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Response: Avoid Burnout by 'Remembering What First Drove You Into Teaching'

(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you avoid teacher burnout?

Part One's contributors were 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.

In Part Two, Jennifer Cleary,  Emily Geltz, Patricia Jennings, Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, Dr. Barbara Blackburn shared their suggestions.

In this third post, Tabitha Pacheco, Amanda Koonlaba,  Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Megan M. Allen, and Daniel Rechtschaffen. I've also included comments from readers.

Response From Tabitha Pacheco

Tabitha Pacheco is a National Board Certified Teacher in Exceptional Needs. She has ten years of classroom experience in public, charter, and digital education settings as a Teacher, Instructional Coach, Mentor, Special Education Director, and Educational Consultant. Tabitha was a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow from 2015-17 before her role as the Director, Utah Teacher Fellows Program. You can follow her on twitter @tabitha_pacheco:

I would bet if you asked most teachers why they entered the education field, their answer would be something along the lines of "to help people and make the world a better place." However, too often that flame for making a difference is smothered under piles of paperwork, scripted curriculum, and other menial tasks. Teachers lose their sense of purpose and switch to a survival mode of just getting through the day. So, how do you reengage a burnt-out teacher? Simple--you light them on fire.

By year seven of my teaching career, I was feeling like I needed a change. I was bored. But now, as I am finishing up my 10th school year, I can honestly say I have never been more excited about education and fired up about what I do. What changed? I have identified three key factors that turned the embers of my lack luster teaching job into a blazing career.

1- Expand Your Network

I'll throw this out there first, so no feelings are hurt; I love the teachers in my school and they are fantastic co-workers. However, when you see the same people every day, in the same setting, with the same experiences, it can get hard to see the forest through the trees. When I was selected as a National Teacher Fellow for Hope Street Group, I was suddenly connected to passionate teachers from across the nation. My network of teacher friends exploded. I participated in Twitter chats, group calls, webinars, and attended conferences. The drive and enthusiasm of these amazing was contagious and I loved being surrounded and supported by such talented professionals.

2-  Carve Your Niche

There are a lot of education issues that I care about, but I can't fully invest in them all. When it comes to causes, I say it's better to have 4 quarters than 100 pennies. Of course, I care about healthy school lunches, anti-bullying, and a variety of other worthy issues, but my real passion lies in teacher leadership, special education transition-age students, and digital education. I consider myself much more an expert in these areas and have actual opinions and ideas to contribute to the discussion rooted in my experience.

3-  Learn to Validate Yourself

Teaching is a tough job. There are always scores to improve and behaviors to manage, and just as you have it all figured out, the school year ends and it's time to start all over. I used to feel myself get stuck in the mindset of "I'm so overworked and underappreciated." I felt that no one knew about all the amazing things I was doing in my classroom. I decided I was no longer going to wait around to be noticed. I put myself out there. I submitted proposals to present at conferences, I started a blog (theutahteacher.com) and wrote posts for other publications. I applied to teacher fellowships and ed policy organizations. I didn't view this as extra work; I was just taking what I was already doing and putting it on a public platform. This outside recognition added fuel to my fire.


While it sounds counterintuitive to advise a burnt-out teacher to do more, it may be key to finding joy in your job. Try to remember what first drove you into teaching and find pursuits that align with that passion. Teachers- I urge you, please do not extinguish your desire for making a difference. Being an educator is a powerful and impactful profession. Add your voice to the discussion and let's work together to make the world a better place.

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Response From Amanda Koonlaba

Amanda Koonlaba, Ed. S. is an educator with over 12 years of experience teaching both visual art and regular education. She is a published author and frequent speaker/presenter at education conferences. Amanda was named the Elementary Art Teacher of the Year for the state of Mississippi in 2016. She holds an Elementary and Middle Childhood Art certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Amanda is on a mission to ensure every student in America has access to a high-quality arts-based education. You can connect with her at Party in the Art Room or on Twitter:

First of all, it angers me a little that "teacher burnout" is a thing. For the duration of my teaching career, I've been asking if we really want the teachers of our children to be this burned out, stressed, and fatigued. Since becoming a parent, I can proclaim that I 100% DO NOT want the teachers of my children to be burned out, stressed, or fatigued. 100%. I very much do not want this. I do not want this with every fiber of my humanity.

