Think of your energy and what comes with it (happiness, passion, motivation) like a bank account.
One of the greatest threats to the US public education system, I think, is the rate of teacher burnout. Put it into metaphorical terms, it’s the rate of teachers that go energy bankrupt.
I’ve been thinking a lot about teacher burnout and my own plight with it during the last 4 years. In the last year and a half, I took intense measures to start changing my workaholic ways. Now, taking a break from teaching and adopting a much healthier, balanced lifestyle is teaching me a lot about how to combat teacher burnout and stay happy and passionate.
The times in my teaching I felt burnout usually happened when teaching was a nonstop onslaught of late night grading, early morning planning, back-to-back meetings, and kids’ needs I couldn’t keep track of. It was a vicious cycle, my energy would drain, my teaching quality would plummet, and the behavior problems, grading piles, planning to-dos, and negative self-talk would multiply.
It was a period of energy hemorrhaging–giving, giving, giving, giving, assuming that I couldn’t afford to take a moment to replenish. I was drowning, and I was too enmeshed to understand why. Each time this happened, it was harder to get out of it, until eventually…the misery just seemed like normal life.
I’ll give it to you real simple. Teaching without boundaries–without saying no when you mean it, or without adding your own health and happiness to your priority-list–is like giving 200 people access to your pin number. Every request you acquiesce, every night’s sleep you forgo for grading, every lunch you eat working, is a withdrawal you authorize. Ka-ching. Ka-ching. Ka-ching. Ya’ll, we’ve been writing bad checks for years and calling it work-ethic and dedication.
On top of that, if teaching without boundaries is like giving people access to your pin number, teaching without making a conscious effort, every day, to replenish your energy is like spending without income. Think about it. Energy doesn’t replenish itself. Happiness doesn’t flow from an ever-flowing fountain. It takes. effort.
The combination of both teaching with no boundaries and teaching without caring for your energy is a fast-track to burnout, but it still seems to be what we hear we must do in order to be dedicated. It’s no wonder why teachers are leaving the profession at faster and faster rates. So often as teachers, we’re so busy trying to keep up with the constant pressures, we don’t pay attention until our bank statement at the end of the month states we’re in the red. For our own happiness, and for our kids’ success, we have to start paying attention and taking charge.
Using our bank metaphor, we can manage our energy and passion in two ways: we can decrease our withdrawals, and we can increase our deposits.
Let’s think about this in concrete terms. Let’s make a “bank statement.”
I made you a spreadsheet here to help, and it looks like this:
The first time I did this process, I was blown away by how little “income” and how staggeringly long my list of “withdrawals” was. It completely changed the way I think about my time and my work.
First, Examine your Energy Withdrawals from the Week.
Make a list of things you’re doing that deplete you. Rank them for strength from -1 all the way to -10.
This is what drained you, and what you only have so much tolerance for, and what zaps the enjoyment out of your day, like…
Now, Examine your Energy INCOME.
Make a list of things that give you pleasure during your week.
Rate how much you enjoy them out of 10. This is how you sustain your passion, your energy, and your happiness—all three of which you AND your kids desperately need.
-People you’re spending time with
-Activities you’re doing just for you (hobbies, clubs, groups, social events)
Step Three: Add up your positives and subtract your negatives from your withdrawals, and see what you’ve got.
If you’re bank account is looking pretty red this month, don’t be hard on yourself. It’s not surprising. Our culture glorifies busy. We glorify having a negative energy bank account at the end of the month, and so whether consciously or not, many of us think (#ME for so long) that if we can prove to everyone (most importantly ourselves) that we’ve gone in the red for the month, that we are better people, better teachers, or simply a person that is worthy of happiness and love. NEWS FLASH: YOU DESERVE TO BE HAPPY NO MATTER WHAT. And you’re a better teacher if you are happy, anyway. I spent hundreds of evenings late at school and hundreds of mornings as one of the first cars in the parking lot operating under a different assumption.
It’s amazing how long it took for me to admit to myself that happiness never came after the red at the end of the month. It was only exhaustion, anxiety, and depression. Counter to what you might think, as your stress increases, so does your need for self-care (which is I think is easier to understand when you think about stress as energy debt).
You are a worthy person regardless of your energy bank statement at the end of the month, but your happiness (and believe it or not, your job effectiveness, too) depend on it.
Step 4: Make plans to decrease your energy withdrawals. Draw some boundaries.
Make a goal for this week,
Let’s make a goal for next semester, too,
when it becomes even easier to let go of commitments. Maybe you can notify your principal of stepping down from a commitment you’ve been hating. Maybe you can make a plan on how to grade fewer assignments. Maybe you can talk to a colleague about distributing planning for future units.
Step 5: Make plans to increase your energy income. Add some spice.
How can you increase your energy income this month?
The first time I made a list like this, I realized I could barely list ANYTHING for the week under happy things—the greatest joy I had during the week was taking a hot shower. How sad is that? At least any effort I could make seemed better than what I had been doing.
About a year into teaching, I realized I had no hobbies. Outside work and talking to families and friends, I had nothing else going on. I literally sat down and googled “hobby ideas.” That Saturday, I went out to Michael’s, bought a few skeins of yarn and a couple needles, and went home and Youtubed “how to crochet.” The calm it gave me in the following weeks just to crochet for a half hour each night was incredible. I had no idea how much I had been suffocating myself with constant work thoughts and starving myself of any sort of energy income. You need to make energy in order to spend it, ya’ll.
Make a goal this week
to take initiative on adding one more happy activity this week. It doesn’t have to be a new hobby. Ask a few friends (or new friends!) to coffee; carve out a half hour for reading; call someone you haven’t talked to in a while; use the Calm App to meditate for ten minutes.
Make a longterm goal.
What’s something you’ve been putting off forever? A dream vacation (or move)? A certain skill? A dream business idea? What’s the first step? Take 5 minutes and do that thing today. If you’re about to exit this blogpost WITHOUT doing it…what’s holding you back? Do you REALLY not have time? Or could it be something else?
Good luck! It’s a simple concept, but an incredibly challenging one to implement. Trust me, I know. But in the end, remember you deserve to be happy despite what anyone around you wants you to think. And your kids deserve it, too. Your effort will be richly rewarded.
Want some more reading?
Even more justification for taking care of yourself. Check out my post where I take apart why self-care can be so difficult to justify, and why it’s one of the most critical things teachers can do for their students.
And in case you needed justification for that vacation, check out my post on why all teachers should travel.
Finally, why I decided to do a crazy and quit and move thousands of miles away.
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