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Preserving you: Preventing teacher burnout

Editor’s note: Catch Naphtali talking about teacher burnout during a recent PowerTalk.

Think of the first time you encountered teacher burnout. Where you were. What was going on at the time. The feelings. The experiences. The surroundings. 

I'll tell you what it was for me. I was a new teacher in an Orthodox Jewish independent high school. I was fresh. I was idealistic. And I was going to change the world. 

Each morning, my colleagues and I would convene in the teacher's lounge. On occasion, we would play a game. 

Typically speaking, one doesn’t think of teacher lounges and games; there were no chess or Scrabble boards to be found. The game that we played had no name. I have named it in arrears the “make the calendar disappear” game. 

The game worked as follows. Towards the beginning of the year, after we’d been teaching for a few weeks, conversation would start to focus on our first vacation. “How many days,” we’d ask, “until the (Jewish) High Holidays?” 

But this wasn’t simply a matter of counting days. Our goal was to completely remove days from the calendar. Here’s how we did it.

The day of didn't count because we were already at school. Fridays, which followed an abridged schedule (Sabbath commences on Friday at sundown,) also didn’t count. Any shortened week, such as Thanksgiving week, didn’t count. Finals week didn’t count. Hanukkah didn’t count. Any day with extended prayer services didn’t count. Days with special speakers or programming didn’t count. And on it went.

By the time we were done, we calculated that we would have to teach four days that year. 

While this account may seem lighthearted -- and in the moment it was -- it was also very upsetting to me. I was there to teach. I was going to change the world. I was going to raise a class of scholars and inspired teens who were going to be difference makers in the world. 

And here were my colleagues -- five, 10, 15 maybe 20 years my senior in teaching -- asking, “How can we get out of this as quickly as possible? How can we somehow have as few teaching days as possible?” 

At some level, they were demonstrating signs of burnout.

Teacher burnout is a big problem. Over 40% of new teachers leave the field within five years. Of the ones who stay, many can still be burnt out. They express dissatisfaction with an array of issues, such as heightened demands to meet student needs, become more communicative -- both internally and externally -- and address difficult student and parent situations. They do this while feeling unsupported and under the microscope to focus more on assessments and even teach to them. Because they know that they’re evaluations will largely depend on student test performance.

Without question, these lingering feelings of dissatisfaction affect our students. Think about it. How much of our creativity, enthusiasm and ability to give, affect, influence and inspire do we leave behind somewhere because we've become jaded along the way? 

The question becomes, how can we regenerate? How can we build ourselves again to a heightened level of passion and engagement? How can we focus on different areas of our life to ensure that there isn't a day, no matter what the circumstance, that we bring our “A game” and provide the very best for our students, however and whatever the circumstances?

I believe that the answer is self-care. As the term implies, self-care is about consciously and consistently attending to our many needs: physical, mental, and social-emotional, so that we have the energy and focus necessary to do our best work.

If we address these three areas, it will go a huge way in allowing us to be there for our students and in the way that they deserve, that their parents deserve, and frankly for us, the way that we deserve. 

The first one is physical. Physical refers to getting proper nutrition, hydrating regularly, exercising often and getting enough sleep. It also includes setting boundaries. You are entitled to your own time. You’re entitled to family time. You’re entitled to ‘me time,’ as in rejuvenation. 

Next is mental wellbeing. This comes from nurturing our minds. This includes lifelong learning to stay informed and equipped to engage students in the ways that are most current and effective. 

One of the biggest reasons that people feel a sense of burnout is because of a sense of stagnation; we feel that we’re not growing. We are where we were and even though we know we need to grow, sometimes we just say, “Oh, another professional development training. Another seminar. It’s just more work. I have enough on my plate.” 

But even when we feel overwhelmed and even when we feel perhaps even burdened, if we step outside of our comfort zone and we take on something new and we’re willing to say, "you know what, let me incorporate at least one idea,” that attitude alone can be transformative. And if you commit to that something and you’re consistent about it and you work with someone towards those goals, you can and you will achieve it, while feeling accomplished in the process. 

It also includes being growth oriented (rather than fixed) with our mindset. The one with the fixed mindset says, “I am who I am. What I can do is what it is. And that is all.” The result of that is we say to ourselves, "I can do this, but not beyond.” Whether that's incorporating more technology. Or utilizing different variations or groupings within our classroom. Or utilizing different types of questions or assessment techniques. But the person with a growth mindset says, “I CAN do it. I can grow. And if I can't do it, I just cannot do it YET.”

And finally, social-emotional health. This is critical because emotion drives the train. Emotion moves us to the actions that we want to do and gives us the energy to move forward. 

Becoming healthier in the social-emotional realm means making sure to be social! Make regular time to connect with peers and talk shop, as well as other stuff. 

I remember when I was in graduate school, one of the books we had to read was called something like “The Loneliest Job in the World.” It argued that teachers must go into their classrooms, day after day, close the door, and interact all day with students, but lack adequate peer interaction. 

The author had a point. We often lack the time to share ideas with each other, to grow from one another, to ask a question and get a response. So, whether it’s in your faculty lounge, whether it's time that you make out every week on a Friday to grab coffee with coworkers or colleagues, whether it's participating in some kind of forum, physical or virtual, where you can share ideas and ask questions, it's very important to make sure you have people that speak your language at your level. Then you can feel that you are really growing with other people. The connection is critical. 

The other part in this realm is difficult but important to address: focusing on ourselves. It feels uncomfortable -- we chose this profession because we believe in putting others before self. 

But imbalance with this concept is what’s killing our joy for the job. When we don't take the time to pat ourselves on the back and say what a great job we are doing and the impact we are having, we start to dry up.

So, go ahead and take out all of those thank you cards that you get. Read them and remember that there are students whose lives you have affected for eternity.

About eight years ago I attended the high school graduation of students that I had taught as freshman and sophomores. It was their big day, a time to reflect and celebrate their great achievement. 

At the post-graduation celebration, a young man approached me. He was in one of my freshman classes, for one period each day. The next year he transferred to a different school in the community. He approached me at his former classmates’ graduation and said, “I want you to know that this past year my English teacher assigned our class to write about someone who made a difference in my life. The subject was supposed to be a person that really made a difference in your life. I chose to write about you.”

I was flattered but intrigued. I knew this student for only one year. He was in my class for forty minutes a day and had many other teachers. “Why?” I asked. “Why did you write about me?” 

The answer that he gave has transformed the way that I think about education, and about life in general for that matter. “I wrote about you because you were always having fun when you taught.”

Now, I didn't juggle. I didn't tell too many jokes and we didn't have that much banter going on. But there was an environment -- an enthusiasm, an energy -- that he recognized and three years later he was inspired to write about it. 

You never know where your influence goes. You never know when you are that role model, you are that person that makes the difference. We can only imagine. But go ahead and imagine! Recognize your influence and think about all the students who may return one day and say, “You know what? You made a difference in my life!”

I'd like to conclude with a rabbinic teaching. “If I'm not for myself, who will be for me? But if I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

We must be for ourselves, because no one else will be and certainly nobody else could be. Nobody could provide the physical and the mental and the emotional energy and support that we all need. The only one that can do it is you. 

However, if it's only for me, if I am totally self-centered, if I'm only focused on me and my own needs, then what am I doing?

Do something right now to improve your situation and gain newfound energy and enthusiasm for the very special gift that you have, which is to make a profound, robust and lasting impact on the life of a child.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) ) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss." Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new eBook, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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