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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Author Vicki Davis surrounds herself with sayings and thoughts to help her stay positive.

"Our very lives are fashioned by choice. First we make choices. Then our choices make us." - Anne Frank

A tired teacher is a powder keg waiting for a match. In my bouts with burnout, I've learned that stepping back from the brink is about choice. These 12 choices have helped me recover and be a better teacher for my students.

Choice #1: Choose to Be Happy

First, happiness is a choice. Choose to be the first one to smile at everybody you meet. Choose to greet your students by name.

Use happy triggers to boost your mood when you get upset. I have a Pinterest Board called Happy Thoughts and another called Things That Make Me Laugh. The "Atta Girl" folder in my desk holds nice notes.

Choice #2: Choose to Disconnect

We are making a dumb use of our smartphones. Instead of freeing us up to go anywhere anytime, they've tethered us to a hamster wheel. Usually, I check email twice a day. I deleted my school email off my smartphone after several evenings because of an angry email. (We all get them.) Unplug once a week. Be a human being, not a human doing.

Choice #3: Choose to Be Mindful

Mindfulness is being called society’s next wonder drug. Some meditate or practice yoga -- I pray every morning at 5 AM for at least 20 minutes. I find a sense of peace that centers me upon what is important.

Choice #4: Choose to Make Time for Sleep

Sleep loss harms your thinking, your health, and your mood. Psychologist Norbert Schwarz says, "Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night."

Realize that watching your favorite movie may not be restful when you're exhausted. Go to sleep early with your cell phone in the kitchen where it can't wake you.

Choice #5: Choose to Get Outside and Get Moving

Last year when I was in charge of prom on top of everything else, I was close to quitting. So my principal and I had an honest conversation about my struggle to stay grounded. I asked to take a 15-minute walk during morning break every day until I could get through it. Thankfully, he agreed. I packed my tennis shoes and kept them at school. It worked.

Boston University psychology professor Michael Otto says, "Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise, you get a mood-enhancement effect." Exercise is shown to be a powerful intervention for clinical depression, diabetes, and anxiety. Even five minutes of green exercise (outdoors) is also shown to boost your mood. So get outside and exercise.

Choice #6: Choose to Be Grateful

Research studies have shown that keeping a gratitude journal will "increase your long-term well-being more than winning a million dollars in the lottery." I keep a joy journal by my desk and write in it every day.

Choice #7: Choose What to Overlook

"The greatest remedy for anger is delay." - Seneca

Understand that you're working with others who are almost (if not more) burned out than you. Therefore, count on everyone being fussy, cranky, and tired. Let it go. Studies show that patients who've had heart attacks can improve their well-being by practicing forgiveness and working to be less angry.

Sometimes our biggest enemy is the perfect person we try to be. My kids will be happier eating a frozen lasagna from a happy Mom than a home-cooked meal served by a witch.

Choice #8: Choose the Battles Worth Fighting

Most situations that educators regret "caving in on" are those that happen in these exhausting end-of-school months. Parents are emotional. Kids are emotional, and we educators are tired of fighting the battle. Choose to fight only for what matters.

Choice #9: Choose What to Do Next Time and What to Stop Doing

Arthur Gordon says to learn to say "next time" instead of "if only." Make the mistakes of your past a signpost, not a hitching post. Remember your mistakes, but keep your eyes facing front toward your current surroundings.

There are times to say, "There will not be a next time. Enough." Some places should be left. Some relationships should be severed. Some organizations should become part of your past. Not all the time, but sometimes.

Choice #10: Choose to Enjoy the Relationships That Matter

Don’t be so busy making a living that you forget to make time for living. You have relationships and hobbies. Keep them in your life.

When facing burnout, I plot my big projects on a chart based upon my "upset factor" (on the left) and how quickly I can get the work done (on the top). Set an appointment for each task.

Credit: Vicki Davis

Choice #11: Choose to Make a Schedule and Priority List

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg shares how the things that you schedule on your calendar are more likely to be the "done" items that you check off your list. Schedule important tasks.

Choice #12: Choose to Finish Well

No matter how you started the year, choose to finish well. This is also your decision.

In the long run, a burned out teacher is of no use to her students or herself. You can choose to step back. You can do this, teacher! Your calling is noble, but you must sometimes regroup and adjust to make it.

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Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Dr. Stephanie Hatten's picture
Dr. Stephanie Hatten
District Technology Specialist, Narrative Researcher, Mom of 4 teenagers,

Great article! I feel this article is not just for teachers but for administration. We don't get a summer break so I find myself forcing myself to shut down and recover. I loved the tips.

