3 Strategies to Avoid Teacher Burnout Right From the Start

Sep 03, 2021

It’s the start of a new school year. [Already? How does that even happen, right?!]

This year, I made a sort of promise to myself. And that was to take better [more intentional] care of my mental health and make my own well-being a priority.

Last year I finished the school year with more than half of my paid-for, contract-included days off not used. These days don’t roll over for me, so if I don’t use them I lose them.

And do you know what I realized?

I didn’t get any special recognition or benefit from having days left over [wasn’t expecting it though!]. No pat on the back. No special shout out from the boss. No extra $$$ in my pocket. Nada. It made no difference whether I used those days or not. Other than the fact that those were days I could have spent nurturing my own wellness and spending more time with people I love. 

I love what I do but I can’t do what I love without taking the time to do the things that make me better.

Teaching, working in education in general, is a hard job that requires dedication and commitment and a bit of sacrifice at times. But we can’t adequately show up and offer these things when we are feeling depleted.

We've all heard it...you can't pour from an empty cup, my friend.

So it got me thinking, the secret to avoiding teacher burnout is in being proactive, not reactive. 

We can’t let it get to the point where we are at the end of our rope, crying on our way to school every morning, popping anxiety meds like candy, and looking like a real-life version of The Walking Dead.

Being proactive is about controlling the situation before it takes control over us. 

My mission is to help nurture you as a teacher [ahem, teacher + nurture = teachure, get it?!] 

A key necessity in seeing this mission through is showing you how to be intentional about your own well-being. 

 

A Breakdown of Teacher Burnout… What is it?

But first, let’s talk about what teacher burnout really means.

We’ve all heard the term, most of us have probably even been warned about it from well-wishers and scorned educators alike. 

There are lots of different articles out there that discuss teacher burnout, including the causes and symptoms and progression. Depending on where you look, the stages can look a little different, but it all basically comes down to a progression that begins with feeling a little tired and extends to feelings of total despair.

Basically, the burnout progression may start out with excessive participation in work-related tasks. You might start to feel a little overwhelmed, more tired than usual, and maybe even have some trouble sleeping.

This progresses into withdrawal. From your colleagues. From your work. From the people around you who you care for. You may find yourself feeling irritable, forgetful, and more overwhelmed. 

Next you may begin to move into feelings of depression. Your anxiety levels may be rising. You may feel like even the smallest of things are sending you into a negative spiral. You may also have outright feelings and expressions of anger.

From this point you may move into a “just survive the day” mindset. Along with the emotional and mental symptoms up to this point, you may now start experiencing physical responses to your overwhelm and exhaustion. This could look like headaches, stomach issues, a reliance on certain medications, and so on. 

Unfortunately, all of this leads to feelings of total despair and helplessness. Like there’s no end in sight and no way out.

The takeaway here, though, no matter where you might find yourself on this burnout progression, is that we aren’t able to show up as our best teaching selves when we aren’t guarding our own well-being.

Now, at this point, maybe you are thinking that the things that bring about negative feelings for you in relation to your work, thus leading to the burnout progression, are things that are based on the actions and faults of others. 

So, you’re asking, how can we approach avoiding teacher burnout when, at times, we are feeling burnout due to things that are outside of our control?

At one point, I came across a text that suggested we change the way we think about teacher burnout. The suggestion was that we switch from “feelings of burnout” to “feelings of being stuck”. Interesting concept, no?

I mean, if you look at the research, some of the main indicators that lead to “teacher burnout” include stress from the environment we are teaching in, issues with students/parents/administration, intense workloads, and a lack of resources [among other things]. 

All of these indicators seem like things that are outside of our control, right?

But if we switch to a mindset where instead of framing it as “burnout”, we look at it as feeling “stuck” due to some of these challenges, then there’s a glimmer of hope. Because being “stuck” means that there’s an opportunity to make a change [and get “un-stuck” so to speak]. 

It sounds much easier to get “un-stuck” than “un-burnt”, right? So let’s think about how we would go about doing that. 

The fact of the matter is [and you can argue against this, but I still believe it to be true], teaching is one of those professions that goes beyond the average workday and establishes itself as a part of one’s identity. 

Think about it. If you are out and you meet someone new and they ask you about yourself, isn’t the fact that you’re a teacher one of the first things you share? 

Those of us who have a true passion for this work have teaching embedded into our core. 

That’s why, for starters, we have to learn how to honor our identity through our teaching. We can’t necessarily change the system or our circumstances; however, we CAN learn to flex the autonomy we have and that brings about a sense of power in our work. 

This comes down to honoring our Teachure Trademark and making it a reality of our classroom experience each and every day. 

But the second truth is, while being a teacher might be one component to our identity, we’ve got to learn how to nurture those other components that make up who we are, as well.

