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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Editor's Note: Katy Farber teaches fifth and sixth graders in the Burlington, VT area. She's also a mother, blogger, and author. The ideas in this post are based on Katy's recent book, Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus

You know the feeling. It happens when you see other people out for walks during their lunch hour (and you just spent 10 minutes "eating" while emailing a passive aggressive parent). Or when you hear how you need to try this new teaching technique, even though you have been doing it for years. Or when you are up all night, sick, and have to crawl to the computer to write your sub plans. You think, "How much longer can I do this?"

We all know that teaching has gotten increasingly more difficult to manage. We're constantly asked to do more with less. And there is no end in sight to the increasing pressure on us from standardized testing, parents and administrators, contentious bargaining sessions, the current anti-teacher climate, and top-down leadership.

Teachers need to band together to support each other and make teaching a more sustainable career. There are several things we can do for each other and for ourselves.

1. Support Teachers in Times of Need. When someone on your staff is going through a difficult time, a thoughtful gift from his or her fellow teachers can mean a lot. A fund can be created at the beginning of the year. Each staff member can bring 20 dollars (or what they can). One person can be in charge of this amount, and select appropriate gifts or support when it is needed. In my school, we call it the Sunshine Fund, and through it we have delivered gift baskets to those recovering from surgery, transportation funds for someone whose family member was seriously injured and in the hospital, and meals to new mothers. This is a meaningful way to support each other, and it builds community and morale.

2. Plan for a Better Work/Life Balance. A small group of teachers can improve the climate and community of the school by planning some activities that support wellness. I don't mean another canvas bag or mug! This could be a weekly running or walking group, monthly get-togethers, weekly treats in the teachers' room, or other meaningful ideas. Wellness funds could be used for weekly yoga classes as well. We need to encourage each other to be involved in activities outside of school.

3. Provide Back Up. Have a meeting with a difficult parent? Plan to take a trusted colleague with you. Is your colleague having a rough day? Do their recess duty for them. These acts of kindness show solidarity, community, and kindness.

4. Support New Mothers. Sleep-deprived breastfeeding new mothers face many challenges as they return to teaching. Support them in helping to find a secure place to pump milk, and work with staff to provide coverage so they can continue to work and provide breast milk for their babies. This can be challenging in a space- and time-strapped school -- but it is essential to creating a family friendly, breastfeeding supportive environment.

5. Seek Leadership Opportunities. Teaching lacks a clear career ladder. Many teachers don't want to become principals, but they want to explore other professionally paid challenges. Seek out opportunities to extend and enrich your profession, such as mentoring, coaching, teaching college courses, or writing.

6. A Change Would Do You Good. When you feel like quitting, it might be that you are simply ready to teach another subject, grade level, or in a different school. I was inspired by a colleague who spent 10 years teaching fifth and sixth grades, and then moved to teaching kindergarten. Changing your position or school might be a better fit and a way to rejuvenate your teaching.

7. Band Together. Teachers can and should work together to forward the interests of public education and teaching. We can meet together and take action on issues of importance such as the environmental health of a school, the leadership, endorsing (or not) school board members, and taking positions on certain policy decisions. Joining your local union, and getting involved directly with supporting schools and public education, can lead to empowerment and further engagement.

8. Create a Positive, Supportive Climate. The last thing teachers need is to feel more isolated! Teachers need to collaborate, problem-solve, and share successes often. This should be regular, planned, in school time. Sometimes administrators need to be reminded of this. If the climate deteriorates for any reason, handle it directly before people are hurt and disenfranchised. This could be through staff meeting discussions, or through a group reading of a book such as Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Roger Fisher.

These are just a few ideas that can help teachers stay positive, empowered, and connected to their school communities. In these increasingly challenging times in public education, teaching is harder than ever -- and it doesn't look like that will change anytime soon. Teachers can support each other to make each day a little brighter. And that's a start.

What are your ideas for how teachers can prevent burning out?

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

kim chandler's picture

I'm inspired by this piece even though I'm not a teacher. As a parent, I would love to follow some of these guidelines so that we can support the teachers that work so hard for our children. I am going to take this article and try and apply it to a parent group at our school so that we can provide some support for our teachers. I especially like the 'sunshine fund', walking or yoga group (parents could volunteer or provide a great yoga instructor for a 30 minute stretch for example) and support of new mother/teachers. Thank you for these ideas.

I know Edutopia is a resource for teachers, but I would love to see some commentary or an article on better ways for parents to support teachers. Many of us volunteer at our schools but hearing a teacher's specific 'wish list for the helpful parent' would be fantastic.

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation

Hi Kim - Thanks for the great suggestion. Look for a blog on that very topic in the next couple of weeks! :)

Mike Anderson's picture
Mike Anderson
Educator, Consultant, Author


These are GREAT suggestions! Something that I think would help us all, as teachers (or parents, coaches, etc.) would be to make a commitment to taking care of ourselves. Often it can feel like we're being selfish if we take time to exercise or meet with a friend in the evening or read a book for pleasure. We have so much work to do, after all! In the end, though, I think it's important for us to view taking care of ourselves as part of or work, not something we do once we've finished with work (as if we could ever actually finish). There's no doubt, we're better teachers (and parents, coaches, etc.) when we take care of ourselves. Our students need us to be healthy and balanced so that we can take care of them well and show them models of healthy adults!

Katy Farber's picture
Katy Farber
Sixth Grade Teacher, Author, and Blogger

You are so welcome, Kim! Thanks for commenting. That sounds like a great post idea. I'm glad Betty is going ahead with a post about it.

I have a chapter in my book about how parents and teachers can work together-- and what amazing progress for students usually results. It has some good ideas about positive parental involvement, although sometimes this varies from class to class and school to school. I usually write in my opening letter for the school year about ways parents can be involved and helpful.

Thanks again!

Katy Farber's picture
Katy Farber
Sixth Grade Teacher, Author, and Blogger

Thanks, Mike. It is so hard to remember that having a good work/life balance as a teacher is good for you, for students, and for your own family. Right now as I finish the school year, I feel very unbalanced and need to focus on eating well, resting, and connecting with family after an intense period of all consuming teaching/planning and leading end of the year events. We do need to role model more balance to our students. Thanks for the reminder and for your comment!


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