Wendy Corley Ryan's picture

The only one that I have a "question" with is #1
"Choose to be happy" is something that people who suffer from depression cannot just "choose" to do. Now I understand that this list is about avoiding burnout in the classroom - BUT - choosing to be happy is not something everyone can do. Maybe it needs to be reworded..... "Find the positive in each day" or something along those lines.....

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Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher's picture
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Computer Fundamentals, Computer Science and IT Integrator from Camilla, GA
Blogger

Hi Wendy,
I understand what you're saying. The darkness of depression is one where you have to choose to put one foot in front of the other. Choosing to be happy would be out there for so many who struggle. One one who has been there can understand this-- while I"ve only had one time in my life there - it was a time that I dare not to repeat. But having been there, I would say -- in that case you choose to put one foot in front of the other and choose to find things to make you smile. Find the positive is great. But the happiness triggers I shared and the other things you can collect can help you. I found that as I struggled through and came out the other side that looking towards others and less at how I was feeling helped. Depression is a hard thing and the best thing to do is GET HELP. There are hormonal imbalances that transcend anything written here and not something you can think your way out of. The best thing to do is go see a psychologist and get help and work towards a place where you can move ahead. Thanks for bringing up this important point.

Sci5Techr's picture

I would like to add one to the list. Join a Facebook support group. There are several out there. Most are secret so they cannot be found, and only members can see the group and postings. I know of four:

(Shameless plug for the group I just started)
1. Together Educators Achieve More. Here you can celebrate your successes, express your frustrations, and ask for advice in a safe environment. Interested? Request to join. We'd love to have you on our TEAM.

2. Encouraging Teachers
Always on the positive side of teaching. I am a member and I enjoy this group. It has become quite large, and there have been some censorship issues, hence the creation of TEAM.

3. Bad Ass Teachers (BAT)
This group is quite political. Most posts this semester have been about testing. I am a member of this group. It has been eye opening to get outside of my state and see what is going on in classrooms and schools around the country. Caution: It is a closed group, but not a secret group, so what you post here can easily be shared publicly.

4. Laura Candler has 2 groups that are grade level specific. There is a PK-2 group and a 3-5 group. It's primary focus is curriculum and strategies. I belong to the Grades 3-5 group See her website to join.

5. Teachers Getting Real
This group has already gone secret; I cannot find it. My understanding is that it was spun off of Encouraging Teachers after the administrator censored postings where teachers were asking for help with issues occurring at school.

Janice Fitch's picture

Hi, Sci5Techr,

You mentioned BAT being political. I wonder which way it leans, because I am one of those who is very politically strong, but unfortunately not in the "popular" way of the educational system...if you get my drift. I am afraid it might be, for me, the "foe." :P

Sci5Techr's picture

BAT is pro-education, pro-teacher, and pro-union -- according to their own page. Although I agree with them about the current testing climate and their stance on teacher performance, I'm really not sure about the liberal pro-union activist side...

Sue Long's picture

Having been the principal of an alternative school for at-risk students (read: students who were tossed out of their own schools for misbehavior), assisting the staff in managing the pressure cooker was one of my priorities. A few of our components to "maintain" included: 1. We started each day with a staff meeting. Someone was assigned to bring a joke to tell that would make us laugh out loud (laughter is the best medicine). Each staff member shared a positive thing that had happened the day before (we concentrate too often on the misbehavior and forget so many GREAT things actually happen during the day). 2. We also had a daily meeting with the students. One student was assigned to tell a joke -- whether it made the kids moan and groan or laugh, we started on a positive note. One student was also assigned to read an inspirational story or poem. We tried to get the students in a positive mood BEFORE heading into the classroom. We also had 2 minutes of "mood" music in which the staff and students both closed their eyes, breathed deeply, and cleared out our heads. 3. The teachers sent at least one Good News postcard home each week. This helped them reflect on the improvement they had noticed in students. 4. I had "Help Me" cards for the staff. One simply had a student running and was labeled "Road Runner." A student was given the card and instructed to take it to another staff member. (This was for when the teacher just needed to catch her breath. The other staff member simply told the student "thank you" and sent him back to class.) Another card showed 2 students pulling on a clock with the caption "Gimme 5!" (The student was given the card and instructed to again take it to another staff member. That staff member either had a small task for him to do or simply asked him to sit for 5 and then sent him back to class. Teacher had a little longer to cool down.) The third was when the teacher didn't want to see the kid again until he was 21!!! The card said "Anger Management Needed!" (The student knew he was in a little trouble this time. He went to another staff member where a packet was available for him to work. If he were sent to my office with the card, he figured out pretty quickly it was time to buckle down.) These cards saved the teachers from exploding, gave them some breathing time, without anyone losing it.
When things got REALLY bad, we would pull out the dart board at the end of the day. Yes, we really did and gave each circle on the board a name -- or maybe a "picture" of our favorite student. Anything to help the teachers maintain their cool. I also made certain that on our SIP days, we also did something for ourselves. I might take them bowling, out to eat; one time I took them to throw pottery!!! Finding ways to relieve stress is important!!!