That, my friends, is how we get “un-stuck”.

 

Strategies to Avoid Teacher Burnout

So avoiding teacher burnout, or getting “un-stuck” as we’ve talked about, starts with taking care of Y-O-U. 

In addition to self-care, as we also mentioned earlier, the key to avoiding the teacher burnout progression at all is in being proactive and intentional. 

I’m going to share with you three strategies that will help you be proactive, intentional, and laser-focused on taking care of #1 -- YOU!

Strategy 01 | BMA [Burnout Mode Analysis]

If you’re new here, you should know that one of my [nerdy] favorite things to do is research proven strategies that work in other realms, like the business world, and re-work them so that they can apply for us teachers here in the world of education.

I want to introduce to you a tool I call the Burnout Mode Analysis [BMA], which is a strategy adapted from something called Failure Mode Effects and Analysis [FMEA]. 

The purpose of the original FMEA tool is to identify potential problems and the impact those problems might have. 

Now, this is something usually used in the business world, in considering the potential problems and failures that might occur in products, services, processes and so on. 

However, the idea at the root of this tool can be applied for teachers and here’s how.

Instead of looking at potential causes for failure, we are going to look at potential causes for burnout. 

The whole idea of this strategy is to be proactive as opposed to reactive. To anticipate what might go wrong before it even happens, to reflect on these potentialities, and to come up with a plan for how to avert catastrophe.

I’ve created a template to walk you through using this tool in real-time, so be sure to snag a free copy of that in The Teachure School Library.

The first thing you are going to want to do is start by identifying your key responsibilities in your role as teacher. What are you held accountable for? Whatever you are responsible for [which, I know, is likely A LOT], that’s going to be at the root of your stress because that’s what everything else will come back to.

So for example, I would say one of the biggest expectations my administrators have for me is to achieve growth for all of my students. 

[For context, again in case you are new here, I currently teach in a full-time virtual setting, 9th grade SPED.]

Other responsibilities I have might include writing compliant IEPs, teaching small group mini-lessons, and monitoring progress towards my students’ IEP goals. 

At this stage of the strategy, you want to think big picture and come up with 4-5 of what you would consider to be your *key* responsibilities.

Next, for each responsibility you’ve listed, go ahead and brainstorm potential causes of burnout related to the responsibility.

So for example, going with my responsibility to achieve growth for all of my students, some of the potential causes of burnout might be: test score pressure, lack of resources [time], ill-informed admin, and student behavior [attendance, participation, etc.]. 

Then, based on the potential causes of burnout you came up with, assign a severity ranking

The scale included on the template is a slider scale, ranging from zero [insignificant] to ten [catastrophic]. Use the slider to symbolize the level of severity you feel this key responsibility poses a risk of burnout for. 

If the responsibility consists of potential causes for burnout that you would consider as minor risk, then your slider would be closer to the insignificant [zero] end of the scale. If the responsibility consists of potential causes for burnout that you consider to be of major concern, then your slider would be closer to the catastrophic [ten] end of the scale.

To help make this piece a little more clear, I’ll compare my severity ranking for two different key responsibilities I included on my template. 

My first responsibility is the one I’ve already shared: achieve growth for all of my students. Again, some of the key potential causes of burnout would be: test score pressure, lack of resources [time], ill-informed admin, and student behavior [attendance, participation, etc.]. I would give this a severity ranking around a 7 or 8 because there are multiple factors that can contribute to burnout here. Some of these factors, including test score pressure and ill-informed admin, are ones that I know tend to easily frustrate me, based on prior experiences and my personal core beliefs.

Another responsibility I include is: teaching small group mini-lessons. Some potential causes of burnout might be: lack of resources [time] and student behavior [attendance, participation]. I would give this a severity ranking much closer to the zero end of the scale because I only consider these challenges to pose a minor risk for burnout [personally speaking]. In other words, they are challenges I feel better equipped to deal with.

This leads us to the next item of this strategy, which is what I like to think of as establishing your control. Thinking about the potential causes of burnout for each responsibility you have, which are essentially the challenges you are up against, I want you to identify the aspects that you actually have control over.

For example, going back to my responsibility of achieving growth for all my students. I know test score pressure poses a major risk of pushing me towards that path of burnout, but the truth is, I have little control over what tests my students are mandated to take by our school’s administration. 


So I need to shift and focus on the things I do have some degree of control over.

For example, I can influence student behavior through the classroom management system I establish. Even though I feel time is a resource that is lacking, I can implement time management strategies to better utilize the time I have with my students, which in turn will help maximize their opportunities for growth to occur. These are just two ways that I can establish my own control, or flex my own autonomy if you will, with this key responsibility that I have.

Once you’ve identified where and what you have control over, you can wrap up this process by identifying a plan to divert burnout from happening.  To do so, you want to hone in on what you have control over and make a solid plan for flexing that control in the classroom.

