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Response: Teacher Burn-Out is 'Contagious'

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

The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you avoid teacher burn-out?

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.

Today, Jennifer Cleary,  Emily Geltz, Patricia Jennings, Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, Dr. Barbara Blackburn share their suggestions.

Response From Jennifer Cleary

Jennifer Cleary is a former teacher and are currently is a content developer and faculty consultant for Learning Sciences International. She is a co-author of Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction (LSI Publishing: 2017), along with Robert Marzano and Terry Morgan:

According to the NEA, 20 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first three years and in urban settings, 50 percent of new teachers leave within the first five years. In surveys, these teachers have cited a lack of support as the number one cause of their burnout and a recent Michigan State University (MSU) study suggests new teacher burnout is contagious.


What Teachers Can Do

  1. Prioritization - During the first weeks of school, write down any aspect of the job that feels overwhelming. Then, place it to the side. With a peer or mentor, review the list and determine what is most important. Most teachers who have survived the initial years of teaching will agree that there are simply not enough hours in the day to do it all. Task prioritization will lessen early feelings of defeat.

  2. Bite Size Chunks - Teachers are expected to participate in professional development. New teachers in particular are expected to learn content and pedagogy, as well as district and school procedures. Chunking the content of that professional development is a key factor in practice, implementation, and effectiveness.
  1. Power in Numbers - There is a great deal of research confirming the link between teacher collaboration and student achievement. Being surrounded by people who are experiencing the same challenges, or who can be mentors through them, provides a level of comradery that would otherwise be lacking.


What School Leaders Must Do

Teachers can take many things into their own hands, but school leaders play an essential role in creating an environment where teachers maintain their energy and passion for the profession. Here are two tactics for developing a schoolwide burnout antidote:

  1. Thoughtfully plan your mentorship program― If mentor teachers are already experiencing burnout, this will certainly rub off on the new teachers. According to Harry Wong, comprehensive, coherent, and sustained induction program will have a greater impact on new teachers. A successful induction program should include a focus on differentiated research-based instructional strategies that provide mentors with a focus for support. The most important part of new teacher induction is balancing the teachers' cognitive load. There's a lot for new teachers to take in, and it's coming at them fast. Leaders must anticipate their challenges and manage them with proper planning.

  2. Implement instructional strategies that grant students ownership of their learning―This shift will reduce teacher overload allowing them to be facilitators of complex tasks instead of distributors of content. More importantly, student achievement will organically improves as teachers apply the strategies and techniques to implement this shift, making this transition beneficial for all parties involved.

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Response From Emily Geltz

Emily Geltz is a sixth grade ELA teacher at Oyster River Middle School in Durham, NH in her fifth year of teaching:

Teaching takes an incredible amount of energy. I never have enough time for all that I need to do. I could always do more with reading and writing conferences, teaching speaking, listening,  language and word processing skills, whole class read alouds, helping students pick out books, giving feedback, communicating with parents, and being involved in extracurricular activities. Each day, I go home exhausted.

One of the best things I have done is to have a life outside of school. I allow myself time for my hobbies, and I try to limit the amount of work I take home. There are always things I could be doing, but I limit it. I know I could spend hours more completing work at home, but I also know I will not be at my best the next day.

To be my best, I have to be balanced. I have to meet my basic needs, have a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, a sense of competency, and make sure I am having fun. I make sure I get enough sleep, work toward professional goals, make connections with coworkers, and reflect on what I am doing well even though it is so easy to fixate on what I could do better.

For more on this, I suggest checking out "The Well Balanced Teacher" by Mike Anderson.

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Response From Patricia Jennings

Patricia A. Jennings, MEd, PhD, is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of social and emotional learning and mindfulness in education with a specific emphasis on teacher stress and how it impacts the social and emotional context of the classroom and student well-being and learning. She is an Associate Professor of Education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and is the author of Mindfulness for Teachers and the forthcoming book, The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom:

Research shows that the burnout process begins with emotional exhaustion - feeling depleted, out of emotional energy. We now know that teaching is an incredibly emotionally demanding profession and teachers receive little training on how to manage these demands.

The first step in the process is to recognize the need for self-care. Like the procedure on an airplane, we must put on our own oxygen mask before helping another or we may not be able to help. Self-care involves providing a balance of for our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. Getting enough exercise and eating right is a good start, but we also need to tend to emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs.

Savoring positive emotions as they are happening, enjoying the company of friends and family and playing with children and pets can all contribute to our emotional nourishment. We can fulfill our intellectual needs by learning something new, playing challenging games, and reading about something of interest. Our spiritual needs - nurturing our inner lives - can be met by participating in religious services or personal prayer, or by secular activities such as mindfulness and yoga. As we develop an effective self-care routine, we can learn to notice the signals of stress in our body.

