Triumph Over Burnout: Blogiversary Post #4

At the beginning of the new school year, some of us feel refreshed and eager; others, not so much.  If you’re filled with dread at the thought of vacation’s end (not the ordinary oh-I-wish-I-could-read-novels-on-the-deck-forever dread, but the more acute why-am-I-doing-this-with-my-life dread), then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate: is teaching really what you want to do?

For a while, I wasn’t sure.  I started this blog as a tool to help me wrestle with this question.  Seven years later, I’m still teaching, but my perspective on the profession has changed.

In 2009, Sarah Ebner, then of the Times UK’s School Gate blog, asked me to write a series of guest posts; I chose to write about my journey through burnout and out the other side.  A few years later, she gave my permission to re-print those posts here on Classroom as Microcosm, and those posts are among the most shared in CaM’s seven-year history.  I collected them on this page; you will also find the links below.

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Are you burnt out?  Demoralized?  So was I.  I did some stuff.  It helped.  Now I love my job again.  Maybe you can too!

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Tomorrow: a useful analogy to help students understand essay structure.

Image by VooDoo4u2nv

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Demoralization vs. Burnout

Being a pug: a demoralizing state of affairs.

Are you burnt out?  Or are you demoralized?

A recent article (passed on to me by a colleague) fits nicely with my series on teacher burnout that wrapped up last week:  sometimes what we call burnout is actually demoralization. The difference is in the cause.

I have been lucky enough to work mostly in contexts that value and support good teaching and effective learning.  Recently, though, there have been some administrative developments  at our college that prioritize bean-counting over student achievement and teacher sanity.  So far, resistance has been strong, and no sweeping changes have been made, but it is possible that, within a year or so,  we will be inundated with a lot of time-consuming paperwork in a perhaps futile attempt to keep our remedial English classes to a manageable size.  If this happens, I can foresee serious consequences for our morale.  And even now, before any concrete changes have manifested, there is tension and hostility between administrators and teachers the likes of which I haven’t seen at the college before.  This is definitely demoralizing, and threatens to be much more so.

I hear a lot of stories from teachers who are, not burnt out by the real demands of teaching, but demoralized by the conditions they have to battle against.  Doris Santoro (in the article linked above) describes demoralization as follows:

Demoralization occurs when the job changes to such a degree that what teachers previously found “good” about their work is no longer available.  Moral rewards are what bring many of us to teaching: finding ways to connect meaningfully with students, designing lessons that address students’ needs, using our talents to improve the lives of others. [Demoralization] is a sense that the moral dimension of the work is taken away by policy mandates that affect [our] teaching directly.

I would be interested to know about your experiences of demoralization in your job, whether it be teaching or something else.  In particular, I’d love to know how you’ve successfully battled demoralization.  Have you triumphed over policies or infrastructures that were compromising your ability to do your job?  Or have you learned to adapt, or adapt to, such policies to meet your needs?  Have you ever left a job because it demoralized you so that there was no turning back?

Image by BlueGum

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 7: Write a Blog

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

In the summer of 2007, my burnout reached its peak.  I’d taken some steps to deal with it (and you can check out the links below to read about some of them) but I’d also spent the summer recovering from my most stressful teaching year yet, and I was dreading returning to the classroom.  I knew I needed to do something more.

In addition, I’d been working on a novel for eight years, and it was going nowhere.  I’d once again spent the summer trying to find a structure for it, and was becoming more and more frustrated.  I was no longer sure that I wanted to continue writing fiction.  It wasn’t making me any money, and no one but me really cared if I finished this manuscript.  Why was I doing it?

One day that August, I had coffee with my friend Vila H., who writes the delightful blog The Smoking Section.  She said, not for the first time, “I’m telling you, you need to start blogging.”

As it turned out, she was right.

My blog began as a place to publish some of the work I was doing for my M.Ed. courses (the first post was an early version of my teaching philosophy statement.)  As time went on, however, the blog evolved into an online diary, including ruminations on my classroom experiences and commentary on other education blogs.  It became the place I turned to immediately when things went wrong or when I was struggling to choose a course of action with a student.  It became a hub for my discussions with teachers all over the world.

