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How Can Educators Prevent—Or Recover From—Burnout?

Three Ways that School Leaders Can Protect Teachers from Burnout

By Joseph Jones, TJ Vari, Connie Hamilton

Difficult to pinpoint and often unrecognized at first, burnout creeps in as fatigue, distraction, and even frustration. As that happens, purpose and certainty are pushed out. If teachers cannot get fulfillment through the positive emotional connections that they make at work to reassure them that they are making a difference, we have a perfect recipe for stress and anxiety.

While the antidote is not simple, school leaders can reduce burnout by starting with these three areas:

Eliminate time wasters

Meetings and even professional development should be seriously considered to ensure they are a productive use of teachers’ time. If these items can be completed in fewer minutes or they’re not tied to the strategic plan, default to placing them on the back-burner, canceling them, or making them optional. Teacher capacity building is a must, but too many time wasters can cause burnout fast.

Increase support

It’s common to hear that we need to address “unfinished learning,” “social and emotional needs,” and other ongoing residuals of the pandemic, but too much of these can easily fall squarely on the classroom teachers to tackle. It is imperative that support personnel, such as counselors, interventionists, and mentors, are teaming with classroom teachers to address students’ needs, and that this work is not left to the teachers alone.

Encourage connections and sharing

Collaborative conversations should center on teaching and learning and also leave room for colleagues to support one another emotionally. It’s possible to create repositories of highly effective and engaging lesson plans and other resources so that we share the workload rather than everyone doing the same work in silos.

The reality is that there is no silver bullet to eliminate burnout. However, teaching is a people business; if we want to prevent or alleviate teacher burnout, we have to lead with actions that show empathy and commit to supporting the people who spend the most time with our students.

It is imperative that support personnel, such as counselors, interventionists, and mentors, are teaming with classroom teachers to address students’ needs.

Use Success Criteria in Meetings to Deepen Understanding and Connection

By Peter DeWitt

When teachers and leaders feel disconnected from their learning communities, it increases their level of stress and anxiety, which has been a consistent issue as of late. In order to develop collective efficacy, which is a shared commitment that a team can have a positive impact on student achievement (Hattie, Donohoo, DeWitt. 2020) I find that one of the most profound methods to develop a strong connection is the use of success criteria at the beginning of every meeting to elevate the voices of those within the learning community.

In instructional leadership teams, guiding coalitions, and faculty meetings, success criteria can be used by those leading the meeting to help create a deeper learning experience for the educators and leaders in the room.

For example, in my role as a leadership coach, where our sessions are often one of a dozen meetings leaders may face in a day, I begin by sharing some of the learning that I would like to focus on, which is tied to their academic goals. I ask leaders to share what they want to learn while together in order to help them understand their voices and input matters.

Much like large faculty meetings, there are workshops I facilitate that have several hundred teachers and leaders in the room. For those sessions I use Mentimeter, which is an online engagement tool that allows educators in the room to be anonymous. In faculty meetings, Mentimeter may provide a way to ensure that participants are able to share what they want to learn, which often revolves around engagement, instructional strategies, and school climate.

Developing success criteria with the people within our learning community provides a space for them to give input about the learning they would like to engage in while together, and it provides an opportunity for leaders and teachers to feel connected.

Use of success criteria at the beginning of every meeting to elevate the voices of those within the learning community.

Take Small Steps With People Who Bring You Joy

By Justin Cohen

There’s nothing worse than that feeling of a sinking stomach on Sunday night, the all too poignant manifestation of the looming anxiety accompanying the inevitable return to a job that no longer brings you joy. I’ve had that feeling many times in my professional life, and after several years of watching education officials and government leaders stumble through managing the pandemic, it’s no surprise that our country’s teachers are feeling a similar sensation.

When your job feels unbearable, you’re trapped in a downward spiral, where every new input seems like further evidence of how bad things have gotten. Whole faculties now share in the gloom, exacerbating the burnout crisis, while feeding back into our individual doom cycles.

In a situation like this, one of the only things you can do is take baby steps in the other direction.

Small steps are important, because there’s no way to fix everything at once … not at a school, not in other professions, nor, for that matter, in a marriage or a family. What is in your power, though, is to look at the things in your control, and start doing some of them differently.

Like, right now.

Better yet, find the one or two other people in your school who can still make you laugh, and commit to doing something differently with that small crew.

It doesn’t matter what you pick: it could be a silly morning routine with kids that makes you giggle, a new way of introducing math concepts, or even a creative classroom poster wall. It’s best if you pick something your crew can do quickly, like within the school week. After you do the new thing, make time to talk about how doing that thing made you feel, and whether or not you want to keep doing it.

I know what I’m describing doesn’t SOUND revolutionary, but that’s kind of the point. When the vibe is off, you can’t just snap your fingers and fix everything all at once. You have to find a doable, human-centered way to reverse the momentum.

Once you start doing that, maybe other folks will see that something is happening and join you. THEN we can start talking about revolutionary change.

Find the one or two other people in your school who can still make you laugh, and commit to doing something differently with that small crew.


References:

Hattie, J.; Donohoo, J.; DeWitt, P. (2020). Understanding Impact to Foster Collective Efficacy. Principal Connections. Ontario Principal’s Association. Winter 2020. Volume 24. Issue 2.

Written by

Connie Hamilton, Joseph Jones, and T.J. Vari are the co-authors of the new book 7 Mindshifts for School Leaders: Finding New Ways to Think About Old Problems.

Peter DeWitt is a bestselling author, school leadership coach, and host of the podcast Leaders Coaching Leaders. Peter’s latest book is De-implementation: Creating the Space to Focus on What Works.

Justin Cohen is a writer, organizer, and activist whose work explores how education, race, privilege, and public policy intersect. He is the author of Change Agents: Transforming Schools From the Ground Up.

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