I believe we need better policy for our schools. Let me just make a list: less test-and-punish, less high-stakes testing, less competition, more funding, better compensation for teachers (and better compensation for daycare workers while I'm at it). I really could go on, but this question was about how I avoid teacher burnout.

So, as ill as the concept of "teacher burnout" makes me on all the levels, I do have some thoughts on what keeps me going. I exercise and eat as healthy as I possibly can. I haven't always done this. I can attest now that taking care of my body has really helped me be a better teacher. I just feel better in general. I don't seem to be as quick to feel frustrated with my job and the sometimes-seemingly-irrational policies that dictate how I do it. Also, my mood is better overall. This helps me tremendously. I know it is easier said than done for many people. I've been there. Having that background really helps me see the difference, though. I am telling you, it works!

I am not one of those crazy people who posts their healthy choices to Instagram. Wait, yes I am. I totally do that! Let me restart that thought. I am not always successful with the fitness and the healthy eating things. I fail a lot, but I always pick myself up and start again. I just bring this up because if I were a teacher living a really unhealthy lifestyle and I were reading this, I'd need to know messing up was okay. It is okay. The majority of my decisions are healthy, and I reap those benefits in my career (and personal life, but that is a post for another day).

Writing is another thing that I do to help me avoid burnout. For a very long time I felt like I didn't have a voice in the profession. So, I started writing. This makes me feel like I have a voice. It helps me connect with other educators. I mostly write about education and the arts. Those are two things I am very passionate about. It helps me feel like I am doing something good for students and teachers. I highly recommend it. I have a blog called Party in the Art Room where I write about arts education and arts integration. I also co-administrate a blog called The Mississippi Education Blog where I write about educational issues and policy.

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Response From Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at University of Cambridge. She served as an award-winning teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and chief education & research officer and has been honored by the U.S. White House for her contributions to education. One of Dr. Rankin's books is titled Fist Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success:

Only 39% of U.S. teachers report they are very satisfied, and 48% of teachers report they are regularly under great stress (Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 2013). My book Fist Aid for Teacher Burnout features a 2-page spread loaded with similar statistics.

In conducting research for this book, I identified the most common burnout triggers for teachers. Though factors can vary, as teachers' circumstances vary, these issues are the most common and the most impactful. They are:

  • Volume (too much to do and not enough time)
  • Student Behavior (when teachers encounter chaos and/or defiance)
  • Administration (when ineffective and/or antagonistic)
  • Work environment (including overstimulation)
  • Mindset (accepting hardship rather than advocating for improvements to working conditions)
  • Tedium (this is more common for veteran teachers)
  • Community Relations (this involves media, parents, policy makers, and others who sometimes fail to support teachers)

Thus the best ways to avoid teacher burnout are those that overcome the triggers listed above. Strategies are numerous, and teachers should pick those that best fit their own time-hogs and frustrations. However, to summarize these strategies:

·      Volume can be combatted with more streamlined grading practices, effective collaboration to cut workload, refusing to overcommit, acquiring better curriculum or using sources that make finding such curriculum fast and easy, and leveraging technology tools designed to make a teacher's job easier.

·      Student behavior can be improved with better classroom management strategies, making strong personalized connections with students, and advocating for more colleague and parental support.

·      Problems with administration and parents can be improved through a range of communication strategies.

·      Work environment can be improved by strategies that enhance the classroom and school to better meet staff and student needs, and by establishing boundaries from distractions (e.g., electronic devices).

·      Mindset can be maximized by avoiding toxic influences and applying growth mindset techniques.

·      Tedium and poor community relations can be overcome by seizing opportunities to share one's expertise on the world stage (speaking at conferences, writing articles, serving on advisory boards, informing policy in Washington, DC, etc.).

