Burned Out?

Folks have been pestering me about why I haven’t released any new plays lately. Like you, I’m a practicing classroom teacher, and when the school year came to an end I wasn’t much more than a mass of vibrating pulp in the corner of my room. Think mealworm pupa. That’s how exhausted I was.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a wonderful class, exciting year-end activities, and a supportive admin. It was one of my best years ever! Yet there I lay for a full week, drooling. Was I burned out, or merely lightly chewed and regurgitated? Upon finally waking from my stupor I stumbled upon a nifty post about teacher stress. It appears on a UK blog called TeacherToolkit. It quotes Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin from her book First Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success. To paraphrase Dr. Rankin, there are six big factors that lead to burnout. In evaluating my own stress, I’ve assigned points from 0 to 5 for each.

1.) The overwhelming workload. The job is never-ending. There is always something more to be done and no matter how hard you work, something important gets left behind. Every day. Every week. Every year. I’m just hopeful I didn’t leave one of my fifth graders behind at outdoor ed. Stress points: 5, though I admit a lot of my work tasks were self-imposed. Because teachers tend to be highly motivated, I suspect that’s true for many of you.

2.) The unrelenting school day. Dr. Rankin mentions “poorly vetted resources” here. I take that to mean lousy textbook programs your school district paid thousands of dollars to shove at you. The backrooms and closets of my school building are crammed with them. My best advice comes from a veteran teacher way back in 1998. “Sure I’m using the adopted curriculum. It’s right there holding up that shelf.” These days I’m fortunate because I’m allowed—even encouraged—to use alternative resources such as Storyworks magazine, all my reader’s theater scripts, and programs such as Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs. For this last bit, I’ve recently re-acquired the rights from Scholastic and plan on offering a variety of revamped versions of it on TpT. But I think the unrelenting stress to which Dr. Rankin refers is really about being “on” all day, about the constant stimulation, about being pulled in too many directions, about not having enough time to go to the bathroom, let alone plan your next unit. I know I was feeling that stress as the year concluded. Stress points: 3.

3.) Oh the tedium! See item #2 and make a ditto of my snarky comments about textbooks, but add in a few more about commercial curricula, and then consider trying out some of my plays and programs. Stress points: 0. Academic freedom is bliss.

4.) Student behavior (or lack thereof). They’re calling it “Disrupted Learning,” or something like that, and it seems to be getting worse. Some experts are suggesting video game addiction is behind it, and if so, one wonders if schools contributing to it with all the additional screen time given to computer-based learning. Stress points: 3. I had a particularly lovely group this year, but behavior management is always a stress.

5.) The pointy-haired man (see Dilbert, Chapter 1). A bad administrator can destroy the school climate in a hurry. I’m fortunate to have one that facilitates a healthful culture. Stress points: 0. I’m lucky.

6.) Disrespect (from parents, the media, Betsy DeVos, et al.). In most years I’d give this a 5, but I feel like the pendulum is swinging back in our favor. From my distant view, it seemed like the public was largely supportive of educators during the strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, and elsewhere. Although politicians continue to tout test scores and privatization, because the public is starting to acknowledge our stress, I’m only going to assign this 3 points.

So what’s my total: 14 (out of 30 possible). I guess I’m only 47% burned out. Not too shabby given the nature of the job, but I think I’m going to check out Dr. Rankin’s book anyway. If your score is up there, perhaps you should too. Until then, allow me to close with three push-backs against the stress:

X. Tell it like it is. When people make sometime-snarky comments about you being on “vacation,” boldly remind them that this is summer furlough, NOT summer vacation. Like most teachers, you’ve been laid off for a couple months. You’re not getting paid. You’re on a 200 day (+/-) contract and it ended. In fact, you probably only get one paid vacation day off per year, and unlike most professionals, you DON’T get to take it whenever you want. That’s why you’ve never seen the fall colors of New England, the Pendleton Round-up, or a decent price on a plane ticket. (I really don’t think saying this will help combat stress, but in the long run it might lower your stress score for item #6.)

Y. Get involved in your union. I’m not a fan of all my union’s policies and positions, but the NEA and AFT are the only organizations fighting against privatization of public schools. Your state-level union is probably the only organization protecting your retirement or working for adequate school funding. And your local association is probably the only thing standing between you and working conditions guaranteed to burn you out.

Z. Enjoy your summer furlough. Imagine how high your stress score would be if you didn’t have the summer months to recover! Me, I’d still be drooling in the corner. Instead, I’m busy working on some new reader’s theater products…which I hope you’ll come back and check out this fall.

Happy directing!