(This is the first post in a three-part series)
The new question-of-the-week is:
How do you avoid teacher burn-out?
People in any profession can “burn-out,” and teachers are no exception.
This series will explore how we can avoid that fate...
Today’s contributors are Jenny Edwards, Ph.D., Wendi Pillars, Timothy Hilton, Mandi White, Tara Dale, and Owen Griffith. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jenny, Wendi and Timothy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.
I think there are lots of things teachers can do - especially at this time of the year as we’re in the “home-stretch” - to avoid burn-out. I’ve written about them previously in Ed Week at Finishing The School Year Strong, and they include:
* Working fewer hours
* Reading a stimulating book
* Watching an intellectually intriguing video on the Web
* Writing something useful for other teachers
* Eating lunch with teachers you are impressed with, but don’t know well
Response From Jenny Edwards, Ph.D.
Jenny Edwards, PhD has taught at the elementary and middle school level. She is presently serving as Co-Lead for the Infant and Early Childhood Development PhD program at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, CA. She is the author of Inviting Students to Learn: 100 tips for talking effectively with your students (ASCD, 2010) and Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD, 2014). She served as co-editor for Invitational education and practice in higher education: An international perspective (Lexington, 2016):
How do you avoid teacher burn-out? Take care of yourself! My principal, Jim Fay, used to ask us at faculty meetings, “Who is the most important person in the classroom?” Knowing the real answer, we would say, “The children!” Laughingly, he would retort, “You are the most important person in the classroom!” He would say that when teachers come to school rested, happy, and fulfilled, they are able to create enjoyable learning experiences for students. In addition, they are serving as powerful role models. So how can we take care of ourselves?
Have a life outside of school. When you are organized at school and go home at a reasonable hour, you have time to cultivate friendships outside of school (Edwards, 2014).
Plan enjoyable activities to look forward to. What do you enjoy doing? Brainstorm a list of things, and put them on your schedule. What trips might you like to plan? Perhaps you could take a short weekend trip. You might also check into a nearby hotel and enjoy using the amenities. Then again, you might want to take a vacation from work over the weekend and stay in your home, pampering yourself.
Engage in physical activities on a daily basis. When you exercise, you release endorphins and other chemicals in your body that help you to feel good.
Put a smile on your face. Goleman (1989) talked about researchers who had found that when we just put a smile on our face, whether we are feeling happy or not, we can change our mood.
Interpret events in a positive way. What might be some of the good things that can come from an event? It takes less energy to do this, and it makes us feel good. In other words, look at the glass as “half full” as opposed to “half empty.”
Congratulate yourself on a job well done. Relish the wonderful job you are doing every day in the classroom. If something didn’t go the way you wanted it to go, reflect on it and use it as an opportunity to learn.
Have a calendar on which you write things for which you are thankful each day. It only takes a minute, and the benefits are great. Write small things, like a certain child came to school rested, or a parent paid you a compliment. They mount up. Every now and then, take time to read through them.
Take joy breaks (McGee-Cooper, 1992) on a regular basis. McGee-Cooper suggested that when we work continually, we tend to become less productive. She recommended that we make a list of what is fun for us to do in 2 to 5 minutes, 5 to 30 minutes, 30 minutes to ½ day, and ½ day or more. In 2-5 minutes, you might take a mental vacation to a beautiful spot, have a cup of tea, make a list of what you might like to have for your birthday, or put your head down on your desk for a few minutes (obviously when the students are gone). In 5 to 30 minutes, you could listen to a CD or read an article you enjoy. In 30 minutes to ½ day, you could look at photos, sing, take a walk, read a book, or plan a vacation. In ½ day or more, you could visit a zoo, go on a bicycle trip, visit a museum, and much more.
Who is the most important person in the classroom? YOU ARE! By taking care of yourself, you will be able to be even more effective in helping your students learn!
Goleman, D. (1989, July 18). A feel-good theory: A smile affects mood. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/18/science/a-feel-good-theory-a-smile-affects-mood.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
Edwards, J. (2014). Time to teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
McGee-Cooper, A. (with Trammell. D., & Lau, B.). (1992). You don’t have to go home from work exhausted! A program to bring joy, energy, and balance to your life. New York, NY: Bantam.