It also fulfilled a need I didn’t know I had.  My writing life and teaching life had been strictly compartmentalized – I taught during the semester and wrote fiction during my holidays.  Now, my life felt more unified.  My teaching was material for my writing, and my writing made me a more effective teacher.

I’d recommend blogging to all teachers who want to make sense of their teaching experiences.  A blog can be public or private.  Even if you write only for yourself, or allow access only to close friends, it provides perspective, much like a diary does: writing about a problem makes it more manageable.  If you make your blog public, it can also provide help: if you put some effort into reading others’ blogs and responding to their posts, they will do the same for you.

If you do decide to write a public blog, there are a couple of potential issues to keep in mind.

1.  Protecting the privacy of your students and colleagues. 

I blog under a pseudonym, I never reveal the name of my school, and I change the names of any students or teachers I mention.  Some of my colleagues know that I’m the blog author, but our college is a large one and it’s unlikely they’d recognize any of the students I write about, even if they have those students in their classes.  I take special pains not to expose my blog to my students, because I don’t want them recognizing one another in its pages.  They’re not likely to be terribly interested in a blog about education, but if they Google my real name and my blog comes up, this could lead to problems.  I avoid leaving online clues connecting my real name to the blog.

2.  Dealing with negative responses. 

For the first couple of years, comments on my blog were usually constructive and respectful.  As my blog gained more exposure, however, a couple of posts attracted a lot of attention, and some of this attention was, let us say, impolite.

One post, written in a moment of hair-tearing essay-marking frustration, was entitled “10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment.”  It went moderately viral on StumbleUpon, and the vitriol began pouring in.  About a year later, I wrote a guest post for the education blog at Change.org.  This post, about how to control the use of cell phones in the classroom, made some people very, very angry, and their comments were pretty aggressive.

In both these cases, I came away from the discussions with new things to think about (for example, I no longer ban the use of cellphones in my classes, given some interesting arguments that were raised in response to the latter post.)  Nevertheless, both posts gave me a string of sleepless nights, and I now find myself hesitating to hit “Publish” whenever a post veers into provocative territory.

Password-protecting your blog, so that you choose your readers, is one solution.  The cost is that you lose out on connections you can make with educators all over the globe.  I wasn’t ready to give up those connections, so I accepted that writing for the online public requires a thick skin.  I also avoided arguing with rude commenters, while taking pains to identify anything valuable in their perspectives.  If things got really out of hand, I deleted comments or shut down the comments section altogether.

The advantages of keeping a blog about teaching far outweigh the costs.  When I feel overwhelmed by a teaching dilemma, I write about it.  This gives me some distance, and often leads to helpful feedback.  In my darkest classroom moments, I remind myself, “This is all material.”  And it’s not just material for writing.  Through the blog, I both document and create my own learning.  And when I need to be reminded of what I’ve learned, the blog is always there, like a good set of classroom notes.

If you’re interested in keeping a blog, you might want to visit a host site like WordPress.com or Blogger.com to check out how it all works.

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Do you keep a blog?  If so, how does it help you?  If not, would you consider doing so?

Thanks so much for following this series!  Please tell me what you’ve thought.  Has anything in these posts been helpful?  Would you take issue with any of my actions or conclusions?  I’d love to know your reactions.

 Previous posts in this series:

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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 Marja Flick-Buijs

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 6: Meditate

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

I have a confession to make.  I’m a bad meditator.

Meditation is incredibly boring.  Everything in me resists doing it, and I can avoid it for months.  If I don’t meditate first thing in the morning, I won’t do it at all.  When I wake up, however, meditation is at the absolute bottom of the list of things I want to do.  (Second from the bottom is going for a run; if I have to choose, the run wins.)

Nevertheless, if I hadn’t started practicing meditation, I doubt I’d still be a teacher.

