Twenty years has elapsed since I was a classroom teacher, but I remember the anticipation and excitement that accompanied the beginning of each school year. I loved preparing my classroom for the onslaught of eighth graders. Each year brought new students, challenges, possibilities, expectations, requirements, and excitement. I imagine the feelings being much the same as a runner crouching in the starting blocks waiting for the sound of the gun signaling the beginning of the race. However, by January my anticipation was gone and instead I found myself overwhelmed, grading mountains of papers, strategizing about getting content covered, and attempting to motivate underachieving students. Like many teachers, I “hit the wall,” both emotionally and physically, and the joy of teaching slipped through my fingers as I painstakingly attempted to hold onto it. As a therapist, I have heard echoes of my story in the lives of countless teachers striving to remain emotionally and professionally healthy.
Dr. Bryon Greenberg, associate professor at Virginia State University, describes classroom teachers as “often ‘on fire’ for the job, and anything on fire can burn out.” Teachers experience negative stressors daily as they manage the demands of students, parents, coworkers, and administrators. This chronic, negative stress often leads to health problems and burnout.
Burnout is faced by all helping professionals regardless of their skill or proficiency (Freudenberger 160). Burnout includes three key markers (Huebner, Gilligan, and Cobb 174):
- Exhaustion—feeling physically and/or emotionally depleted, leaving you highly vulnerable to stressors
- Depersonalization—viewing others impersonally and distancing from them, which sometimes creates a negative attitude toward students and/or teaching
- Reduced sense of personal accomplishment—feeling incompetent as a teacher or feeling that other teachers are substantially better than you
Teachers interact with others daily, but most of these interactions are not with co-workers, where you can share difficulties and receive suggestions and support to address the issues. School layouts and teaching schedules facilitate a sense of isolation, and increase the chances of teachers experiencing burnout (Bennett and LeCompte 324).
Teachers often describe their jobs as “high stress.” This description helps explain why 14 percent of teachers leave the profession after one year and 46 percent leave before teaching five years (Lambert). However, amid the decreasing resources available to meet the increasing expectations, there are strategies to help teachers attain personal health and thrive.
Teachers tend to focus almost exclusively on the needs of others and are often relatively unaware of their own physical, mental, and emotional needs. Addressing these three areas is essential for having the resilience necessary to thrive. Some worry this violates scripture passages like, “Let each of you look not only to [your] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4 esv). However, verses like this address the balance between attending to self and others rather than excluding one for the other. Attending to your needs equips you with the necessary resources to give to others.
Physically, teachers who are unaware of their needs:
- Sacrifice healthy sleep patterns to “get it done” or “get caught up”
- Make multiple trips to teacher’s lounge junk food stashes because there “isn’t time to eat lunch” or they are stressed
- Consume caffeine-infused drinks to compensate for sleep deprivation and maintain the energy level needed to “get through”
Attunement to your physical body requires taking time each day to be aware of your body and relax. Between classes, take thirty seconds and observe your body’s physical sensations. Focus on the feeling of sitting and resting your arms on the desk. Are your fingers cold? Are your feet sore? Are you carrying tension in your shoulders? After observing your body, the next step is to relax. Relaxing is a skill, so don’t expect to be good at it on the first attempt. Tensing a group of muscles and relaxing them teaches you what relaxed feels like. Stiffening your arm muscles makes your arms like uncooked spaghetti—rigid and straight. Letting go of the tension relaxes them into the condition of cooked spaghetti—loose and flexible. Practicing this repeatedly throughout the day keeps you aware of your body and how you can release its tension.
Taking care of your body is also important. Mayo Clinic recommends obtaining seven to nine hours of sleep per night (Morgenthaler). Sleep deprivation results in lost productivity, increased absenteeism, and increased susceptibility to physical illness. In short, you don’t have time not to get enough sleep! Equally important, the Center for Disease Control recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise weekly in addition to muscle strengthening exercises two times weekly. Exercise burns off stress, relaxes the body, strengthens the heart and lungs, and modulates appetite. Sleeping, exercising, and eating healthy by decreasing your caffeine and sugar consumption will all help you feel better physically. Caffeine takes seven hours to leave your body, so drinking coffee in the morning may be wiser than drinking it while grading papers at night. Instead of radically changing eating patterns, try watching portion size. Regulating serving sizes facilitates health without eliminating foods you enjoy. Taking care of your body will enhance your ability to be your best within the classroom.
Attending to mental needs is a more abstract concept, but pays dividends for you personally and affects your teaching positively. Research shows two basic ways of viewing yourself and the world around you—a fixed mindset and a growth mindset—and the view you have of yourself “profoundly affects the way you lead your life” (Dweck 6).
