The cure for teacher burnout is actually doing more.

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.

give flickr

photo from flickr

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.

marigold pixabay

photo from pixabay

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.

Why we have to stop making assumptions about students #IMMOOC

Today I heard that a teacher at my former high school was surprised to find out that I had become an educator “based on who I was in high school.” Now, I can’t begin to imagine what this person may have meant by that, but it’s hard to think it was said in a positive context. It took me back to my senior year in high school when I had my heart set on going to the University of Iowa and my guidance counselor told me he didn’t think I would fit well at Iowa. He suggested a smaller school. And then the next year, he sent his own child off to become a Hawkeye. I wondered what that meant: that Iowa was a good fit for his child, but not for me.

Disclaimer: I was not a straight A student in high school. Though I took advanced courses, played varsity sports, and had parents who were strict and supportive, I spent my time on the weekends with a wide variety of people, sometimes making good, responsible choices, but oftentimes not.  I did not work extra hard for a grade because I didn’t see much personal utility in the things I was learning. College would teach me what I needed, I’d assumed, and all would be well.

Oddly enough, I planned to be a teacher when I went to college. To put it nicely, I was an “uninspired” student in high school. (To put it honestly, I was bored stiff). After winning a teacher’s union scholarship my senior year of high school, I headed off to college hoping to change young lives in a way my high school experience hadn’t changed mine. When I got to college, I took one education class and decided it wasn’t for me. I told my college adviser: “I’ll be burnt out in five years. I need to do something that changes periodically.”  Becoming an English major instead, I ended up spending my time reading and writing. It was a constant challenge to read, think, and write in new ways and from new perspectives, so I finally felt fulfilled in my own education.

I didn’t realize that I needed to be a teacher until I was in my first post-college job. I worked in advertising sales, and despite my not quite cum laude college GPA, somehow I excelled right away. After training new hires in the field, I was asked by my boss’s boss to teach a training session at our headquarters. They didn’t give me any tips or guidelines; I was free to teach the session however I saw fit. I realized then that good teaching happens that way — when passion meets freedom.

Maybe I found my way back to education, or maybe I found it for the first time when I was living it in that first job, but either way, I am glad to be an educator now. George Couros says that “the biggest barrier to education is our own way of thinking” and “the biggest game-changers in education are, and always will be, the educators who embrace the innovator’s mindset.” Looking back, there are obviously a lot of reasons that I didn’t become a teacher until my mid-20s, but I have to wonder if maybe those influencers in my life and their mindsets had something to do with it.

As a teacher now, I am so thankful to have found the innovator’s mindset, and I hope that when my students are living their passions, they remember me as someone who was a game-changer for them rather than a barrier-builder.

Innovating Together: My First Lesson in Co-Teaching #IMMOOC

“My mother always said, ‘If you’re not striving for the ideal, you’re not working hard enough.’”  – Roni Riordan


Image from pixabay

This week in the #IMMOOC, there was a lot of mention of designing the ideal. This fall, I will have the opportunity to move toward my ideal for school. A colleague and I will be teaching a combined English III/American History course that allows students to take control of their learning and choose the way in which they are assessed. When the course was approved, I was ecstatic, but that enthusiasm quickly transformed to panic when I realized I would truly be working with another teacher. Another teacher. In MY classroom. Ehem, I mean, OUR classroom.

At the ICE Conference this morning, Adam Welcome said, “Teaching really isn’t that collaborative.” We ask our kids to collaborate effectively and we preach that this working together is the way of the future. But we don’t do it very well in schools. I realized this myself when my panic set in about sharing the room with another adult — even when it was a colleague I admire.

Chris and I (my future partner in co-teaching) had our first planning meeting last week. There were two main takeaways that I wanted to share this week that might help others take the jump from innovating in a bubble to innovating together.

Be open minded:

In our first meeting, Chris said, “I want to share with you what I already do, but I need you to know that that doesn’t mean I expect to do things the way I have been doing them.” Wow. I consider myself pretty open-minded, but what that did for me was help realign my expectations for myself — that I should expect to change because he was expecting to change and grow, too. Eric Sheninger reminded us in his keynote this morning that “change is the only constant.” I am thrilled to be working with someone whose mindset is focused on being better.

Choose to work with those who challenge you:

I’ve long believed that the most important assessment is a project or product, not a standardized test. Yet, I have still given standardized assessments as part of how I assess students and “prepare them” for the inevitability of “the system.” In our meeting last week, I said that to Chris. His response: “Why?”

I had to think about that. And all my answers were about me. I want my students to score well. I need my kids to be familiar with the types of tests that schools require of them. Did you catch that? I want. I need. It’s about me. Because really, my kids don’t care much about the tests. They care about learning. In the words of Adam Welcome, “The kids should BE the conversation.” My dialogue was focused on the wrong stakeholder, because in the end, the stakeholder that really matters is the child.

“The kids should BE the conversation” – Adam Welcome, #KidsDeserveIt

Co-teaching, interdisciplinary learning, and student-led learning are huge aspects of my ideal, and even though I feel strongly about that, it’s still hard for me to take the leap. But how can I ask my kids to take risks if I’m not willing or enthusiastic to model that for them? It’s about the kids, yes, but it starts with me. And that’s a huge but really important responsibility to follow through on.