I’m probably not the only person in the world who spends a lot of time in mental conversation with people who aren’t there.  (I might be unusual in that I also have these conversations out loud, with nobody, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)  When, for example, a student is driving me crazy, I spend a lot of time talking to him even though he’s not around.  I lie awake at night having furious arguments with him.  I practice, over and over, how I’m going to react the next time he does whatever he did this morning.

This can have positive results; I sometimes come to solutions by wrestling with problems this way.  My methods, however, usually outweigh their usefulness.

My anxiety about things that aren’t happening right now used to be even more intense than it is now.  I often found myself knotted up about something a student had done three years before, a student whose whereabouts were unknown to me now.  I projected all sorts of catastrophes onto the coming semester, and the projection could be self-fulfilling: I walked into the classroom tense and defensive, and this caused problems.

Then I began to meditate.

The central principle in Buddhist meditation is “dwelling in the present moment.”  The practice goes like this: you sit in a (relatively) comfortable, erect position on a cushion or chair.  You half-close your eyes, drawing your gaze close to you.  You place your attention on your breath: you breathe in with the awareness that you are breathing in, and breathe out knowing you are breathing out.  You do this for ten minutes, forty minutes, an hour, or as many hours as you are told to.

Inevitably, your mind wanders.  You start making a grocery list, arguing with someone who irritated you earlier that day, or fantasizing about the good-looking person sitting on the cushion in front of you.  When you notice that your mind has wandered off this way, you gently label your mental activity by saying “thinking” to yourself (silently), and then you draw your attention back to your breath.  Until it wanders off again.

There are many other, more advanced, meditation practices, but this is the basic one.  It’s incredibly simple, and yet incredibly difficult.

I read a few books on meditation, and took some courses at my local Shambhala centre.  At first, I had trouble fitting my sitting practice into my daily routine.  Then, during one of my meditation courses, a teacher said that meditating for ten minutes every day is better that not meditating at all.

When I heard that, I committed to sitting for ten minutes every morning before I left the house.  For ten minutes, I practiced paying close attention to the only thing that was happening: my breath going in, and my breath going out.

And then, something remarkable happened.  Just as I focused attention on my breath when I was sitting, I found myself focusing attention on the actions of students and my emotional responses when they were happening.  Instead of brooding and scheming, I cultivated my curiosity.  “Look what just happened!  I wonder what will happen next?”

If a student was making me crazy by talking in class, my natural tendency was to freeze, to second-guess myself, to hesitate.  What if I told her to stop, and she got angry?  What if she still talked and I had to do something further, and then she hated me, and said something rude in response?  Would it prove once and for all that I was a bad teacher?

As I practiced meditating, though, I found myself able to say, “Jennie, your continual talking is making me furious.  If you can’t stop talking, you’ll need to leave the class.”  I simply responded in the moment, and waited to see what the consequences were, and responded to them when they arrived.  “Look at that!” I would think.  “Farid just said something rude.  What does one do when a student says something rude?  Let’s try saying, ‘Farid, that was a rude thing to say.  Did you intend to be rude, or were you just not thinking?’  And then let’s see what happens.”

Through practicing meditation, I’m learning to experience the world and my students much more directly, with a fresh, inquisitive perspective.  A lot of exciting stuff has started to happen as a result, including a lot of learning.  Mine and theirs.

In the past couple of years, my meditation practice has become spotty: I tend to turn to it when my anxiety is spinning out of control, instead of maintaining a steady practice.  I’d like to ease myself back into it.  Meditating makes me a better teacher, and a better person.  And the world and the classroom are very interesting places when you experience them moment by moment, exactly as they are.

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Leave a comment!  In what ways have your spiritual/contemplative/religious practices helped you in your job?  I’d love to hear from you.

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Previous posts in this series:

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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 Penny Matthews

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 5: Get More Training

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

One advantage of being a teacher is that it’s easy to keep learning, and learning, and learning.

