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.
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.
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?
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.
Previous posts in this series:
- How I Saved My Teaching Career: Introduction
- How I Saved My Teaching Career: Part 1: Take Stock. Is it Worth it to Stay?
- How I Saved My Teaching Career: Part 2: Take Time Off
Next post: facing my fears.
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