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Denise's picture

Thank you for the tips. Unfortunately ately because of a previous proncipal, the term "it is what it is" has a negative feel to it. You can change things, it is whether the other person is willing to accept that she might be wrong or indifferent to others' feeling. KUMBYA is another term she has made me hate. If I never hear those two terms again, I will remain positive in life. BOY I feel positive already.

Janice Fitch's picture

Sue, I wish people I know would use your advice. I am at the point where I am so tired of being criticized for every single thing I do that I am ready to start looking elsewhere. It's pretty sad when the misbehaving kids are the least of your worries as a teacher.

Janice Fitch's picture

I feel your pain, Jamie. My district is doing fine, but I'm not so sure that I am. :[

Sue Long's picture

Having been the principal of an alternative school for at-risk students (read: students who were tossed out of their own schools for misbehavior), assisting the staff in managing the pressure cooker was one of my priorities. A few of our components to "maintain" included: 1. We started each day with a staff meeting. Someone was assigned to bring a joke to tell that would make us laugh out loud (laughter is the best medicine). Each staff member shared a positive thing that had happened the day before (we concentrate too often on the misbehavior and forget so many GREAT things actually happen during the day). 2. We also had a daily meeting with the students. One student was assigned to tell a joke -- whether it made the kids moan and groan or laugh, we started on a positive note. One student was also assigned to read an inspirational story or poem. We tried to get the students in a positive mood BEFORE heading into the classroom. We also had 2 minutes of "mood" music in which the staff and students both closed their eyes, breathed deeply, and cleared out our heads. 3. The teachers sent at least one Good News postcard home each week. This helped them reflect on the improvement they had noticed in students. 4. I had "Help Me" cards for the staff. One simply had a student running and was labeled "Road Runner." A student was given the card and instructed to take it to another staff member. (This was for when the teacher just needed to catch her breath. The other staff member simply told the student "thank you" and sent him back to class.) Another card showed 2 students pulling on a clock with the caption "Gimme 5!" (The student was given the card and instructed to again take it to another staff member. That staff member either had a small task for him to do or simply asked him to sit for 5 and then sent him back to class. Teacher had a little longer to cool down.) The third was when the teacher didn't want to see the kid again until he was 21!!! The card said "Anger Management Needed!" (The student knew he was in a little trouble this time. He went to another staff member where a packet was available for him to work. If he were sent to my office with the card, he figured out pretty quickly it was time to buckle down.) These cards saved the teachers from exploding, gave them some breathing time, without anyone losing it.
When things got REALLY bad, we would pull out the dart board at the end of the day. Yes, we really did and gave each circle on the board a name -- or maybe a "picture" of our favorite student. Anything to help the teachers maintain their cool. I also made certain that on our SIP days, we also did something for ourselves. I might take them bowling, out to eat; one time I took them to throw pottery!!! Finding ways to relieve stress is important!!!

(1)
Wendy Corley Ryan's picture

The only one that I have a "question" with is #1
"Choose to be happy" is something that people who suffer from depression cannot just "choose" to do. Now I understand that this list is about avoiding burnout in the classroom - BUT - choosing to be happy is not something everyone can do. Maybe it needs to be reworded..... "Find the positive in each day" or something along those lines.....

(1)
Jamie's picture
Jamie
Teacher in Lorain, OH

As a new teacher concluding her first year in the professional world of education, this was an excellent article to read and reflect on. There are many helpful tips here that are practical and easy to incorporate into your everyday teaching habits. After just one year of teaching, I can feel the effects everyday struggles can have on your thoughts, actions, and feelings toward school. My district is particularly unsteady right now, which leads to stress about my job and placement stability. After reading this post, I realize that unfortunately some things are out of my hands. I really liked the idea of a "joy journal", something to ground me and remind me of what is important, like the fact that I have a job! In my master's class right now we are talking about PLC's and how they have the ability to greatly impact teachers and classrooms. In a way, this website is a PLC and something I hope to continue to benefit from. Thanks for your 12 steps, I will be sure to keep them in mind to prevent myself from becoming jaded or burned out!

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