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August 1, 2018

How Job Crafting Can Prevent Educator Burnout


At the tail end of April, #LastBell was a trending hashtag on Twitter—at least in educator circles. #LastBell encouraged educators to teach to their fullest until the last bell of the year. As with most things these days, the positive vibes of the movement turned vitriolic as educators took offense to the implications: Broadcasting teacher year-end burnout portrays teachers as lackluster and lazy. Many claimed that they didn't need a hashtag to remind them to keep teaching.

True. But let's also not pretend that burnout is some fake boogeyman. Burnout is real. I've felt it in April. And December. And August.

The subtext of the #LastBell backlash is, "Who is responsible for reducing burnout?" Is it up to the teachers to guard against caustic conditions? Is it up to the "powers that be" to make teaching a more manageable job? The problem with polarized opinions is that lost between the false dichotomies are the real experiences of most people.

Unfortunately, I'm too realistic and too impatient to wait for Option A: Hope for change of conditional factors, which are largely beyond my control. And, I'm too driven to wait for Option B: "Think positive" and hope burnout goes away. My ability to reduce or overcome burnout has depended on Option C: Invest in myself through strategic choices about the tasks, relationships, and purposes of my job. I've learned that I can't give my best—to my students, to my colleagues, to fighting for education change—unless I'm at my best.

Fortunately, I've learned research-based practices for boosting work engagement, meaning, and productivity.

Crafting a Calling

We make countless choices to change how we interact with our job. Each of these choices influences how we feel about teaching. Psychologists call these choices "job crafting." Job crafting, say psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E. Dutton, is the actions employees take to redesign their work in order to foster engagement, satisfaction, resilience, and thriving. This means being intentional about how we engage with the tasks, people, and purpose that compose our careers.

Although we all job craft to some degree, there are signs pointing to the benefits of job crafting more intentionally. Interventions designed to teach job crafting skills to workers have yielded positive results as well. In a 2012 study of workers at a Fortune 500 technology company, Wrzesniewski found that employees who job crafted increased their work effectiveness and happiness.

How do we job craft? There are three major approaches, introduced by Wrzesniewski and Dutton in their influential 2001 article "Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work." Here are those approaches and how I've adapted them to my own job as a teacher.

Approach 1: Craft the "What"

One of the main ways people change their interaction with their work is through task crafting: changing the number, scope, or type of job tasks. For teachers, this means shifting the what and how of the work, such as our curricula and other job assignments. Here are a couple strategies I've used.

Renew a Task

We don't have to start new tasks from scratch. We can shift our time emphasis to the things we value. For example, evaluating written work is a time (and life) suck for me. So, I researched how to evaluate more effectively and efficiently and discovered the benefit of single-point rubrics. Not only did it reduce the time I spent at home doing a perceived "ill," but it also allowed me more time for my "thrills": creating meaningful lesson plans.

Consider a task that is both dreadful and time-consuming. Then, consult your peer networks or the internet to modify the task to be 5 percent more efficient without compromising quality.


Don't just pick up meaningful tasks; let go of the tasks you don't love. I don't like to organize and clean, so I enlist my detail-oriented students to help me by channeling their passion for order. It blows my mind that people like to clean, and yet I have kids volunteering constantly to Mary Poppins my classroom. Even if it frees up only a few more minutes of your time, survey your task list for one annoying item that could be done by someone else.

Approach 2: Craft the "Who"

Teaching is a social endeavor. So, we have a lot of opportunities to engage in relational crafting, a second type of job crafting. I call this crafting the who.

Massage That Extrovert or Introvert

It took me years to realize how important it was to spend time away from people, or at least get away from draining "trash talk" that sometimes goes on in teacher lounges. I still find moments for building connections with colleagues, but for me—an introvert—relational crafting looks like decompressing to reflect and blare some D'Angelo tunes.

If you're an extrovert, own it and create moments to connect with positive, constructive people. If you're an introvert, own it and do you. We have limited time in our day as educators. Use each second with purpose to craft more meaning. Consider: What is one chunk of time in my day where I could interact differently with others in order to better enjoy my job and recharge?

Mentor a Student

Mentoring has kept me in education. No other choice has been more meaningful and motivating than building relationships and helping individual students. There are many programs in schools and beyond that allow opportunities to mentor students, but we can also create meaningful interactions through what I call "ninja-mentoring"—in other words, more subtle, informal mentoring relationships. For example, you could have lunch with a kid, strike up one-on-one conversations in between classes, or find after-school opportunities to bond. Informally mentoring just one student a year can be enough to remind us why we love this work.

Approach 3: Craft the "Why"

A third type of crafting is cognitive crafting: changing the way we perceive our work. Often, write Wrzesniewski and Dutton, this means shifting to see the whole of the work's purpose instead of the individual parts. This approach changes how we frame "the why" behind teaching.

Sort the Majors from the Minors

In education, there are a lot of things beyond our control. Yet, we give those things space in our minds, ruminating and raging about them. In these moments, I make a cognitive shift toward the purposeful things within my control, rewriting them (sometimes just in my mind) into actions or tasks that are meaningful and within my realm of influence (see Figure 1 for examples).

Figure 1. Getting Real About What I Can Control



Focus on Service

In the many years I've spent exploring meaning in my personal life and with my students, one constant has always remained: Our actions are meaningful when they positively affect others. We can especially use this to reframe the things we don't like to do in our jobs. Before taking on something I dread, I occasionally reflect, "How will my actions help someone?" For example:

  • Before calling a parent to discuss student behavior: My call will open a line of communication that will help me, the parent, and the student move forward.

  • Before going into a staff meeting: By aligning school goals and agendas with my colleagues, I am helping my students have a more consistent and reliable education.

  • Before striking up conversations in the workroom with venting colleagues: They need to feel heard by someone. And maybe this will help them release some stress before getting back to work with students.

Job crafting does not mean complacency. Job crafting does not replace the need for fair working conditions, policies that benefit all students, and respect. For educators to expend the energy necessary to address large-scale issues, however, we need to have energy in the first place. We can't fix the leaking pipes when we have one foot out the door. We can't shine the new light of change when our flame is flickering.

We can't always create instant, systemic changes. But we can take instant action to invest in ourselves via job crafting. Minimizing burnout is about refueling and being more energy efficient. It's about working smarter, not harder, to be at our best, no matter if we're struggling to make it to the first bell, the fiftieth bell, or the last bell.

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