What makes the fire fizzle out so fast for a teacher? Sadly, it has been said that fifty percent of those who enter public school teaching will be gone at the end of five years.
Teachers go into the profession to effect change. To make a difference. To help kids. The fine print, however, fails to tell the prospective educator how human the job can be; the heart gets involved. What other profession chisels at the core of one’s being and causes one to feel so deeply besides perhaps the clergy? We give so much of our selves. Parker Palmer, in his classic book, The Courage to Teach, notes, “The more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able” (11). We learn about our students’ lives and slowly it is hard to separate emotionally as we go about our non-vocational lives. Not to mention the fact that currently teachers are expected to wear many more hats, and the time to do this is just not there. Burnout lurks ahead unless steps are taken to keep the heart wholly grounded.
Leaving work at the door of the school is difficult because we feel. We feel deeply for our students and we own it. Because these lofty goals (or the ideals of what we expected) are not being met, we start to feel something is wrong. We also may have a slanted view of what we are doing. There is a reason we can become so affected so quickly and lose sight of our purpose in education. Parker Palmer finds that it starts with the questions we should ask before we enter the profession.
Palmer points out that when we consider teaching, we often begin with the traditional ‘what’ question – what subjects shall we teach? Here we want to inspire, innovate, lead, but we start with the wrong questions. We know we want to teach others, and we know we may have some ideas how we will teach; we already know why we want to teach, right? But, do we ever ask the who question? Who am I doing the teaching? As he puts it “who is the self that teaches?” What does this mean? It means we need to know our individual limits.
It also means that we have a more realistic view of our role in the classroom. Teaching is something one can never master, and for some, this can be a frustration. Also, we cannot always control the outcomes of what the students learn or how they are feeling. As teachers, we continue to give (of time and self), and this appears as a badge of honor in education. Burnout happens when there is nothing left inside; we cannot give what we don’t possess (or have never had in the first place).
There are some signs that burnout is occurring:
- You are physically depleted
- You are isolating from friends, family and colleagues
- You are a victim of your own negative self-talk
- You criticize everything about your work and devalue it
- You start making mountains out of molehills
- You lose sight of the resources you have at your disposal
If any of these ring true to you, where do you start to renew that spark within?
There is an inner practice which must take place in the heart of a teacher, and if completed, no matter what endeavor he/she participates in, the ability to handle such demands shall be much more doable. Schools do a great job of professional development and techniques for classroom management, but what about reflective practices for teachers?
Here are some of my personal favorite reflective practices to help prevent teacher burnout.
1. Rest your body, and find ways to take breaks and unplug.
To renew the self, first, we must look at our outer being. This will not be discussed fully although vital. However, it is the first issue that must be addressed.
2. Check your diet. Make a healthy diet a priority.
The Alhambra Elementary District in Phoenix, Arizona has a Wellness Committee. They focus on the whole person and incentivize time. This committee helps teachers focus on themselves and their overall health to prevent the widespread burnout. According to Carin Dixon, a spokesperson for the committee, they do the following:
- Encouraging habits of mental, physical, and emotional health
- Inspiring holistic wellness to support the mind, body, and spirit
- Increasing awareness of factors and resources contributing to professional and personal well-being
- Motivating and empowering individuals to achieve personal health goals and life-style balance
- Supporting a sense of community, collaboration, and camaraderie within the Alhambra Family
Given a gift of small amounts of time and a healthier outside, one can then take a look inside.
3. Meditate, pray, or reconnect. Release feelings/frustrations
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If we are to engage with other people as an educator, it’s vital we continue to examine our hearts which can govern our thoughts, reactions, and motives. We need to be true to ourselves, and we will always be encouraged to give more than we may be able. Meditation, prayer, and/or reflection will make one more aware. However, it has to become a habit; it will be one day at a time practicing positive steps. Sometimes a private blog can be used as a dumping ground of ideas and feelings. These writings can also help us see issues with a different lens; we can step out of ourselves and have perspective. This leads to the next point of looking outward.
4. Seek wisdom.
One of the symptoms of burnout is isolation. It’s so important not to wall the self up where receiving is not happening. Find a confidant and share. There are a plethora of resources if we are to just look. Finding one person who we trust is a vital step after the previous things above occur.
5. Form a community.
Building community is critical in the school environment. When we can come together as a community of teachers, reflecting and sharing, those bright spots can be noticed. This may be what is needed if the person experiencing burnout cannot see anything bright at the moment. Iron can sharpen iron. The resources could be right under one’s nose yet one may be so exhausted, he/she cannot see them. The seeking of counsel as described before can open up a small window to this step. This leads back to the original issue and that is the heart. THE HEART of the teacher is what brought us into this crazy profession. We fell in love with the art and science of teaching. Therefore it’s time to refocus.
6. Refocus on your purpose.
It’s time to refocus on the question above. Who is the teacher who is teaching? How much of self has been given away? Did we give expecting instant results? Maybe we need to realize we cannot make a difference for every single student every single day. We can please all people all of the time. It takes time for seeds take root, to sprout and blossom.
Teaching is a marathon. It’s fast paced; it’s exhausting; it’s never “over” when the day is done. There are bumps, detours, side streets, and obstacles, but, if we can recover our heart by getting back to our root of our first love, taking care of who we are along the way, we can renew our spark as a teacher.
Stephanie Knight is an experienced 7th and 8th grade English language arts educator. She taught in Title One schools for eight years—helping them grow from underperforming to excelling—and then in an independent school for four years. Knight is now is part of Grand Canyon University’s adjunct faculty where she teaches graduate level education and reading courses.