Burnout triggers can be hard to bear, and a proactive approach to fighting these triggers from a teacher's first day on the job is necessary to retain teachers in the world's most noble profession. More than 41% of teachers leave the profession within five years of starting, and teacher attrition has risen significantly over the last two decades (Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey, 2014). For these reasons, strategies for battling burnout should be taught in teacher preparation programs, new teacher induction programs, and professional development.

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Response From Megan M. Allen

Megan M. Allen, NBCT, EdD, is the Director of Partnerships for the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the founding director and developer of the Mount Holyoke College Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership. She likes to nerd out on education topics on her Ed Week blog at An Edugeek's Guide to Practice and Policy and @redhdteacher:

Parts of this writing are from content written by Megan for the Center for Teaching Quality in 2013.

I almost burned out. I was almost a turnover statistic. With one of my favorite things in the world...teaching.  And the scariest thing: I didn't even realize that it was happening.

It was my ninth year as a professional educator.  I taught at an urban, high poverty elementary school in Tampa, FL.  I had amazing students, ones that changed my life, but students who carried a lot of emotional weight. Just to paint a picture of what that means, here are some of my fifth grade class statistics:

 Raw moment coming below.

 My heart hurt. And I felt isolated. I found myself getting uncharacteristically mopey and polishing off a little bit more red wine that usual on Sunday nights. I was tearing up when thinking about how K. was afraid of getting kicked out of her house. I was up late worrying about how the police had come for J during school. I was torn about how S. had been caught stealing from my colleague's desk (again).  And I am a proud Pollyanna, a self-proclaimed (and sometimes over-the-top) optimist. But I can see now as I look back that I was spiraling down a hole towards something that looks like burnout.

We spend so much time and energy discussing recruitment in education, with programs like Teach.org launching campaigns to attract the next generation of strong teachers. Do we give retention that same attention?  How do we support teachers, grow them, and keep them once they are in front of students? According to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, we lose 56% of teachers in the first five years, with the turnover rate close to 20% at our urban schools.  And that scares the willies out of me, especially when I was almost included in that 20% and I didn't see it coming.

I want to preface by making the claim that as a nation we must spend more of our time, energy, resources, and brainpower on this topic. We have a serious teacher dropout problem which is a catalyst to many of our other woes in the realm of education policy. Want proof? My colleague Sandy Merz, teacherpreneur at the Center for Teaching Quality, pointed out recent data that the greatest number of teachers in public education are currently in their first year on the job. That's right...the recent mode of teaching experience is a whopping one year (gasp!?!!).  Add the financial impact on top: it costs on average $11,000 to replace a teacher and the annual national cost of teacher retention is (you might want to sit down) is approximately $5.8 billion. Not to mention the impact on our students. Yowzers.

So, to the tune of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave your Lover," I'd like to begin to offer some ways to combat this retention crisis with research-based lyrics inked by yours truly, "50 Ways to Combat Attrition." (Preface: It's only seven, but it's a mighty seven and a great start!)

  1. A latticework of choices for our career, my dear.I'm excited for the movement here, with research from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), the Center for Teaching Quality, and others. We have to build on this momentum and build options for educators that are beyond moving into administration. I loved my job as a teacherpreneur last year, which offered me the chance to lead without leaving the classroom (read more on my year here).

  2. Differentiated compensation for our job, Bob.Actually this was from commenter @Brad. And he brings up a good point. Read more on compensation structures for mastery and merit here, developed by a team of accomplished teachers from across the nation. I think it's fair to ask to be paid differently for our hard work, expertise, skills, experience, results, and hours. I think of all the specializations in medicine as an example of this...

  3. Support from our admin, Ben.Boyd et al. (2011) found that great administrators matter, and I can "second that emotion" from personal experience. Administrators can support us and offer us shelter from the slew of policies and mandates that fall our way, giving us the ability to concentrate on our students in the classroom. I love the quote Sandy Merz mentioned from his principal who asked: What can I do so you love your job? That's what I'm talking about!

