What to do when teachers minds are full and not ‘mindful’.
When reading research journals on teacher burnout, you will see student behaviour as one of the causes of burnout on the first page. If you are unlucky enough to experience it, Burnout feels like you have been hit by a truck. Everyone is unique and can experience different symptoms, but burnout can look very much like depression or extreme fatigue. Therefore, theoretically, having effective skills in classroom management can reduce the likelihood of teacher burnout. So that’s a great reason to keep building your classroom management toolbox. See www.eiewa.com for courses on Classroom Management. But what if student behaviour is not the cause of burnout?
I have worked in many schools in different countries over the years and I have seen many teachers either burnt to a crisp or some who are slightly crispy at the edges. Yes, on many of these occasions, student behaviour had a contributing factor, but it was sometimes just the spark to the already gas-filled room. Additional factors that contributed to the buildup of gas was workload and perceived poor leadership. But in most cases, there were external factors also contributing, such as teacher health and family stresses.
Other factors that cause teacher burnout.
I myself have experienced burnout. Reflecting on the buildup and causing factors, I don’t see student behaviour as a causing factor. Having built up my classroom management skillset, I had a full toolbox and I would enjoy the challenge of using the correct one to suit the occasion. So, what then caused me to burst into flames? At the time, I was working at a school that likes to run after shiny things. What I mean by that is they would see a new initiative or framework and run with it. They would try to implement too many new things all at the same time, never-ending. This would overload teachers and leaders and not leave enough time to ensure that core business was done well. Core business being quality lessons and following up with important pastoral and behaviour concerns.
A few years ago, I burnt out big time. I was drowning in marking, emails, reports, meetings and a whirlwind of new fantastic shiny initiatives that leadership thought would benefit the students and grades. Many of them a complete waste of time. I remember having a list of ‘to do’ jobs for the beginning of the week. The jobs kept piling up throughout the week, and I hadn’t even crossed off a single ‘to do’. That sinking overwhelming feeling that the amount of work was too much, that I was not getting enough time with my family, especially my kids and not enough time to look after myself.
Getting vulnerable, my mind was full.
This is where I get very venerable sharing my experience, so be kind. Breaking point. At the end of a particularly tough week, I drove straight to the doctors in tears. I was not really sure that this was the right place for help, but I didn’t know where else to go. I just kept saying to the doctor, ‘I can’t keep going on at this pace’. ‘I think I need a new job’. The doctor was very calm and said, ‘You need to learn how to leave your job at the door’. ‘Yes’, I agreed. I realised I couldn’t switch off my mind. The ‘chitter chatter’ was out of control. I paused and remembered a time when I was totally in control of my minds ‘chitter chatter’. ‘I need to get back to Yoga’, I thought.
Create a plan to tackle burnout.
I had a plan. Instead of anxiety and depression medication that the doctor offered. Or self-medication in the form of daily Sauvignon Blanc by the bottle. I was going to find my Zen and establish my inner calm. I joined a Yoga boutique and attended the meditation and Yin classes. These classes focused on the mind being empty and breathing activities. I also did some research on mindfulness and de-stressing.
I read ‘One Second Ahead’ a book on Mindfulness in the workplace by Rasmus Hougaard. This helped put Mindfulness into practice at work. The worst habit I had was checking my emails before bed. The nightmare parent complaining about their child’s D grade and how it was all my fault. Not because their child had not completed any revision or was too busy doodling instead of completing the tasks set in class. Not the best activity to get you all relaxed to fall asleep.
What is mindfulness?
During my research on mindfulness. I read that mindfulness was the ability to understand and manage my attention, that is, the quality of my attention on one single focus. There is a lot of evidence to suggest multitasking is not good for us. It actually decreases productivity and increases stress. Multi-tasking is where we shift our attention back and forth to more than one thing at any one time. For example, thinking about the marking key to a test during a conversation on student behaviour, sending an email during a telephone conversation. This was something I did all the time. That was it. I had to change the way I worked. But it was going to be hard.
Multi-tasking is something teachers must do to ensure a calm, orderly classroom and a place of learning for all thirty-two individuals. Being a teacher is crazy busy. I use the metaphor, being a teacher in the classroom is like being a Chef in a busy hot kitchen, making sure everything is running smoothly, making sure nothing is burning and sometimes putting out fires.
Teachers can have numerous things happen all at once that demand their attention. An effective teacher can quickly prioritise these demands and ensure there is no fire. For example, a teacher instructing a full, busy classroom of students through a fun activity that involves students walking around the classroom with a question in their hand. On the teacher’s command, they have to find the closest person to them, read them their question and be quizzed on their partner’s question. They then trade questions. This Instructional Strategy, otherwise known as Quiz, Quiz, Trade, may sound like a simple activity to run, but let look at the scenario in more depth.
The teacher has numerous things that are in need of focus. The safe movement of students around the room and any potential tripping hazards. Strategically ensuring that Jane and Sally don’t end up partners as they had a fight last week and that could be disastrous. Then mid-flow comes a knock at the door from the student runner reminding you, ‘You forgot to take the roll’. Simultaneously, one student approaches you, asking to go to the bathroom and another asking you what a word means. Then, from the room’s scan, you see John post his question out of the window just above the principal’s office and think crap!
Multi-tasking is causing us stress.
This gruesome constant multi-tasking in the classroom is exhausting and seriously stressful over long periods of time. But, as teachers, this training of multi-tasking can become the way we are, our way of life. It spills into other areas. We’re thinking about the marking we have to finish, whilst eating dinner with the family. We reply to the parent email whilst watching a movie. We are thinking about the lesson design of our year nine trigonometry class whilst hugging our children goodnight. We’re at the gym whilst thinking about that parent who was ridiculously and unnecessarily rude over the phone. Don’t they realise how hard it is when we don’t get their support! Ok, you get the point.
The research tells us that shifting focus continually and having a ‘mind full’ of stuff, is bad for us. The research is telling us that being ‘mindful’ is good for us, as it improves wellbeing and physical health. This is tricky inside the classroom, however when we are outside the classroom we need to be in control of our focus and being in control of what we focus our attention on. That is if we’re to be healthy, functional human beings. However, bad habits are hard to change. But trust me, if you make a conscious choice to start practicing the art of ‘mindfulness’ outside the classroom your life will change from the constant uncontrollable ‘chitter chatter’ to the feeling of control.
Where to start if you are experiencing teacher burnout.
The starting point is to read about it, practice it and make it part of who you are. I practice Yoga and exercise. Others used Mindful apps. Some just make more of an effort to focus on just one thing at a time and pay attention to all the senses when in that moment. What do I hear, see, smell, taste and feel? Really pay attention to the task at hand.
When I was at the doctor’s with my ugly crying, sobbing about how I feel my job is taking over my life and that I don’t have enough time to spend with my children and I burnout. Maybe I did have enough time for my family, and it was just my focus was elsewhere when I was actually with them and it just felt that way. Now when I am with my children, I purely focus on them, really listen hard to the words they are saying and ask them about it. I cuddle them with purpose and look deeply into their eyes with a clear focus. That is, with my seven-year-old, not my sixteen years old. The most I get out of him is a smile, that’s if I’m lucky. Master your attention; it will change your life.
However, if you work in a school where your health and wellbeing are not considered a priority and long work hours and exhaustion are status symbols and teachers are suffering from burnout. Then you may need to find a school that gives you a work-life balance. Yes, they do exist. Students will benefit more if they are taught by teachers who are healthy in mind and body.
Finding your ‘Why’ may also help with teacher burnout. See here for more info.