I got my education degree years ago, specializing in Teaching English as a Second Language.  It was one of the most useful things I’ve done with my life.  It was also one of my most enjoyable experiences.  The program I chose (at Concordia University in Montreal ) was collegial, well-organized and both theoretical and practical.  I made a lot of good friends who were serious about becoming great teachers.

When I began teaching CEGEP, I was grateful to have done some formal educational training.  (An education degree is not required for CEGEP teachers; we need only have a Masters in our discipline.)  Years later, when I began to burn out, I spent some time thinking fondly of the days of my education studies.  There’d been hardships during my time as an education student – personal problems, a difficult high-school internship – so it hadn’t all been rosy.  Also, I’d taught in various contexts before beginning my degree, so I hadn’t had any illusions about life in the classroom.  But I’d loved being a student, and I’d loved learning how to be a better teacher.

Now, as a discouraged mid-career teacher, it occurred to me that getting more training might be one way to overcome my fatigue and bitterness.

I went about furthering my education in three ways.  If you’re a teacher who needs to refresh your perspective, you might want to investigate possibilities like these.

1. Formal schooling

CEGEP teachers have the option of pursuing a Diploma or Masters in Education, specializing in college teaching, through a program called the Master Teacher Program.  Professional development funds pay the tuition, and teachers usually do one course per term in order to maintain a manageable workload.  The courses offer a balance between theory and practical application, something I appreciated while doing my B.Ed.

I signed up, and was lucky enough to land an excellent teacher – one of my senior colleagues – in my first course.  There’s been no looking back.  I have completed ten of the courses and intend to follow the Masters program through to the end.

Not only has more formal schooling given me the chance to train, it has also reminded me of what it’s like to be a student.  Teachers can forget how it feels to be on the other side of the desk: finding time for homework, worrying about grades, fretting over the things we don’t understand.  Spending some time in our students’ shoes can change our perception of them and help us with our patience.

2. Reading

I began reading education blogs, searching for stories and advice from other teachers who were having difficulties.  The blogs themselves were immensely helpful, but in addition, they often recommended books on subjects I was interested in investigating further.

Also, the short readings I was doing in my Master Teacher Program sometimes inspired me to seek out the original, complete texts.  I began accumulating a library of books on education.  Over time, classroom problems sent me running back to that bookshelf; there was almost always a volume I could pull down that offered me some useful ideas.

Here are a few books that have helped me in tackling classroom issues and understanding my difficulties:

…and, always:

3. Collaboration

I’d always been prone to playing hooky on pedagogical days and ignoring memos about workshops and forums.  I realized I needed to invest more in the chances I had to bone up on new or rusty skills.  I began noting upcoming training sessions in my agenda and trying to attend one once a month or so.  Workshops ranged from roundtable discussions on classroom management issues to training sessions in using classroom technology.  I learned stuff, and I got to spend time with other teachers wanting to learn stuff.  It was invigorating.

I’ve slacked away from such activities in the last year or two, but I have good intentions of investing more in them again once once some personal matters settle.  It’s all very well to focus energy on the day-to-day nitty-gritty of running our classrooms, but some time collaborating with our colleagues so we can all learn more is always time well spent.

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One of the advantages of being a teacher is that we can, if we’re open to it, learn many, many new things every day.  This happens naturally, because we regularly meet new people and deal with unfamiliar situations.  However, sometimes we need to make a more formal commitment to training ourselves.  If you need to freshen up your classroom attitude, consider a skill that you don’t have or that you’ve let stagnate.  Do you need to assert yourself more?  Are you avoiding technology in your classroom? Are you behind on trends in your field?  There’s probably a course you can take, a book you can read, or a workshop you can sign up for.  In my experience, being a student can do a teacher a lot of good.

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Leave a comment!  How have you upgraded your skills and kept learning in your job?  How would you like to?  We’d love to hear from you.

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Previous posts in this series:

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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 Michal Zacharzewski

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 4: Face Your Fears

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

When I first started teaching, I was scared.  Terrified, in fact.

