This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Kelly Rao.
Teacher burnout. A problem before the pandemic, and then we suddenly found ourselves swimming furiously in circles navigating the ever-changing currents of remote and hybrid learning. Now we are desperately trying to make sense of the past year while still knee-deep in “the muck”. Emotions felt include but are not limited to: helplessness, anxiety, fear, and general malaise. Concerning, yes, as teaching requires our physical body, mind, and heart, and our emotions impact the whole self. Simply put, how teachers feel on a daily basis matter. It matters not only because we are real people with our own lives and families, but also because of our impact on society.
Just like when a child thrives when a parent is well, the classroom thrives when a teacher is well. We focus on our students so intensely, at times to our own detriment, and now we must reflect inward to take a long good look at our own wellness. Because strong mental health and overall well-being will in turn directly affect and profoundly influence our students and school community.
The good news? Yes, we are burning out, but we have the power to regain some brightness, by doing what I call “freeing our shine.” Let me explain. Every baby is born with a light that shines brightly. You know what I am talking about. This light is apparent in their laugh, smile, and in their eyes. You can see it immediately, feeling the intensity with your own wonder. As we grow, the shine in some of us begins to dim. Some lights are altered due to trauma or circumstance (like COVID), or by realizing the world isn’t what we thought it was going to be (teacher life in general). When this happens we need to reach back inside ourselves and adjust the dimmer switch or maybe even entirely change the lightbulb. Whatever it takes to get that light shining again.
At this moment all teachers’ lights need to be adjusted, to varying degrees. The thing is, we have to do this for ourselves. The electrician isn’t coming, this is a total DIY project. But there is more good news. We are already used to saving ourselves in education! We do this daily. Teachers are innovative, motivated, creative, and resourceful. We can do this. The time has come more than ever to turn our attention and focus on our own well-being. Free that shine.
1. Regain Control
This year has been completely out of our control. What an eye-opening group exercise this has been in practicing acceptance! No, we cannot control much of our circumstances but what we can do is stop reacting and start responding. Identify and understand your emotions first, and then use them to your advantage. For example, anxiety and anger are helpful emotions when you need a quick solution to a complicated problem. Fear encourages motivated action and perseverance. Frustration leads to “bigger picture” thinking in brainstorming sessions. And sadness encourages slower systematic processing and paying more attention to detail. No wonder if I am in a sad mood why I love to put my headphones on and “hide” grading papers! As humans, we experience a range of emotions but emotionally intelligent people know how to regain control of their emotions and use them to their advantage.
2. Unlock Your Power of Creation
I am not talking about creating lesson plans or activities. You are already a rockstar at that. I am talking about paying attention to the vocabulary we use, out loud and in our heads, to describe a situation. Words have power, as teachers, we know this well, so manipulate your words the next time you find yourself in a challenging interaction with a parent, or when technology has failed you for the hundredth time in a week. We have the potential to construct our own reality through our thoughts, so reframe the experience with different words. Create your own meaning and purpose in daily life.
3. Trust One Thing
Teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves to do it all, and to do it near perfectly. Instead of having a long laundry list of things you need to do to make your classroom or school or community a better place, trust yourself to pick ONE thing. It could be one thing for each category but it’s easier to keep it simple and choose one thing that can apply to all areas. What is your one thing that could make a daily difference? Maybe it’s your intention. Maybe it’s compassion. Perhaps it’s joy. Whatever it is, trust that one word to guide your focus and see the changes that emerge.
4. Choose Authenticity.
When you value transparency, and are the same person to everyone you meet regardless of the setting, the best version of your true self shines. In teaching this means asking for help from colleagues, admitting when you make a mistake (even to parents), speaking your opinions respectfully in staff meetings, saying no when you cannot commit to a plan, and learning from your mistakes. Not only do authentic people tend to be more satisfied with their lives, but they are also generally viewed as inspirational. Embrace your true self for an enjoyable and more meaningful school day.
5. Hack Your Happiness
Pleasure is temporary, happiness is self-created. Inside and outside of the school building you must work towards this mindset every day, and it comes from within. Author of The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, writes that “Happiness is the joy we feel striving after our potential.” You are happy when you progress through life working toward and achieving goals. Create short term, attainable goals to slay and track your successes. Choose a simple goal like organizing a classroom closet that has gotten out of control, trying a completely new strategy you have been meaning to implement, or reading one “non-school” book this month. It doesn’t matter what you choose, when you are making progress satisfaction inevitably follows. You have the power!
6. Commit to Conscious Personal Self-Growth
Personal growth is a choice, and if you are dedicated, an ongoing life-long process of transformation. It leads to reduced stress, better health, improved relationships, increased resilience, greater happiness, and more. As teachers we always look to grow professionally, and so growing personally is a natural leap. Identify how you want to develop and why it’s important to you, seek opportunities to educate yourself in that area, acquire the tools you need, and hold yourself accountable. This conscious evolution leads to success and more meaning in life. I’m not going to lie, the work can be uncomfortable, sometimes even painful. But I promise you, it’s worth it.
“Freeing your shine” is not a destination, it’s an ever-changing process to consciously work towards. You consistently strive to adjust the way you react to daily irritants, obstacles, and stressors to take active steps towards brightness. Acknowledge that your discomfort is a totally valid, normal part of life, and then evaluate how your mindset could shift to make the situation a bit easier. Sometimes this will be really hard. Sometimes you won’t want to do it. That’s okay. Over time and with more practice shifting your mindset becomes natural, and can occur without force. You might find that what you need one moment or day or in one season of your life is not what you may need in another. That’s okay too. Be gentle with yourself, as you would with your students. That’s where the thriving begins.
Middle School Teacher
If you are a teacher who is interested in contributing to the Truth for Teachers website, please click here for more information.