Stress, Strain, and Burnout—Oh My! - ASCD
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March 12, 2020

Stress, Strain, and Burnout—Oh My!

Two long-time educators have field-tested low-cost strategies to soothe stress, help push through tough days, or guide shifts in work-life balance and career.

Being an effective educator can come at a personal cost. As you pour yourself into the day-to-day work of ensuring children receive the best education possible, personal care and mental health may take a back seat. Over time, without mechanisms in place to help manage stress and strain, educators can experience fatigue, frustration, and even burnout (Oosthuizen & Lill, 2013). Burnout might be setting in if you have emotional and/or physical exhaustion or a negative self-image or respond negatively or irritably toward others (Anderson, Litzenberger, & Plecas, 2002; Fuchs Ebaugh, 1988).

We've collectively spent several decades as classroom teachers, coaches, and program directors. In those roles, we've faced our own stress and questions about forks in the road. During those experiences, we've field-tested low-cost strategies that helped in moments and periods of feeling stretched thin or scattered. These strategies can help you push through tough days or know when to tap out and make shifts in work–life balance or career.

As the end of another school year approaches, reflect on your goals for the upcoming year and try one of our strategies to get yourself going. You can even complete exercises as a group within your school. Educators that reflect together grow together.

Draw, Doodle, Scribble

If you've just had a stressful experience, such as a conference that didn't go as planned, don't let the moment weigh you down or distract from your classroom or school goals. Create instead! Consider taking a few moments to pause, doodle, and write your feelings as they are happening during the day. Belinda was recently participating in a meeting with an early-childhood program that took a stressful turn. She had a hard time staying focused and turned to the trusted strategy of doodling what she felt and heard. At a break in the conversation, Belinda shared her doodle with the team, pointing out commonalities she heard from everyone and areas where they could focus attention next.

Sometimes the buildup of frustration or stress chokes the words off. Taking word-based notes might not have been as relaxing for Belinda or as powerful for regrouping as her visual (Joffe, 2008). You might surprise yourself with an epiphany or solution as you organize your thoughts or notice trends in your visuals.

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Write a '10 Things' List

If you're losing steam and need a quick strategy to refocus, grab some scratch paper and make two lists. On the first, list 10 things that are making you crazy, stressed, or professionally frustrated. Take a deep breath. Then, flip your paper over and make a second list of 10 things you look forward to as an educator, things that bring you joy. Refocus your thoughts, especially in moments of strain, on those 10 joyful things. You could even post the second list where you will see it often. Though it's not a direct solution to a specific problem, it can be a little extra steam to keep that engine going.

When considering whether to stay in a role or move, Felicia has used the '10 things' list to consider both the tangible and intangible benefits of her non-classroom role. She realized she was happier in the role than she had noticed because it was easy to be weighed down with momentary stress, small peer conflicts, or personal experiences. In other words, one bad moment often erased eight hours of success.

You can take the list one step further by sharing your 10 things with others. For example, if one positive experience is interacting with your department chair, pay that person a daily compliment or thank them for the support they've given you. This will make someone else feel better while increasing your professional network.

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Find a Social Network

If you're new to a school or trying to build relationships in your existing office, social networks may help provide support, thought partnerships, and a sense of belonging. If you feel like you aren't part of an educational social network, try creating a group in your school or office. Last year, Felicia's team put together a book club. Each quarter, the team votes for one book from a list they collaboratively created and meets during working lunches or as part of an existing team time. Everyone is encouraged to participate, even if they are behind in the reading or don't complete the self-reflection activities. It's a way to get to know one another as educators and learn about the strengths others bring to the table.

Other activities might include monthly bowling meet-ups, a calendar of free local events to attend together, a theme-based collage or art project that can be completed across multiple staff meetings (15 minutes at a time), or any other way to identify common interests and build relationships together.

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Create a Journey Map

It's easy to feel stuck and disoriented when you have sustained stress or when professional work isn't bringing you contentment. Writing down your ideas and thoughts on a visual template that plots out where you are and where you want to be can shift your perspective, clarify how you want to feel about your work, and start taking steps toward positive change. The journey map Belinda created to help educators and other nonprofit leaders think about their step-by-step journeys is one example. Whether it's the next step in your career or classroom goal for next year, you can use this visual journey map to think about

  • your current role or situation;

  • things you will leave behind by reaching your goal, both good and bad;

  • steps you'll take to reach your goal;

  • barriers you think may slow or stop your journey; or

  • the desired outcome.

For some, the journey may be to transition from instructional coach to assistant principal. For others, it may be to create a more inclusive science classroom for middle schoolers or a school improvement target. Whatever your goals and dreams are (now and in the future), these strategies can serve as an aid during those inevitable challenging times in your teaching career.

Note: Though we have presented these strategies in a light-hearted way, stress, burnout, and depression are no laughing matter. If you believe you need assistance, please consider seeking resources and help through the Anxiety and Depression Association of America or your primary care provider.


Anderson, G., Litzenberger, R., & Plecas, D. (2002). Physical evidence of police officer stress. Policing: An International of Police Strategy and Management 25(2), 399-420.

Fuchs Ebaugh, H. R. (1988). Becoming an ex: The process of role exit. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Joffe, H. (2008). The power of visual material: Persuasion, emotion and identification. Diogenes, 217, 84-93.

Oosthuizen, J. & Lill, B.V. (2008). Coping with stress in the workplace. South African Journal of Industrial Psychology, 34(1), 64-69.

Felicia R. Truong (@FeliciaRTruong) is the director of content development at AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation in Washington, D.C., where she develops curricular approaches for closing the achievement gap before children enter kindergarten.

Belinda Marie Jackson is an educator, visual strategist, and facilitator in Washington, D.C. She uses visual strategy, questions, and planning tools to support education teams and nonprofits.

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