Response From Wendi Pillars
Wendi Pillars, NBCT, has been teaching students with English as a second/foreign language needs in grades K-12, both stateside and overseas, for more than 20 years. She is passionate about globalizing education, advocating for students, and using creativity to empower her students. She is the author of Visual Note-Taking for Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity. Find her on twitter @wendi322:
(Editor’s note: You can find more ideas from Wendi on how to avoid teacher burn-out here)
I used to believe that teaching would get easier the longer I remained in the profession. Not so. When we take our profession to heart, with its immense emotional, intellectual, and temporal investments, it becomes increasingly difficult to detach ourselves from our work. Not being able to detach enough or in time, fosters prime conditions for burnout.
Being able to detach requires figuring out what you feel like when you’re starting to get stressed. Cliche, perhaps, but know the signs. Stress manifests itself with me via shortened patience, and chaotic thinking, with a severe decrease in my focus and attention. I know when these happen, I need to reframe and rethink these 10 fundamentals of my life:
Nutrition. The first area I consider is my intake from the past 24-48 hours. I realize that if I’ve eaten too much sugar or junk food, and not ingested enough water, then I’m going to be worse for wear, cognitively, physically, and with my patience. Nutritional food, the more unprocessed the better, and plenty of water (not just liquids), ensure that my days’ energy is consistent and optimal. When I’m really struggling, I revert to Joshua Rosenthal’s advice: I think of what I can ADD to my daily intake that’s healthy, rather than what I need to take away. Often, water is the key addition.
Sleep. Consistency is key here. This includes a digital sunset for me, where I (try!) to turn off all screens at least an 1-2 hours before bed, if not more.
Exercise. I am constantly on the move at school, but also exercise before school, running and/or lifting weights. I’ve found it clears my mind, staves off depression, and helps me regulate my eating.
Friends. Relationships are huge. No matter what you eat or how well you take care of yourself, having at least one person with whom you share a positive, supportive, and honest relationship is golden.
I love my work. I spend a LOT of hours working and thinking about work, but as an autodidact, I’m grateful for the constant cognitive push, reasons to learn more and share more, and the challenge to make every topic more interesting. Exhausting? Yes, but I know it works and is critical when each day and each student are so different. Optimize the parts of teaching you love most.
Gratitude. This is a game-changer. At my lowest points, I focus on finding reasons to thank colleagues at school or finding ways I can help others. Even in small respects, it creates a positive, appreciated ripple effect.
Euthymia. Seneca, the Greek stoic philosopher described euthymia (translated into English as “tranquility”) as a quiet confidence and trust in oneself enough to believe in your own path. I work to consciously filter out pressures to conform to someone else’s ideals and expectations or comparisons to others, and remember to trust “my” path, my own expectations, and my goals.
Nature. I have “nature deficit disorder”, and need to be outside, in fresh air, or at least near windows. Being in nature is a spiritual act for me; it slows me down, nourishes my creative side, and expands my thinking like nothing else does. Fluorescent-lit classrooms without windows are mighty soul-crushers. One of Finland’s 15+ words for peace, deliciously nuanced, includes “luonnonrauha”, or “natural peace”, and is something we all could use more of.
Deep work. Cal Newport explores the concept of deep work--intense focus without distraction to perform at peak levels, increasingly necessary, yet increasingly rare. For me, writing clears my mind; it’s imperative that I get my thoughts out onto paper somehow and on a regular basis. If not, my mind’s chaos piles up like a ceiling-high inbox. It manifests itself physically, and so I need time to write, to sketch, to record. Finding deep work time to release that chaos helps me make sense of, and arrange, my thoughts.
- Mindfulness. I used to roll my eyes whenever I heard this word, but I now understand that we need to respect our experiences, and the only way for that to happen is for us to pay attention to them. There’s a lot to be said for not always looking ahead to the “next thing”, to where we want our students to “go”, at our own next to-do tasks, or how many likes our recent posts garnered. It’s critical to understand what matters to us, and why, to ensure we filter the onslaught of information, demands on our time, and inevitable comparisons we make between ourselves and others.
Know your signs and your trigger points, and continue to revisit your fundamentals. Teaching is visceral work, and definitely important, but none of that matters if you don’t take care of yourself first.
