It’s hard to assess your current reality and how it came to be when you’re just trying to keep your head above water. As teachers, we often don’t allow ourselves the time to reflect on where we started, where we are, how we got here, and where we want to be.
Teaching creates a feeling of blurriness with thousands of decisions, details, and responsibilities every day that cloud our minds. And that blurriness keeps us from seeing our situation—and our burnout—clearly.
When you Google “burnout,” you are met with a range of symptoms:
You may recognize those signs from the introduction, and as you reread them, you’ve probably already identified with most of them. Then you may stop because although you recognize the signs and symptoms, you think you don’t have time to move forward.
With all we have to do as a teacher every day, we sometimes slip into survival mode. And “surviving” the day has become a common statement in our classrooms and schools.
When you’re merely surviving, you don’t have the mindset or energy to think about what you might be doing instead. You don’t have the time or energy to think about being proactive. Proactivity takes time, thought, and planning, and our brains are hardwired to do the safest and most conservative thing when faced with a hardship or a challenging decision.
That means we often take the easier path when given a choice between two options.
For instance, when we’re at a crossroads between A) complaining about a hardship and settling for things the way they are, or B) actively doing something different to change our situation, our brains typically tell us to complain and continue business as usual because it burns fewer calories (a survival mechanism from our ancestors).
When you’re burned-out and stuck, those sorts of decisions are the ones that keep you stuck as the days, weeks, months, and years roll on. We find ourselves on the perpetual “burnout roller coaster,” full of highs and lows, twists and turns, and all the anxiety and fear that come with sitting in that cart as the ride begins.
In Hacking Teacher Burnout, veteran classroom teacher Amber Harper shares an eight-step process that shines a light on burnout and helps teachers become BURNED-IN: fulfilled, happy, efficient, and effective in the classroom and in life.
When you say, “I’m burned-out” and do nothing about it, you adopt the belief that the following statements are true and abundant:
The problem with these statements is that they breed helplessness and victimization. They take away your power and make you feel like you have no voice or choice in what your future holds or no responsibility for your life—in or out of the classroom.
But you’re not choosing the victim’s path or mentality now, or ever again. No, you’re going to be proactive and focus on taking back your power. You’re ready to take responsibility, action, and initiative, so let’s dive into some hacks to get you started on your journey out of burnout.
It’s time to change the conversation surrounding burnout. To do this, you must give your burnout the respect, time, and reflection it deserves so you can figure out how you got to where you are in the first place. Let’s look at burnout as a desire for growth and change, and act on those desires before it’s too late. You can start by asking the following questions:
After you address the what and why that brought you to this place, you can start believing that there is a reason you’re reading this book. You know where you are … but do you know where you want to go? Trust the process as you move from here to there, and know that you’re doing the right thing for yourself.
It all starts with beginning where you are, and that has everything to do with reflecting and reassessing your past—and nothing to do with regret. You’re seeking to understand your current reality. Period.
By assessing why you are where you are, you will get to the how of moving forward on your journey out of burnout.
Deciding to admit that you’re burned-out and then doing something about it takes work. You must take intentional action from here on out to see growth out of your particular type of burnout. Are you ready to get to work? Follow these four steps, and you’ll be on your way to leaving the burnout behind.
Step 1: Identify your burnout type and stage of burnout.
If you skipped the part of the Introduction where I gave you a condensed version of the three different Burnout Types and Stages of Burnout, go there now to identify what type you’re dealing with and how burned-out you are.
Teachers experience three types of burnout: Burned and Over It, Burned and Unbalanced, or Burned and Bored. You can encounter them at any point in your career, perhaps more than once, and not in any particular order. Imagine the three types as different reasons that you would visit a doctor. They’re all reasons for concern, but one is a broken foot, one is a high fever and cough, and the other is debilitating back pain—all serious, yet all needing a different treatment.
Now, we need to identify your stage of burnout. It provides a benchmark to continually check-in on your progress as you make your way through the Hacks in this book and take action to go from burned-out to BURNED-IN. Knowing that right now you’re at Stage 1 or 2, for example, is helpful, because as you move through the hacks, you’ll be able to assess what you’re thinking, feeling, and doing, and how much you’ve grown from where you started.
It’s impossible to know how far you have to go unless you know where you’re starting.
Step 2: Identify your burnout triggers.
It’s time for you to travel back in time. Yes, I know. People may have told you to leave the past in the past, and that’s good advice. However, burnout is called burnout for a reason. It isn’t a bolt of lightning from a blue sky or even from a storm cloud. That’s too predictable and immediate.
Burnout usually stems from a slow burn, which creeps up on you as you move through your daily life. It’s barely noticeable. You shove it to the side—until it begins to consume everything about teaching that you once loved. Burnout is tricky, and for this reason, often hard to beat. But you can do it.
When I reflect on my struggle with teacher burnout (I managed to suffer from all three types of burnout at different points in my career), I notice many triggers that contributed to my downward spiral into burnout. While teaching, I ignored those signs, symptoms, blaring issues, sirens, and even an apocalypse that was happening inside of me. The zombies on the inside finally caused me to have emotional breakdowns, and I even ignored those. Can you believe it? That was no way to live. I mean, ignorance is bliss, but I was far from blissful. I was depressed, moody, isolated, and aggressive. For the sake of what? Was I afraid of appearing weak?
At that point, I showed my weakness in a big way by breaking down publicly in front of my coworkers multiple times, just ten minutes before working with students. I even reenacted this scenario twice.
The strange thing was, I loved teaching while all this was happening. Cue another left hook from burnout. I often asked myself these questions and told myself these lies:
I said all these things instead of paying attention to patterns, triggers, and changes happening around me and leading me down this burnout path.
Here’s what I should have asked myself:
Now it’s your turn.
Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Think about your patterns, triggers, and changes. Your mind may summon to the surface thoughts you continually revisit and thoughts you’ve kept pushed down for a while. Either way, those thoughts are asking for your attention. Maybe they’re demanding it. If you feel moved to get these thoughts into the open air, take time to jot them down or say them out loud. We’ll come back to this.
Knowing your burnout type, stage, and the events leading up to them are essential components to tackling burnout, because knowing the what, where, and how of your burnout will allow you to have more activated conversations about it.
Step 3: Identify your people.
An important part of identifying the people you want to serve is to realize that they are your thermometer. When you decide on your career, you’re going to ask yourself, “Is this thought, action, or conversation moving the needle forward for those I serve? Is it helping me serve them? Or is it taking my energy away from serving them?”
I simply define your people (when it comes to your professional life) as those who you want to impact the most as an educator. Although it’s crucial to build relationships in some way with everyone you work with, your people are the ones you’re doing this work for and who you desire to serve the most. They give you purpose and are the why behind all your hard work.
Your people could be your students, their families, your administrator(s), or colleagues. You also could include yourself in this list, especially if you realize you’ve been neglecting your own life and need to prioritize your time.
Focusing your efforts on your people will help you create a healthier, more positive mindset around what you can and cannot control as you move through your burnout.
For you to move out of burnout, you must do things you’ve never done before, such as naming your burnout and identifying your burnout stage. These steps may seem silly and unconventional, but they are critical when it comes to accepting your burnout, respecting it by identifying your triggers, and then allowing yourself to think about your purpose and who your people are.
Showing vulnerability, admitting you’re struggling, and seeking support aren’t signs of weakness. On the contrary, it takes a lot of courage to look at your current reality and realize that you need to change it.