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December 1, 2020
Vol. 78
No. 4

The Resilient Educator / The Lowdown on Burnout

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It's real, but it can be overcome.
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Social-emotional learning
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In my 10th year of teaching, I sank into a period of burnout that led me to contemplate leaving education. I felt overwhelmed by the challenges facing my middle school students. I doubted my skills and abilities; in fact, the more I learned about teaching, the clearer I became about the ways in which I wasn't meeting my students' needs. I worked 60-hour weeks, but no matter how much I worked, I didn't see the impact I wanted to have. I distanced myself from colleagues, lost my passion for planning lessons, and was short-tempered with students.
From my earliest days of teaching, I'd picked up that there were few things worse than becoming a burned-out teacher. Veteran teachers I worked alongside described burnout as a state from which there was no return. As I recognized emotions in myself that I associated with burnout—disengagement, hopelessness, cynicism—I felt shame. I didn't tell anyone what I was feeling, which made the depression worse.
Burnout is basically depression. That's the first and perhaps most important thing to know. It's a distinct form of depression characterized by fatigue, frustration, dissatisfaction, and apathy. As many as half of all workers in high-stress jobs experience some form of burnout in their career. In education, burnout is most common when teachers don't see the results they aspire to create.
The second thing to know is that burnout can be prevented. One way to do that is to normalize emotions. Recognize that it's normal for you and others to have emotions and to express them. During my first months as a teacher, I internalized an unspoken belief that it was unprofessional to have or express emotions at work. No matter how hard things were, successful teachers forged on. I saw that no matter what happened—student deaths, the school flooding with sewage—my stoic principal marched on with business, never acknowledging her own feelings or others'. The message I got was to toughen up and leave emotions at the door.
However, we are all human beings—and human beings have emotions. Being in the service profession and spending hours with young people means teachers might experience a wide range of feelings more frequently than people in other fields. And suppressing emotions doesn't work. Emotions find a way to come out and be heard, and sometimes they manifest as burnout.

Listening to Emotions

Emotions deserve attention because they are sources of wisdom and information—not just because we don't want them to become a problem. We should explore our emotions so we can learn from them. When I listened to the emotions that contributed to my burnout, I recognized that I yearned to more clearly see the impact I had on students. I knew I had some impact, but I couldn't see it well. I also ached to make an even greater contribution to the field of education.
Imagine what would be possible if, during team meetings, check-ins with administrators, and coaching sessions, teachers were invited to talk about their emotions. What if we recognized that it's normal to go through periods of questioning your impact as a teacher, losing confidence, or feeling heartbroken by what children experience? What if we removed the shame of having strong emotions and talked about them together? What if we saw emotions as resources, rather than things to manage and suppress?

Paths to Recovery

Here's the third thing to know about burnout: You can recover from it. In some cases, burnout will become the kind of depression that merits professional help—and school leaders and coaches should be aware of common indicators of depression so they can recognize it in themselves and others. But the burnout that's most rampant among educators is the kind we can prevent and return from. Part of that process involves normalizing, embracing, and sharing emotions.
We can also prevent and rebound from burnout by creating specific, measurable goals. One reason many teachers feel perpetually unsatisfied is because the task at hand is overwhelming. All teachers want to have a positive impact on kids, but being responsible for the academic, social, and emotional well-being of dozens of young people is a tremendous task.
Teachers need guidance on how to narrow and clarify expectations for themselves so they're set up for success. Yes, we aim to bring every student up to grade level and meet the needs of every child, but we also need to be able to say, "At the end of this year, I'll feel successful if ___." Without defining specific terms of success, we risk feeling perpetually disappointed with ourselves. Burnout is characterized by a feeling of never being able to do enough, always falling short. If we define what is "enough," what's worthy of celebration, we can avoid or recover from burnout.
During that 10th year when I hit some all-time lows of my professional life, my principal registered what I was experiencing. When I finally shared that I was going to take a coaching job at another school, she said, "It seems like you've been unhappy for a while."
I wish she'd invited me to talk with her about what I was feeling. A half-hour conversation would have been very helpful; I would have felt seen, cared for, and less alone. But my principal was among those who held that conversations about feelings weren't professional. I now often encourage administrators to approach teachers who seem sad or burned out and ask them, "What's going on? It seems like you're going through a hard time."
My low-point experience led me to coaching. As I slogged through that year of burnout, I became drawn to working with adults, which I found energizing. It's good to realize that a burned-out teacher might become more effective in another role. The spark can return, as mine did.

Not a Place of No Return

Whether you're feeling burned out yourself or have staff members who seem so, consider the actions discussed here. Normalize and talk about emotions; proactively identify what "success" might look like; and consider alternative ways a struggling teacher could contribute to education. Most of all, remember: Burnout is a place one can return from.
End Notes

1 Salzberg, S. (2013). Real happiness at work. New York: Workman Publishing.

Elena Aguilar is president of Bright Morning Consulting, a sought-after speaker and presenter, and author of many books, including The Art of Coaching (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and Coaching for Equity (Jossey-Bass, 2020).

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