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The profession of teaching can sometimes be trapped by its own lore. When we started as new teachers, we all met the veterans who had been in their classrooms for 20 or 30 years, and they were held up as the examples to which we should aspire. We were all told that the goal was to get your classroom and stay there until you retire. We might have heard that up to 20% of teachers have left the profession within five years of beginning, but we never thought it would happen to us! Nowadays, many teachers might look at the onset of 3rd-decade burnout as a luxury because they can’t imagine going 30 years in the same position. This generation of teachers faces the least amount of job security since the profession became institutionalized in the early 20th century. That brings with it new kinds of stresses: the lack of collective bargaining protections, the spectre of nonstop high stakes testing on which schools must depend for ongoing state support, professional evaluations based largely on students’ standardized test scores, budgets constantly in flux, and teachers as the targets for societal complaints about education. It’s no wonder that even teachers who make it to 5, 8, or 10 years already feel the weight of burnout. Not many teachers are thinking about 30 years in the same classroom anymore, and yet that’s still the professional ideal lauded by years of entrenched thinking about who we are as educators.
Despite the fact that most educators would agree that education must change, few teachers have begun to cultivate a growth mindset about their own practice. It is very tempting once you do get a “safe” classroom to simply “close the door and teach,” to the exclusion of looking for other professional experiences and opportunities. The lure of security, and the comfort of the familiar can often be so much stronger than the uncertainty of change. Yet, many of those “secure” teachers experience many of the same symptoms of burnout: difficulty with stress management, exhaustion, boredom, frustration, lack of curiosity, and sometimes even hopelessness.
As one of those formerly “secure” teachers, I learned the hard way that my lack of growth mindset about my career at the time left me completely unprepared when a massive RiF (Reduction in Force) left me without the position I so dearly loved. I had to learn on my own how to carve out a new kind of professionalism and make my way back into education and the kind of meaningful contribution I wanted to make. After what were admittedly several difficult years of trying to find my way, I have landed in a whole new world of teaching that causes me to not only grow daily as a professional, but helps me participate in the progress of education itself.
If we teachers learn to create a professional environment for ourselves and our colleagues that is based on a growth mindset and framed by a desire to introduce variety, opportunity, and challenge into our career paths, then not only will we be prepared for unplanned job disruptions, but we will also avoid burnout.
Here are some ideas for changing your professional paradigm to one of change and growth, and which will hopefully give you something to consider about how to avoid burnout:
Get Outside Your Classroom – The traditional model is to close yourself and your students off and live in the magical world of your making: your classroom. In many ways, this is a gift all teachers can give growing minds. On the other hand, it also cuts you off from the outside world; a world that can itself teach you and your students to grow and learn in new ways. It also cuts you off from your colleagues and the possibilities of collaboration that might be out there. It also can separate you from accountability and connection. Opening your door and allowing others to see and participate in what you do can open a whole new world of practice, growth, and change for you.
Don’t be Afraid of Evaluations – Any professional will tell you that no matter what their career field, their work is always scrutinized and they are evaluated based on what they can show from their efforts. We teachers like to argue that teaching is different and can’t be evaluated the same way; of course it can’t – but it CAN be evaluated, and it should be. As professionals we should be striving to set new goals, collect relevant data, and use what we learn to improve our practice and improve our students’ performance. Our students only benefit when we are constantly learning and changing the way we operate so as to make their education experience more relevant and full of opportunities for building competency and achievement. In every career field, evaluations and advancements are tied to performance, there are valid ways this can work in education, and if your school or district isn’t employing those methods currently, why don’t you take the lead in developing something new?
Look for Leadership Opportunities – We are cultured into believing and thinking that teaching is a one-level career: you become a teacher, and that’s what you are for 30 years. Indeed, many amazing teachers have set that example for us. But that can also lead to burnout and lack of preparation for change in a newly uncertain career field. Why not use your skills to lead your fellow colleagues in some way? Stretch yourself professionally and add a challenge for you to learn alongside your students. Become a department chair, join a committee working for change in your school, commit to a network of educators outside your school that leads your state or community, develop a program that can benefit your students or teachers and lead it! You don’t have to become an administrator to be a leader-educator (though that’s always an option too), but finding ways to lead will definitely add variety, challenge, and growth to your professional life.
Learn, Learn, Learn! – If you don’t regularly look for Professional Development opportunities outside the in-services provided by your school, I strongly encourage you to begin to seek out these opportunities. Most likely your school or district has funds you can tap into in order to attend one that might require travel. Getting outside your familiar education environment and mixing with professionals from other parts of your state or the country can make a huge difference in opening up your professional life. And don’t just stop at attending PD, start submitting proposals to present! You are an expert at what you do – start showing it off! Engaging with colleagues and demonstrating your own experiences are incredible ways to grow and change your practice.
Be Ready to Try Something New – One thing teachers don’t do as often as people in other professions is prepare for finding a new job. Even when the economy and uncertainty rules our career field now, educators are woefully unprepared to develop a personal or professional brand for themselves and be ready to move on. Make a habit of updating your resume at least every six months – use your winter and summer breaks as a time to do this. Take a few moments after you do that to check around in your community or even somewhere completely different, depending on what you feel like, and see what kinds of education opportunities are out there – even if you’re not thinking of changing your job currently. It’s a way to think about yourself as a professional. Perhaps there isn’t another identical classroom position as you have now, but what if you started teaching in a different environment? What if you changed up the type of students you worked with? What if you taught teachers? Being a teacher, loving education, and sharing your expertise doesn’t have to look the same for your entire career. In fact, no other kind of professional expects that in their career field, why don’t we? Thinking about updating your skills, getting a different certification, or even just updating your resume can help you think outside the box about what other amazing opportunities might be out there for you.
These are only a few ways to think about shifting your professional paradigm. You don’t have to stay doing the same thing for decades – there are so many possibilities out there, and you never know what you might encounter if you’re willing to open the next door!
What do you do to cultivate a growth mindset professionally and avoid burnout?