This week was rough. I was tired, my students were emotional and upset, some of my lessons didn’t go the way I planned, I had a lot of physical prep to do for a music program (moving 12 xylophones, a stereo cart, a PA system, baskets of finger cymbals and mallets, and a guitar all from the portables to the main building by hand), and it was just that kind of week. Unfortunately, for teachers this can happen a lot, and not because we’re bad teachers, but because of the nature of our job – we take in our students and promise to work with them no matter where they are mentally that day. Ready to break all the pencils in the basket? Come on in. Didn’t eat dinner the night before or breakfast today? I might have a granola bar for you – let’s eat up and get started. Unable to process your anger and cool off because you’re in your 4th foster home? You can go out to recess to get a break even after you screamed at me for asking you to wait to use the bathroom. Exhausted because you didn’t sleep a wink after listening to your parents argue all night? I’ll let you close your eyes while we watch a music video but then it’s time to get up and sing.
I’m nearing the end of my third year teaching, and it has been both the longest three years and the shortest three years all at the same time. Before I started my teaching job, I heard from so many people that teaching is the greatest thing you can do – you’ll feel so happy and fulfilled and want for nothing as long as you have those smiling faces to greet you every day. I was alarmed, though, when it was October of my first year and I was exhausted and ready for a break – I was tired before I even got out of bed and had so much anxiety about doing well at school. When I started a new rotation of lessons I would have butterflies every morning – what if these lessons failed? What if the kids saw right through it and refused to do anything? What if I was a bad teacher? It was nothing like this perfect dream that others described – and my clientele was so challenging! I teach at lower income schools, one of which is a Title I school, and I had students who would cry and scream in class.
I thought it was all my fault.
I was so worried about what would walk through my door that day and not know what to do. Sure, I could call the office for help, but what had I done wrong that meant one of my students shoved everything off my desk, crawled under a table, and yelled curse words at the class? I was hopelessly unprepared for this level of student need.
I learned after some time that, of course, wasn’t being triggered by me – in most situations, the simple direction or activity had merely been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The students were unstable because of situations at home, instability in their own lives, emotional or intellectual gaps that kept them from functioning on the level of most of their classmates.
But how do you continue to come to work every day? Because let’s be realistic, your students aren’t the only thing you deal with – you have lesson plans, assessments & grading, lesson prep, program prep & paperwork, meetings and professional development, extension activities and remedial work, student support plans, parent communication, newsletters, extracurricular activities, behavior tracking…and that’s only the half of it. Teacher burnout is a real and terrible thing, and it’s something we have to fight every day when we open our eyes and decide to walk in through that door again and greet that kid that you secretly pray would be sick just a few more days out of the year to give you and his classmates some peace.
I don’t pretend to be a psychologist or to have all the answers, but the following things have preserved my sanity in times of need, and I seriously hope that these can help you survive your first few years – or, even remind seasoned teachers who are feeling the burn – and not become one of the statistics about teachers who burn out.
1. Bite off only what you can chew.
Don’t be afraid to say ‘no.’ As hard as it is, you have to say it, even to your administrator or colleagues. You do no one any favors by saying yes to everything and overworking yourself, or worse; forgetting or accidentally neglecting your duties that you signed up for. (Then, your reputation is damaged and people won’t want your help when you do have the time.) If you are open and honest with the person who asked you to help with the school carnival planning or the site council members who asked you to head an after school club, then they should totally understand why and support you. If they aren’t supportive and act annoyed, then you probably shouldn’t surround yourself with people like that and, therefore, you shouldn’t care how put off they are at the idea of taking care of yourself. Come up with your phrase ahead of time:
“Thanks for thinking of me! Let me think on it and I’ll let you know if I’m interested.”
“I really appreciate you thinking of me, but I think I’ll have to pass. Please ask me next time, though!”
“Thanks for asking – I think I’m going to have to decline, I’m trying to not overload myself this year. Please let me know if I can help in a small way!”
It’s important to thank the person for the offer – they didn’t have to come to you or take the time to ask, so be sure to validate their request and show that you are grateful that they thought you would be helpful.
2. Take mental health days.
You get so many extra days per year as per your contract – USE THEM WHEN YOU NEED THEM. Whether you are stockpiling for maternity/paternity leave or not, when you are just at the end of your rope and feel like you desperately need a break, TAKE A BREAK. I see so many colleagues say that they just have to be here or that maybe they can fake their way through the day, but are you really helping your kids if you have Reading Rainbow on for half the day and do barely anything for the rest? Sub plans are no fun, but if it means that you can sleep in and binge watch Netflix so you mind can unwind for a day, then DO IT! You have to make the call on which days you actually have to be there and which days you can hand off lessons to a sub, but I guarantee that you will be grateful for that occasional mental health day to reset. You WON’T be grateful when you’re sick from stress and crying over your pile of grading papers after school.
