Being a Teacher and a Student: From Burnout to Balance
I was the typical, quiet, studious "nerd" in school. I loved getting new school supplies, sitting in the front of the room, and I embraced each new topic as an exciting milestone. Who's with me?
In my experience, most teachers become teachers because they loved school and enjoyed helping others reach their potential. For me, it was also a family business. My mom, the math teacher, was the equivalent to a superhero in my eyes. I was more than happy to borrow her cape and continue with the family tradition, trying my best to fill her shoes while carving out my own path.
Although I am a teacher,13 years later I still feel like a student learning more and more every day. It saddens me when I read articles discussing the increase in teacher-burnout rate, one article citing that "roughly half a million teachers leave the profession each year." I've found that the balance between being a teacher and remaining a student is what keeps me fresh and wanting to stay in the field.
So, why do teachers have to choose?
Here are a few of the go-to strategies that help keep me from "feeling the burnout":
I was afraid of not being perfect at the beginning of my career. I was the teacher, the authority, I had to always be right. What a rigid and nerve-wracking mindset. Not a way to live. It's impossible to always know the correct answer or how best to handle a situation. But it turns out that my greatest moments in teaching were when I made a mistake—that's when I learned the most.
Our students aren't fragile antiques, they want to be challenged and engaged. It's tiring sitting in the same spot for over 40 minutes (unless, of course, they are swiping through their phones). I find the best ways to keep things interesting in a classroom is to incorporate hands-on group activities where the students make the discoveries. A quick Google search is a great way to learn activities that others have already tried out and that you can use in your classroom right away.
I also like to present problems for which I haven't previously worked out the solution. I know this goes against everything I learned in teacher college, but it helps my students see a true thought process, not one that is perfectly worked out. They can learn a great deal by watching us work through our struggles and frustrations.
How did that lesson go? Was it a success or did it bomb? Am I happy with my student performance and engagement today? What can I change to make it better for tomorrow, next week, next year? I have gotten into the practice of reflection—making notes in my plan book about the pros and cons of a lesson and ways to improve for next year.
During the year, we get busy. It's unrealistic to say we can correct everything in the moment. Adding these notes while the lesson is fresh in my mind is quick and a great reference to use when I'm preparing lessons for next year.
Think about what motivates you. How do you stay engaged and continue learning? Each school year I ask what I want to improve upon. This year, I challenged myself to create one new hands-on activity for each unit. At the end of the year, I will have 13 new lessons that I didn't have before. Slowly, I will create an entire flash drive of hands-on activities.
Setting small goals keeps me engaged and excited about what I'm teaching, even if it is the same prep for the past five years. This excitement is contagious—our students can feel when we're engaged in our lesson, and this helps them get behind the concept.
Choose at least one new goal to get you excited about each school year and enjoy that feeling when you have accomplished it!
Become an active member of your school community. It allows you a different avenue to learn about your students but also introduces you to other teachers in your school. Advise a club, coach a sport, find a competition, and get your students involved. If there isn't an activity that interests you, start one! Share a passion of yours—you never know what students or teachers you will inspire.
My most valuable lesson was learning the importance of connection. The best decision I ever made was joining a districtwide literacy committee. A math teacher learning about literacy in the classroom—how strange! But it's this one decision that I consider to be the turning point of my career.
I went out of my comfort zone and joined a group of colleagues to learn something new that helped me become a better teacher. I strongly encourage all teachers to get involved in their local, state, and national organizations. As a math teacher in Long Island, N.Y., I'm a member of:
As a result, I belong to a network of knowledgeable and passionate educators. We follow each other on Twitter, attend and lead professional-development workshops and conferences, and share our experiences and opportunities. Don't wait, there is an organization that's right for you; find one and join today!
Anyone who is or knows a teacher understands the challenges of the field. It's not a career for those in it for the summer vacations and early afternoons. To stay invested for the long haul, it's important to keep the balance between being the teacher and continuing to be a lifelong learner. To me, you can't be one without the other.
Christina Pawlowski is a math teacher at Commack HS, a New York State Master Teacher Program Emeritus, Association of Mathematics Teachers of New York State County Chairperson, and 2018 New York State Teacher of the Year Finalist.
The National Network of State Teachers of the Year believes expert teachers will lead the way to a more equitable and exceptional future for all kids. Do you agree?