How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 3: Find Your Community

This is the fourth post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

Teaching can be lonely.  We spend a lot of time with our students, but our relationships with them can feel adversarial and/or distant.  Even our good relationships with students are complex: they’re usually younger than us, and although it’s our job to try to understand them, they have no obligation – and often no ability – to understand us.

What’s more, many teachers are independent-minded people who prefer to tackle problems on their own.  I’m like that.  It’s helped me in some areas of my life, but when it comes to burnout, confronting it without support is unwise.

When I first began teaching, my emotional satisfaction came almost entirely from my relationships with students.  (You can see some discussion of this topic here.)  As my job changed and I grew older, I realized that my students weren’t my friends.  I became aware that fostering a community that supported me in my job, that I could turn to when things were rough, and that gave me healthy perspective on what I was doing was essential.

I began shaping and nurturing that community in three forms.

1. Family and friends.

These people were already there for me.  Most of them weren’t teachers.  They didn’t necessarily have advice to give about my professional problems and anxieties; if they did, the advice wasn’t always helpful.  But they did know me.  They were able to listen, relate my experiences to their own, and point out ways of seeing that were more productive than mine.  Perhaps most importantly, they were able to talk to me about something other than my work.

I don’t know about you, but during the semester, I think of little besides teaching.  Friends who don’t work with me go months without seeing me.  If someone wants to have coffee, my response is usually, “Well, how about Thanksgiving weekend/Easter weekend/reading week?  Otherwise, I’ll see you once I’ve submitted my final grades.”

I had to remind myself that my job was not my whole life.  I needed to talk to The Husband about things other than work.  I needed to go for drinks with people who didn’t know or care about the students who refused to do their homework or who cheated on exams, people who just want to talk about books, or gossip.

If I was going to feel like part of a supportive community, I realized, I needed to take care of the relationships I already had.

2.  Colleagues.

I work in an extremely supportive and friendly environment.  Many of my colleagues – including faculty, administration, and staff – have become good friends.  I also have friends who are teachers at other institutions. Sometimes talking to another teacher is the only way to grapple with an issue.  When things started going badly for me in the classroom, I started to lean on my colleagues more for advice, comfort, or just a beer at the end of the day.

If I hadn’t already had strong relationships with my colleagues, I would have tried to establish some.  We all need peers we can turn to for help or just moral support.  Often, there’s someone in the staff we’ve never really gotten to know, but whom we suspect we have something in common with; an invitation to dinner or coffee can pave the way to a deeper friendship.  And there may be more structured ways to forge connections, like book clubs or happy hours.

Obviously, we can’t connect with everyone, but we need some friends in the workplace.

3.  Online connections.

When job exhaustion first overtook me, I started keeping this blog. In a later post, I’ll discuss how invaluable the blog has been in helping my overcome my burnout, but it’s not the only online tool I use.  Reading others’ blogs, participating in online forums, setting up a Twitter account and creating a page on Facebook are all ways to both maintain contact with current friends and colleagues and also generate new connections.

Teachers and education specialists are, as a rule, very interested in reading, writing and talking about teaching.  Over time, it’s possible to build an international network of articulate, passionate and curious educators who want nothing more than to continue the conversation.  My network has sustained me through some difficult moments – if something troubles me at school, I blog about it, tweet about it, or Google the issue and see if others have something to say about it.  I almost always end up feeling better.

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I felt alone in my burnout, but I wasn’t; recognizing this was one of the keys to getting better.  Reaching out to friends, family, colleagues and online comrades helped me through some of my challenges.  Recognizing and expanding one’s community requires effort, but the payoff is enormous.

If you’re a burnt-out teacher, you might want to look around you and ask: Who are my friends?  How can I find more?

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What kinds of support and connections help you most in your job?  Do you know of any helpful resources for developing and sustaining connections between educators, or between members of other professions?  Leave a comment!  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Previous posts in this series:

Next post: facing my fears.

