Q: I’m a seventh-grade teacher, and I’m so fried. This year kicked my butt, though I can’t put my finger on any specific “why.” Today is the last day for students, and I’m already dreading returning in the fall. I love teaching, and I really love my students, but I feel like I’m a living to-do list. The school system keeps adding to our load. Parents seem to feel we won’t educate their kids if they don’t sit on us. My classroom is disorganized and my house is even worse. I’m a mess, and I don’t want to feel this way again at the end of next year. Can you give me a “burnout prevention plan” for this summer? I’m not looking for a cliched list of self-care suggestions. Just some steps so I have a chance of getting my act together by the fall — and keeping it together. I don’t want to feel this burned out at this time next year. Complicating matters, I do have to work this summer. I’ve been so overwhelmed I didn’t line anything up in advance, so I’ll probably tutor kids by the boatload to supplement my income.
A: I understand your aversion to self-care advice. It’s hard to meditate, go for a run or even meet a friend for coffee when you’re sleep-deprived and stressed. I’d view this as a three-pronged process.
Step 1: Reflect on this past year. What did and didn’t work? What would you have done differently? Do an honest self-assessment. You may realize you were prone to procrastination or taking on unnecessary projects. You may realize you made promises to parents you couldn’t keep, or agreed to unreasonable demands. Perhaps you surrounded yourself with complainers, and all that negativity rubbed off on you. As you do a postmortem, you may realize that certain colleagues consistently dampened your mood or brought out your inner cynic. Set healthy boundaries with anyone who causes you stress, whether it’s a colleague or a parent. You also can use the summer to think about your systems. Was there a method to your madness, or did you do everything on a need-to-complete basis? Now is a good time to figure out strategies that work, whether it’s checklists, electronic reminders, apps or paper calendars. You’ll feel less overwhelmed if you’re intentional instead of reactive. And if you have access to your classroom, take some time to get everything in order there, too.
Step 2: Get your household in order. You mentioned that you’re living in chaos. At the end of a tiring workday, you’ll feel calmer if your environment is organized. Start donating, recycling and trashing your piles. You also can stock up on staples, subscribe to a grocery-delivery service, or start clipping easy recipes—look for any time-savers that would ease the pressure in the fall.
Step 3: Front-end professional responsibilities. Try to get any necessary training out of the way in the summer, and plan for the upcoming year. Consider using social media to generate a professional learning network so you can crowd-source ideas and discover what others do when they feel the crunch. Educators are one of the most active groups on platforms like Twitter, and they actively share lesson plans and strategies. All that positive, enthusiastic energy could help you reframe challenges as opportunities for creativity. Plus, the sheer act of anticipating roadblocks and establishing an action plan will mitigate your stress. You don’t have to stick to the plan, but you’ll be more likely to start the school year feeling like you have your act together. So much is mental. Along those lines, be careful how you talk to yourself. If you think you’ll be a mess, you’ll be a mess. Remind yourself that you’re a capable person who can handle anything.
I do want to raise a question about your summer work plan. A teacher friend of mine swears that the secret to her happiness is spending summers doing something other than teaching. In her case, she waitresses, which she loves. Is there something other than tutoring you might like to try? Novelty staves off depression and could help you recharge. So could self-care. Yes, I know, and I’m sorry to go there, but summer is a perfect time to create sustainable routines. Could you start waking early to take a walk, or make sure you consistently get to bed at a reasonable hour? Can you practice setting aside at least one weekend day to do something therapeutic, or pursue a hobby, or lie around doing nothing at all? Ultimately, there’s only so much you can do to prevent burnout in advance. You’re not a machine. Everyone’s battery runs out without recharging.
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