I cannot imagine being anything other than a teacher, and on particularly difficult days, that makes me nervous. As teachers, we are expected to do more than ever before, often with fewer resources and less support.
I read recently that burnout sometimes catches us by surprise because we don’t realize how much energy we are borrowing from tomorrow to get through today. When I’m able to stay grounded and remember why I started teaching in the first place, it’s easier to recognize the warning signs of burnout and make changes.
These are the things I do so that I can continue to find joy in my classroom.
1. Establish (and Revisit) Core Beliefs
A few years ago, I read A Meaningful Mess, by Andi McNair. The chapter “Giving Students What They Deserve” dives into core beliefs and being specific about what we want to see in our classrooms. My teaching partner and I discussed what we would have wanted when we were students and what inspired us to start teaching. We reflected on the things that we remember long after the school year has ended. From there, we generated a set of core beliefs. I keep mine posted right beside my desk and revisit them as often as I can:
We believe all learners deserve...
- To have meaningful experiences;
- To feel like they belong;
- To feel challenged, motivated, engaged, excited, and successful;
- To be given opportunities to work independently as well as collaboratively;
- To use their interests and strengths to create their own learning journey;
- To use technology flexibly to obtain information, interact with information, and share new learning;
- To have supportive relationships with teachers who believe in them and guide them.
Staying focused on these core beliefs helps me take a breath and let go of some of the other expectations of my job. I am accountable to my students first, and everything else comes after.
2. Humanize Learning
Before the pandemic, I read a wonderful article about humanizing learning and how we must create strong student-teacher relationships by seeing our students for who they are (young humans) before we can begin to meet their academic needs. The questions at the end of the article stuck with me:
- Did I see my students today for who they are and can be? Would my students know?
- Did I make a new connection or deepen an existing relationship with my students today?
- How would each of my students know I truly care about them?
- Did I demonstrate my own humanity to my students today?
- Did I do anything today to oppress a child’s humanity? How can I be sure?
I printed the questions from the article and posted them on my board in my classroom. They are a great reminder of why I do what I do. So often, adults don’t see children as they are: humans who are learning about the world and figuring out who they are. The fourth question specifically makes me think about my interactions with students. When I got frustrated, did we talk about it? Did I apologize if I snapped at them? Did I stop and take a breath when I needed it, or did I continue to go through my day like nothing was wrong? We know our students watch us constantly. How do we show them our own coping strategies?
3. Pay It Forward to Your Students
I’ve tried to cope with the stress of the pandemic through a wide variety of strategies, such as mindfulness activities, mantras, coloring, journaling, and puzzles. I share all of them with my students. I believe that they should have as many coping options as I do. In our morning meetings, we try out different strategies and we revisit the ones that work. Writing poetry about our emotions was a favorite last school year, but my class this year doesn’t like it. Body scans are more effective and relaxing with my current group.
Some days it’s really hard to take time out for a morning meeting, but I have never once regretted taking it. Being intentional with this time has helped all of us. Currently, we are working on identifying our needs and what it means to be an advocate for yourself and those needs. I have been able to have conversations with students like I never have before. They not only feel more comfortable expressing themselves but also are able to better describe what they’re experiencing.
4. Take Your PTO
This one is by far the hardest for me. During the summer, I have hundreds of great ideas. As soon as the reality of a new school year hits, those thoughts take flight like migrating birds and stress takes their place. I work so hard on the day-to-day requirements of teaching that I can’t imagine designing innovative learning experiences for my students.
Recently, an intense migraine forced me to take a sick day. I spent the entire day on the couch feeling guilty, which undoubtedly prolonged my migraine. That evening, I realized how much I was looking forward to going back when I felt better. I hadn’t been excited about school in weeks. The day off had left me with several ideas for my class that I wanted to try, such as partnering with another school to learn some sign language. This idea was inspired by the main character in Song for a Whale, the excellent book by Lynne Kelly that my class is reading right now.
I’m still working on this, but when I realized that taking a day makes me better and leads to more positive experiences for my students, I started to relax and let my creativity flow.
Although I believe many changes need to happen within our education system to truly end burnout for teachers, it helps me to focus on what I can control. I have always wanted to do my best in everything, but we have to recognize that our best changes based on circumstances. If we choose the best for our students but neglect our own mental health and well-being, we not only teach them that neglecting personal needs is acceptable but also are more likely to treat them poorly. These strategies remind me why I love my job and help me to feel empowered and refreshed as an educator.