Burnout is a word being used quite a bit these days. It’s no wonder, with the colossal shifts in education that we all had to undertake without much notice eight months ago. Between learning the alphabet soup of available digital products and platforms, managing new models of instruction, and WFH (that’s “working from home” for those of you born before 1995), it is enough to make our heads spin. Feelings of frustration, anxiety, and being overwhelmed are understandable during this time of transition.
If you consistently feel exhausted or depleted, develop negative or cynical feelings related to your job, or have a sense of ineffectiveness, you may be experiencing burnout. The World Health Organization’s ICD-11 includes these characteristics in its definition of burnout, as well as clearly identifying that these feelings are specific to the occupational setting and are not applied to other aspects of life. Not all of us may develop burnout, though, and researchers Vicente de Vera García and Gabari Gambarte (2019) identify several features as predictors of teachers who do not generally suffer burnout:
- Self-efficacy (confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment)
- Strong social supports
- Positive reinterpretation of circumstances
Many of these attributes are aspects of resilience, which is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. What about those of us who may not be optimists or naturally resilient? What can we do to fend off burnout?
Photo: iStock by Getty Images / Kristina Kokhanova
It is easy to feel helpless and inept when faced with the massive task of converting our classrooms online. We know that we aren’t being as effective as instructors when our students aren’t performing well, or when we aren’t executing a particular lesson plan as successfully as we would have in the classroom.
A different way to look at this is to celebrate what you have learned and accomplished. For example, have you learned how to create a Google Doc? Have you helped a student get a computer or Wi-Fi access? Did you learn how to organize groups in Zoom?
Celebrate your mastery over small techniques and skills that will ultimately build your online teaching toolbox. Consider making a ‘Mastered’ list rather than numerous to-do lists to help increase your confidence and sense of control over the situation.
Creating and Maintaining Social Support Networks
Multiple research studies indicate that teachers who have strong social supports are less prone to burnout. Significant others and family members who live with us can provide emotional support, share the household work, and maybe even provide financial support. This can definitely help stave off burnout, but for those of us who may have stressful home situations and family members, this could be a contributing factor to burnout.
Make sure to lean on friends if family is not an option. For professional support, join professional learning communities through work or create your own professional group with valued colleagues. If neither of these options works for you, pets can be extremely wonderful companions who offer emotional comfort and opportunities to exercise (at least the canine ones do!). If you can’t get your own pet, consider volunteering to walk animals at a local shelter.
Photo: iStock by Getty Images / marrio31
Positive Reinterpretation of Circumstances
It can be challenging to feel positive when our world has been turned upside down. Positively reinterpreting our circumstances can be a challenge for those of us who do not embrace the world with optimism and a positive attitude regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in.
For those who need help in looking at this situation with a new lens, consider making a list of the positives that have come out of this situation. For me, it has been the chance to spend more time with my husband (who lost his job due to the pandemic), prepare healthier meals, drive less, and exercise regularly now that I do not have a commute.
In the current situation, it is not uncommon to feel like you have reached your capacity for adapting to the numerous changes and shifts in policies and procedures that come your way on a daily or weekly basis. Teachers are known for holding themselves to a high standard, and it can be devastating when we perceive what we are currently doing online as less-than-stellar instruction. We may lack faith in our ability to adapt to all the changes, which can contribute to burnout.
Thinking positively about the numerous changes coming your way is something you cna do, even if you aren't inclined to feel that way. One way to see things in a more positive light is to create a personal affirmation for yourself. Many spiritual traditions actually encourage the use of mantras or affirmations, and this can be a powerful tool to help alleviate stress and embrace the new situation.
Here are some possible affirmations (or mantras):
- “Life is change. I am capable of change. I am making change.”
- “I am doing the best I can. This is more than enough. I am more than enough.”
In coming up with your own personal affirmation, be sure to reflect upon your own individual needs and what you would like to come to terms with to help yourself manage the situation.
These are a few of many strategies in the research that can help combat burnout, and regardless of whether you choose one of these listed here or another technique, the key is to just pick one that will fit easily into your daily routine. Experiment with what works for you because we all have unique needs and challenges these days. Lastly, try not to expect perfection in how you implement this strategy in your life because it takes time to develop positive habits. Let's treat ourselves as we would treat our students: with kindness, warmth, and patience.
If you feel that you are suffering from burnout or having any other mental health challenges, please contact your doctor for assistance or 911 if it is an emergency.
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De Vera García, Vicente, Immaculada, M., Gambarte, G., Inés, M. Relationships between the Dimensions of Resilience and Burnout in Primary School Teachers. . (2019). v12 n2 pp189-196.
Tornuk, Nuray and Gunes, D. Perception of Professional Social Support as a Predictor of Burnout Level of Pre-School Teachers. . (2020). v12, pp.105-114.
World Health Organization. International Classification of Diseases, 11th edition. (2019).
Susan McDonald, M.S., CCC-SLP is an ASHA-certified and California state licensed speech-language pathologist who is also teaching online during this pandemic through her work as coordinator of the Speech-Language Pathology Assistant Program at Cerritos College in Norwalk, California.