Categories
Teacher Mindset

My Experience of Burnout

In the 12 months from June 2017 onwards, I studied for a week abroad as part of my degree. I completed 20 hours of Home-based July Provision. I worked for three weeks at a Summer Camp. I began my second year in a new school. I was grieving the loss of a friend and colleague. I was starting my thesis as part of my masters. I was creating a twenty-hour behavioural course. I was running a voluntary after-school club twice a week alone. I was playing a sport and training four times a week. Two people close to me became quite sick. In June 2018, I was burned out.

Each of those things consumes significant time and energy. Combined, they ground me down. It’s not something I have discussed widely but the 12 months from June 2017 up to June 2018 took a major toll on me and changed me forever. During that period, I had to plan my life to the minute detail to ensure that I could sustain my responsibilities. I scheduled reminders to phone friends and family to check-in. I timetabled exactly when I was training. I planned exactly when I would study. I ordered prepared meals for the week delivered to school because I couldn’t prioritise cooking or being at home to receive them. I found myself studying until midnight and up at 4 am the following morning to fulfil different obligations and meet deadlines. I wrote articles in hospital canteens and my car. At one stage, I was asked to rerecord some audio content because my tone sounded depressing. That’s because that was how I was feeling. 

In hindsight, and with what I know now, what to do seems so simple. Stop the voluntary after-school club. Step back from the team I played with. Communicate that two people close to me were sick and I may have to extend deadlines. But instead, I did what most people do. I told nobody and soldiered on. I was physically and emotionally exhausted but would not release any responsibilities. I wouldn’t talk about it. I convinced myself it would be weak to admit overwhelm. I told myself that it wasn’t about me. I developed feelings of anxiety that I never had previously, I was hiding how stressed I was, I had a panic attack, I suffered all those things that people read about and think “why didn’t they say something?”. At the time, I felt that everything was incredibly important and must be completed. Pick out each commitment and there was a noble reason why I felt it was important to sustain. I’d still be inclined to justify each one. Although, now I realise that when it’s obvious that life is unsustainable, you have to change something to protect yourself.

To pick some positives from the wreckage that was that year, I transformed the way I thought and acted for the better. I eventually pieced myself back together and feel more resilient for it. I’m passionate about helping people avoid the feelings I experienced so I’ve put together three habits that protect me from returning to a similar place ever again.

Journaling

I have kept a journal for three years now. I range from answering reflective questions that I pick up from online or that I’m pondering from time to time. Mostly, however, I keep it simple and journal 3 different things every day. I write 7 things I am feeling excited for. This could be as small as a nice breakfast or as big as an upcoming event. This sets me up every morning to search for positives and is simple, quick and effective. I write a to-do list with 3-5 key tasks I want to complete for the day. Finally, I have a Likert scale (strongly agree, agree, don’t know, disagree and strongly disagree) I roughly draw at the bottom. The question over it is: Did I finish the day WANTING to do more? Not “feeling like I should” or “needing to”. Actively desiring. If I’m strongly agreeing or agreeing, I know I’m living sustainably. If I’m strongly disagreeing or disagreeing, I’m alert that what I’m doing is unsustainable over the long term and I will reflect on whether this is a short term situation or something I need to address.

Meditation

I meditated as part of yoga for a long time before I felt the benefits. I read a great one-page description in 365 Daily Meditations that captures what it does for me. It brings my mind to a single point and focuses it. When my mind is unfocused, my thoughts are scattered and I feel frazzled or discontent more easily. I gravitate towards stress without realising. When I meditate, it encourages me to pause. When I get up from a ten-minute meditation, I feel like I’m no longer in that autopilot state. I am ready to decide on what I want to do and how to react to situations. I now meditate outside of yoga. I use the Headspace app and find it great. I’d recommend sticking with it through that period of thinking its worthless and one day you’ll realise that there’s something to it. I’ve read lots of people say that it takes 12-18 months of practice to feel the benefits and I share that experience. The Dalai Lama discusses happiness as something you train your mind for and seek actively. I subscribe to this as it makes me feel I have ownership and a choice.

Set Your Boundaries

This sounds like a harsh one but I have felt the benefits of it. Learn to say no. Draw your line. Have awkward conversations. The reason I burned myself out was partly due to my feelings of I “should” do this or I “have” to do that. Neither of those is true. I learned there is little in life we should or have to do. If you don’t set your boundaries, someone else will set them for you. With the best will in the world, waiting for your employer or someone else to prioritise your wellbeing is misguided. You need to take control of your health and wellness. You must acknowledge that you have to pick your poison. Either you suffer awkwardly rejecting someone’s request in the early stages or you suffer having to fulfil obligations you don’t want to or you know will stretch you past what is sustainable. I often say no to people because I want to get eight hours of sleep or go for a run. They’re often shocked, disappointed or disgruntled. They may try to persuade me. But, I set my priorities. By all means, accept people’s requests, but do it mindfully and accept them happily and wholeheartedly when you do. Avoid the trap of accepting and complaining. Set your boundaries.

These are only three of the things that helped me. I could write a book on the other mini-steps I had to take to recover my inner contentment and happiness. There were ups and downs. Progress was not linear. The take-home message, from my experience, is to develop habits in your life that will help you prevent reaching burnout and if you feel you’re already there, hold your hand up and say something. My emails, DMs and phone are always open or reach out to friends, family or professional help. Don’t be a martyr and push yourself to the breakpoint. You’re more use to yourself and others if you can sustain your efforts. 

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Categories
Teacher Mindset

5 Quotes For Teachers & Free eBook

A teacher’s best asset is their mind. Stress, anxiety, negativity and all the other things that inhibit our happiness naturally inhibit the quality of our teaching also. I’ve written before about two ways I deal with stress. I think it’s important to talk about this subject as the statistics are so damning.