I’d taken a job as a Second Language Monitor – a sort of assistant language teacher – in a small elementary school in Ottawa, where I was finishing my bachelor’s degree.  I’d never had any intention of becoming a teacher, but this was a well-paid part-time government position that would look excellent on a CV and that was designed for university students, leaving time for our studies.

I had terrible stage fright.  However, I told myself: It’s just a job.  If it’s terrible, I can quit.

As it turned out, it was not terrible.  Within a few weeks, my fear had turned to delight.  Not only did I not quit, but when my contract ran out in April, I stayed on until June as a volunteer, coming in to the school five days a week when I could.

Since then, the stages of my teaching career have all been touched by fear.

  1. I moved to a small town in Quebec to work full-time as a Language Monitor.  I was afraid I’d be lonely, but my job consumed me and I had no time for loneliness.
  2. While doing my education degree, I took an internship in a school for disadvantaged students.  I went to work every day terrified of the chaos that was bound to happen.  It did happen, but I survived, and at the end of my stage the students gave me a list of pointers on being a better teacher (“Be more strict!”  “Don’t take any crap!”)
  3. I took a job giving private English lessons in offices all over Montreal.  I was nervous about navigating public transit to distant areas of the city.  In the process, I got to see places I might never have traveled to otherwise.
  4. I moved to Japan to teach junior high school; I spent every day worried about some unfamiliar task I would need to accomplish.  I learned more there than at any other time in my life.
  5. Before I began teaching CEGEP, I worked as a substitute public school teacher.  Many days I woke up petrified of what was in store: a school I’d never been to, in a part of the city I’d never visited, with students who believed that giving me hell was their responsibility.  I told myself, “It’s good to do things that scare me.”  And some days were awful, but I always learned something.

When I began teaching CEGEP, I wasn’t scared.  I had a lot of teaching experience.  I was excited about teaching literature after so many years of focusing on ESL.  I found my young adult students interesting, and enjoyed being around them.

However, as the years passed and I became more and more tired and unhappy, I realized that I was becoming afraid of walking into the classroom.

My fear was the result of trauma.  Regardless of how many terrific students I had, I was confused by the students who cheated, spoke to me rudely, or refused to engage.  I’d had difficult students before, but I’d had more time and energy to break through their defenses.  Now, I was taking negative attitudes personally, and I was hurt.  I shut down, put up walls, and held all my students at arm’s length, to avoid feeling victimized.

My fears were threefold:

  1. Fear of being disliked.  In the past, most students had liked me.  I was young; I was good-looking “for a teacher;” I really cared about them and their success.  In most of my teaching jobs, I wasn’t responsible for grading or disciplining students; I’d rarely been obliged to say “no.”  All this had changed.
  2. Fear of confrontation.  In life, as in the classroom, I detest fights.  Aggression and displays of anger upset me deeply.  When I’m angry, I become icy cold.  When faced with inappropriate behavior – whether in a student or a friend – I tend to ignore it, at least outwardly, although I can stew about it for years.  I was afraid of confronting students who behaved inappropriately; I froze them out and ignored them, and this made things worse.
  3. Fear of doing a bad job.  My sense of identity was now tied to being a “good teacher.”  However, my definition of “good teacher” wasn’t accurate.  Until now, I’d rarely considered how much my students were learning – instead, I was concerned about whether they were enjoying themselves, and me.  I was afraid that if my students didn’t all love me, I wasn’t good at my job.  But of course, this isn’t true.  My job is to help them learn, not to win their approval.

Identifying these fears was a major step in recovering from my burnout.  As I unpacked them, I realized that I needed to change my conception of “good teaching,” I needed to confront classroom difficulties head-on, and I needed to let go of the fantasy that I’d one day walk into the classroom with total confidence that everything would go well.

Fear is a part of any important work.  We don’t need to get over it, but we may need to change our approach to it.  In my next post, I’ll discuss one way I tried to deal with my fears: I got more training.

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Have you had to confront particular fears in the course of your job?  How successful have you been in doing so?  I’d love to hear your stories.

