How to Choose the Road to Longevity Over the Pathway to Teacher Burnout

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In the court of public opinion, a twenty-something teacher will almost always be better than a forty-something teacher. A fifty-something teacher may as well be a corpse.

What’s the reason for the predilection for young teachers? Young teachers will try harder. (TRUE) Why do parents not want their children to be subjected to an older teacher? Burnout. (NOT TRUE)

“My taxes pay your salary.”

Burnout happens in every profession. However, with its reliance on public funding, the teaching profession is more closely scrutinized than many others. This concept gives people great motivation and empowerment to make all kinds of analyses of education and educators. Thirteen years in the public school system as a student also makes everyone an expert on education.

The 30-year Golden Parachute Ride?

One massive conceptual problem is the public’s misunderstanding of the definition and purpose of tenure. According to the general public, tenure is an evil machine that allows teachers to put in two to five years of effort, then coast apathetically through 30 more with the guarantee of permanent job security. While this is completely erroneous, it is also somewhat irrelevant with regard to burnout. In reality, burnout is a bigger problem in the first five years of teaching than it is in the last five.

We want the best and the brightest teaching our youth. We want them to choose a career in education and stick with it. The problem is, many can’t. According to a 2016 report by Learning Policy Institute, schools in the United States see an 8% annual attrition rate for teachers, many are not only too young to retire, but are often in their first five years.

There is just no way for any teacher program to fully prepare young teachers for the reality of the classroom.  One of my mentors once told me that a first-year teacher is, in every case, overpaid. Every year after that, every teacher is underpaid. I was a first-year teacher when he told me that and I found it exceptionally offensive. It didn’t take very long to find out how right he was.

You work so hard as a first-year teacher!  You are starting from scratch. You are terribly inefficient. You haven’t yet discovered tricks to make tasks easier. Although you learned the theory of pedagogy in college, it is a craft that takes time and practice.  No amount of theorizing will fully prepare you to do it.  In general, you largely have no idea what you’re doing, so you compensate through effort. Hopefully, that compensation allows you to be much better than inept.

Work smarter, not harder.

In many ways, each new year of teaching becomes easier than the previous one. Tasks become streamlined. You discover what works and what doesn’t. You adapt plans more easily, even on the fly. You spend your time more wisely. The fact is, you can be a much better teacher in year 21 that you were in year one, while doing a fraction of the work.

Each time you switch to a new curriculum, program, or grade level, you bring with you many of the things you’ve learned and practiced.  Although you inevitably have more work to do in order to prepare for something new, you are better and more efficient at getting that work done.

However, there are some teachers who, at the beginning of their career, “figure out” how much time and effort it takes to do a good job. They think they need to work that hard every year. In subsequent years, they attempt too much reinvention. They don’t simply repeat that which they’ve found to work, as they don’t want to be lazy. They fix things that weren’t broken. In terms of preparation, they might as well be a first-year teacher every year. Through practice, their work inside the classroom improves. They manage the classroom better. They deliver instruction more smoothly. To the observer, everything seems to be progressing according to plan. Then they quit. They just can’t keep up with this pace over a long career, and they haven’t come to the realization that they don’t even need to!

There is an emotional investment in teaching that is draining. You are not an assembly line worker; you are dealing with real human beings every day, sharing their struggles, their concerns. If you are not empathetic enough to feel this, you may not connect well enough with your students to be successful. You may not stick around long enough to receive that magical tenure.

Assuming you do connect with your students, you do experience success, and your administration does grant you your tenure, the emotional investment is not going anywhere. In fact, as you find it easier to manage your classroom, deliver your curriculum, and keep up with your paperwork, you may notice more about your students. You will not be simply struggling to stay afloat and you may become much more in tune with what your students are experiencing. As you make a greater emotional investment to your students as human beings, if you don’t back off on the investment you make to the classroom in terms of curricular preparation, you will simply drown. This is burnout.

As you read all the blogs about teacher burnout, there is no shortage of advice on how to combat it. It’s just not all completely sound. For example, advising teachers to take the attitude that teaching is what you do, it is not who you are, just doesn’t work for most. It is not a matter of taking that attitude; it’s about having the ability to compartmentalize one’s life.

Change your priorities throughout the day.

I find myself telling my students this all the time: the thing you are doing currently should be the most important thing in your life. When students are in my class, choir should be the single-most important thing in their lives. When they leave my room and go into the cafeteria, what they eat and whom they eat it with should be the most important things in their lives. When the school day is over and they run off to baseball practice, they should consider themselves baseball players and not much else.

Unfortunately, we live in a multi-tasking culture. We seem to think we can text and drive, talk and eat, watch tv and have a conversation… we can’t. We simply move back and forth from task to task, giving each task less than our full attention. Although we may be able to manage pretty well intellectually, we can’t always manage emotionally, particularly when we are appropriately invested in our tasks. In a conversation, you must invest in the other person emotionally. If you’re trying to have an in-person conversation with one person with a concurrent text conversation with someone else, what do you do when the emotions of the two conversations don’t match? You lower your own empathetic investment. This is the only way to manage the multi-tasking.