Going back to my example, if I can influence student behavior through my classroom management system, then I might make a plan for incentivizing positive behavior [like attendance and active participation] through a reward system. 

Another example, if time is a resource I feel is lacking, yet I know I have control over implementing time management strategies, I might try incorporating a time blocking strategy to influence more control over the time we do have. 

Ideally, this BMA tool is going to help you be proactive about considering the potential areas that will inflame burnout for you. We want to identify the areas of high risk and mitigate these risks by identifying where we have some control and then planning for how we will exercise that control. 

This puts the power back in your hands and gets you “un-stuck” before that feeling of stuckness even begins to creep in.

Strategy 02 | Prioritize Your Growth

In case you haven’t heard, the mantra here at The Teachure is: Keep moving forward and aiming higher. 

I am so incredibly passionate about this message that I created a graphic embedded with its very meaning.

At the center you'll see the open delta symbol. This represents being open to change. Whether we like it or not, change is pretty much a fact of life. I don't know about you, but I find change hard. Change pushes me outside of my comfort zone. 

But do you know what always happens on the other side of that comfort zone? Growth. So be open to change.

The arrow at the top represents moving forward. As we stay open to change, as we continue to grow and learn new things, a natural consequence is that we keep moving forward. 

I always think of Maya Angelou's words here - "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

We can only hope to do better [and continually DO better] when we keep moving forward.

And as we constantly strive to keep moving forward, we must constantly strive to aim higher in that process. This is what the target represents at the top of the arrow. Don't settle for mediocrity. Aim for extraordinary. Reach for excellence. 

The entire premise behind this graphic, behind this very mantra, is growth.

Growth happens to be one of my Big Five core principles, but the importance of this principle for me extends beyond just my classroom and my students. 

Growth is a core principle that I believe is essential to pursue in the process of nurturing our well-being.

When we do the things that are required for growth to happen, and thus grow in the areas that makeup our identity, we develop skills that strengthen who we are at our core. 

We must learn to prioritize our own growth, on a daily basis, if we want to feed our own well-being.

Strategy 03 | Core Teachure Elements Framework

The Growth that we talked about before is one of the four elements within the Core Teachure Elements Framework.

These four elements are what I believe to be the four most grounding elements you should focus on, on a day-to-day basis.

Attending to these four Core Teachure Elements are going to nurture your well-being, which we know is going to help you to avoid those feelings of “stuckness” [i.e. burnout].

We’ve already talked a little about the first Core Teachure Element, Growth. It’s important to consider how you are intentionally pursuing growth each and every day. 

So, ask yourself, how are you moving forward? How are you aiming higher?

This growth might be in the professional realm, so growing in respect to your skill and knowledge related to teaching. Or, this growth might be on a personal level, growing in some way that inspires you.

For example, I live in Brazil, my future hubby is Brazilian [as is, of course, his entire family], so learning Portuguese is a personal skill that I am passionate about learning. So part of my daily practice is growing in my Portuguese proficiency. 

The next Core Teachure Element is Connection. We are social beings. Some of us are quicker to admit this than others, but the truth is, we need some level of social connection to fuel our own well-being. [yes, even you introverts, like myself!]

So ask yourself, how are you intentionally making a connection with another person today?

This can look a lot of different ways. For example, maybe you are doing something kind for someone else. Maybe you plan to have an important conversation with someone close to you. Maybe you want to reach out to the new teacher down the hall who seems alone and struggling. Maybe you want to seek advice from someone older and wiser. And so on. Just, how are you intentionally making a connection with another human being?

The third Core Teachure Element is Movement. Now, I think you already know this, but moving your body every single day is super important! It gets those brain cells firing, gives you more energy, and just makes you feel better [and healthier].

So ask yourself, how will you move your body today?

Each day aim to move your body for at least 15 minutes in some way or another.

This could look like a walk outside. A workout at your gym. A yoga session. A kickboxing class. Riding your bike. I think you get the idea.

And we round out your Core Teachure Elements with Gratitude. 

Each day, identify one thing that you are grateful for. 

Practicing gratitude brings about so many positive benefits that are essential for maintaining and improving your well-being. Among the many benefits, boosting your mood and overall happiness, as well as reducing stress, are key reasons why you should make this practice a regular part of your routine.

The best way I’ve found to make sure I am attending to the four Core Teachure Elements daily is by weaving them into my daily planning system.

Each morning, as I take a few minutes to plan out my day, I make sure to note how I plan to address each of the Core Teachure Elements. 

I’ve created my own sort of planning sheet for this, but I’m super excited to share that a Teachure Planner is in the works to help make this process simple and easy for all my teacher friends out there!

*UPDATE: The Teachure Planner is finished and now available, CLICK HERE to check it out!

 


 

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