When I become stressed, I immediately notice tension in my shoulders and jaw and by upper body becomes warmer. When I notice these sensations, it's a signal to calm down. Taking three slow, deep mindful breaths can turn down the stress response, like turning down a thermostat. When we do this regularly, we can build resilience and avoid emotional exhaustion.

Finally, aim to notice the fun times and take time to talk about them with your students. Research shows that when people attend to emotionally enjoyable times, they build a strong sense of community and resilience. An added benefit is that our well-being and this sense of community will help our students need to thrive!

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Response From Donna Wilson & Marcus Conyers

Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, founders of BrainSMART, are international education consultants and authors of over 20 books. The duo recently presented this and other related ideas on teacher well-being in Singapore. To learn more about content and other related topics, see Conyers' and Wilson's book, Positively Smarter: Science and Strategies for Increasing Happiness, Achievement, and Well-Being (Wiley Blackwell, 2015):

No doubt teaching can be a stressful profession. Over the years we have developed a number of strategies to support teachers seeking to minimize stress and burnout. We have found that our strategy called "Give It a Break: Hang Your Problems Away for a While" can support those who want to develop the discipline to consciously leave their problems behind and not ruminate on them. For example, it may be important to leave what happened in the classroom at school and not take it home allowing it to ruin our evening. In our strategy, the coat hanger represents the metaphor that we use for leaving problems behind.

Give It a Break: Hang Your Problems Away for a While

Focus on what's important now. Your problems can wait. We don't mean to suggest that a focus on developing a more positive outlook will make your life perfect. Life is full of little problems and occasional big ones. A positive, persistent approach may help you resolve some of these issues, but others may be beyond your control. Have you ever had a persistent problem that nagged at your thoughts and distracted you from work and personal interactions? It can be difficult not to dwell on this problem and let the resulting negative feelings take charge. But you can choose to consciously set these problems aside for a while using the Coat Hanger Strategy:

  1. Identify the problem that is distracting you from the activity at hand.

  2. Consider: Do I have control over this problem? Are there steps I can take right now to resolve or alleviate it?

  3. If the answer to both questions is "no," imagine draping the problem on a coat hanger and leaving it outside your door so you can return to your current activities without  distractions.

Marcus came up with this strategy several years ago while traveling for business: I'd received a phone call about an illness in the family. I was concerned for my loved one, who was many miles away, and even though I understood there was nothing I could or should do about the problem immediately, I was upset and distracted--and worried that these feelings might keep me from doing the best possible job on the workshop I was presenting a workshop for firefighters. So, I came up with an idea: I visualized hanging my worries on a coat hanger outside the room where I would be doing the presentation and then walked through the door to greet the workshop participants. The workshop went well because I was able to focus exclusively on the needs of my audience, and several firefighters stepped up to say they'd learn a lot to help them in their work. I didn't have to feel guilty or worry that I was trying to "forget" about my loved one.

In fact, when I needed to be with my family, I was fully in that moment. I learned a good lesson that day: Our lives are made up of important people and pursuits. When we are with friends and family, they deserve our full attention. When we are working on a project, we can do a much better job if we focus on it.

And we can find joy in personal pursuits--a long run, a bountiful garden, an engine rebuilt--if we permit ourselves to be immersed in them. We've shared this strategy with thousands of people attending our workshops, and many report back that they have found it to be a useful way to choose where to focus their attention to optimize their time spent on any endeavor.

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Response From Dr. Barbara Blackburn

Dr. Barbara Blackburn was recently named one of the top 30 education global gurus. She is the author of 17 books, including Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word and Motivating Struggling Learners. A regular consultant who works with schools and districts, she can be reached through her website, www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

One of the biggest challenges for teachers is to sustain motivation so that we don't burn out.  In order to avoid burnout, I focus on the little steps I can take to remain motivated so that I don't get to the point where I give up.

The main strategy I use is to remain positive.  This requires work, because if I do nothing, negativity is like quicksand--it pulls me down.  When I was a teacher, I posted positive quotes around my room and on my desk.  Today, I keep them on my desktop and I receive a daily email with a positive quote.  Next, I limited my time with negative people.  I remember one teacher who always saw the glass as half empty.  It didn't matter how positive something was, he responded negatively.  I found that if I spent time with him, I became more negative.  I learned to limit my time around him, not ignoring him, but minimizing the conversations (and even hearing his conversations with others). 

A third way I remained positive was by keeping a success journal.  It's a small notebook, and every day I would write down three positive things that happened.  Some days, I would only come up with one, and that might be I made it through the day, but I made myself list positives.  It's important to write them down, because the next week you may not remember.  Also, there will be rough days you will need to go back and review the lists to remind yourself that the positives outweigh the negatives.  

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Thanks to Jennifer, Emily, Patricia, Donna, Marcus and Barbara 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.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first six years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

Race & Gender Challenges

Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Brain-Based Learning

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice For New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering The Teaching Profession

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days.

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