When you’re teaching, you should be fully invested in the students before you. When they leave, you should be fully invested in the next group of students who walks in. At the end of the day, they all leave. When your work is finished, you should, too. Close your door, end your day, and be emotionally done with it. Fully invest yourself in the drive home, your family, your friends, your hobbies, whatever you have in your life outside of teaching.

If you are not good at compartmentalizing your life and switching tasks, limit the opportunities to take your work home with you. Finish grading papers before you leave the building, or get there earlier in the morning to do it then. Limit work-related dinner conversations.  Turn off the teacher in you. It may sound like a callous thing to do- to walk away from the school building and to emotionally leave it behind you. However, doing so allows you to recharge, regroup, reboot for the next day. It also allows you to give appropriate amounts of attention to the other aspects of your life. I’m not saying to care less. I’m saying to care more, but less often. This, more than anything, will prevent burnout.

We become more and more inept at leaving things behind, as our smartphones allow us to carry everything with us. It’s a great thing. People can get in touch with us anywhere. We can access important work documents from anywhere. We have access to the world’s information right in our pockets. It’s also a terrible thing. People can get in touch with us anywhere. We can access important work documents from anywhere. (So we may not take a break from working.) Our connected society is both a blessing and a curse. It’s not going anywhere, so we’re just going to have to learn to manage it better.

As our society gets more and more connected, we get worse and worse at compartmentalizing and more prone to burnout. It can affect so many aspects of our lives. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, yet we fail to reserve a space in our lives for absence.

Maybe marriages would be more successful with more space than cell phones will allow? Maybe children would be more responsible if mom couldn’t just send a text when it’s time to come home? Maybe we would do a better job at work if we didn’t access our work email from home and never fully disengage from it?

Over Feeling Syndrome

In exercise, we have a thing known as Overtraining Syndrome. As an admitted exercise addict, I’ve experienced it a couple times in my life. Without going into too many of the specifics, it’s your body’s way of preventing you from breaking it down to the point of no return. What exercise addicts tend to have a very difficult time acknowledging is the fact that the body does not make improvements during exercise. The body makes these positive adaptations during the recovery period following exercise. If you do not provide your body with appropriate rest and nourishment during a recovery period, no improvements are ever made.

Perhaps the same can be said of us emotionally. Maybe there is an Over Feeling Syndrome. If you are not willing to take a break from the mental and emotional stresses of your job, you never give your brain the opportunity to recover; you won’t grow!

Have you ever noticed how much less connected older teachers are? They grew up in a time when connection had to be accomplished through live, face-to-face interaction. When you see them at the faculty room table with their lunch, their phone is not inevitably in the hand opposite their sandwich. Have you ever asked them what they do outside of school and realized how much more they have going on in their lives than many young teachers?  Is there some connection here? Perhaps our propensity for connection is just the thing that is burning us out.

Older teachers are not generally burned out. Older teachers are still teaching because they were able to avoid just that. Shouldn’t we value that kind of life experience and discipline in our classrooms? Isn’t that the teacher you want? That is the teacher who will be able to set aside personal issues and distractions and focus on the students in front of them. While age is not a requirement of such an ability, it is, perhaps, a benefit in that regard.

Teaching is not just something you do; a teacher is what you are. Don’t deny that; embrace it. Just know, that when you leave the building, you’re no longer a teacher, it’s just what you do.

Conclusion

In conclusion, whether you’ve been teaching for 25 years or 25 minutes, ask yourself some tough questions. If you don’t like the answers, make positive changes. Positive changes for a teacher will inevitably be beneficial for the students they teach.

  • While in the classroom, can you set aside the other things in your life and invest fully in the interactions you have with your students?
  • While outside the classroom, can you set aside the interactions you have with your students and invest fully in the other interests that lead to personal fulfillment?
  • Do you always prioritize quality over quantity? Are you constantly seeking hacks that will make your job easier and more efficient?
  • Can you maintain your current work-load and remain physically and emotionally healthy? Do you need to work so hard to provide meaningful instruction?
  • If you are a great young teacher, what do you need to do to ensure the fact that you will be a great veteran teacher? (Professional development is less important than rest, reflection and outside interests.)
  • If you are a great veteran teacher, how can you share what you’ve learned to help younger teachers?
  • Do you even care to be a great teacher? (I suspect that since you took the time to read or even skim all the way to here, the answer is pretty clear!)

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Malcolm Gilbert

Malcolm Gilbert has spent the past 23 years teaching choir on Long Island. He is the Executive Vice President of the Massapequa Federation of Teachers. When meeting people for the first time, he is generally assumed to be a cop or a soldier. Like most choir teachers, Malcolm is a former competitive bodybuilder. He is an active private voice teacher, vocal adjudicator, conductor, writer, guest speaker, and a founding member of eVoco Voice Collective. His classroom management style has been described as “effective,” “unconventional” and “yelling at us with your eyes.”

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Malcolm Gilbert By Malcolm Gilbert

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