I recently read Andrew Miller’s “5 Tips to Avoid Teacher Burnout” and although it was targeted at new teachers it struck a chord with me. In fact, I’m still vibrating days later. This was the worst academic year of my life and that includes a year of graduate school during which I took double course work while juggling my dual role of instructor and administrator as well as trying to maintain some sort of family life. That year and the one during which I completed my dissertation were nothing compared to this despite the fact that both of those years involved personal and family crises.
So what made this year so devastating? Overwork and overextension sandwiched between underpaid and underappreciated. I put myself out there in a number of ways and reaped little to no return for my investment of time, energy, and emotion. Then, at the end of the semester when I thought I had reached rock bottom and I was exhausted and used up, I suffered a health crisis which just goes to show you that things can always be worse. That certainly shocked my optimistic little soul.
So what do I do now? What can I do now? I’ve taken steps to relieve my burdens in the short-term to protect my health and sanity, but what happens when I return to full-time work in August and the same institutional conditions exist? How do I prevent myself from backsliding especially when there are so many willing to give me a push back in that direction? I have come up with five strategies that I hope will make next year an improvement as well as help others from falling victim to this level of crash and burn.
Teachers are busy people. Administrators are busy people. People who do both are crazy busy. There is always more that needs doing than can be done and there are always people placing demands (both reasonable and unreasonable) on your time. There are always days when I am incredibly busy and yet have nothing to show for it. My solution is to take stock – make a list of what needs to be done and then truly evaluate what needs to be done “now” and what needs to be done now by me. I have to take control of my “To Do” list and not let it control me.
Set Your Own Goals
The institutions that govern/employ teachers and administrators set a number (growing exponentially every year) of goals for them. This can lead to frustration and helplessness not to mention anger and depression. But goals are important motivators. They get us up in the morning and push us forward through adversity. The key is to set goals for areas of your work and life that you can control and that have meaning to you. Make it something reasonable and possible (don’t add more stress to your life) but also something that will make you feel better professionally or personally. Set goals that will help you get through your current work day but also can contribute to a better tomorrow. Yes, you spent most of the day in soul-sucking meetings but you also accomplished X (or at least a step toward that goal).
Hope and Dream
Allow yourself hopes and dreams. While your goals are concrete and actionable, your hopes and dreams are more intangible. If your current job and/or life is not what you want (hence the crash and burn?) then allow yourself to dream about the possibilities for a better future. Recognize that tomorrow does not have to be like today and that you have the power to change your circumstances and your life. I believe strongly in the power of hopes and dreams to not only get us through the challenges of the day but to inspire the future. Dreams lead to goals which lead to change.
This is going to be my mantra for next year. Perhaps I need to tattoo it somewhere. I think this is a particular challenge for educators as we tend to be nurturers and givers. We are particularly programmed to say “yes” even when we know we shouldn’t. But the simple fact is that no one else is going to put your goals, dreams, or health first. Other people have their own agenda. Students, coworkers, and institutions will always put their own needs and goals first. Fight against the guilt with whatever weapons you have at hand and remind yourself that you will definitely fail your constituencies if your health and/or sanity breaks down. Sometimes taking time to selfishly do something for yourself is actually serving others. Plan for it, schedule for it, put it on your list and then guard it zealously.
Play and Relax
This has been extremely difficult for me. I do not know how to avoid email and other communication devices. As an academic and a writer I constantly surround myself with books and writing tools. I have to learn to turn off and tune out at the end of the day and at the end of the week. I have to learn to throw myself wholeheartedly into vacations. I need to reconnect with family, friends, and hobbies.
So that is my plan to reclaim my life and my sanity and my health. I am officially putting my institutions on notice. I will continue to do my jobs to the best of my ability but your goals, dreams, and health are no longer my concern. I will no longer allow my goals, dreams, and health to be sacrificed for your gain.