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