Teachers, like students, live life on a cyclical journey. As we move from unit to unit, class to class, and school year to school year we are launching, executing, and reflecting. For many, summer is the time for significant reflection and hopefully renewal. Of course some of us take on a summer job, perhaps even summer school. Still, as the year keeps rolling, the pace is different and our minds inevitably require time to recharge.
The recharge is critical. According to a Teach100 Mentor survey, 100% of participants said that they had “either experienced teacher burnout themselves or witnessed a colleague struggling with burnout.”
Supporting data is not difficult to find. Significant numbers of teachers leave the field each year. This includes nearly half of those who have been teaching for five years or less. At the same time enrollment in teacher-training programs is declining.
My experience aligns to Krista Taylor’s in the The Systemic Problem of Teacher Burnout,
“When I turned to the internet for answers, I was startled by what I found. There was certainly no dearth of advice, but all of it placed the responsibility for solving burnout on the struggling teacher herself, – ‘Teacher, heal thyself!’”
Faced with the start of summer, however, I also appreciate the reality — no one else is going to heal me. And while this in not “my first rodeo,” I acknowledge that I am still learning how to engage in the respite weeks of summer in order to prepare for what’s to come. As a companion on that journey, I’m sharing what works for me. None of these ideas are revolutionary, but instead each is a gentle, empowering reminder of things I lose track of during the rigorous school-year months and have to spend time remembering during the summer.
Step One: Plan Joy
Start with a list of things that create joyfulness. I start with the big stuff: planning a vacation with my husband and kids, setting dates for visiting family and friends, sending invites for summer parties now that I will have the time and energy to host. Then I add the little stuff: walking my dog, sipping ice tea on the front porch swing, jumping into a lake, listening to live music outside. I think about weaving joy into every day until I remember fully how to feel and experience it.
Years ago when my children were little we instituted a dinnertime question, “What was your favorite part of the day?” Inevitably that question resurfaces throughout the summer when we have more time for daily adventures, as well as, dinners together. Every time we go around the table I am reminded that there are many moments of joy waiting to be recognized.
Step Two: Feel Gratitude
I lean into a deep gratitude and thankfulness as a way to rediscover my happy. Each summer when I start a new bullet journal I include a set of pages to write down something daily that makes me feel grateful. There is always something to be thankful for and that recognition is critical especially for those of us with stressful careers.
“Gratitude is the ultimate performance-enhancing substance at work,” says UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons, author of The Little Book of Gratitude: Creating a Life of Happiness and Wellbeing by Giving Thanks. “Gratitude heals, energizes, and transforms lives in a myriad of ways consistent with the notion that virtue is both its own reward and produces other rewards.”
Step Three: Get Comfortable with Solitude
Taking time to sit with myself and my thoughts on a daily basis releases stress, allows me to surrender, and gives me a sense of confidence and inner-strength. For many people this is a basis for meditation or a clearing of the mind. For me however, it’s the foundation of creativity. When I am alone with my own thoughts I am able to turn over ideas until they start to take form. Rather than push them away, I spend some time unpacking them to see where they take me.
Dancer Twyla Tharp describes this in her book The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for Life, “An idea will sneak into your brain. Get engaged with that idea, play with it, push it around- you’ve acquired a goal to underpin this solitary activity. Your not alone anymore; your goal, your idea is your companion.” As a teacher who is constantly supporting my students as creatives, I strive to see myself as one too.
Step Four: Invite Mindfulness
When teaching fatigue takes over I am acutely aware of how often I choose the negative over the positive and I have to make an effort to do the opposite. Teaching is inherently a stressful occupation. Students bring the effects of poverty and trauma into the classroom. Administrators lay on the pressure to meet ever-changing demands.
Mindfulness is a way of calming the body and mind through breathing and movement in order to better regulate emotions. In a New York study, teachers who engaged in mindfulness training found that anxiety, depression, feelings of burnout, being rushed and perceived stress all went down. Their sleep improved, and the teachers said they felt less judgmental. Not surprisingly, the benefits filter down to an improved experience for the students as well.
Step Five: Take Care
When we feel good, we’re joyful. That may sound trite, but it’s true. As the school year culminates however, I feel so busy that I forget to take time out to take care of myself. I postpone doctor appointments, I give up on exercise, and I realy way to heavily on frozen pizza to feed my family. Early in June I sit down and make a plan for how to take care of myself. I schedule appointments, put gym classes and bike rides back on my calendar, and I indulge in a walk through the farmer’s market.
When I feel like all this self-care is over indulgent I think about the announcement made by the flight attendants instructing the adults to put their own oxygen mask on first, before helping others. This is an important metaphor for those of us who run around taking care of everything and everyone else first– we will not be any good to anyone if we a falling apart.
Step Six: Get Excited
Life should be exciting. It should give butterflies. As teachers we need to honor a growth mindset and occasionally take a class that sparks a creative fire, plan a trip to explore a new place or eat at a restaurant that serves food we’ve never tried. Too frequently I find myself living vicariously through everyone else’s moments: the sports team wins, a university acceptance letter is received, the students move on to the next exciting stage of their life. In the midst of all that, I forget to be excited about my own life.
In her book, Braving the Wilderness, researcher Brene Brown emphasizes the need especially for collective experiences that add to the excitement of life, “Not only do moments of collective emotion remind us of what is possible between people, but they also remind us of what is true about the human spirit.” When we get excited about what is possible, we bring that passion into our classrooms.
The Final Step
The final step in this plan is to maintain the above habits into the school year. Each fall I commit and each year I achieve various levers of success and failure. However. Just like my students, I continue to learn and improve which is, of course, exactly what it means to be an educator on the journey. For those of you out here with me, I’m sending you a wish for an amazing and renewing summer while enjoying the sunrise from my front porch swing.