us are absurd.

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” said the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. So how do we alleviate fatigue so we can resume the good fight. My advice is to establish a “Pause Period” of several weeks to rejuvenate, reflect, and reconnect. Here are some of the components:

• Take some time off: Take a day off, now! Do laundry, eat lunch, take a nap, do something fun. I know that one day off is a drop in the bucket, but it’s something—especially if you’re a typical teacher working six days a week. And you probably know that if you keep pushing, wearing yourself down, you’ll get sick and end up staying home anyway. So take a “personal day,” or two, and enjoy it. The kids will survive.

• Refresh your surroundings: Find another day’s worth of time to clean and organize your classroom. Coordinating the logistics can be tricky. Some teachers can get into school on weekends, while others might need to seek out creative solutions to be alone in their room or stay late after school. But by mid-October, there are bound to be piles of paper, work for bulletin boards, and other cleaning tasks to do. The mess is demoralizing and draining. Think of how much time is spent looking for that one important paper that you need to turn in right away! I know this extra work seems contradictory, but a day spent doing these tasks and setting up organizing systems can save a lot of time in the long term and be very satisfying.

• Re-ground yourself in the “why”: “Why am I doing this?” is what blasts through my head when work has worn me down. The "Pause Period" is a reflective time to reconnect with what brought you into teaching. Think about it, talk about it, write about it. Don’t evaluate whether you are accomplishing what you’d set out to do—just reconnect with those positive feelings. (For stories and inspiration on this topic, see this blog post I wrote at Edutopia.)

• Celebrate the successes: Sometimes the exhaustion comes when all we can see is how far we are from fulfilling our goals. In October, the growth in our teaching practice or in our students’ learning can be obscure, but we need to train ourselves to find every indicator of progress and we need to celebrate these. Recall the moments so far this year when you’ve felt alive, engaged, and excited in your work. What have you most enjoyed? When did you notice joy in your classroom? Think about students with whom your relationship has deepened or improved. Focus on what feels good and on every little positive change.

We need to hone our skills in noticing and documenting every ounce of learning, at identifying every scrap of student work that shows a tiny bit of growth. With this “data” in hand, we can develop a counter-narrative to the one that relies only on standardized test data to evaluate our work. If your students have learned then you have learned. Don’t let the progress be subsumed under exhaustion. Celebrate.

• Optimize your time: The next step in the Pause Period is to critically examine how you spend time. I once had a principal who made me document my hours each week. I was overwhelmed and couldn’t imagine cutting out anything, but I discovered activities that weren’t worth their time and effort. I recognized a number of inefficient classroom routines such as checking homework or taking attendance. I consulted with experienced teachers, observed other systems, and revised my own so that my routines took a third of the time they once did.

• Get some helpers: I also found a number of tasks I could ask parents, older students, or office staff to do. I discovered that students were happy to stay late and clean, organize, or put up bulletin boards in exchange for pizza. I separated the activities that only I could do (calling parents, writing grades, etc.) and those that I could delegate. And then I asked for help and usually got it!

• Learn to say no: The biggest challenge was to say no to the endless requests for my time. I really struggled with this, but I also learned which activities were really worth it. We have to set limits on our work day and week. While I recognize that we’re asked to do too much, I have also seen many teachers take on work that they could say no to, myself included.

• Make good health a priority: On the topic of time, I am compelled to include one last comment. In order to be effective in my work, in order to have the energy to manage the stress and demands, I have to make sure I get enough sleep, exercise, healthy food, and time with friends and family. I’ve learned to put on the oxygen mask first; I have to take responsibility for doing this. But you’ve already heard this speech about sleep and exercise, haven’t you?

It’s Time to Reclaim Fair Working Conditions

Over the years, I have become more adept at time management, organization, and saying no. Yet the quantity of work in my job today still feels increasingly un-doable. I am deeply committed to transforming our education system so that all students get what they need and deserve. However, teachers are burning out and leaving the profession in record numbers. In my district, 50 percent of teachers leave within three years; 70 percent are gone after five years.

I’m going to suggest something radical: We need to reclaim the eight-hour work day. A new labor movement is forming in education, a movement of teachers demanding improved working conditions, fair wages, respect and dignity, and protection from being blamed for poverty, corrupt tax codes, under-resourced public schools, and national recessions.

This fall, the increased media bashing of teachers compounded my exhaustion. For a spell, I felt deeply cynical and depleted. However, after taking some of my own advice, I’m clear that we must organize to transform our working conditions. They are unsustainable and do not foster the kind of transformation of our education system that I’m working towards. My anger is no longer draining me; I’m going to use it as fuel to demand a healthy and sustainable eight-hour work day.

And so, once your "Pause Period" is over, and you’re a little less fatigued, explore some of the grassroots efforts underway to increase the voice of teachers in policy decisions. Learn about them (maybe start with Anthony Cody’s blog on this site) and then mobilize. Maybe one day we won’t have to manage the "October Exhaustion."

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