Teacher health and well-being is always a hot button topic for those in the profession and those related to people in the profession. My partner has an extremely stressful, technical job that I could never hope to have the skills to do but he frequently is amazed at my patience and resilience during a school day and articulates he could never do what I do. Below are some musings I have as a “pointy end” practitioner.
So first off, I feel now (and have always felt) the most important thing for a teacher to feel valued is to pay them adequately. In my very first teaching job my head of faculty championed for me when I had an 8 week pay delay and she was very clear that this was a minimal expectation for her staff to feel appreciated and wanted – pay them on time! Pay them we enough to justify a four year degree! Where I am (Australia) has some of the best paid teachers in the western world although this certainly wasn’t the case 15 years ago. When comparing our wages to NZ or the USA, we at least earn a liveable professional wage.
Second thing is to consider the rigours and demands of a system that still mostly uses a “one size fits all” curriculum approach and standardised testing. While I won’t debate the merits of each in this post, it is certainly an identified source of frustration and burn out for teachers in the mainstream system. I’ve just finished reading Gabbie Stroud’s amazing book and it’s evident that the balance between the students needs and the curriculum was constantly impacting her personal well-being and I have to say that I can relate to that.
Finally, workload expectations. The stats on the slide below (which sadly has not copied well but the source is also linked) indicate nearly all teachers in Australia feel consistently overworked on a regular basis and well over 50% experience workplace stress and/or anxiety. Stats like that start to indicate this is becoming the norm. That it’s normal to feel constantly under the pump, normal to respond to unreasonable timelines or requests from management, normal to work 2-3hrs at home every night and more on weekends, normal to feel stressed every day. That’s where my concern comes in – I am not advocating that teaching should have no extra workload or stressful days as that’s just not reasonable but I certainly advocate that this should not be NORMAL. Work life balance really does seem to be a thing of the past in many professions these days, and that includes teaching.
What works for me when I feel burnt out or stressed to the max? Keep in mind I work in a school with some tough kids so most days have some level of stress associated with them – for me there are two types of workplace stress and burn out. There is the type when things get a bit much and you need to take a step back and then there is the type which is ongoing and impacts teaching careers.
On a daily/weekly/monthly basis I do the following to help me stay focused on the positives and enjoyment that comes from my role:
– have appropriate debriefs with staff about the good things, not just focusing on the less positive aspects of trauma based support. We often miss the positives and it’s important to articulate and celebrate them
– happy note jar….in the old days, they used to tell us to keep nice notes from kids or parents in a jar on your desk. When you had a shit day, tip them out and read them. In the digital age that’s a bit trickier but I do have an email folder where I store the positive things people say to me. The parent emails, the student thank you, pictures of something they have drawn or made for me…and emails from fellow staff or management that are positive and affirming as well
– ensure I communicate clearly if my workload is becoming unmanageable and I need help with sorting things out. I have gotten a lot better at this as I have gotten older! I’m also the type of person who frequently volunteers for extra stuff and am lucky my current bosses discuss with me if I *should* be volunteering or not
– I aim not to work on weekends but sometimes it’s inevitable. If I have to do it, i schedule the time in my personal calendar and don’t exceed it. I only ever work on one day of the weekend as well, the other is for naps and reading
– I know many people switch off their emails at home. I don’t, but I do only reply to ones as needed. When I take proper holidays, I turn on my out of office and switch off my email notifications
– I exercise 3-4 times a week and I have personal calming strategies to help me through a difficult day or moment. These include mindfulness processes, deep breathing exercises, being upfront with students and staff (I always cry after a big incident, it’s the Adrenalin dump dammit) and using essential oils on a bracelet to help me focus. We are now at the point where kids ask to sniff my bracelet when they are feeling overwhelmed….it’s weird but seems to help!
As I’ve gotten older and more experienced my strategies for self-management have improved. I have previously experienced classroom burn out though, in fact I’ve experienced it twice in my 14 year career so far.
Burn out one: I finished uni and there were no jobs so I took rural placements. School 1 moved my accomodation four times in a term and I was 1800kms away from everyone I knew. I transferred to school 2 (closer to home!) but experienced some of the worst workplace bullying I’ve ever seen or heard of. This included one memorable incident where three year 12 boys left their classroom, came into the principals office and told him they could hear him from the other section of the school and it wasn’t okay to speak to me like that. I know better how to manage this now but I was a first year teacher at that stage. I then moved on to school 3 where curriculum and behaviour management was a “suggestion” and they were raided by the AFP for fraud!
After that I needed a break. I did debt collection for awhile (school teacher voice was very effective) and also worked with kids who had auditory processing issues. I started my own tutoring business as well which was very successful but ultimately I missed being in the classroom and returned to teaching.
Burn out two: I worked casually and part time in schools again and was always struggling to find full time work due to teacher surplus. Despite this, I did some amazing things with subject areas that were dying off and writing state wide exams. When I moved states, my new state education department was pretty negative about “out of towners” and implied it didn’t matter what amazing experience I had or what I could bring to the table. I decided to have another break from the classroom and did a year working in student support at a university. Once again, I missed the classroom though so after 14 months I took a $35k paycut (!!!) to return to teaching. I’ve been back in the classroom five years this year and have no regrets.