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The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

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10 responses

  1. Thank you so much for having the courage to write this. You really connect to how I’m feeling these days, especially this part: “Recognizing and expanding one’s community requires effort, but the payoff is enormous.” I fully agree. Like you, I turn to online communities to find connections with educators who share similar beliefs and feelings. In relation to the effort that you referred to, this week I wrote this post “The Teacher: The Authentic Self?” http://wp.me/pE2zk-qh which required a lot of emotional effort. I wrote and deleted it three times. When I published it, I felt uneasy and still wanted to delete it, but I decided to sleep on it.

    Since then, I have gotten inspiring feedback from teachers (via Twitter and Facebook). Knowing how I my post has connected to others, made it all worth while. As teachers we often think we’re alone, but once we reach out as you have written about here, we quickly learn that we share a great deal.

    Again, thank you.

    Josette

    • That post is very interesting. The question of “authenticity” is one I struggle with a lot. What does it mean to be “authentic”? If I choose to address things in a way that does not come “naturally” to me, am I being inauthentic? Parker Palmer has helped me with these questions, as he seems to have helped you.

  2. Many of my friends who I don’t work with happen to be teachers. This is helpful for me because I can talk to them about work and non-work related issues. VENTING is just so important in general. I think that, as you said, your community can be invaluable in helping you with this, whether that is in person or online. Talking it out can really do wonders.

    • TG: yes, sometimes teachers from different contexts can give us some much-needed perspective – I have teacher friends from schools, CEGEPs and universities all over the world, and they understand my troubles like non-teachers rarely can.

  3. I agree that keeping a balance in our interests is one of the most diffiult things for teachers to do. After all we are so very passionate about our teaching that it tends to take over our personal life. Setting aside time for family, friends, and personal interests is one way to feed our spiritual selves. Of late I have also discovered that innovating can inject new life into a burnt out teacher. I began experimenting a year ago implementing options that I had always wanted to try but never “had the time”. Although the first semester was a bit rocky at times with all my new ideas, as I’ve warmed up to them I have found great satisfaction. I feel like I’m student teaching again!

    • Experimenting in the classroom can really change our perspective. I try to switch something up every semester; I’m always teaching a new novel or changing up major assignments or introducing an activity that just occurred to me. I consider my teaching activities to be as much of an art form as my creative writing work. This perspective has helped me through some tough times.

  4. I, too, am thankful that you’ve written about this, this whole series. I’ve written about some similar issues, and worry that I’m being negative or dwelling unnecessarily. Maybe I was to an extent, but the issue is very real and very frustrating. I’m still teaching, but this time it’s a healthy amount of hours. I’m feeling much better. These ideas you’ve written about are great. I’m going to keep them in mind when I get back to America so I don’t fall into the old workaholic trap I was in. It’s hard to not take 140 people’s futures seriously. But, what good am I doing when I take the job so seriously that I go a little nuts? The task set before us is often so large, that it seems impossible to take shortcuts or to enjoy oneself, but if your gut and people around you tell you to keep at it because you are a good teacher, then it’s worth taking the time to figure out how to avoid burnout. Having teacher friends, or blog “friends” helps, though, because by the way most people react, I can tell they just cannot fathom what I’m going through- the way the pressure, endless work, and constant interactions with students can weigh on us.

  5. Your 3 types of connections reminds me of the “4 compartments model” (Couple, family, work and “other”) but you put the first 2 in one box.
    After trying to make one relationship serve all those needs for 22 years, I am divorced, have a new primary relationship, am part of her family, have a job (teaching), but cannot seem to meet hardly anyone else. I have joined Meetup groups, started a Meetup group, and other things over the years, but can’t seem to make friends or when I do, they are busy with their “first 3 compartment” people. I am somewhat introverted and shy, but really good one-to-one, and dying for more relationships. What is the answer? I have been asking this since I was about 12. Aside from school, how does anyone meet anyone else? How do you start a deep, one-to-one with a stranger?

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