Are you headed for rust out or burn out? A gentle alternative for exhausted teachers

My friend Sam is a teacher and I find it distressing to hear and observe how quickly she gets stressed within days of her return to school after holidays. We talk a lot about the sort of things she could do to help but they all seem to fall by the wayside within days of a new term.

Why I left the profession

I used to be a primary teacher and one of the main reasons I left the profession was because I couldn’t face the amount of pressure, I felt week in week out, month in month out, year in year out. Some years later I returned to teaching working with older children and adults and I realised that in the space between

  • I had developed new coping skills
  • I was more suited to working with older young people

As my career progressed, I became a senior manager, but I still found it very challenging to balance my home and work life, so I began to observe the various coping strategies used by others. 

I concluded that there were various types of teachers:

  •  Some gave themselves over completely to the job and as a leader I was always very grateful for their commitment but also concerned for their well-being as some literally suffered burnt-out and were never quite the same again
  •  A small minority were clearly disengaged. These individuals were often resented by their hard-working counterparts, but on closer examination, many had stories to tell of gradual disillusionment build-up over many years. I was equally concerned for the well-being of these people as they showed signs of lethargic rust out, which benefitted no one.  
  • The large majority to a greater or lesser degree began each term full of energy and enthusiasm but I watched this gradually erode as the term progressed and in years of greater intensity such as Ofsted visits I saw many of these friends and colleagues moving far too close to the edge of peak performance and fall off the side into complete  burn out
  • A few colleagues managed to achieve a great work-life balance and as a result they and their young students thrived!

I found myself asking the question

How do high performing teachers manage to stay in top form year after year?

 I noted that these individuals:

  • Have a strong sense of who they are
  • Are actively positive
  • Have a significant other life outside of the day job, with a heathy family life and at least one ‘hobby ‘that they regularly engage with
  • Are empathetic rather than sympathetic, in other words they don’t take on the burdens of other people
  • Take personal responsibility for their health and wellbeing
  • Are very confident about their personal knowledge / skill set and actively seek to remain at the forefront of their subject

When I asked people how they had managed to achieve such a great work life balance I found that no one could articulate the secret of their personal survival kit. So, I did some research and found that in 2019 following a survey of teachers, an Education Support websitepublished these four top suggestions to support fellow colleagues:

  1. Self-Care
  2. Getting Organised
  3. Staying Positive
  4. Embracing Kindness

Teachers Top Tip 1: Self-Care – How to develop a ‘me mentality’

I deliberately headed this paragraph up with the phrase ‘me-mentality’ and I want you to judge right now your personal reaction to the idea of getting into the habit of putting yourself first. So many teachers spend a whole lifetime putting everything and everyone else’s needs first and forget that they must find time to replenish their personal batteries if they are going to be able to function effectively.

Pacing yourself by spacing yourself

Developing a ‘me-mentality’ is not about being selfish. It is about giving yourself daily space to gradually rediscover you and your needs and hearts desires. It is about learning to let go and begin a new type of relationship with your partner, children, friends, relatives, colleagues and pupils. 

Research has shown that by practising something for 20 days, we are highly likely to maintain a new habit. So why not plan to find a window of time each day for the next 20 days where you concentrate completely on yourself.

Here are five simple and free things you could do in your newly created ‘me time’

  1. Run yourself a warm bath and add your favourite bath fragrance. Slide in, close your eyes, take in the lovely smell and enjoy the feeling of the water as it soothes your body and mind. Be aware that you are doing this just for you and that you have earned the right to taking this short time out of your busy day.
  • Go for a walk by yourself. Find a route where you feel safe and where you can experience some lovely or interesting views. Depending where you live or work and your personal circumstances, you may have to choose to do this before school, during the lunch time break or when you get home.  As you walk, take in some deep breaths and as you breathe out deliberately let go of all the anxieties and challenges of your day. Replace them with some positive thoughts.
  • If you enjoy reading, find a space in your day to read even if you only get to read a few pages. Losing yourself in a good story can prove to be just the thing to give your mind much needed rest from the stresses and strains of the job.
  • Listen to your favourite music. This is another great way of unwinding after a stressful day. I often sit in bed last thing at night with my earphones on so as not to disturb anyone else and I get lost in the music. Music also helps us to alter our mood depending on what we listen to.
  • Finally, most of us have a favourite TV programme we like to watch and these days we can catch up with them at a time that best suits our busy schedule. There is nothing like having a programme or film to look forward to, to help us through the load of marking or planning we had to bring home.  

Teachers Top Tip 2: Getting Organised.

