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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2
The Burnout Rx

The Two Sides of Problem-Solving

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To avoid “venting vortexes,” we need to help others process their emotions and find solutions.

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I've held a handful of roles throughout my career in education: English teacher, adjunct professor, club adviser, instructional coach. But one common thread among them all was my inescapable duty as "venting vortex."
No matter my title, people swirled around me to unload their stressors. At the end of the day, I'd get trapped on my way out the door by an angry or overwhelmed colleague or administrator. My planning period would be punctured by students coming in to vent about friendship slights, relationship fights, and scholarship plights.
My non-teaching hours became overloaded as I spun into the vortex—I brought home everyone else's problems (and all my unfinished work), drowning myself in compassion fatigue and papers to grade.
Maybe I have one of the most nonthreatening faces in existence. Regardless of why people were drawn to me, I wasn't a victim in these venting vortexes: I was unwittingly contributing to the problem. I believed that the best way to help someone was to let them process their feelings fully, lending an empathetic ear whenever needed. I clung to the idea that my purpose in life was to help people, so being a great listener was the role society had given me. I still believe the former, but I've learned the flaw in the latter.

The best way to help others and ourselves is to ensure people who vent to us don't just process what they're experiencing, but also make progress on moving forward.

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Since those early days of limitless listening and limited productivity, I've found that the best way to help others and ourselves is to ensure people who vent to us don't just process what they're experiencing, but also make progress on moving forward. Like a double-bladed kayak paddle, we need both so that we don't spin into venting vortexes. Processing our experiences without identifying ways to make progress spins us in emotional circles one way (possibly wasting our time). Jumping into progress plans without fully processing our experiences or needs spins us another way (also wasting our time).
Whether this means creating boundaries of support when we help others (more to come on that) or creating a structure for supporting ourselves, we need to strive for a healthy process-to-progress ratio. We must use both sides of the paddle.

Two Modes of Moving Forward

1. Process Mode

People benefit from putting emotions into words. Studies have found that simply naming our emotions reduces activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that cues our fight-or-flight response. Yet some of us too infrequently process our feelings, turning instead to distractions or avoidance.
To help ourselves and those we serve, we should provide space and prompting to express emotions. Here are tips to maximize the process mode:
  • Use an I-statement when processing your own experiences ("I feel ___ because ___. I need/want ___.") You can also encourage others to use this framework.
  • When helping others, start questions with "What" or "How" to foster open-ended responses. If a colleague is venting, for example, rather than ask, "Was your 5th hour acting rowdy?" ask "What happened in 5th hour today?"
  • Avoid advising others directly ("You should …") or indirectly ("Have you tried …")
  • Dig deeper with phrases like, "Tell me more" or "Say more about that."
When we just use this "process paddle," however, we spin in a circle, mired by our challenging emotions without moving forward. This was my critical mistake when I attempted to help my students and colleagues: Without prompting them toward progress, their venting had no limits. They (and I) needed to learn the benefit of using the second paddle.

2. Progress Mode

As a teacher, I often felt bogged down in the staff lounge any time the conversations drifted into vent sessions. It wasn't the venting, per se, that truly bothered me. It was that the complaints felt stuck in limbo. Someone would vent about how much of a pain Billy was that day. A peer would concur that Billy was, in fact, the worst. Then, the bell would ring for 4th period and everyone would shuffle back to their classrooms, leaving the air stale with the stench of Billy the Bemoaned.
The question left unanswered was, "Now what?" What do we need to know about the root of Billy's behavior? What could we do—individually or collectively—to help Billy (and ourselves) move forward? Here are tips to shift from process to progress mode:
  1. Use scales coupled with forward prompting. For example, ask students, "On a scale of 1–10, how are you feeling right now (1 = the worst I've felt; 10 = the best I've felt)? What would you need in the next few minutes or hours to move up one step on the scale?"
  2. Encourage reflection on past progress (e.g., "What have you done in the past with similar issues in order to move forward?").
  3. After processing, simply ask, "So, what's the next step?"
We have to be mindful that, when attempting to help others, we don't make the mistake of jumping to solutions before understanding the true problem. It's tempting to too quickly shift into progress mode; but without processing problems first, we risk not addressing the root of the issue, or leaving others feeling unheard.
We must use both paddles—process and progress—to not only tackle our personal stressors, but to also set boundaries.

Setting Time Boundaries

When I started using this concept to establish limits, it was a game-changer. If a student or colleague started venting, I protected our time by:
  • Ensuring process/progress modes would each have dedicated airtime: For example, I would say to students, "I have 10 minutes to give you my full attention before I have to get back to work. I'm going to give you 5 minutes to vent and I'll just listen. Then we'll spend the last 5 minutes coming up with a plan to move forward." (The same concept works in team and department discussions; allocate equal time to talking an issue through and planning next steps.)
  • Specifying process or progress roles: For "frequent venters," I learned the value of clarifying roles. For instance, "Moving forward, I want to be your progress person. You can come to me when you want to brainstorm solutions and look for ideas to move forward. If you need someone to process things with instead, I can help you find resources and trained professionals who can help you better than I can with this."

Achieving a Healthy Ratio

Despite the accelerated aging that years of teaching can cause, my face must still scream, "This schmuck will listen." Former students and colleagues, acquaintances, and total strangers still float my way on an invisible current to process their lives. But I feel more in control of the kayak—more capable of exploring the waters while steering us both toward better shores.

The tides of education (and life) aren't smooth; but if we process and progress a little bit each day, we keep ourselves and those we serve afloat.

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On one side, we power connection, trust, and understanding by processing our problems fully. On the other side, we push toward internal control, creative new solutions, and building efficacy by taking action. The tides of education (and life) aren't smooth; but if we process and progress a little bit each day, we keep ourselves and those we serve afloat.

Illuminate the Way

A guide for school leaders to address and prevent teacher burnout.

Illuminate the Way
End Notes

1 Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science18(5), 421–428.

Chase Mielke is a veteran teacher and instructional coach, a nationally recognized speaker, and the author of ASCD's Illuminate the Way: The School Leader's Guide to Addressing and Preventing Teacher Burnout, The Burnout Cure: Learning to Love Teaching Again, and Overcoming Educator Burnout (Quick Reference Guide). A Michigan Teacher of the Year nominee and expert on teacher well-being, Chase delivers highly engaging, research-based, and practical keynotes and professional development workshops to schools and organizations across the world.

His work has been featured on CNN, Greater Good Magazine, and Edutopia. He hosts the Educator Happy Hour podcast and writes the "Burnout Rx" column for EL Magazine. Chase resides with his family in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he daydreams about fresh Expo markers and tries to keep his wild toddler from eating dog food and rocks.

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