  4. Collaboration we adore, Lenore.Teaching can be an isolating profession, especially when you are in the trenches and up to your tired eyeballs with classroom and school responsibilities, student needs, and paperwork. I know the CTQ Collaboratory and the Teaching Channel have been saving graces for me, working as springboards for collaboration with teachers and education supporters across the nation. Commenter and blogger Angie Miller also brought up the necessity of collaboration within the walls of our schools as well. We need to work as a team to offer each other support, ideas, and teamwork that can be the lifeblood of our practice as educators (and we need the time and freedom to do it).

  5. Balance between work and life can be tryin', Brian.It is so important for educators to allow personal time for family, friends, and self. This is a toughie but an important one, for happiness and balance outside of the classroom leads to increased productivity and effectiveness inside the classroom. Take a yoga break. Go for a walk. Don't lose sight of the beautiful world outside our classrooms. Read more on ways to reconnect with your personal and professional mojo here.

  6. Induction systems that continue support, Mort.We need to offer our novice teachers continued support after the completion of university teacher education and through their first years teaching. The best proof I've seen? Get ready for this. How about a retention rate for newbies that has jumped from 72% to 94.5% (whoah!) with the implementation of such support in Hillsborough County, FL? Read more here (and shout out to my colleagues in Florida who are working to make this happen). Ingersoll and Perda have pointed out a 40-50% attrition rate during the first five years of teaching. Induction programs that support and develop new teachers combat this new teacher dropout rate, allowing teachers to "season" in the profession and develop into master teachers who can help develop stronger novice teachers themselves. It's a powerful cycle. And it just makes sense.

  7. Freedom to do our job well, Michelle.(Soapbox moment coming.) One of the biggest issues for me is not the need for new policies, but the need to peel back existing policies. I want time. Space. Freedom to do what I feel is best for my students. As teachers, we are highly skilled experts, trained not only in content and pedagogy, but able to apply that knowledge to many students, assessing and diagnosing multiple situations at any one point in time. Scripted curriculum, curriculum calendars, time spent on needless paperwork, and a bazillion other policies (big p and little P if you've read Rick Hess) can cage our creativity and box-in our expertise. Give us freedom to do what we know is best for those amazing learners we are responsible--and accountable--for.

 

So colleagues, start brainstorming more with me,

And let's set ourselves free.

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Response From Daniel Rechtschaffen

Daniel Rechtschaffen, a Marriage and Family Therapist, has a master's degree in counseling psychology. He founded the Mindful Education Institute and the Omega Mindfulness in Education conference, has developed a variety of curricula for mindfulness in the classroom, and leads mindfulness trainings for schools and communities around the world He is the author of The Way of Mindful Education and The Mindful Education Workbook:

As a mindfulness teacher, I have two ways I support teachers with burnout. The first could be compared to emergency medicine and the second to preventative medicine. In the first case, when teachers are anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed, we utilize mindfulness to simply bring them back into a state of balance. Basic mindfulness practices such as noticing our stress on each inhale and relaxing on each exhale have a way of offering us a little space from our stress and creating a moment of ease. I'm frequently inspired by teachers who participate in my trainings and tell me that they were planning on quitting, but mindfulness helps them regulate their stress and feel passionate about being a teacher.

Of course I am always happy when individuals reconnect to their inspiration as teachers through mindfulness, but there is a second mindfulness offering that is far more important. We can think of the second way as preventative medicine. We need to become introspective enough to notice our own stress as an expression of the larger system. If such a large percentage of teachers are stressed, we need to look at the stressors as the problem, not our own emotions. In this way our stress becomes inner information we can use to advocate for change.

The real question is: how do we create school environments where burnout doesn't happen in the first place? We can't just keep treating the symptoms of stress, we need to go to the root cause. I have plenty of ideas of how to create more mindful schools, which I share with the schools I consult with, but for this brief writing I recommend to all of you to meet with your community to answer these questions together.

We all know teachers need more support, resources, a sense of community, and, of course, an easier workload. How can your school create time for teachers to be appreciated, to learn mindfulness, and to communicate with each other? The foundation of social and emotional learning needs to be us as educators coming together to create school climates that are not just safe and healthy for our students, but where we as teachers feel connected and inspired.

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Responses From Readers

Thanks to Tabitha, Amada, Jenny, Megan and Daniel, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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