My inbox is typically bursting with messages from overwhelmed teachers. Help! I can’t do this! I feel so inadequate — it’s just too much for one person and I don’t think I can teach anymore. The situation is so bad — I’m thinking of just quitting.
Each person who has contacted me was searching for the same thing:
- reassurance that their feelings are normal (they are)
- encouragement that they can handle the responsibilities (they can)
- a reason to believe that the rewards of teaching outweigh the costs (they do)
This week and next, we’re going to look at eight keys to help you regain your confidence and avoid burn-out. These are principles that helped me stay in the teaching profession at times when I didn’t think I could take another day. They are based on what I’ve seen happen in my own life and in the lives of other teachers who overcame feelings of hopelessness and frustration and regained their enthusiasm for teaching.
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This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.
1) Love your students (even when they’re not so loveable!)
Enjoying and growing with your students is one of the most important ways to combat burnout. Unfortunately, when you’re stressed, it can feel almost impossible to see the kids as the beautiful people that they are. It’s really helped me to build times into our daily schedule which force me to step back and remember what’s important.
For example, in our class meetings, I set a timer for one minute and the entire class greeted one another by name, usually with a handshake of some sort. That’s all the time to takes for every student to smile up at me, shake my hand, and say, “Good morning, Mrs. Watson!” This act alone sets the tone for the day and reminds me that I’m dealing with kids who have feelings, too.
I also had my students give a ‘fist bump or handshake’ when they left the classroom each afternoon. This personal acknowledgment gave me another chance to connect with each child and really calmed me down at the end of the day when I was feeling stressed. Sometimes I also had ‘tickets out the door’ — the kids wrote one thing they learned that day and handed me their paper (the ‘ticket’) at dismissal. Having a written record that YES, this day was worth getting out of bed for because I did actually get through to the kids, was enough to help me keep going sometimes when feeling discouraged.
You can have lunch or snack with your kids as a reward every now and then — an unstructured time to just sit and talk about what’s going on in their lives really endears them to you (and vice versa).
Look for little ways like this to accomplish the goal of seeing students as individual people with unique needs, feelings, and experiences. Sometimes the school system trains us to think of kids as machines that can be pushed to the limit every minute of the day and perform at 100% of their ability regardless of outside factors, and we have to intentionally do things to remind ourselves that this is not the case.
When kids feel cared for and respected, they will work harder for you and follow your rules, making the day less stressful and more productive for everyone. It’s worth taking the time and energy to connect with your kids because the payoffs are tenfold!
2) Focus on your big picture vision
It’s easy to get caught up in the little things that are so frustrating about being a teacher: Repeating directions over and over, dealing with the same behavior problem from the same kid every single day, completing meaningless paperwork, grading a million papers … and if you focus on the small things that drive you crazy, you WILL get burned out.
There is a reason you became a teacher — was it to make a difference in a child’s life? To express your creativity? To immerse yourself in a subject you love and inspire students to do the same?
Reconnect with that part of you.
Write out your personal mission statement and post it somewhere in the room where you (and maybe only you) will see it throughout the day.
Create goals that you know you can meet and celebrate your success when you reach them.
Don’t major in the minors or allow yourself to become discouraged by distractions. The extent of your work and your impact goes far beyond what you see from day to day. Seeds are being planted and lives are being changed, whether you see the results immediately or not.
3) Create a strong support system
I am blessed to have had at least one person in each school I’ve worked in that I considered a true friend — not just a colleague or associate, but a person that I could call at 2 a.m. with a flat tire and know that she would pick me up. When I was single, I hung out with someone from my job almost every single day, whether it was for something fun like shopping at the mall or hanging out on the beach, or something practical, like running errands together or keeping an eye on her kids while she cooked dinner for us (a good trade, I might add). Knowing that I had someone I can go to with any problem, personal or professional, was the main thing that got me through the day sometimes — that thought of, Whew, in an hour I can go next door and just vent!
If you wish you had friends like that in your school, give it time. Because teachers spend so much time isolated in their own classrooms, there aren’t many opportunities to get to know one another, and it can take awhile to get close to your colleagues. Be open to opportunities, and don’t write anyone off — I’ve often bonded with people that I would have never imagined myself growing close to! Even finding just one wise person you trust and can share ideas with might be all you need.
When time goes by and you feel like you still aren’t making connections with anyone in your current teaching position, you could also consider moving to another grade level or even school where there are teachers that have similar personalities (and ideally, life situations) as you. Having a strong support system is just that critical, and it’s sometimes worth the move!
When a student needs a break and you have a trusted colleague, you can send the child to him or her to work for awhile, no questions asked. When you miss a meeting, you have someone to take notes for you. When you’re rearranging your classroom or revamping your behavior plan, you have someone to bounce ideas off. If you have even a single co-worker that you can count on for that, it’s going to make a big difference in your energy level and enthusiasm at work.
Even if you don’t have true friends at work — or if you prefer to keep your personal and professional lives separate — it is important to have people you trust and can go to when you’re stressed at school. Your spouse, friends, and family do NOT understand what it is like to be a teacher unless they have been educators themselves — what we go through on a daily basis is completely beyond the realm of imagination for the general public. You need to talk to another teacher who understands the pressure you’re under, so seek people out in teacher Facebook groups, message board forums, Twitter chats, and so on. Join one of my book clubs or The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. There are fantastic teachers out there who want to offer support and friendship!
4) Focus on flexibility and express your creativity
For me, one of the best aspects of being a teacher is the ability to be creative and let my classroom and daily routines reflect my personality and interests. Before you complain that YOU don’t have that kind of flexibility, let me assure you, I taught in Florida where third graders were automatically retained if they didn’t pass the state standardized test, so I was under a tremendous amount of pressure. We had to have our schedules posted and were supposed to adhere to them at all times. Our lesson plans had to be planned as a grade level team and followed precisely.
And even with these types of restraints, I still maintained a sense of freedom in my classroom. Sure, I needed to teach a specific standard on this day between 11:15 a.m. and 11:45 a.m., but I could teach it any way I wanted — with apps, individual dry erase boards, games, manipulatives, group activities, music, and so on.
I’d start the lesson I had planned, gauge the kids’ interest, and then adjust accordingly. I don’t know of any teachers, other than those who have scripted lessons, who are not allowed that sort of freedom, in reality, if not on paper. Don’t lose sight of how awesome it is to choose many of the activities you do each day!
You probably have more control over your classroom than you realize. If your head hurts, you can have the kids can do more independent work; if you’re feeling energetic, you can teach using a game; if you want to sit down for awhile, you can call the kids to the carpet and teach while relaxing in a rocking chair. We have a tremendous amount of flexibility that we CANNOT overlook.
Think about how many people sit behind a desk nine hours a day, every day, doing the work other people assign to them. Hardly anyone gets to change tasks to suit their moods and still be productive — we do, because teaching is as much an art as it is a science, and there are a limitless number of ways to teach effectively.
Yes, there are many limits and restraints on teachers that threaten to suck all the joy out of our profession. But when you focus on what you DO have control over and all the ways that you CAN be flexible and express your creativity, you return to that original passion you had for teaching.
You took this job because you wanted to do awesome things with kids every day. So do that! Stay focused on your vision rather than the restraints that create burnout.
Go into your classroom and focus on what’s meaningful. Use the flexibility and opportunities to be creative that you’re given. Surround yourself with awesome teachers and a strong support network so you don’t feel isolated. Return to your big picture vision as a teacher, and enjoy your students. You can do this, and remember — it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it! Next Sunday, I’ll share four more keys to avoiding burnout right here in this post.
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