To maintain a tidy classroom, we develop daily, weekly and yearly habits. One-off fixes are insufficient. I have found maintaining a stress-free and resilient mind is much the same. I have had to develop daily, weekly and yearly habits that help me maintain equilibrium. This isn’t to say my mind is squeaky clean. Much like the classroom, every so often someone bursts open one of those yoghurt tubes (don’t get me started) and makes a huge mess. Thanks to productive habits, however, the mess doesn’t last forever.

Reading and listening to philosophy has been one of my cornerstones. It keeps the principles and practices I value at the forefront of my mind and consuming them prevents me from slipping into old habits. Reading is great but it is my holy grail. I love a podcast, audiobook and youtube clips too as I can listen as I carry out mundane tasks. 

A short book I loved recently and which gave me perspective was Seneca: On the Shortness of Life. It includes three letters: one to Paulinus, one to his mother and one to Serenus. The whole book is 100 short pages and I was the full cliché highlighting quote after quote. I’m going to let the quotes speak for themselves. If you like the book but you’re still not sure, I’m going to include a link to get the first letter for free below.  

My 5 Favourite Quotes that Teachers May Find Thought-Provoking

“You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

“It is generally agreed that no activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. Living is the least desirable activity of the preoccupied man.”

“One person who has achieved the badge of office they coveted longs to lay it aside, and keeps repeating ‘Will this year never end?’

“But nobody works out the value of time: people use it lavishly as if it cost nothing. But if death threatens these same people, you will see them praying to their doctors; if they are in fear of capital punishment, you will see them prepared to spend their all to stay alive. So inconsistent are they in their feelings. But if each of us could have the tally of their future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully would they use them.”

“It is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.”

Reading books like this one remind me that the day-to-day things that are inclined to stress me are generally meaningless in the wider scheme of things. They help me discard the frivolous thinking and time-wasting I can fall into when I’m not exposing myself to these habitual reminders.

I’d recommend downloading his first letter for free below. You can view this file as a PDF or put it on your kindle to see if it’s for you. You can also take the plunge and buy the full book here. If you want to receive a weekly email from me every Monday that includes a strategy for behaviour and inclusion alongside a thought that links in with topics like stress and mental health, you can subscribe below.

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Categories
Teacher Mindset

2 Strategies For Stressed Teachers (And One to Avoid)

If you’re a teacher and you’re stressed, you’re in good company. One in four teachers rates their jobs as very or extremely stressful. It is estimated as high as 46% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years of their career. In Germany, only 26% of teachers make it to retirement age – compared to 54% of other public sector employees. Research shows that 52% of early retirements can be attributed to psychiatric or psychosomatic disorders. The statistics are damning. Despite what the general population might think and or joke, teachers need to be conscious of their stress levels for the good of their careers and health. 

Occupational stress is considered most prevalent in professions that involve human interaction. Teaching fits this category as the social nature, uncertainty, emotional intensity and high levels of attention to others contribute to the stresses that accumulate over hours, days, weeks, terms and years. How should we cope with this stress? How do we ensure the role we play is sustainable for over thirty to forty years?

My Experience and What Helped

A few years ago, I dealt with chronic stress. It ended up being a crash course in stress management. My personal life combined with my professional life to create one of those perfect storms that have the potential to bring destruction if you don’t catch it early and batten down the hatches. It’s important to acknowledge that stress is like a storm, completely unavoidable. It is how we prepare, perceive and manage it that determines how much damage it does before it passes. And it does pass.

While I was continuing to move forward through the year, I adopted a two-pronged approach that is research-based and proved a lifesaver: Direct-Action and Palliative techniques.

Direct-Action is self-explanatory. It involves identifying the source of the stress, determining the reason it is stressing you and then deciding how to resolve it. Then, you activate the plan and execute. Stress is said to be the result of an imbalance between the demands you are facing and the resources you have to meet those demands. If you have lots to do, you may become stressed if you don’t have the time. If you are faced with a child who you find particularly challenging, you may become stressed if you feel you don’t have the expertise to deal with it. If you have an inspection coming up, you may become stressed if you feel unprepared. Taking a direct-action approach to these examples, you will seek to manage your time, develop your knowledge and complete the necessary work respectively. You are working towards reducing and eliminating the source of the stress.

Palliative techniques aim to reduce stress without dealing with the source. This can mean different things for different people. Personally, I began to journal (link here), I took up yoga, I played a team sport, I went away on trips with friends for the odd weekend and got out in nature as much as I could. For others, this could entail socialising, additional sleep or anything you deem to be a stress reliever. You’re switching off. You’re in a different mode and you’re fully immersed in whatever activity that you love and enjoy.

The five most common stressors for teachers are school environment, student misbehaviour, relationships with parents, time demands and inadequate training: all stressors which can be dealt with through a combination of direct action and palliative techniques. You have to find the right balance for you between trying to put out the fire and stepping away from it every once in a while.

The space to avoid, for me, was that space in between. Where you take one step away from the fire so you’re not putting it out but not too far away that you’re safe from getting burnt. The equivalent of this, for me, was sitting around complaining about my stress without taking action or lying around the house thinking about my worries when I could have been off enjoying myself. My stress was at its highest when I was in this space, neither working to eliminate the stress or taking my mind off it and enjoying life. When I fully invested in either the direct action and palliative approach, which I managed for sustained periods with the occasional lapse to despair, I managed to contain my stress and gradually work my way through it. I also managed to make some great memories when I was fully switched off and tuned into things that I loved. Take my advice and either take direct action or switch off with some palliative activity and whatever you do, avoid the middle where you’re doing neither.

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