• Dealing with Burnout: Teacher Burnout Edition

    Back to School: Double Duty & Teacher Burnout

    Yes, it’s August which means we’re all abuzz with those back-to-school feelings, thoughts, worries, plans – you name it. I recently had a client talk about “back-to-school sensations” which I thought was the most apt description I’ve heard yet about this humming time of year. A sensation, by its definition, is caught somewhere between cognitive and emotional memory and physical recollection. It lives in a no man’s land where our bodies, hearts, souls, hopes, dreams, and memories coalesce, generating nostalgic energy from deep within us. And for those who are teachers, that sensation dose is doubled, perhaps even tripled, as teachers ready themselves for their own class’s new year beginnings alongside, for many, sending their own children off to a new year, new class, new school. Some might say they are doing double duty – home and work look remarkably the same, stockpiling syllabi, lesson plans, notebooks, planners, schedules, and the various miscellany that accessorize late August and early September. So when the start-of-school sensation starts to wear off, and we set into early mornings and long days, followed by the evening runarounds that are familiar to most American families, why should we stay focused on teacher burnout and teacher wellness? Read on! 

    Contributors to Teacher Burnout

    Along with the fact that teachers are part of your family’s life, they are also grossly vulnerable to burnout, something that we saw to the greatest degree ever during the 20-21 school year, as evidenced by this study in which teachers cited major anxiety related to COVID-19 illness, administrator support, and parental communication as factors contributing to them considering leaving the profession, with young and new teachers (who are incidentally often young and new mothers) leaving the profession at an inordinately high rate. And teachers, similar to others in caregiving professions, are those passion-driven folks who are often highly unlikely to “dial it in” or do their work in a way that is half-hearted. I mean, it takes motivation, passion, and perhaps even a little self-hatred to be someone who genuinely cares about corralling the youngest and most vulnerable humans currently on the planet. The passion that teachers have for their work is also what makes them most susceptible to burnout – not setting boundaries, becoming emotionally involved in the lives of their students, and the inevitable taking work home that is just part of the “teaching life territory.” 

    So what can teachers do to evade burnout, and what can we do to support them? Well, that’s why I am offering this little reflection for you, fine educator and/or reader. If you are a teacher, have children in school, or you see yourself as an advocate for teachers, please feel free to share this as a resource with those who may need it.

    Helping Teachers Avoid Burnout

    Building on the suggestions posed in this article by Kevin Leichtman via Edutopia, here is an amplification of what teachers can do to avoid burnout before it starts, and how parents can be a supportive part of this process. After all, teachers spend nearly as much time with our kids as we do, and if you’ve ever worked in a boarding school, even more! In his article, Leichtman recommends that teachers should focus on positive coping mechanisms, build self-efficacy, and create a network of mentorship and support. So what does that actually look like? I tried to make this easy for you and have based my recommendations on a “6 S Strategy” for ease-of-memory and implementation. Please note that my messaging is directed AT teachers, but as a parent, you also can find ways to support your children’s teachers using this framework.

    Stress management awareness and implementation: How are you managing and completing your stress cycle each and every day? This is often done by physical movement or exercise, but finding ways to “clear out” the stress that gets lodged in your body is crucial to your well-being. If you haven’t read the book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, it’s time. You can even make it a fellow teacher group exercise (see point 3) to hit at two areas of how to stave off teacher burnout. Parents, offer to buy the copies for teachers or send them an electronic Amazon gift card for $10 – book purchase complete! 

    Saying NO & setting boundaries: You know it will happen. You will inevitably be asked to take on an extra prep or serve on that next committee. Every fiber in your being will want to just say YES because you are a team player. All I ask is that before that knee jerk reaction of, “yeah, sure” comes out of your mouth, hit the pause button by simply saying, “Well, thank you, that is something I will need to think about.” With this simply, polite phrase, you just bought yourself time to process AND are holding the ball in your court until you can provide a well thought out response. Similarly, it is 100% ok for you to set the terms of engagement with parents by offering them a Parent Code of Conduct for how you intend to interact with them as it relates to working with their child. Want a template? Click here to sign up to receive one that I created for when I work with minor clients. This boundary setting exercise (both creating it and asserting it) will give you peace of mind that you are starting this year on YOUR terms. I insist that parents sign this document before I begin working with their child, largely because I will often go back and reference it in subsequent interactions, if need be. Parents, if a teacher has gone through the process of reflecting and creating the terms for how she wants to interact with you about your child, it is your job to respect it. You are one of MANY parents with whom she/he interacts, and your willingness to be cooperative will ensure that you always are at the forefront. Difficult parents do NOT get preferential treatment.

    Socialization & sisterhood: Finding ways to connect with friends, either fellow teachers or those who are totally outside of school, is a non-option when it comes to allaying teacher burnout. You do not love your students any less by at times prioritizing an evening with gal pals over getting that quiz graded and handed back the next day. Having a community that has little to nothing to do with your work is one of the best things that you can do for your self-care because it allows you to stay grounded in the parts of you that are not your work. And remember, YOU are not your work.

    Self-check in’s and self-monitoring: Burnout is something that often sneaks up on us, creeping in through its draining yet subtle pervasiveness. You go through the motions for so long and all of a sudden, poof, you’re feeling overwhelmed, underappreciated, and past the point of no return. Undoing is inevitably much harder than not ever going there. Engage in a daily self-check, both with yourself and with your students. How am I doing today, REALLY? You can do it by choosing a color that applies to your energy level or by simply setting a time each day (such as when you get into your car to leave work) in which you take a moment to turn inward and self monitor. 

    Self-compassion: A tenet of self-compassion is that we are human because of our shared experience of suffering that we often follow by being hard on ourselves about not getting it all right all the time. I am guessing that you have popped into another teacher’s classroom, found her stressed out and pissed off, and given her the pep talk of the year to get her motivated and through that next class. You can likely rival an NFL coach with the enthusiasm and cheerleading that you offer to your colleagues. Can you offer that same compassion to yourself? Can you be more forgiving of yourself when it was a day in which you just weren’t your best self?

    Start over mindset: Teachers are planners and often really enjoy long-range schedules and organized ways to accomplish tasks, reach benchmarks, etc. But that pop-up meeting, fire drills, a kid’s illness, or life can quickly derail your solid planning. But that’s ok. By adopting a “start over mindset” in which you look at each new day as an opportunity to simply reset, you can offer yourself the grace of “chunking” your own mental energy. You do it with content for your student, why not apply it to how you look at yourself?

    Teacher Burnout Prevention

    Though there are manifold ways that we can work together to support teachers over the coming months as we all wade into another possibly tumultuous school year, focusing on preventing teacher burnout is a wise start. Just as in a family, when the parents become unhealthy, we often see mental health erosion in the younger members of the household. By protecting and bolstering teacher wellness, we all stand the best chance of weathering the coming year’s storms safe and sound, rain jackets and rubber boots intact.

    To work one-on-one with me to protect your wellness or for deliberate work in becoming better at setting boundaries, coping with anxiety, or dealing with the life stressors related to being a working mom, reach out. I’d love to support you.

    About Me

    Leah Rockwell, LPC, LCPC is a licensed professional counselor in PA and MD, providing online counseling services for women dealing with burnout, with particular focus on the motherhood experience. She’s a lovingly direct counselor and a co-parenting mom of two daughters. In former lives, she was a Spanish teacher, a sex education instructor, a school counselor, a school administrator, a wine vendor, and she is pretty sure she was a mermaid.