The Truth About Teacher Burnout
Any teacher who spends more than three days in a classroom can tell you that we have too many demands on our time and energy. Personally, summer break is one of the only things that saves me from third-degree burnout every year. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t some of the most talented and driven hackers in America’s workforce, y’all.
We know how to take crappy budgets in an underdog job with the most wonderful, deserving young minds and make some real delicious lemonade!
The fundamental truth of productivity in all of our work lives-but especially in teaching-is that our work is never fully done. Our work will fill the space we give it. In order to combat teacher burnout, we must set strong boundaries on our time. Otherwise, our jobs will end up running our lives for us, like it did for me for at least two solid years of my life.
Hello, burnout. NO thank you.
We as teachers need to stop playing victims to the clock and take action against the overwhelm. Here’s how:
It’s time to take ownership of the word NO.
Schools are overburdened with the task of caring for our beautiful children and teachers have believed for too long that if they don’t do it, that no one will.
If I don’t buy it, no one else will. If I don’t volunteer, no one else will.
This is the selfless, strong, beautiful side of teachers. We truly put kids before ourselves. However, there’s a dark side to this that we need to address if we truly want to combat teacher burnout:
We are simultaneously draining our own cups and training others to rely solely on us instead of improving the systems that should serve educators.
Think about the next time you go out and buy a pack of markers for your classroom-what message are you sending your administration when you don’t turn in a receipt for that? How many times have I gone out and replaced the pencil sharpener that my high schoolers keep stealing because the one my high school provides is broken and they “won’t” fix it?
The hard truth is, my kids are not thieves, and I’m not being robbed. I choose to buy sharpeners. I need to put in a work order. Yeah, it might take two weeks, and it’s annoying, but so is complaining over dinner to your family that someone keeps stealing your pencil sharpener.
I strongly encourage you to try all other options before you put something on your own wallet or your own time the next time admin/parent/student asks you to. Think about the message this sends every time you say yes.
Every time you say YES to one thing, you are saying NO to something else.
Every time I said YES to rush-grade someone’s paper because of some reason or another, I had to ignore the stack of on-time papers.
Every time I said yes to the fundraiser for breadsticks I will never eat or jerseys I will never wear that are really expensive, I’m saying no to the one fundraiser for cancer at the end of the year that I do want to contribute to, but I now ran out of cash for.
Every time you say yes to the copies afterschool that you didn’t finish, even though you’ve already stayed a full hour after the kids left, you’re saying no to your family.
It also means that it’s time to gracefully step down from that committee that you never wanted to join in the first place. For me, this meant taking a step back from grad school. I stopped taking classes for a whole semester because I’m prone to migraines, and my health was suffering.
The Power of the Word NO
We cannot be everything to everyone, and training others that we are constantly at their beck and call, is training others not to respect our time. Not respecting our time=not respecting us. What kind of message does that really send to our students?
Being a people pleaser or a yes-man (woman in my case) doesn’t serve anyone, because those aren’t your true feelings. Even though you might face some conflict on the front end, the real people will respect you more for standing your ground.
It will also mean that you are a balanced individual who is in teaching for the long game, which is a powerful message.
How I Used the Word NO (And Didn’t Die)
I used to be a people-pleaser, so this is something I personally struggle with. I learned alot from an experience when I was asked to take on an extra class period in additional to my own students for very menial pay raise when a teacher quit unexpectedly. My immediate response was to take one for the team, but then I thought about what happened two years ago to my family during a time when I disappeared into my job and my family suffered for it. Taking on a whole new class would be even worse.
This would also be a huge financial burden for my own family if I did this, as it would technically be close a pay cut for the extra hours I would have to work. I respectfully told my administration that I would do it only if they would consider raising the compensation. I brought in the math to justify my claim, and guess what? They weren’t happy, but no one hated me.
It eventually worked out, and they were able to hire a whole new teacher instead. Me as well as other teachers saying no to the unfair pay meant that they had to find what the kids should have had all along, which was their very own teacher. Saying yes to that job out of obligation would have been saying NO to my family for a WHOLE year, and saying NO to kids having their own full-time teacher.
The lesson from this is that if we let people take advantage of our time, in most cases, they will. I work for (in my opinion) the best admin in my county, but they’re very busy, and they’re trying to solve problems as quickly as they can. You need to advocate for yourself, just like we teach our students to do.
The Cost of YES Culture in Education
Saying no is like an unworked muscle for teachers, because we are givers-our whole philosophy and outlook is service-based. This particular part of our job is hard for many of us. For more of a deep-dive into this topic, check out my favorite book by Angela Watson that just came out called Fewer Things Better, in which a whole chapter is devoted to this topic, especially on how female teachers specifically struggle with this.
We need to end this culture of taking advantage of the giving nature of teachers to take back our time and sanity. Burnout is an urgent threat to our best and brightest, and this is one of the best solutions out there. I promise you, it made me a better teacher and better model for my students.
Saying no in teaching is just like in parenting. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you, it’s quite the opposite. It means I love you enough to say no.
It means that I don’t need you to like me-it means that you respect me and I respect you and your boundaries.
Say NO when you need to so that you have space to say YES to the things that really matter.