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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
June 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 9

Finding Balance: 6 Educators on Avoiding Burnout

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Stories and advice from school veterans on maintaining your spirit and your perspective in a challenging profession.

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Focus on the Big Picture

I’ve spent 24 years as a teacher and principal in public schools. This work never feels like a burden to me because I provide myself with opportunities to step away from the job. I spend our school breaks traveling to new places, such as Australia, Mexico, England, and Paris, which allows me to view things other than the day-to-day dramas and challenges of school and to focus on being a wife and a mother to my own children. These trips are my brain breaks from the “regular.”
Travel reinforces why my work is so critical. These learning opportunities are a chance to educate myself about the world, and since education is the cornerstone of everything I do, traveling helps to reinforce the mission of my work while exposing me to the beauty of the world. The day I return from a journey is an opportunity to come “home,” to where my students and colleagues are, and to embrace the familiarity. I can then look at the work of educating children with a slightly different perspective than I had before I left.
Some skeptics suggest traveling is too expensive on an educator’s salary. I would argue it’s too expensive not to use our breaks to pour experiences and knowledge into ourselves rather than just into others. I budget for travel like I do for all the important things in life, and if it means I drive a seven-year-old car instead of a new one, then that is a good payoff for me. It keeps me grounded, optimistic, and fresh, and that is the best preventative medicine against burnout. —Susan Stone Kessler

Three Rules for Staying Happy and Sane

These are three ways I’ve found to (mostly) love my job over the past 18 years.
  1. Serve children first, administrators second. Kids don’t care about the time-consuming things that matter to adults, like detailed lesson plans with numbered objectives or an immaculate classroom. Do the bare minimum on your paperwork—most administrators will skim through it, if they read it at all. And let your classroom be a wild rumpus sometimes. (Just leave space in a closet or a wardrobe so you can jam the mess inside it if visitors come.) Take the time you spend worrying what adults will think of your classroom and use it to see each day through your students’ eyes instead.
  2. Prioritize presence over preparation. Many of us work until it’s dark outside and spend hours on nights and weekends preparing our lessons. We sacrifice sleep, time with family and friends, and walks in the woods—all the things that keep our spirit strong. So give yourself some healthy limits. Try to develop guidelines for yourself, like, “Don’t spend longer preparing materials than the students will spend actually using them.”
  3. Be gentle with yourself, and don’t forget to laugh. Teaching is incredibly hard and complicated work. Daily moments of failure are going to occur. If we don’t show ourselves the same patience and compassion we show our students, we’re doomed to burn out. Our work matters deeply, but that doesn’t mean it has to be serious all the time. Find the humor in the hardships and stumbles and share that laughter with your students and colleagues. Kurt Vonnegut said it best: “We are all here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
Justin Minkel

Always Find Time for Family

I began teaching high school English when I was 23, and I couldn’t believe how much take-home work was involved. Fast-forward 10 years later: I was still a high school English teacher, but now had two small children, ages 1 and 3, and I suddenly found my job impossible.
It was around this time that I got some advice from a veteran teacher, friend, and fellow mom. She told me: Never take any work home. Her unapologetic approach to guarding her family time helped me find the courage to try it.
I started by taking my work email account off my phone. Next, I used my prep time more strategically at work to grade and plan rather than socialize with colleagues. On Fridays, I often stayed late at work to finish prepping the following week, so it was done and written down in my planner and I wasn’t worried about it on the weekend. Sometimes I would stay as late as 8 p.m. while my husband picked up the kids, made them dinner, and put them to bed. While this was not how I wanted to spend my Friday evenings, it was the best way for me to buy myself the whole rest of the weekend and spend the following week free of stress and worry.
I never once thought about school while at home. I was free to enjoy the rest of my weekend and all the following work nights the way I wanted to: taking my kids to the park or pool, reading to them before bed, having long dinner conversations with my husband, or reading a book. Now that my kids are older, we spend even more quality time together. Evenings never seem a chore anymore thanks to my learned commitment to leave work at work. —Alexis Wiggins

Picturing the Difference

This is my tenth year of teaching—one year teaching 4th grade and nine years teaching 1st grade—and I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of this work-life balance thing. This past year I started a food Instagram account called @yesplsdc to tie together my two loves of food and photography, as well as explore fun new places in Washington, D.C.
I visit local restaurants and, in addition to enjoying the food, take photos and share them with my followers. (I’m close to 2,500!) This project of mine has some perks—restaurants have already invited me to special events, and I get the occasional free dish—but mostly it’s been an exciting way to be creative outside the classroom. Teaching is such a rewarding job, and I can’t imagine doing anything else, but having this outlet has really been great for me. It keeps me energized and excited to go to work every day. When I’m teaching, I always want to put the students first—I’m always very tuned in to what they need to be their best. With photography, I get to focus on me a little bit more and think about what I find fun and inspiring. That’s a nice change of pace. —Kelli Scott

Create Meaningful Connections

One of the ways I prevent burnout, for myself and my colleagues at school, is to connect outside of the workplace. We have organized monthly hikes, dinner parties, and beach trips (the perks of living in San Diego!) as well as annual group travel trips to decompress and talk through emotions that are on our minds. The group get-togethers can range from three to four of us to as many as 14, and getting away with teachers is always an adventure. We try to focus on the positives of teaching and remind each other that we love what we do.
Another way we’ve tried to lessen distraction in general is by turning off email on our phones. This allows us to avoid checking every five minutes and be more present in the moment. I recently learned the term “phubbing”—where we snub and ignore others around us in order to check our phones instead. This seems very stressful and doesn’t allow for the connections with friends and family that are so important. As a school leader, I have found that when we continue to be vulnerable with students, it allows us to have deeper and more honest conversations with them. If we share what we like to do and what is on our mind, we can connect and chat with our students. I have left school multiple days just laughing at the stories students share with me. I remember a student sitting down in my office and telling me about how he was reading The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks to get pointers on how to impress his girlfriend. Fun conversations like that remind me that life is good and my students are a joy. Enjoy those little moments. —Dominique Smith

Let's Get Physical

Teachers are always moving. Rarely do I see a teacher sitting for long periods of time. I love that teaching keeps me on my toes, but I also know I need to stay moving outside the school building as well. So I do whatever I can to be physically active at least four days a week. Twice a week for the last four years I’ve been playing capoeira, a Brazilian martial art and dance, for 90 minutes. Spending time with my capoeira family not only allows me to get a good workout, but it helps me build essential peer relationships outside of school and connect to my historical and cultural roots. Being a student in my capoeira class also gives me a weekly reminder of what it’s like to be in my students’ shoes. When I need my Contra Mestre (teacher) to model a move for me more than once, I’m reminded that everyone doesn’t learn at the same pace. When another student teaches me a particular technique, I remember that learning from peers is valuable. I believe I am a more compassionate English teacher because of these reminders.
When I’m not playing capoeira, I’m swimming, running, riding my bike, boxing, or taking a dance or yoga class. I’m often depleted at the end of the day and reluctant to put on my workout clothes, but I persist because that feeling at the end of a workout is always worth it. It also helps to remind me that while the work of teaching can be overwhelming at times, it’s not all of who I am. Being physically active by myself or in community reminds me that I am a teacher and so much more. —Geneviève DeBose Akinnagbe

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