Sunday, August 17, 2014

Six Signs of—and Solutions for—Teacher Burnout

As we begin a new school year, I realize that myriad tasks loom large as I make the move from working with elementary to highschool students. I've revisited some thoughts to help me stay focused on what matters most from the start of the year--being proactive rather than reactive...I doubt I'm alone with demands tugging at me from all sides, so I'd like to share these thoughts on dealing with burnout. Before it happens.  I'd love to know how you handle the many pressures of teaching--please comment below.

(this article is cross-posted from EdWeek: http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/05/20/ctq-pillars-signs-of-solutions-for-burnout.html)


A few weeks ago, I was sitting at home on a gorgeous Carolina blue day. It was spring break—and I was in burnout recovery mode.
I felt it consciously, deeply. This year has been oh-so-tough, for myriad reasons.
I also found myself wondering: Is burnout contagious in schools? Because it certainly seems pervasive. As we head into summer, I know my colleagues are feeling the strain of testing and staying motivated for themselves and their students. I'm far, far from being alone.
Let's take a closer look at this phenomenon that every teacher suffers—and rethink how we approach burnout.

What Is Burnout?

Teaching is one of the most visceral jobs I've ever experienced. It's emotionally, physically, and mentally consuming. I often find myself worried about how to reach every student, or wracked with guilt because I've let my work/life balance shift in favor of work.
I know what needs to be done to be successful, but there is simply too much to do. Still, I keep clawing my way back. Because in teaching, you can never do enough.
But that kind of constant, intracranial hammering is not sustainable. In order to address it, we have to define what burnout looks like. Then we can attack it.
Recognize these signs?
  • Exhaustion. This is a fatigue so deep that there's no way to "turn it off," no matter how badly you want to. It's deep in your bones. The kind of tired where you just want to ooze into your bed and disconnect from life.
  • Extreme graveness. Realizing you go hours without smiling or laughing, or days without a belly laugh.
  • Anxiety. The constant, nagging feeling that you can and should do more, while simultaneously realizing you need to unplug and spend more time with your family. But there are so many things to do.
  • Being overwhelmed. Questioning how they can possibly add one more task, expectation, or mandate to your plate. Compromising your values of excellence just so you can check-off 15 more boxes to stay in compliance. All the while knowing it still won't be enough.
  • Seeking. Losing your creativity, imagination, patience, and enthusiasm for daily challenges. Craving reflection time and productive collaboration rather than group complaining.
  • Isolation. Wanting to head for the deepest, darkest cave where no one will see your vulnerability. A place where your limits are unseen and unquestioned and all is quiet.

Emerging Stronger

Burnout has visited me in full force twice this year. It's brought me to the edge of my sanity, wrenched emotions out of me when I felt I could give no more, and sapped energy from the depths of my bones.
But guess what: I'm all right. I'm still here. I'm learning as I go—and learning as I let go. And I'm actually thankful for its visits.
Here are a few lessons I've learned from dealing with burnout in the past few months.
1. Sfumato. One of Leonardo da Vinci's seven essential elements of genius is known as Sfumato, Italian for "smoked," or "going up in smoke." This principle is the ability to embrace uncertainty, the unknown, and the unknowable. In my interpretation, it's also an ability to "let go" of everything that's left undone when you know you've done your best. Embrace Sfumato.
2. Balance. In yoga, those lithe bodies in stretching poses are beautiful to behold—yet the beauty stems from a tension of opposites. In yoga, muscles compromise to support others, meaning that balance is not a matter of symmetry as much as support. That's a lesson we can extend from our internal selves in order to seek out a supportive community.
3. Self. I'm human. It's not selfish to address my own needs or say "no" once in a while. My job, as much as I love it and thrive upon its challenges, is not everything I am. I am more than my job. I need my creative outlets—drawing, nature, reading, writing, and playing—in order to be whole and wholly present for others.
4. Relationships. Friends, family, and faith are critical. Time away from work is best for me to recharge—without distractions of work staring at me from home. Small adventures with my family and friends, exploring new ideas and places, writing notes, and sharing acts of gratitude are things that I need regularly. I'm also learning that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
5. Gratitude. Being present and intentional with your days, even for just a few breaths at a time, can give you a survivor's lens for managing the problems at your doorstep. For me, it's about having gratitude for the people in my life. Embracing the questions that underlie my curiosity. Remembering the passions that have driven me to and throughout my job. Holding a clearer vision of what it takes to make and keep me well.
6. Healing. Here's my biggest takeaway. When I lift weights, my muscles undergo tiny tears, with temporary pain—but the subsequent healing leads to stronger muscles. And the next time, I can handle a little bit more.
With these strategies, I've learned to view the challenges of burnout through a new lens and rethink the "gifts" it's brought me.
Burnout has allowed me to emerge in a stronger form—to be more determined and focused on what's most important to me in my relationships and my work. Now I see burnout as a reminder to address the things that my soul needs. And, although I'm far from perfect, I can now teach and lead others through these same feelings from a place of recognition and understanding.
For all of that, dear burnout, I am grateful.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Little More #Edugood in the Name of PRAESPERO

Last week I posted about the first recipient of the inaugural new mini-grant program called PRAESPERO. Today I'm writing about another recipient of the mini-grant, challenges she faced, and her lessons learned.

Glad you're here for the journey of this little girl who wanted to "help children in need" by creating school-related goodie bags. Initially she wanted to take them to the hospital, but our local hospital doesn't have many kids--they typically travel to another one about 30 miles away. Because of logistics, she decided to create the bags for students who are without homes, for whatever reason, and we enlisted the Salvation Army to help.

Unbelieving after her phone interview, she was an excited
bundle of nerves!

With her partner, we celebrated the day she received her grant.

Being silly and serious--the girls hold up the
academic goodie bags they created for kids in need.

Shy, but ultimately proud of her work, she displays
her first bag of goodies.

Spending their early mornings planning and putting it all
together. 
Our local Salvation Army director gratefully received the
goodie bags and answered questions about how the gifts would
be used and distributed. Ms. Wrenn also taught the girls about
all the different resources the Salvation Army provides for those
in need in the area.
Unbeknownst to them, local Salvation Army rep,
Jane Wrenn, had also planned to bring them a
token of thanks for their work. So, yes, the girls
received their own little goodie bags.
Karmic cycle indeed. 
When asked if she would do this again, our recipient said absolutely. She wants to continue to "help kids who are in need", even if it's a little at a time. Her biggest lesson was that planning how to use a limited money is "so hard". It took a lot of time to complete her application because she struggled most with determining how best to use the money. She needed adult help for this part.

The biggest positives she gained? She feels like she "knows what she's doing more" now. So, there's a much-needed boost of self-confidence that we weren't anticipating from this normally very very hesitant girl. She was also thrilled to have the chance (via money) to help other kids who needed it. (Keep in mind that our school is high-poverty (95%), so she and her friends are no stranger to what it feels like to need something.) The third aspect was how she collaborated with others. She invited friends to help--and although many said they would, only a couple kept their word. She had also secured donations from the local dentist to include in the practical goodie bags. 

Time and budgeting--such great lessons to learn, and ones that we are always challenged with, right, adults? Self-confidence, opportunity, and collaboration to solve a community problem she had determined herself? Priceless. Worth every penny of the mini-grant. And then some. 

It was a blessing to be involved with Praespero this year, and we're anxious to watch it evolve and grow in new ways this coming school year. Mini-grants will be available this fall, specifically for younger students, and the primary stipulation is that they must use their resources to help someone else. Pretty broad, but then, we want them to "Believe Big".