Response From Timothy Hilton
Timothy Hilton currently teaches high school Social Studies in South Central Los Angeles, and has taught in the area for the past 9 years. Timothy has experience teaching every level of social studies ranging from Advanced Placement to English Language Development. In addition to teaching in the inner city of Los Angeles, Timothy is currently a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University studying Educational Policy, Evaluation, and Reform:
Research has shown that there are several key reasons teachers leave school sites, and burn-out of the profession. These reasons include; low starting pay, lack of institutional supports, and difficult teaching assignments. The problem with these causes of burn-out is that they are largely out of the control of the teacher. So, what can teachers do to combat burn-out?
What follows are the key pieces of advice I live by to reduce job related stress.
- Create boundaries
Teaching is the type of profession where there is no real end. There are always lessons to tweak, papers to grade, units to plan, and professional development to attend. Teachers often find their nights, weekends, and summers consumed by a job that is largely considered low paying. To navigate these stressful waters, it is important to create clear boundaries. Set aside time where you will not be doing any teacher related work. This is your time, enjoy it.
- Chunk your work
I find that when a stack of 165 world history essays are turned in for grading, I am tempted to sit down and power through them all. What ends up happening is that I flame out, begin doing a terrible job providing feedback, and end up feeling exhausted. On solution is to chunk out your workload for the designated time. As an example, clearly state, “I am going to grade the period 3 papers today.” When you are done with period 3, stop what you are doing and go do something else non-teacher related. I find that between an hour and ninety minutes is about all I can muster without needing some sort of change of pace.
- Learn to say ‘No’
Schools can suck the life right out of you. As if teaching wasn’t all encompassing enough, many schools rely on teachers for outside responsibilities such as; coaching, club sponsors, teacher leadership, and a host of other jobs that rarely come with any extra meaningful financial support. While these different jobs ae important for the students, you must look out for yourself first. If taking on an additional role is going to over extend you, you must politely decline. If you accept, you are very likely to become over stressed, and your performance in other areas, such as the classroom, may suffer. It is ok to say no.
While it is tempting to want to do it all, it is important to understand that managing your stress is key to preventing teacher burnout. The better you manage your stress, the longer your career in teaching will be, and the more students you can reach.
Response From Mandi White & Tara Dale
Mandi White earned a Master’s of Education in Special Education from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. In 2007, she moved across the country to begin her teaching career in Phoenix, Ariz., as a cross-categorical resource teacher for 7th and 8th grade students. Mandi began her new position as an Academic and Behavior Specialist in July of 2017.
Tara Dale is a high school science teacher in the Gilbert School District in Arizona. Previously she’s taught 7th grade science and U.S. history in Phoenix. She was recognized as Kyrene’s Educator of the Year at the end of her second year teaching and then two years later was honored with the Science Foundation Arizona’s Innovation Hero Award. In 2014 she was named Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. She travels the state advocating for Arizona’s teachers and students with her work at Educators for Higher Standards, Student Achievement Partners, and Arizona Educational Foundation:
When we think of teacher burnout, we immediately think of a disheveled adult who hasn’t had more than four hours of sleep, is surviving on caffeine or liquor (or both) and is counting down the days to summer. Burned out teachers are underpaid, underappreciated, and overworked professionals who sacrifice themselves to ensure kids have a learning environment that is safe, healthy, and happy.
We can’t help you receive the money you so very much deserve but we can help you feel more appreciated and offer advice to minimize the amount of hours you spend working.
You are appreciated!
Yes, you are, and if you think really hard, you know you have examples. You’ve received a nice email from a parent thanking you for your kind words about their child. A student drew you a picture or brought you an apple. An administrator gave you compliments about your teaching the last time they were in your classroom watching you do your magic. The trick to avoiding burnout iis to capture these positive moments for future reference.
Every time you receive a complimentary email or letter, store it in a 3-ring binder for one of those difficult days. Store student pictures and gifts on a special counter so you can remind yourself during a challenging afternoon that you are good at what you do and the most important customers in the school system know it: your students.
When you are feeling blue or taken for granted, pull out the binder or spend time with your special shelf. Remember the circumstances surrounding these seemingly small actions showing gratitude and warm your heart realizing you are indeed appreciated.
Minimize Your Work Hours
1. Take a big picture approach to grading. Do you need to grade everything your students turn in? Can some grading occur in class, amongst the students as a learning opportunity? Do you need to grade for every error or can you focus the assignment so you are only grading for one item? For example, if your students wrote an essay, you can choose to grade for only spelling, use of new vocabulary words, or development of theme, but certainly you aren’t required to grade for all three.
