Teaching is important and rewarding work, but it can also be extremely stressful. Excessive stress may lead to burnout, which is characterized by exhaustion, anxiety, and feelings of being overwhelmed and isolated. Other common symptoms of burnout are a loss of creativity, good humor, patience, and enthusiasm for life -- all of which are crucial attributes for effective teaching.
Fortunately, the human brain has tremendous capacity to change and grow. We can train our malleable, dynamic brains -- specifically, the left prefrontal cortex, which figures prominently in emotional outlook -- to become happier and more optimistic through deliberate practice.
5 Positive Strategies
Research suggests that happy people are more likely to have positive relationships with family, friends, and colleagues; to perform better on the job; and even to enjoy greater physical health than those with negative outlooks. Following are five positive strategies that can help you become more optimistic and head off burnout.
1. Engage in positive self-talk and self-reflection.
Shift away from self-doubt and self-nagging. Instead, pay yourself a hard-earned compliment. You don't need to wait for a big accomplishment to celebrate success. Instead, look for authentic and useful traits:
- When other teachers have questions about integrating technology into lesson delivery, they turn to me.
- The changes that I made to this lesson were really helpful!
Identifying your strengths helps reinforce a positive, can-do attitude.
2. Make it manageable.
If you start to feel overwhelmed by the diverse responsibilities of teaching, take a few moments to identify your priorities -- what must be done and in what order -- and an achievable, step-by-step plan to accomplish those tasks. It's less stressful and easier to maintain a positive attitude if you can actually see that you're making progress.
3. Embrace the little joys of teaching.
Great satisfaction can be found in those "aha!" moments when the light bulbs of learning light up students' faces. In striving to keep up with all of our daily tasks as teachers, watching out for those moments and celebrating students' learning advances may fall by the wayside. Purposefully staying in the moment of those small, incremental successes, instead of letting your mind wander to other tasks and nagging dilemmas, may help you stay attuned to what drew you to your profession.
4. Become more resilient.
Enhancing your ability to bounce back in the face of setbacks can help stave off burnout. Psychologist Richard Davidson reports on research indicating that people with greater activation on the left side of their prefrontal cortex recover more quickly from reacting to events that produce feelings of anger or fear. Through mindfulness training, or by focusing their thoughts on calming down in an adverse situation, subjects in Davidson’s study were able to increase their resilience. When confronted with a situation that makes you angry, anxious, or stressed out, you can choose to hit the "pause" button rather than obsessing about those negative feelings -- and feeling worse and worse because of it. You can train yourself to focus your thoughts on how amazing it is that you have the power to control your emotions and steer them into more positive and productive territory.
5. Set your problems aside for a while.
Approaching your work with greater optimism won't make the many challenges facing teachers today disappear. Life inside and outside of the classroom is full of little problems and occasional big ones. Challenges in your work can follow you home, and personal problems can make it more difficult to devote your full attention to teaching. A positive, persistent approach may help you resolve some of these issues, but others may be beyond your control. In those cases, you can choose to consciously set these problems aside for a while using an idea that we call the Coat Hanger Strategy:
- Identify the problem that is distracting you from the activity at hand.
- Consider: "Do I have control over this problem? Are there steps that I can take right now to resolve or alleviate it?"
- If the answer to both questions is "no," imagine draping the problem on a coat hanger and leaving it outside your door so that you can return to your current activities without distractions.
Keeping the Passion Alive
By regularly employing these strategies, it's possible to develop a more consistently positive and productive outlook on teaching. Together with two other components for battling burnout (we've written previously written about choosing healthy nutrition and incorporating regular exercise into your routine), becoming more optimistic supports a healthier, happier body and brain and can help rejuvenate and maintain your passion for teaching.
For further reading:
- Conyers, M., & Wilson, D. (2015). Positively Smarter: Science and Strategies for Increasing Happiness, Achievement, and Well-Being. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.