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Previous posts in this series:

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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 Scott Liddell

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

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 2: Take Time Off

One of my favourite quotes about burnout is from Bertrand Russell’s essay “Education and Discipline”:

 … it is utterly impossible for over-worked teachers to preserve an instinctive liking for children; they are bound to come to feel towards them as the proverbial confectioner’s apprentice does towards macaroons. I do not think that education ought to be anyone’s whole profession: it should be undertaken for at most two hours a day by people whose remaining hours are spent away from children.

 In Thursday’s post, I described the “confectioner’s apprentice” moment in my career.  I no longer enjoyed anything about my students.  It was as though I’d been eating nothing but macaroons for fifteen years; I never wanted to see a macaroon again. Maybe if I got away from the macaroons, I would remember what I’d liked about them in the first place.

I had to step away from the classroom.

I decided to apply for government arts grants to fund a semester of work on my current novel.  If I got one, I would take a professional leave.  This was a state of emergency, however; I needed a break NOW, and, the likelihood of receiving an arts grant being what it is, I needed a contingency plan.

The Husband (then the Fiancé) and I had a talk.  If I didn’t receive funding, but could put aside a bit of money, would he be willing to pick up the slack while I took time off?  He knew the situation was desperate, and he said yes, we’d manage.  If I’d been on my own, or if we’d had children to support, I would have had to find another solution – applying for a temporary non-teaching job, for example, or putting off a leave until I had savings.  But one way or another, it had to be done if I wanted to continue being a teacher.

He began stockpiling.  (That’s the kind of husband he is; I recommend you get one just like him.)  I began to budget as well, and it soon became clear that we’d be able to pull it off.

And then, an arts grant came through.  I would be able to take a semester, plus summer and winter vacation – a full eight months – away from the classroom with minimal financial worries.

From the moment I opened the letter of acceptance, I began to feel the healing effects.  For the rest of the term, I could see the quiet months of solitary writing work waiting for me, just a few steps away.  Classroom difficulties, no matter how I handled them, would vanish in a matter of weeks.  Everything became less dire.

When the semester was over, the papers were graded, and my leave began, I was already dreading returning to work the following January.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that the leave was going to vanish from under me, and I’d be back in the classroom, gritting my teeth and snarling and counting the days to retirement.  It was weeks before I could relax enough to take my novel manuscript out of its drawer and begin work on it again.

As time passed, though, and I settled into the rhythms of writing, my teaching life began to dissolve like a dream.  I occasionally read an article or had a conversation about teaching, and impressed myself with my calm and detachment.  I considered past classroom problems, and potential future ones, with very little visceral response.

This, I thought, is what people mean by a “vacation.”  I hadn’t had one in years.

It took almost five months for the teaching cobwebs to blow out of the corners of my brain, and by the time they had, it was almost time to start preparing to return to work.  To my surprise, I found myself looking forward to it.  My course schedules gave me prickles of excitement.  I logged into the online class lists and looked over the pages of student photos – I felt a bit anxious, but I didn’t feel dread.  And in the weeks before class began, I didn’t have my usual “teacher nightmares” – dreams of broken photocopiers, vanishing classrooms, standing pyjama-clad in front of forty shouting hellions.  Instead, I felt – was I kidding myself? – eager.

As I entered each of my new classes on the first day, I smiled sincerely at the students.  I really was glad to see them.  I think they could tell.

Throughout the term, there were difficulties, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed.  It was as though stepping away from the teaching life had made everything about it – the class periods, the distance between midterm break and Easter weekend, the stacks of essays, the occasional belligerent student – smaller.

It was the best semester I’d had in many years.  I was on my way to loving my job for the long term – if I could continue to get away from the macaroons from time to time.

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If you’re a teacher who’s feeling exhausted, you might want to investigate your school’s options for leaves.  At my college, teachers can take unpaid leaves if we give appropriate notice.  Tenured teachers can also arrange for “advance” or “deferred” salary – for example, we can spread two years’ pay over three years – or apply for a reduced workload.  All these options have consequences for our pension, health insurance, seniority and, of course, income, but teachers who are able to accept those consequences can take steps toward greater sanity and efficacy.