Most teachers state that they find it increasingly difficult to feel well organised due to the many expectations and constraints put upon them by their job.  The three strategies listed below put into action, will give you a great sense of being more in control.

  • personalise your workspace
  • make space for you and your needs
  • plan ahead

Make your workspace your own at home and at work:

Having a comfortable space to work in is very important for effective working.  Make sure you have a suitable desk and chair and that the lighting suits your personality. I prefer having two or three lamps lit around me to create soft light. My partner likes to have bright lights on. Some people like to have their desk free of clutter, others like their possessions around them. If you prefer to work with music and you share an office, then use some earphones. If you have a favourite colour. Find some objects in that colour and put them in your office space. Own YOUR space.

Find creative ways of making sure you feel on top of the job and that there is space for you and your needs:

 Once timetables have been established for the year. Teachers have little control over significant periods of the school day and some days with additional break duties, they will find themselves with few times to take breath.

Find a way of identifying your weekly pattern of work during term time, so that you can make the best use of your precious free time. Whether you keep your plan in your head, have an electronic or hard copy diary or if you prefer, a to do list. Do make sure that you plan in time for you to relax down and for your personal development.

Plan ahead:

Once term begins, the wonderful holiday you just had seems a lifetime away. By taking time to plan during each school break, perhaps even thinking about your next holiday break, you can get a sense of being more in control. If you have a growing family, involve them in the decision making as this is a great way of gradually introducing children to chores and cooking duties in a fun way. Most important it gives you opportunity to plan in some fun things.

Dealing with the deluge of emails

Teachers increasingly cite unmanageable emails as one of their key work stressors

Some helpful strategies that may help

Skim through the list below and simply experience how each point resonates with you. As you read identify your existing personal strategies and note which ones you could consider using to help you feel more in control. Try introducing your chosen strategies into your everyday life as soon as you can.

This list is not hierarchical in any way and no one strategy is more/ less important than the others 

  • work out the best time of day to deal with emails  and forget about them the rest of the day
  •  have the confidence to delete SPAM emails without even opening them
  •  if an email requires a thoughtful reply flag it as unread and move through the others so that you reduce the number of unread emails more quickly
  • create an automatic end of email sign off / signature. This saves hours over the course of a year
  • if you receive challenging emails. Try sending a draft reply to yourself  (making sure you do not cc anyone else in) This enables you to write how you feel at the point of reading the email, but time to reflect and re read gives some valuable space and the opportunity to reply in a more measured way
  •  as a rule of thumb keep email replies as brief as possible. Leave your energy for the ones requiring more thought and detail. Remember greater detail means that the recipient has more information to respond to or argue with. 
  • If you receive a long complex email needing a reply. Read through and precis the salient points rather than write a long response. This demonstrates your capacity to see things at a more strategic level
  • save time when people send you a list of things to respond to by simply placing your answer beside their questions in another colour ink. You can always top and tail this with a couple of sentences if you think this is necessary

Four other things to consider in your crusade to be better organised

  • Arriving at work and leaving work at realistic times
  • Finding a form of exercise that you enjoy and fits into your current lifestyle
  • Being aware of your emotional state:
  • Learning to be decisive

Arriving at and leaving work at realistic times:

It is so easy for teachers to get into the bad habit of arriving super early at school and being the last one to leave the premises. This starts out as a great way of demonstrating our commitment and enthusiasm, but as time passes, we can begin to get resentful and frustrated about the fact that others seem to be able to fit everything into a shorter day. Remember this simple fact…. After a certain length of time we cease to be productive so there is no value in working long hours.

 If you need more time to get something done then get yourself home, relax down then set about completing the work. Also try writing down your planned start and leave times each day for a week and see how good your mind and body are at telling you when you reach that time. Remember you are no good to anyone, least of all yourself if you are off ill with stress or functioning at work whilst exhibiting high levels of stress.

Finding a form of exercise that you enjoy and fits into your current lifestyle

This may be a team game or other competitive sport, or it may be something like swimming, walking, pilates or yoga to help you unwind. Others may prefer a more energetic dance or fitness class. No matter what your choice is, exercise helps us stay fitter and healthier and gives us more energy. It is also a tried a tested method of reducing stress levels.

Make sure that you plan exercise into your weekly routine. If you currently do very little exercise, then start small. Perhaps find ways to walk more by taking stairs and not lifts. Going out for a short walk at lunchtime. Going the long way around back to your classroom. Even 5 minutes a day provides 35 minutes of exercise you would otherwise not have done.

