A colleague of mine recently visited a school in a nearby school district. As she walked through the halls, during a class period, she heard a woman’s voice coming from several doors down. The voice, which was at the level of a scream, said, “You are all so stupid!”.
When she told me about her experience, my first knee-jerk thought was “bad teacher!”. I also immediately imagined what the room of students must have looked like and I mourned for the kids who are subjected to that kind of treatment – not only at school, but many of them at home, most likely. Very quickly, though, I began to think about how that teacher got to where she was and began to feel compassion for this woman. She probably started off being a good teacher and the behaviors she expressed that day didn’t happen overnight. She let them trickle in.
What starts as mild frustration with students can grow into an us vs. them mentality. Once it gets there, the classroom becomes combatant, with students trying to get their teachers to the point of “blowing” and teachers . . . well . . . blowing.
I talked about this to a group that included seasoned educators over this weekend. After the session, one of them came to me and thanked me for the lesson. He has taught for 32 years in higher ed, and he said that as he listened to me, he was reflecting on his own classroom and realized he was letting it trickle in. He hasn’t gotten to where the woman described above has, but he can see that he does get frustrated with his students more often and that sometimes that frustration results in slightly derogatory behaviors towards them.
Don’t let it trickle in.
How do we be sure we are not quietly heading toward burnout and completely inappropriate behaviors? Reflection. We learn about reflection in our teacher education. It isn’t just an exercise for student teachers – it should be a career-long practice (it helps a lot outside the classroom, as well). Each day, we need to reflect not only on each lesson plan, but on how we performed in the classroom. How did I feel today? How did I interact with my kids today? How did they look as they sat listening to me? If you reflect each day, you’ll catch the leak that becomes a trickle. You’ll be able to keep the burnout from breaking the line and causing a flood of bad, bad teaching.
How do we turn it around? One of my favorite sayings is “A problem well- stated is a problem half-solved.” Once you’ve recognized the burnout, you can take steps toward halting it.
Step One: Take a break. I don’t mean quit your job or even take several weeks of leave. I mean a mental break. Give yourself a few minutes each day to have a rest from the job. During this time, focus on something that is not school-related. Read a book. Listen to music. Sit in your room with the door locked, the lights off, and in silence.
Step Two: Change your thinking. Remember when you were a student teacher and everyone told you not to hang out in the teacher lounge? Stop hanging out in the teacher lounge. There can be a lot of burned out teachers in there, talking negatively about the job and the kids. Anytime you find thoughts creeping into your head that are negative about the job and the kids, recognize it. Turn it around – try to focus on the positives. If you can’t find positives, try to figure out why you feel the way you do. What one thing made that thought come into your head? Is it something that can be fixed/changed?
Step Three: Never stop. The teaching profession demands that reflection and renewal be continuous. It’s a tough job. There isn’t any way to gloss over that particular fact. Nobody can do it “on the fly” every day, year after year. Yes, we have to be able to do it that way and be flexible, but preparation is still one of the most important parts of the job.
Don’t let leaky thinking ruin your plumbing.