If your school allows personal leaves, no questions asked, consider an aspect of your identity that’s been dormant while you’ve been giving your all to the classroom.  Do you have a manuscript languishing in a cabinet?  Do you need to spend a few months on a meditation retreat?  If your school will only grant “professional leaves,” consider a project you’d like to undertake that you can spin as “professional development,” like travel or going back to school.

And then, of course, consider how you’re going to pay for it.  If you can swing it, it will be totally worth it.

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Have you ever considered taking time away from your job?  Did you do it?  Why or why not?  Did it help?  Do you have advice for the rest of us?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday’s post: finding and appreciating my community.

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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 Michal Zacharzewski

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 1: Take Stock. Is It Worth It?

This is the second post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.  For the introductory post, go here.

On Monday, I introduced my career crisis.  After teaching joyfully for many years, I was tired, discouraged and ready to quit.

But I paused before throwing in the towel.  I took a deep breath, and took stock.  Was it really time to look for a new job?

I asked myself some questions.  You might want to consider them, too.

 1.  Are these feelings new?

For years, the classroom had felt like my natural habitat: a place where I was more comfortable than almost anywhere else.  Even if a lesson was disastrous, I was INTERESTED in the disaster and how it had happened.  My students fascinated me, and I wanted to know and help them as much as possible.  This had changed only recently: I was now so irritated by students who were disruptive or disengaged that I was failing to appreciate everyone else.

I’d loved my job once.  Maybe I could again.

2. Do I (still) love what I teach? 

 Was it possible that I still loved teaching but would rather be teaching another subject?

I continued to love language and literature, but I was now less interested in fiction, my area of greatest expertise, and more intrigued by personal narrative.  I asked myself if I could incorporate more of these kinds of texts into my lessons.

I also asked myself – perhaps for the first time – why I thought literature should be important to my students.  Why should we read, write, study and analyze texts?  Did these activities have real value for students like mine, who rarely read for pleasure and who often resented being asked to engage with literature?  Could I do more to communicate my passion about these topics?

 3.  How much do I hate grading?

 I rarely meet a teacher who has anything good to say about grading.  However, some teachers find the pressures of marking so crushing that they leave the profession.  Teachers of literature, and other subjects that require mostly essay writing, are especially vulnerable, as are conscientious teachers who feel compelled to give students lots of detailed feedback.

One dedicated English teacher I know left on maternity leave and continually found excuses not to return, saying she might never go back to teaching because the thought of grading mountains of essays caused her to curl up into a fetal ball. Retired friends talked about how they missed everything about teaching but the marking.  It wasn’t just me.  Grading papers is brutal.

My own hatred of grading had gone from a normal aversion to two extreme physical reactions.  For one, I had developed a repetitive strain injury in my hand, arm and neck – it had first manifested a few years before, the result of compulsive journal writing, but it was now so painful to write by hand that I avoided it at all costs, even at the expense of grocery lists and phone messages.  I had also seen an old problem reassert itself: hyperventilation.  I was literally suffocating each time a pile of papers landed on my desk.

I would have to find ways to cut down on the grading.  If this proved possible, I might be able to stay.

 4.  How do I feel about my work environment?

 When I talked to friends (teachers and others) who were dissatisfied with their jobs, a number of them told me, “I love what I’m doing, but my workplace is toxic.  I can’t stand my manager/my colleagues/the administration…”

One evening a few years ago, I called a friend, in tears over a student who was making my life hell.  She responded, “Imagine how you’d feel if the a**hole you were crying about was your boss.”

Her point was clear.  The staff, faculty and management at my college were supportive.  We often took refuge together in offices, union lounges and bars, talking about our difficulties or just enjoying one another’s company.  (For example, if you’d like to know how print shop employees can fill your life with sunshine, go here.)

A positive work environment is precious, and rare.  Did I want to give it up?