2. Leverage other teachers. Most schools offer time for Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) where teachers meet to discuss student data and plan lessons. Divide and conquer. Assign each adult a specific task and deadline so that you can each help one another. There’s no need for all of you to reinvent the wheel. Trust your colleagues and allow them the opportunity to trust you. You will be surprised how much you can accomplish as a team.
3. Learn to say “no.” You don’t have to do everything. It’s kind of your administrator to have so much faith in you but if he asks for you to join one more committee, or help mentor one more teacher, or take on one more student club simply say no. After all, you aren’t the only adult on campus. There needs to be a point where other teachers on campus also have the opportunity to find their passion and demonstrate their capabilities. We know some of you are responding, “but no one else volunteers on my campus; I’m the only one.” That’s not your problem. That’s a problem your administration has to solve. You don’t have to be...you can’t be...the solution all of the time. You were hired to teach children and if you are burned out, then you can’t do the number one responsibility you were originally hired to perform.
For more ideas and suggestions, read Lisa Chesser’s 25 Tips to Reduce Teacher Burnout or Ed Week’s 6 Signs of - and Solutions for - Teacher Burnout. Be proactive. Make changes before you feel burned out. What is one change you can make this month to minimize the likelihood that you will burnout?
Response From Owen Griffith
Owen Griffith is a student mentor, author, educational consultant, and blogger, residing with his wife and son in North Georgia. Owen’s first book, Gratitude: A Way of Teaching (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), was a Top Ten Best Seller. Check out his blog at //spirituallyteaching.blogspot.com/ and Facebook page at www.facebook.com/griffithgratitude:
According to a top burnout researcher, Carol Maslach, “Burn-out is more than feeling blue. It is a chronic state of being out of sync at work and can be a significant problem for educators... Teaching feels like a burden and a chore.”
Can we recapture the energy and enthusiasm that brought us into the classroom and help our colleagues when they start to get discouraged? Yes, we can become revitalized by adding the following tools to our teacher’s tool-kit.
Tool #1: Be Grateful--Look for the Positive
Research (Emmons, Froh, Bono) shows that practicing gratitude helps restore our energy. Gratitude is much more than a pleasant emotion. It is a potent action. Start to practice gratitude: write a gratitude letter to a colleague, or make a gratitude list about things in your classroom and life. Do it on a daily basis for two weeks and watch your classroom become brighter.
Tool #2: Develop a Growth Mindset
Research by Dr. Carol Dweck affirms that applying growth mindset activities helps teachers avoid burnout and also helps students improve academically. Dweck tells us that praising the process versus praising intelligence “may involve commending effort, strategies, focus, persistence in the face of difficulty, and willingness to take on challenges.” She gives some helpful examples in this article
Tool #3: Help Others
In the classroom and in the world, when we help others in big and small ways, we become rejuvenated. By partaking in altruistic actions, we open ourselves to the profound joy of giving freely as we focus on others and not on ourselves. Write or call a parent and tell them something about their student that you are proud of. Find a student that is struggling and sincerely complement them for something they are doing well. Altruistic giving has been shown to increase positive neurotransmitters in the giver, receiver, and anyone observing the act of giving.
Tool #4: Have Fun in the Classroom
Humor is a powerful way to stay fresh and invigorated. Although life can be serious, we can temper that with a sense of humor about situations in the classrooms. We can learn to laugh at ourselves in stressful situations and keep some balance and positive perspective. Start some days off with a funny riddle. Not only is this fun, but it helps students think outside the box. Riddles, jokes, or brain teasers can easily be aligned with lesson plans.
Tool #5: Reach out for Help
Although burnout makes us feel isolated, we are not alone. Reach out to a trusted colleagues, administrators, counselors, and friends to start getting help and support. Don’t be afraid to get professional help. We can help others who are experiencing the same thing and create networks of colleagues and friends. A study by Figley (2012) shows that we can heal from “compassion fatigue” before it becomes full burnout.
These suggestions may seem daunting, but we don’t have to try everything at once. Take some time to reflect and make a plan to try the easiest of these tools to get unstuck and feel refreshed. If it doesn’t work, remember that one mistake is not a failure but a step in learning. Keep trying. You can do this!
Thanks to Jenny, Wendi, Timothy, Mandi, Tara and Owen for their contributions!
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