Picture this scenario. It’s the first day of school, and Ms. Jones has spent the last two weeks decorating her classroom, making adorable name plates for each student, and coming up with get-to-know-you lesson plans. She greets each student at the door and is thrilled to start the year and get to spend time with another class of fun, excited kids. Fast forward. It’s the 100th day of school. Ms. Jones is exhausted. She doesn’t love coming to school each day. She can’t sleep at night. She finds herself daydreaming about a job – in an office, working from home, anywhere but surrounded by children all day. She wonders if she should keep teaching – can she really see herself teaching for the rest of her life? Does anyone even care what she does? She feels like all the decisions are made above her, at a campus or district level, and she doesn’t even get to give any input on what happens in her classroom. Why is she even a teacher at all? Perhaps next year she’ll find a new job.

Sound familiar?

What Ms. Jones is experiencing in this scenario is burnout. Burnout is a state of mind where you feel overwhelmed or powerless, as though you can’t accomplish what you set out to do. Burnout can drain you of your passion and enthusiasm for your job, or even for life in general.

Burnout is kind of like a fire that is slowly extinguishing. It’s not caused by a water hose, all at once and with great force. It’s more like drops of water that slowly accumulate until it is enough to extinguish the flame.

What does burnout feel like?

People experiencing burnout often experience at lack of engagement. If it seems as though one’s voice is not heard or they have limited control over decisions being made – such as in the scenario above – it’s likely that they will feel helpless and ultimately become disengaged.

Burnout can also feel like lack of enthusiasm. Often people enter the helping professions, such as teaching, because they are passionate about working with children and improving lives. They don’t just accidentally become teachers because they stumbled into it – it requires training and passion. But with burnout, that flame can start to extinguish. A teacher may realize one day that the things he used to love about children now annoy him. Or that perhaps he doesn’t even really love spending time with children at all.

Burnout can also manifest in the body. New research studies are showing that teachers experience burnout not just emotionally, but also physically. A study in Sweden examined how burnout can actually change the brain. Feelings of ineffectiveness and detachment are generally caused by chronic stress. And with chronic stress, the neural circuits in the brain literally start to re-wire. This can make it harder to handle future stressful situations. Said another way: the more stressed you are, the harder it is to manage new stress. Yikes!

Lastly, burnout can often lead people to switch careers. 50% of teachers leave the workforce in the first five years of teaching. While we can’t attribute all of that to burnout, we can certainly imagine that for some teachers, the small drips of burnout accumulated over time ultimately extinguished the flame of teaching.

So what can teachers do before the burnout becomes overwhelming?

Take a moment to ask yourself: do I see myself in the scenario or any of the symptoms described above? Be honest with yourself. It does not make you a bad teacher or a bad person to say: yes, sometimes I am not enthusiastic about teaching. Yes, sometimes I don’t enjoy children. Yes, some days I dread coming to work. Admitting that you have those feelings is important and allows you to address them.

Next, be honest with yourself about what you can change, and what you can’t. Many people who experience burnout feel that their voice is not valuable. One way to counteract this feeling is to make sure you’re balancing time spent on things you can and can’t control. For example, if you spend 100% of your energy on issues where decisions will ultimately be made by someone else, you may be more likely to feel that lack of engagement and enthusiasm. But if you spend just some of your time on that, and the rest of your time working within your circle of control, you can create a buffer against those feelings. Make a list of what you can control: the environment of your classroom, the format of your morning circle time, or the way you engage with students, for example, and try to spend the majority of your time on items from that list.

Lastly, take care of your body and mind. All the clichéd advice about self-care matters here. Do whatever you can to keep your mind and body healthy. Take a walk around the block when you get home from work. Listen to music that fuels you on your drive home. Pray, meditate, call a friend, or do whatever it is that helps you feel healthy emotionally. Often when stress piles up, these activities are the first to go. Put them in your calendar, make them non-negotiable, say no to others if they encroach upon your personal time. Do what you need to do to protect yourself against burnout.

We want every child to be in a classroom with a teacher whose flame is burning bright. It’s better for students and it’s better for teachers to mitigate the risks of burnout and keep those flames ignited.

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