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Teacher in Flux

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I have a new question from Teacher in Flux asking about an interesting topic—burnout.

How does one help alleviate burn-out in the teaching profession?—Teacher in Flux

Well, we all experience burnout in our careers from time to time and it often comes with feelings of guilt, depression, anger, and stress. Many things can cause burnout. The basis for many of these is a gap between expectations and reality. The job we once cherished may turn into a beast we don’t really like anymore. The change may also come from inside of us. As we mature and grow as humans, we can find that our desires and needs as a twenty-four-year-old are not the same as the ones we have later. Many people also experience a mid life crisis that causes us to question our direction in life and wonder what else there might be. There are more reasons for burnout than I can ever hope to list here.

On the specific topic of burnout in teaching, there is much more to being a teacher than just teaching. Depending on the age group you are working with, you become nurse, babysitter, counselor, administrator, parental doormat, paper pusher, police officer, counselor, adversary, and sometimes educator. The job is bigger than the term “teacher” and definitely more than was thought as a hopeful college student looking to make a difference in some lives. “Please sit down and be quiet” was never intended to be your most used phrase.

Wild kids, insane teenagers, and combative adults make the job of getting information into a brain seem more like solving a solid white jigsaw puzzle than the ideal we have in our heads. After years of seemingly unfruitful journeys from fall to summer, seeing face after face of student come and go without any sense of satisfaction. You wind up spending more time dealing with issues before school, during recess/lunch, after school, and during parent meetings. You have more paperwork than an attorney does; I have a friend who teaches fifth grade and counted more than 1,200 crossing their desk in one week. That’s 4,800 papers a month and 43,200 pieces of paper in one school year. Nobody, not even the other teachers, are giving you the thanks and appreciation that can make reading War and Peace thirty times a year fulfilling.

There can also be factors like administrators and fellow faculty that drain you at work. Uncooperative and unsupportive bosses make any job tedious, but when it also robs you of your ability to conduct the huge number of tasks that a teacher has to perform, it becomes down right demoralizing. When the things that make teaching worthwhile to you are stripped away or you become surrounded by peers who do not share your mindset, the job stops feeling worthwhile, but you can’t just up and leave. A teaching job is a big responsibility and leaving a group of students mid-year feels as if you have let them down. The stress and responsibility in the job are tremendous. Teaching has the highest turn over rate of any profession and one of the lowest education-to-pay ratios. How can a teacher not burnout? The simple answer is they can’t, so you should feel normal and healthy in your burnout. It is one of the reasons teaching is such a noble profession—teachers continue on through some amazing conditions without amazing monetary or cultural benefits.

Now how do you alleviate burnout? That is very specific to each person. For some it means leaving the profession, and for others it means having a cup of tea every night while not thinking about teaching. The common thread between the two is taking time to not be a teacher. You might have caught my split infinitive. If you did, than you will have trouble taking time off as a teacher. We all identify ourselves with our career and jobs like teacher, police officer, and fire fighter, more than any other in our culture does. The truth is that we are not our jobs; our jobs are what we do. I make it sound easy and I know that it is very hard.

How can you take time to be something other than a teacher when you have 1200 pages to read and correct and comment on, turn back, and record? I had a hard time just typing that out. The answer is short, but the action is difficult for some people. You have to ask for a little help. A little help where you can find it goes a long way. Some teachers use the students to help take care of paperwork issues, some use friends and family to help insure their weekend is not filled with work, and some look to their peers for a hand or a shoulder to lean on. Those moments taken to be yourself and not the teacher recharge your heart and soul. They give you a complete self instead of the teacher persona.

I was always struck when I met teachers away from a class. I thought to myself, “Wow, they are like a person.” It seems funny now to look back and not make the distinction between a person at work and a person who needs to buy groceries. That same thought is not projected on a doctor or a real estate agent. I don’t know of anyone who gets shocked to see a secretary at the store, but the teacher is different. Partly because of the way a teacher must change their persona at work. This change in persona can leek into their personal life and before they know it, they are just a teacher. They are constantly thinking about the 43,200 pages and being a babysitter, administrator, nurse, and all the other parts of their role. In order to survive that you must step outside of the teacher persona. You must take time for yourself to be yourself.

A long time ago, I was a substitute teacher. It was a great way to make money in between jobs. Being someone who observes, I noticed to distinct groups of teachers—one that noted all of the bad things, and one that noted all of the good things. I would talk to them and ask about their classes or their day, and the response told me a great deal about the teacher. Those who noted only the bad things seemed to have classes that did the same. The atmosphere had become self-perpetuating. The negativity of the teacher wearing off on the class and then the negativity of the class wearing off on the teacher. The reason being that the small things (as they are called) became the big things. If there were one hundred rocks and one diamond, that teacher would complain about all those rocks. Carrying all those rocks around gets heavy and eventually you will give up. However, there are diamonds in those rocks, and if you pickup the diamonds and leave the rocks behind, you will soon find yourself very rich. Part of preventing burnout is to put down your rocks and start collecting the diamonds.

Honestly though, sometimes burnout means that you shouldn’t teach anymore. It is a hard decision, but if you look back at why you became a teacher and don’t think you can get that feeling anymore, it might be time to move on. This proves to be the hardest thing to consider. Do you really want to be a teacher anymore? If you can’t wholeheartedly say yes, than you should find a more fruitful path for yourself. Staying a teacher and dealing with the stress and responsibilities with performing the job becomes corrosive to you and self-destruction has no worth. I am not saying this applies to you, but if it does, leaving may be the healthiest choice to make.

Another great resource is your peers. As I said before, every teacher feels burnout from time to time. How did they get through it? What keeps them going? Ten stories of overcoming burnout are much more valuable than my advice on the internet. It is amazing what talking about it can do. Talk to a therapist and tell them every single way you hate the job and the students and your boss. Cuss and scream and vent it all, then leave it all in their office. You’ll find that you were not a teacher for those moments and it helps. Talk to your union, find out what resources are available through your district and state. Burnout does not have to be the end; it can be the beginning of a new and better period in your life. Think of it as an opportunity for growth and, remember, there will always be some growing pains.


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