It’s fourth quarter and standardized testing season. All around my building, I see students who are eager for summer and even more impatient for a spring break that is still two weeks away. In our small district, our students wear themselves thin with school, sports, and clubs. They are all involved in seemingly everything, and at this point in the year, they are perpetually exhausted. I recognize their look because I’m wearing it, too. You see, the teachers in small districts are just as overinvolved as their students.
So last Friday, I was preparing for my itty bitty prep period at the end of the day — the only prep I get all day on A days — when I checked my e-mail and saw that a student whom I’ve never had the pleasure of teaching in one of my classes was wondering if I could meet and give her some feedback on her FFA speech. It was due Saturday, she’d explained, and she realized that it was kind of last minute, but she’d appreciate my help. I was tired and I wondered how much good feedback I had in me at that point in a difficult week.
But at 2:35, she bounced over to my room, energetic and ready to write, so I made a cup of coffee, and we began the work of talking, evaluating, reworking, revising, and learning. Before I knew it, the clock read 3:45. The final bell had rung at 3:10, and we had barely noticed as we dissected her work and strategized her presence. She walked out grateful for my help and confident in her work, and I left school for the weekend re-energized and fulfilled once more as a writing teacher.
As I got into my car, I wondered how I could have felt so drained just a few hours before because it felt like such a distant memory. I started thinking about all the other times I’d felt that same burst of energy in my career, and I realized that the secret to curing teacher burnout is actually more teaching.
Let be clear about this: the secret is not doing more work because I am here to say loud and clear that so much of my job is not teaching at all, and those are not the reasons I became a teacher in the first place; however, they are necessary aspects of this important profession that I tolerate to do the work I love to do. So when I am feeling overwhelmed with all the “extra stuff,” I take a break and think about the parts of teaching that fuel me.
Trying something new
So often, I hear frustration from teachers about how often things in education change but somehow stay the same, and I think it’s because the heart of teaching has always been to help kids grow into the people they aspire to be. I certainly hope that never changes. But finding new and better ways of doing that is not only necessary, it’s also exciting and energizing. What burns me out more than anything is doing the same thing over and over again, so if you’re feeling sick and tired of the old routine, you probably are, and trying something challenging and unknown might help nurture some excitement in both you and your students.
Do things that provide both immediate and delayed reward
Coaching students in writing one-on-one is my absolute favorite part of teaching. I can see how much they learn in a fairly short period of time. Our discussion helps me see their individual needs, and I can address those on the spot. Seeing that reward right away is really important, but so is long-term impact. I am serving on our Future Ready committee right now, and it has challenged me in innumerable ways. It’s often difficult to see how the work we’re doing impacts my community, school, and students, but when something comes full circle, it’s so worth the wait and (sometimes) frustration.
Give your energy to the right places
When I was a first year teacher, my mentor Kristi shared “The Marigold Effect” with me. If you’ve never read it before, it’s a valuable message for new and veteran teachers alike. As a gardener, I know the value of companion planting: certain plants just do better near one another. But I also know that sometimes even the strongest plants will die if the soil or plants around it aren’t compatible with the seedling’s needs. Kristi gave me a bag of marigold seeds and told me that she promised to always be a marigold for me rather than a walnut tree, and she was. She helped me grow so much in that first year, and I feel so fortunate to know so many marigold teachers who use their energy positively, both from my first district and my current school, who have helped to mentor and encourage me.
I know it seems strange to say that giving more is the cure for feeling like you have nothing left to give, but I think it’s true both in life and in teaching. Give to your students, give to new experiences, give to positivity, and I think you’ll find you’re actually giving back to yourself, too.