We tell teachers to be resilient – to bounce back. Bounce back to what? The same old same old that creates their stress – and if they can endure it then that’s resilience, and if they can’t and burnout they’re shamed?
As a society, we exist in a dysfunctional paradigm that prioritizes self-abandonment, glorifies busy and keeps everyone toeing this dysfunctional line by policing people with shame and blame.
A good work ethic is healthy. Being convinced that working yourself into poor health for the system is what a good worker does, is enslavement. Working yourself into poor health with a drive for perfectionism often masks some underlying issue that incessant working is serving to numb.
Our culture glorifies the workaholic and projects all of our disowned needs onto the person burning out, shaming them for daring to express what everyone else doesn’t have the courage to name and own.
Burning out is not “not being able to handle it”.
Burnout is a high form of intelligence and insight that is warning you that your current situation is not sustainable. It is actually a very good instinct. It’s an instinct of self-preservation. If we had more teachers, principals and administrators tuned into this instinct, rather than normalizing insane levels of stress and work, we would actually be able to create a sustaining way of teaching at the systemic level.
Problem solving and innovation are hallmarks of leaders and highly valued employees. Preventing burnout needs to be framed in these terms. Going along with the status quo of burnout is lazy leadership.
Dealing with Burnout on a personal, professional or political level requires 3 things: Awareness. Honesty. Transformation.
Awareness: We cannot teach like cogs in a machine. We have to engage a metacognitive perspective about our teaching. Instead of normalizing feeling stressed – become aware of what is causing it. Investigate the external (school) and internal (you) structures that might be contributing to the stress.
Honesty: Honesty is integrity. It is ok to admit that sometimes you hate your job; that you are imperfect, that aspects of the system don’t work. Lying to yourself and pretending its fine when it isn’t, is being out of integrity. Speaking these truths is important. Venting is an important pressure-release valve. But if all we do is vent – then we don’t just release the pressure, we lose steam and get into a downward spiral. We have to take the next step to make venting useful.
Transformation: This is the ability to make thoughtful changes that have tangible inner and outer results. Most of us are taught to endure. Endurance has its virtues – especially in situations that are not changeable. But endurance is only one strategy. Enduring negatives that can be shifted and changed is disempowering and draining. We need to shift from enduring stress and the status-quo to transforming it into something better and more sustainable where we are able.
Improving teaching for teachers is a valuable goal. Teaching has a toxic culture of burnout. Becoming aware of it, being honest about it and transforming it means we take teaching and education seriously. It means we take ourselves seriously so we can be effective professionals. When admin and districts take it seriously, it means they see their teachers as valued professionals, not disposable commodities. Creating that kind of change is the kind of resilience I like to teach.