Being aware of your emotional state:

Teaching is an intensely demanding job. Every day you are experiencing first-hand the impact of a multitude of different emotions coming from those around you. On top of this you are dealing with your own personal challenges at work and home and if you are not careful, these all get mixed up into one pot which you unconsciously take personal responsibility for.

Take regular time out to separate out your personal emotions from those of others and if you recognise that your mental health is being negatively affected then act right now. Using ‘mindfulness’ techniques are a great way to develop strategies to keep your emotional state a healthy but if you recognise that you need professional help, then seek that much sooner rather than later.

Learning to be decisive:

At some point in our lives for whatever reason we can find ourselves in a state known as ‘decision agony’. We find ourselves so tired and confused that we find it almost impossible to make a choice and we begin to leave that up to others which in time makes us feel even worse. Just remember some simple facts/ actions to help you get out of such a rut.

  • practice deliberately making simple new decisions daily. Decide for example to travel to work via a slightly different route. Or decide to move an item in your home to another place
  • if you have been pondering on a problem for a long time, remember that most decisions are not reversible and try going with your gut feeling which is usually the right one

Teachers Top Tip 3: Staying Positive

Staying Positive

Did you know that we humans are hard-wired to look for and focus on threats and that this innate mechanism breeds pessimism and negativity through the minds tendency to wander until it finds a threat?  Therefore, maintaining a positive attitude is a daily challenge that requires our deliberate focus and attention.

Here are three key tips for remaining positive

1 Separate Fact from Fiction

Most of our negative thoughts are thoughts NOT facts. So, begin listening to your inner voice and whenever you become aware of a negative thought, literally stop what you are doing and write it down. This gives you opportunity to question if the thought is factual or just a negative thought conjured up by your imagination. Over time this exercise also helps you identify any negative words or phrases that you regularly use.

Remember that our brain cannot distinguish between a negative or positive thought, but it is very adept at obeying what we tell it. Thus, by stating or thinking a negative outcome we are highly likely to achieve it. Why not try giving yourself a great break by listening to and eradicating negative self-talk and actively replacing it with positive affirmative thoughts. 

 2 Identify a Positive

Once you have snapped yourself out of self-defeating negative thoughts, it’s time to help your brain learn to focus on what you want it to focus on – the positive. In time this comes naturally but at first you may find it hard. When things are going well, we tend to find it easier to hang onto the positives but when things are tougher, or we are surrounded by negative people this is more challenging.

If you find yourself thinking negatively, STOP and think about one positive thing that has happened that day and whenever the negative thoughts return, simply replace them with the positive thought. 

3 Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude

Research has shown that by cultivating a daily attitude of gratitude we can expect to reduce the stress hormone cortisol in our body, by a staggering 23%. This in turn when practiced daily results in improved mood, energy levels and reduced levels of anxiety.

Actioning these three simple strategies in your life will quickly enable you to experience a more positive, happier lifestyle. 

Teachers Top Tip 4: embracing kindness 

Embracing Kindness

In the recent survey designed to provide support for teachers by their peers. Showing and experiencing kindness was the final piece of recommended good practice. Here are some facts and strategies to help you all.

Embracing Kindness

The UK have been ranked 6th in the 2018 Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index. This polls people from across 146 countries to discover if they have helped a stranger, donated money to charity or volunteered in the previous month.

I think this is an interesting group of activities to evidence the ‘kindness of a nation’ and set me pondering on what my personal definition of kindness is. For me it begins much closer to home and I believe it should start with being kind to ourselves and our immediate circle of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours.

What exactly does kindness in action look like?

 If you ask anyone that simple question I guarantee that they will come up with a very different list to yours and so I think it is very important not to judge others in the kindness stakes as their ‘kindness language’ will differ significantly from your own. Conversely it is important that you understand and recognise your own personal language of kindness.

Try writing down a list of ten small kindnesses you regularly demonstrate to others

 Work out which people in your life you are frequently kind to and conversely those that you are not so kind to. Try to work out the reasons why this is the case. Armed with this info, try discussing your list with other people and discover their kindness language and the reasons behind it.

Finally work out which of your acts of kindness bring the most reward in terms of your sense of wellbeing and positive reactions form those around you. It is also useful to work out which people do not respond to your kindness language. For your own self-preservation you may decide to distance yourself from such people or perhaps try experimenting with some acts of kindness you notice from the lists of others.

There you have it. The four top tips by teachers for teachers

I hope you have found this blog useful and can take away some new ideas to try out for yourself.

I would love to know how you get on over the next 20 days as you develop your ‘me time’ practice and try out some other ideas that have piqued your interest. Or maybe you have other suggestions to offer your fellow colleagues. Either way. Please drop me a message, it would be great to hear from you

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