 5.  Teaching has many secondary advantages.  How important are they? 

Besides being around young people and taking pride in what we do for them, there are other perks to being a teacher.  These often include long vacations (even after the grading and prepping), flexible work schedules (we can do some of our work at home in our pyjamas), autonomy (in our classrooms, we call many of the shots), and eventually, job security (turning one’s back on a tenured/senior position is no joke.)

It’s important to me to have stretches of time to work on my own projects like fiction writing, studying, and blogging.  Creative and stimulating jobs are often less than financially stable.  When I fantasized about other possible careers – writing full-time, going to culinary school – I couldn’t imagine one in which security, freedom, inspiration and emotional reward would be so balanced.

Jobs are hard.  Period.  My teaching job was, by all objective and subjective measures, a good job.  Did I really think I would find a better one?

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We all know bitter, unsatisfied teachers.  The world doesn’t need more of them.  If I’d come to the conclusion that I didn’t like teaching, I’d have begun looking for other work.

However, this first step – taking stock of my real feelings – made one thing clear: teaching suited me.  There were serious challenges that sometimes seemed like too much to handle, but they were balanced by the rewards: the chance to do something meaningful, to be comfortably paid for it, to have time to myself, to engage with material that mattered to me, and to work with people I liked and respected.  I wasn’t done.  I was just tired.

I didn’t want to quit; I wanted a new attitude.  What I needed, I realized, was a break.  In my next post, I’ll tell you how I got one, and how it helped.

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Have you ever considered leaving your job?  What questions did you ask yourself?  What were your conclusions?  Do you have advice for the rest of us?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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 Michal Zacharzewski

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Introduction

A few years ago, I was ready to quit my teaching job.  But I didn’t.

I’ve been a teacher in some capacity for twenty-three years.  I fell in love with the profession when I was a college student and landed a part-time job as an assistant language teacher in an elementary school.  I was sure that I had found my vocation – that teaching would be a source of both income and happiness for the rest of my life.

I took an education degree and got jobs teaching English overseas and in Quebec.  Despite the difficulties I encountered, my dedication to the job never wavered.  Teaching inspired me.  The emotional rewards were immediate and powerful; the challenges were opportunities to learn and grow.

In 2001, I finished my Masters degree and began teaching English literature at a CEGEP.  Within a short time, I had tenure.  And for the first few years, my love of teaching persisted.

But teaching CEGEP was different from my previous jobs.  The responsibilities were greater, the marking load was enormous, and I faced many more classroom management problems than I expected.  Students cheated.  They failed and demanded that I give them second chances.  They lacked motivation and refused to follow directions, or were blatantly disrespectful and disruptive.

In the past, I’d found these pedagogical challenges interesting, but as the years passed, I became more and more tired, anxious, and discouraged.  The rewards seemed to diminish in proportion to the difficulties.  I began dreading the start of the school year, dreading Monday morning, dreading each class.  At 35, I began counting the semesters until I could retire.  And then I began concocting plans to leave teaching and pursue some other career.

But then I stopped.  I took some time to reflect.  I took some time off.  I looked around at what I had.  I examined what was really at the root of my problem.  I investigated ways to strengthen my skills and commitment.  I found methods to calm my mind and fortify my heart.  And I started to meticulously document my experiences, reactions, and options.

Now, a few years later, I’ve renewed my commitment to teaching.  I haven’t returned to my initial, giddy infatuation with my job; instead, I’ve developed a deeper and more sustainable understanding of my role and its rewards.  I don’t know for sure that I’ll be a teacher forever, but I know that I have a lot more years in me.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll outline some of the steps I took to regain my love of teaching:

Stay tuned!  Maybe my experience will shed some light on yours, no matter what your profession.  What’s more, I’ll present some general questions for you to consider if you are wondering how to love your job more/again/for the first time.

And please leave comments about your own path.  Have you struggled with whether your career is the right one for you?  Are you deliberating this now, or have you resolved the dilemma?  If you’re just embarking on your professional life, what are you going to do or stay motivated?  We’d love to hear your stories.

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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 tinneketin