Fixed mindset individuals believe they are born with certain intelligence, personality, and moral characteristics, and then you go about repeatedly proving to yourself and others what you possess. Each task proves whether you have “what it takes” within you. “Your traits are a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens” (Dweck 7). Thus, each class you teach either proves or disproves teaching competency.
A growth mindset, in contrast, sees the “hand you are dealt” as the starting point for development. Your basic qualities are “things you cultivate through your efforts,” so a person’s true potential is only realized through years of “passion, toil, and training” (Dweck 7). Proving repeatedly you can do something wastes time you could spend learning something new. Hiding deficiencies robs you of opportunities to learn and overcome them. Seeking safe ventures that ensure success robs you of experiences that stretch you.
Within the fixed mindset, students who leave class with little understanding of the day’s content are evidence of your failure as a teacher. Within the growth mindset, this same scenario shows where you can grow. Mindsets are learned (and can be relearned throughout the life cycle). Asking yourself, “What learning opportunities did I have today?” is one way to move toward a growth mindset. This pays off in your life and in your students’ lives because this mindset is “caught.” Seeing yourself as a learner increases the likelihood your students will also see themselves as learners.
Attending to emotional needs seems like a daunting task given that most of us believe emotions “happen to us.” In truth, what we think and our body’s physical state directly affect what we feel emotionally. Emotions last between thirty seconds and two minutes, unless something “reignites them” (Linehan 336). The irritation felt when a student is disruptive lasts for a minute or so unless you keep looking at the student thinking, “I can’t believe he/she just did that!” Your thoughts and behavior pour gasoline on the fire of irritation and reignite it. So, how is the art of being an emotional “fire extinguisher” rather than emotional “gasoline” mastered?
Two of the key components include staying in the present moment without judgment. Jesus commands, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matt. 6:34). Psychologically, this skill is mindfulness—being fully aware of the present moment without pulling the past or future into the present moment. God gives only what is needed for the present moment. Worrying about the future takes the “manna” God gives for the present moment and attempts to use it for potential future moments, where it inevitably proves insufficient or ineffective. This means we attempt to know what only God knows—the future—and try to handle things ourselves without trusting God to provide. Mindfulness moves you back to the gift of this moment—the things you can see, hear, feel, touch, and taste right now. Other things will pop into your mind, but you simply let them go and refocus yourself on the present moment. Learning mindfulness takes practice, but will release stress from your life and allow you to enjoy God’s gift of this moment fully.
Emotional self-care also involves letting go of judgment. Jesus commands, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt. 7:1). God, the perfect judge, asks us to stop judging ourselves and others. Stupid, fat, ridiculous, failure, are judgment words that create intense emotional reactions. Teaching a difficult class and deciding “I’m a failure” is self-judgment, while “they just don’t care about learning” is a judgment of others (you don’t know why they behaved as they did). The facts are:
- Class did not go the way you expected.
- The students did not achieve the mastery you wanted.
Sticking to the facts creates a less emotional reaction. The energy you save can be expended on problem-solving. When you judge, either you are the problem or the problem is outside your control. Suspending judgment creates a set of facts you can explore to create multiple solutions.
Physical, mental, and emotional self-care arms you against burnout and enhances your capacity to effectively teach. Skills are not learned in isolation so employ good teaching strategies:
- Utilize resources to build your knowledge base. (Two excellent books are Mindset by Carol Dweck and Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson.)
- Participate in guided practice with someone who gently corrects. Mentors and counselors can be excellent encouragers.
- Reinforce newly acquired skills repeatedly over the course of your lifetime.
- Bennett, Kathleen P. and Margaret D. LeCompte. The Way Schools Work: A Sociological Analysis of Education. New York: Longman/Addison Wesley, 1990.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 3 March 2014. “Physical Activity for Everyone: Guidelines: Adult.” Web. Accessed 30 November 2014. <cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/adults.html>.
- Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Baltimore Books, 2006.
- Freudenberger, Herbert. “Staff burnout.” Journal of Social Issues, 30 (1974): 159–65.
- Huebner, E. Scott, Tammy Dew Gilligan, and Harriet Cobb. “Best Practices in Preventing and Managing Stress and Burnout.” Best Practices in School Psychology IV. Ed. A. Thomas and J. Grimes. Bethesda, MD: NASP Publications, 2002.
- Lambert, L. “Half of Teachers Quit in Five Years.” Washington Post. 9 May 2006. Web. Accessed 30 November 2014. <washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/08/AR2006050801344.html>
- Linehan, Marsha M. DBT Skills Training Manual. New York: The Gilford Press, 2014.
- Morgenthaler, Timothy. “How Many Hours of Sleep Are Enough?” Web. Accessed 30 November 2014. <www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/adult-health/expert-answers/how-many-hours-of-sleep-are-enough/faq-20057898>.