Proactive Burnout Prevention: The Life and Times of a Student Teacher

This workshop will be written in the future, by Kirsten A. Bennett, after she has accumulated an admirable time management record. She will share what she learned when she first used them during her internship back in December 2015.

Much is expected of teachers:  cover this list of standards, differentiate instruction for this range of learners, communicate with parents, and respond to every crisis.  It’s no wonder that so many teachers experience “burn out,” a condition Skovholt and Trotter-Mathison (2011) have described as “a hemorrhaging of the self” (p. 145).  Wendi Pillars (2014) identifies six common signs of teacher burnout: exhaustion, extreme graveness, anxiety, being overwhelmed, seeking[1], and isolation.  The kinds of people who become teachers do not like to admit that we identify with that list.  Many of us came to this profession because we consider ourselves exceptionally energetic, charismatic, empathetic, and optimistic; we prefer not to admit that doing what we love is making us into people we hate.

Skovholt and Trotter-Mathison (2011) have observed that since the term “burnout” came to the scene in 1974, over 6,000 journal articles have been written on the subject (p. 146).  Burnout is a huge issue and every teacher (and so many others) will experience burnout differently.  There is an equally diverse array of methods by which teachers can combat burnout.  Some experts recommend creating a mission statement or manifesto.  Others say the key to teacher survival is collegial relationships.  Unfortunately, the mention of these worth-while strategies will overwhelm many first-year teachers in what Ellen Moir (2011) has called “the survival phase.”  Moir has noted, “…new teachers are caught off guard by the realities of teaching.  “I thought I’d be busy, something like student teaching, but this is crazy. I’m feeling like I’m constantly running. It’s hard to focus on other aspects of my life.””

As a student teacher, I was especially disappointed to find myself always thinking about my feelings, my schedule, my health, my self.  But preliminary research on the topic of teacher burn out convinced me that “to be successful in the high-touch professions, we must continually maintain professional vitality and avoid depleted caring” (Skovholt and Trotter-Mathison, 2011, p. 4).  Experts agree that anyone who aims to care for others must, in some sense, care for self.  Self-care involves a thousand tiny things: an apple a day, a stroll in the park, a call to a friend, a cup of coffee in the quiet morning.  And every one of these things takes time.  To emerge from survival mode, we must make time for these elements of self care, in addition to the other tasks of teaching.  We must manage our time.

During my student teaching, the term “time management” felt like a disgraceful imperative: Get more done!  But time management is means more than working efficiently.  Time management is a more detailed system of approaching time which helps teachers protect our professional vitality avoid burnout. It’s a three-stage process of anticipating, observing, and reflecting on how you spend your time.

Anticipation – Make a Plan.  Good rebounders anticipate where the ball will bounce.  Good defense attorneys anticipate the prosecution’s argument.  Good students anticipate what will be on the test.  Good time managers anticipate where their hours will go.

Decide when you will sit down to make your plan.  For me, this is Saturday mornings from 8:30 to 9:00.  Fill out a detailed template of your weekly schedule with the meetings, obligations, grading, planning can you anticipate as you look forward to the upcoming week.  Moir (2011) has aptly pointed out that “Beginning teachers are instantly bombarded with a variety of problems and situations they had not anticipated,” but it’s also true that there is much we can see before the week begins.  Focusing on these known activities diminishes the sense of helplessness we feel when other activities surprise us.

See and measure the open windows.  Now that you know how much of your time is “free” you can move from saying things like “I wish I had time to exercise” or “We should hang out sometime” to “I’ll run during this one hour window on Tuesdays and Thursdays” and “Fridays at 7 I have dinner with my brother.” The decisions that you make about these windows will fuel productivity in the blocks – you’ll work to earn the plans you’ve made.

Observation – Watch yourself.  During the first few weeks of this new discipline, expect to see your schedule (and yourself) in a new light.  Now that you’re making more intentional decisions about how to spend your time, you’ll be more aware of what doesn’t go according to plan.  Let the pain be instructive.

I spent those first weeks of my new regiment with two copies of my schedule in hand: one I had filled out during Saturday morning planning time, and one that was blank.  I filled in the blank version throughout those weeks with my true “life and times.”  I recommend this practice to novice teachers because it shows us a glaringly instructive view of where your time really goes.  You’ll very likely find time you didn’t know you had, time that has been getting slurped up by time-vacuums like police dramas and online shopping.

The observation phase will show you some of the negative implications of your time management.  I resonate with what Shelley Sanchez Terrell (2014) has said of her own busy teacher life: “I was wearing myself out.  I realized I needed to strive for a better balance, because the stress was impacting my mood and the way I interacted with my students.  I didn’t want them to think they were the cause of my stress” (p. 100).  Some days, I don’t care about myself enough to do anything about my frantic schedule; but when I look at the way my frantic schedule affects my students, I do care.

Reflection:  A lack of reflection contributes to what Moir (2011) calls the disillusionment phase: “There is little time to stop and reflect on their experiences.”  Teachers can keep burnout at bay by engaging in meaningful reflection throughout the year, as the first item on your weekly planning time agenda.

Begin by holding the two versions of your schedule side by side and asking yourself some questions.  “These questions help us become aware of how we might be neglecting our health.  Being aware is the first step towards achieving more balance in our lives (Terrell, 2004, p. 99).”  The most important question, perhaps, is why?  For example:  Why did grading vocab tests take such a long time this week?  Why did I watch three episodes of this TV show when I could have been grading narrative assessments?  Possible answers: “Grading takes longer in the evening than it does during my 3rd period prep,” “When I try to work through lunch, I’m less productive after lunch,” or “When I don’t intentionally enjoy myself, I accidentally watch terrible television.”  By asking yourself why when you review your schedule, you can identify and replace many of the tasks that steal your productivity.

Other questions to ask as you reflect on your schedule:

  • Am I adopting unhealthy habits for the sake of my job?
  • How can I relieve stress on a daily basis?
  • What am I doing now that makes me happy?
  • When and where do I eat my meals?  How do these rituals make me feel? What impact do these rituals have on my overall well-being.
  • What un-planned activities make their way into your schedule?
  • Which tasks took more time than I allotted to them?  Which took less?

Meaningful reflection on time spent will inform next week’s schedule.  As you grow in this discipline, you’ll be able to replace the unnecessary tasks with more meaningful and rejuvenating ones.  You’ll find a logical place for things like optional professional development, conversations with other teachers, meal planning and preparation, and exercise.

 

Reference

Brown, D. (2012). Now that I know what I know.  Educational Leadership, 69:8, pp 24-28.  Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may12/vol69/num08/Now-That-I-Know-What-I-Know.aspx

Maurice, E.  (2012). Teacher Burnout: What Are the Warning Signs? EdUtopia.  Retrieved from:  http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teacher-burnout-warning-signs-maurice-elias

Moir, E.  (2011). Phases of first-year teaching.  New Teacher Center.  Retrieved from: http://www.newteachercenter.org/blog/phases-first-year-teaching

Pillars, W. (2014). Six Signs of—and Solutions for—Teacher Burnout. Education Week. Retrieved from: http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/05/20/ctq-pillars-signs-of-solutions-for-burnout.html

Skovholt, T. M., Trotter-Mathison, M. J. (2011).  Resilient Practitioner: Burnout Prevention and Self-Care Strategies for Counselors, Therapists, Teachers, and Health Professionals, Second Ed.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Terrell, S. S. (2015).  The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers. New York, NY: Routledge.

[1] Pillars defines this as Losing your creativity, imagination, patience, and enthusiasm for daily challenges. Craving reflection time and productive collaboration rather than group complaining.