One of the most leading factors in teacher burnout, especially while teaching during a pandemic, is seeing a million fixable problems around you but not having the time, energy, or resources around you to fix them all.
I know what I was feeling for most of this year is something that resonates with a lot of teachers: burnt out and lost. Like really burnt out. And really lost. Things I used to get so excited about both in my personal and professional life just wasn’t exciting me anymore. No matter how much I tried to amp up my socially-distant self-care routine to handle the extra professional and personal stress, I couldn’t shake this overwhelming feeling of feeling unmotivated and burnt out.
I know that many are feeling this way.
Recently, I published a post about how to save time on just about anything in your to-do list. For this post, I’m going to outline a strategy for helping you gather motivation to even tackle that.
I’ll start with a story about one burnt out teacher I worked with recently, weave in my own personal experience of working through my burnout, and end with a starting point for you to find a path out of burnout for yourself.
A Story of One Burnt Out New Teacher
On a coaching call with a new teacher recently, we were identifying what she wanted help with. I noticed she was visibly heavy. She said she wanted help on something specific, but she was bouncing from problem to problem to problem. With every new challenge she explained, she sank further into her chair. I literally watched her overwhelm growing with her list.
When she was done we agreed: this was an insurmountable list of challenges for one very tired teacher to tackle. They might all be fixable things in theory, but she had been giving 200% to tackle them with little results to speak of, and she was tired. More than tired. She wanted to know if she should keep trying or if it was time to just give up and coast the rest of the semester.
As I listened to her, I wondered if there might be a third option. One that could honor her efforts, rekindle her passion, and reduce her to-dos to a reasonable workload for the rest of the year. When we’re the most tired and anxious, it can be difficult to see all the doors available to us, so I wanted to see if there might be another door we were missing.
I asked her, “If there was one thing you’d want your students to walk away with by the end of the semester, what would it be?”
She took a second, and she told me a couple really meaningful, relevant learning objectives for the year. I could feel her energy shift as she stated them. These learning objectives weren’t just at the heart of her class, but at the heart of why she entered teaching.
Then I said, “Why don’t you just focus on that for the rest of the year, and let everything else go?”
For the rest of the call, we talked about how we could make that happen. Letting go of holding students accountable for skills outside of these learning objectives, letting go of getting students to participate in the way she envisioned at the start of the year, letting go of meeting expectations she had going into this year.
It might seem like she was letting go of a whole lot, and maybe more than you’d be willing to let go, but here’s what I watched happen: as she named her original reason for being in education and stacked her list of stressors against it, she didn’t just identify low-priority to-do items, she started discovering organic solutions for some of them that aligned with her mission.
For example, she had been stressed about engaging all students during hybrid learning as well as teaching writing skills. But if she focused on these learning objectives, it would be easier for us to focus on what she needed to do to get kids excited about just these learning objectives. She had been so worried about putting out all the skill deficit fires, her energy was diffused and ineffective. She discovered that if she could create authentic tasks for just these learning objectives, it would actually be easier to create authentic reasons for students to write well.
She realized by focusing on fewer things, she was actually able to better cover more bases well. And felt more motivated to do it to boot.
What if you took a few minutes to do a similar re-focus? Let’s talk about how.
A Path from Teacher Burnout: Refocusing on your Why
Step 1: Name Your Why
We are not machines. We teach in an already imperfect system that was forced to create a new imperfect system to handle unprecedented challenges. You, me, and every other individual teacher out there do not have the time, energy, or resources to fix all of the problems and put out all the fires surrounding us all at the same time.
So let’s stop spreading ourselves thin expecting ourselves to put out all the fires all at the same time, and instead tackle this with a different strategy. Let’s hone in.
Hone in on what you’re best at. Hone in on your mission. Hone in on what you know you can be the most powerful doing for the rest of the year, and what you can hang your hat on if you succeeded.
Instead of doing a million things, focus on doing one thing well: your mission, your why.
For this teacher, it was these learning objectives.
For you, it might be a different set of learning objectives.
Or maybe making all your students feel seen and heard.
Or sharing your passion for your subject matter. And I mean really sharing it. Getting wacky, unapologetic, board-the-train-because-we’re-leaving passionate (thanks, Angela Watson for this analogy).
As a thought experiment, think about how many other things that thing could tackle if you did it well. For example, if you made all your students feel seen and heard, how much could that increase engagement? Or if you shared your passion unapologetically, how much could that reignite your collaboration with your co-teacher?
Because here’s the thing. When we force ourselves to find a way to excel at all the things all at the same time, especially when all the things are broken or not our expertise, we don’t just deplete our energy faster, we dampen our magic of what we are really good at. We also start to forget why entered this job to begin with and drain our most valuable asset: our passion. I’m betting this sounds familiar.
There is a time and place to expand your skills and try to cover more bases, but if you’re feeling like you’re not doing anything well and you’re not sure you can continue doing anything at all, it’s a sign it’s time to realign your work with your why and reset by putting your energy there.
Step 2: Re-Align with Your Why
Let’s circle back to my own story.
I realized in November that I had been feeling down and unmotivated about work for months. Things that used to excite me: developing curriculum to change the world, innovating my teaching practices, leading mastermind groups–wasn’t doing it for me anymore. As a result, I was feeling completely lost, even numb. It was huge red flag. This wasn’t me. Something was up.
I decided to do some deeper digging and experimenting. Maybe I needed to take some things off my plate? Probably true. Maybe I needed to do some more self-care? Also probably true. Maybe I needed more sleep? Yup, true. But none of it was cutting it.
Finally, I took some time to reconnect with my why and retraced my steps on my path to feeling lost, and I realized that all the challenges of COVID and being a new mom and running a business and teaching in a new place were making me feel like I needed to focus on a million things other than my driving purpose.
Once I named my central why, I felt grounded. It felt like permission to be myself and to accept my best as good enough. It made my work and my life less about performing, and more about my mission. And it also helped me prioritize my to-do list.
For me, my why is helping people connect to their inner wisdom and take action from there. So in looking at my to-do list, I realized:
- Creating that assignment to help students reflect on current events and choose their action in response to it? Very important.
- Going above and beyond on all the nitty gritties of the teaching framework for my observation just to impress my supervisor? Not so much.
For the things I still hated but were necessary, I could reframe them to fit with my purpose. For example with grading, I decided to turn it into an opportunity to admire my students’ inner work and prod them to dig deeper. It changed the quality of work I was doing as well as my motivation to do it. Was I still tired and wishing for less socially-distant, simpler times? Yes. But at least I was feeling confident and focused about the direction I was heading.
What’s Your Why? What Clarity Could it Offer You?
How would your perspective change if you defined (or reminded yourself) of your mission? How would your to-do list change? Your confidence? Your energy? Your passion? Your direction?
- With your mission in mind, what could you focus on today, tomorrow, and this week that would best align with that mission? I.e. nurturing that relationship with a certain students, developing an exciting lesson
- What could you let go of? (actions, attitudes, pressures, expectations) i.e. upholding standards not mandated by your school, an ineffective engagement policy that’s only giving you more work, etc.
- How can you reframe the things you still have to do to align with your mission?
- What difficult interactions do you anticipate today where you can use your mission as your guide?
Our unique purpose in education serves as more than just rocket fuel; it can be our compass.
Practice realigning yourself with your purpose and notice if you feel more clarity, energy, and peace in your work and life.
I’d love to hear how it goes for you. Let me know below.
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