3. Listen to your body.
This is easier for some than others – for me, I eat pretty well so I can tell the difference between the days I put good things into my body versus days I didn’t and try to respond accordingly. What you need to do is take a few moments every day and stop – how does your body feel in this moment? What hurts? What feels heavy or slow? Why? We all have evenings when we deserve that extra glass of wine or a cheat meal at the fast food restaurant, but your body can start to take a hit if that becomes every night. When your body is busy trying to fix itself because of what you put into it, it can’t take the time it needs to keep you from catching the flu from that overly-friendly 1st grader who insisted on crawling in your lap. If your body is telling you something is wrong, then try to fix it – don’t keep saying, “I’ll eat better next week”, or “I’ll take a nap tomorrow” – fix things now, even if that means grabbing a banana from the teacher’s lounge rather than your sixth cup of coffee. Close your eyes for 20 minutes after school or while you’re waiting for the printer to finish printing your lessons at home. Make time for your body – no one else can do that for you.
4. Do something non-school related in your downtime.
Especially for music teachers – who spend so much time teaching ta & ta-di every day – you need to have a hobby that is adult and all your own. Sing in your church choir, write a blog about gardening, actually garden (yes, a flower box counts!), go bike riding, walk your dog around your local botanic gardens, volunteer at the Humane Society, knit…it goes on. As much time as you feel you won’t have when you’re learning how to write lessons and deal with parents, you must make time for yourself. You are not your job – your only successes and happiness should not exist solely at school. Your principal did not hire a robot to function and smile only at your desk – you are a human with likes and dislikes; now get out there and USE THEM!
5. Have someone – or something – you can rant to.
You are going to rant. There are going to be angry days. Do not turn to Facebook to rant – this can damage your credibility with your colleagues or even any parents you happen to be friends with on Facebook (I don’t recommend this anyways) – or any parents or administrators your friends happen to be friends with. Don’t put that negativity out there that you’re forced to relive with every TimeHop post. Find someone that doesn’t mind you sharing the tenth story of Bobby rolling his eyes, and open up to them. This might come in the form of a TGIF group of teacher friends – or maybe it’s your cat (kind of wonderful, actually, because they can’t talk back, and they’ll generally snuggle up to you despite your mood). Or, start two diaries – one of happy experiences, one of negative. Document what happened and move on. Heck, even write down a terrible experience and burn it. We all know that fire fixes things…
Anyway, the point is to not carry around the negative experiences – get them off your chest in a productive and simple way, and not in a way that can land you in trouble.
6. Remember that you are still learning, too.
Are you dead? Then you’re still learning. It’s not always in the big, obvious ways that your students learn – but you’re still learning, whether if it’s that you should change the order of your musical concepts for 4th grade or ask John if needs to use the bathroom at the beginning of the period rather than dealing with his constant requests throughout class. You’re also learning new skills to keep your students’ attention, more efficient ways of responding to parent contact, how much prep you actually need for a particular lesson, which type of activities resonate with certain groups of students, and so on. That horrific lesson when all of your transitions between activities failed and you had to stop and re-teach expectations six times? Learn from it, and learn to laugh at your own mistakes. There are times when I look at my kids, sigh, and smile, saying, “Well, this didn’t go as things planned. Let’s take a break and play a game and I’ll think of a new way to present this Friday.” It’s okay!
Even 20 year-plus veterans say that every year has its own set of challenges and difficulties and there will always be days or weeks that don’t go well. Like we tell our students to think positively and approach new concepts with the concept of growth mindset, you have to do the same for yourself. Rather than, “This lesson sucked, I must be a terrible teacher”, reflect on what really stuck out as something you need to work on. What aspect are you not really comfortable with yet? Speak with your mentor or trusted colleague, ask your principal for ideas, or even for him or her to come observe your teaching for ideas (their job is to help you be successful, and they’ll be happy that you’re reaching out for assistance when you know you need it!), or see if there are workshops or classes happening in the area to help generate new approaches and methods. Grow your toolbox.
And lastly, remember that you are loved. If you truly care for your students and try your best for them, it will show, and they will appreciate it. You are making a difference, even on your worst days – those crumpled notes of you as a smiling stick figure, the Valentine that says they love you, the complimentary parent email, the extra hug before they leave for the day all prove that and weigh so much more than Monday’s disorganized lesson presentation and that time you forgot about the fire drill. You are loved, you can do this, and it will be summer break before you know it.