09/17/2018 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

10 Ways to Stay Fresh This School Year

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Last month, we blogged about noting a couple of educators who have left the profession, feeling beat up by the pressure and workload. In that piece, we encouraged schools to think more about the physical and social-emotional health of both students and teachers — and consider what they can do to support both.

It occurred to us afterward that we ought to take the next step this month and see what sage advice is out there — especially now, at the start of a new school year — for what teachers can do to maintain their vitality and enthusiasm. What we all know, of course, is that teachers carry a heavy load every semester — usually four or five classes, along with other essential duties and, in many cases, coaching or extra-curricular assignments. The work is constant while school is in session, but it also stretches into afternoons and evenings, sometimes late into the night. Teachers who coach are also busy on weekends. In short, the research makes clear that teachers are thus more at risk of burnout than most professionals.

We suppose there are numerous sources of burnout for all of us, but three key forms of burnout include being worn out and no longer able to deal with the stress of the job; working too hard and hitting the wall of exhaustion; and not being challenged enough on a job, eventually getting bored and restless. While the former two are more typical, the latter form of burnout is not unheard of in the teaching profession. More often than not, we’re inclined to work hard when we believe in the work and feel supported. When either of these factors disappears, burnout is waiting to greet us at the corner with a wry smile.

We know there are books dedicated to this subject. Here, we thought we’d offer some advice gleaned from friends, colleagues, educators we know, and from some of the better writing in the field.

So…how do teachers preserve their vitality?

#1 Take Care of Yourself

Let’s start with the boilerplate advice. Your physical and cognitive health always matter. Get your sleep, eat well, and exercise regularly. This advice, of course, is for all of us in all professions. But it’s particularly important that educators take care of themselves physically, mentally and spiritually. We know many teachers who say they run regularly to develop physical stamina and to unwind the tensions that go with the job. Others practice yoga. Some surf. One educator we know meditates every morning before leaving for school. “I want to make sure I’m centered when I leave the house,” he says, “so I can handle whatever the day brings.” Taking care of these essentials is a way to help you greet each day with energy. Eat well. Find your form of physical engagement. Find your way to stay mentally sharp and at (relative) peace.

#2 Engage with Family and Friends

It’s important to have people in your life with whom you can unwind. Teachers need some form of steady presence. It can be friends — especially friends who aren’t teachers — companions, or family members. If you are married or have a life partner, preserve one night a week for going out to dinner, seeing a movie, or connecting with friends. Isolation is a source of loneliness, which in turn makes one resent the working life. As a recent research report makes clear, “The less social support the teacher experienced, the higher was her level of burnout.” Regularly connecting with people you care for keeps you more positive about each day.

#3 Stay Connected to the Field

While it’s important that teachers protect their free time — or the core of it — staying fresh is not always about doing less work. Many educators find they generate energy and enthusiasm for teaching by staying engaged in their own learning and growth as teachers. When we feel like experts, we are not only better at what we do, we also feel more committed to our work. Be sure to build in time for professional reading, professional connections, workshops, and conferences that most excite you. The focus can be about your area of expertise or more generally about education — especially the new brain-science research. Don’t over-commit, but also don’t disengage. Don’t let the work feel flat.

#4 Find Your Colleagues

Teaching often feels isolating. You are the only adult in a room full of kids all day, every day. No matter how much you love them, they are kids. Find opportunities to connect with like-minded adults during the day. If you are a young teacher or a teacher new to the profession, find a mentor.  This is particularly true for teachers trying to manage the difficult learning curve of teaching for the first time. But even mid-career teachers can benefit from a mentor — or simply a colleague with a high EQ who can serve as a sounding board and professional friend. Some teachers also find energy by team-teaching with a trusted colleague. It can feel reassuring to not be the only adult in the room. A flip side to this advice is to not get caught up in the negativity. We all get to complain from time to time. It’s good to occasionally vent. But ongoing negativity can become a bad habit and always drains the batteries.

#5 Change Up Your Curriculum

If you feel your classes are growing dull — to you or the students — it’s worth exploring new classroom practices and changing up your curriculum. The goal is to find ways to keep the classroom mood lively and engaging, keep the spirit light. You want to engage students in the art of wonder, of discovering and discussing new things. Revamp and update old lesson plans. Generate new ones. Add new material. Invite experts to your classroom. Better yet, give your students opportunities to lead, to take on interesting project-based studies, or even teach you a thing or two. The more you and your students can look forward to entering the classroom each day, the better. Remember that old canard about not smiling until Christmas? It’s always OK to smile.

#6 Keep Some Summertime Open

Many teachers work other jobs in the summer — or teach in a summer program. Often, teachers have to take on these jobs to pay their bills. But if you are feeling stressed out, at least say no to summer teaching. The best way to stay fresh is to get away from your work for a while, do something else. Take a summer job unrelated to teaching or be self-indulgent and pursue any kind of personal passion. Travel. Cook. Hike. Go bird watching. Enter a triathlon. Read for hours on a deck overlooking a mountain lake. Whatever gives you pleasure. Every moment of your life should not be dedicated to teaching or thinking about teaching. Clear the mind and you can return refreshed.

#7 Turn Down the Worry Meter

Remember, you are not responsible with saving the world. We know you care. We know you want every child to reach his or her full potential, and for the next generation to shine. It’s important to teach in a way that reflects your values. You need to feel authentic. You need to be committed. But not every day will go well, and you can’t save every student. And, anyway, sometimes the ones you think you couldn’t save may come back to learning later and be just fine in life. This is not to suggest that you should give up on any student. It just means that you aren’t the sole owner of your students’ success. So chill a bit. We know that it can be hard to let go of the workday when you get home, but let go of the workday when you get home. Turn down the worry meter. Stay away from work email at night, too, if you can.

#8 Protect Yourself

One list we read includes the simple suggestion: Demand respect. There are times when, as teachers, we feel disrespected by students or parents or colleagues or the school administration. If you feel that way, it’s important to stand up for yourself. If you feel particularly beat up by parents, you should also engage the support of your supervisor. You won’t resolve every situation to everyone’s satisfaction, but you shouldn’t be the one taking all the hits, absorbing everyone else’s anxieties. Under this heading is the parallel advise: Tell your internal critic to be kinder. Recognize what you do well. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to compare yourself to or try to imitate other teachers. Just be the best version of yourself.

#9 Go Back to School

Go back to school? It sounds counterintuitive in such a busy profession. But going back to school for a master’s or even a Ph.D. program can renew your interest in the work. Yes, it will be taxing for a while. It can be a challenge to manage teaching and learning simultaneously. But it gives you a positive goal to strive for, and the pay-off is great. There are also excellent programs for independent school educators at the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Vanderbilt University, among other programs. By engaging in high-quality programs you learn new skills and build new lifelong relations with other educators.

#10 Change Paths

There are often opportunities to grow and advance within a single school. But if you feel as if you’ve come to the end of the road at one school, you don’t need to soldier on. Know that there are schools out there where you’ll be welcomed and appreciated. A change of scene — or school — can be a way to renew one’s commitment to the teaching profession. If you really want to mix things up, try teaching overseas for a year or two. CS&A works with many schools abroad, in addition to hundreds of schools in the United States. If you're not already a job-seeking candidate with us, apply today — even if just to see what's out there.

Any tips of your own to add to our list? Let us know in the comments below!

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