I’ve been reading a lot on Twitter recently about how stressed out, grumpy, and unhappy a lot of teachers are or have been. I’ve been there. In fact, I feel that at some point EVERY YEAR. However, I’m consistently able to ride the wave of dissatisfaction back to the shores of happiness. So, this post is all about how I got over my burn-out phase a few years back, and how I overcome the general dissatisfaction I get annually.
As I mentioned once before in one of my blog posts (Sam Vo: A Case Study In What It Takes To Be A Good Teacher), I was burnt-out for a good 3 years (2011-2013) in this terrible/wonderful profession of teaching children. I didn’t hate the kids and I wasn’t a horrible teacher. The vast majority of my pupils still liked me. I had just given too much of myself. You know the old saying about pouring from an empty cup? That’s what I was trying to do.
- I was tutoring kids during lunch every day and after school 4 days a week.
- I was trying to get a handle on the whole fatherhood thing with my first child (son) and then just a couple of years later with my second child (daughter). Speaking of my daughter, her gestation was a very difficult one for my wife, Amy. My son was a breeze for Amy to carry, and he was a relatively easy infant to care for. Unfortunately, Amy had some pretty severe morning sickness with my daughter. Whatever the opposite saying of “happy wife, happy life” is, that would describe the life my wife and I had during that pregnancy. Also, my daughter was a fussy baby. She woke up EVERY HOUR screaming at the top of her lungs for almost the entirety of her 1st year of life. My wife and I were walking zombies from Winter of 2011 through Spring of 2013.
- Taking care of the kids and my wife’s difficult work schedule (nights and weekends every other week) forced me to give up martial arts, which I had trained in for over 2 decades. And since the martial arts was my one method of exercise, I let myself go and wound up close to 200 lbs (I’m only 5’2.5”, so 200 lbs is purty hefty) and in the worst physical shape of my life.
- I had to teach both 7th and 8th grade science during my burn-out period, and I had never taught the former before so I was figuring that out as I was trying to stay conscious to deal with all the above.
- I knew I needed to get out of teaching before I grew to hate the job and the students, so I started a small side business (an internet search database for k-12 teaching resources) in January of 2012 as an exit strategy. I was CEO, CFO, COO, HR, and IT all rolled into one exhausted man. The business didn’t last and I shuttered it 5 years later, but not after it had already drained me even further.
All that in combination made me lay-Z. I didn’t want to do any more than I absolutely had to for my job. Whatever got me home fastest was what I did. What’s worse, I forgot why I became a teacher in the first place–to help kids academically and emotionally.
So how did I pull an “Ethan Hunt” and climb back up and off the cliffs of Mt. Kill-A-Many-Teacher? It started with remembering that kids misbehave when they have needs that are not met. You know this already. You’ve heard or read this in your TEP classes. I forgot it and it took me a few years for it to come back to me. But when it did, I went to my “trouble” kids, found out what needs they had, and tried to fulfill as many of them as I could. I’m not Super Teacher, so I couldn’t save all my trouble kids, but the satisfaction I got from helping the ones I could snapped me out of my malaise. If you’re as burnt-out as I was, maybe you’ve forgotten your reason for becoming an educator. Try to remember and do what you can to reconnect with that reason. If you’re a compassionate teacher, as I like to think I am, chances are your reason is the same as mine.
When it comes to my work, the compassion I show my students and the unequaled joy I get from seeing them improve because of it is the single most powerful tool I use to raise my spirits. But there are other tools at my disposal. My brother, Al, and I had a discussion about this back in March of 2018. We both had difficult childhoods and regularly experience high stress as part of our jobs/lives, but we’ve always been able to bounce back, while others we knew in similar positions succumbed to exhaustion and even depression. Al theorized that we were more resistant to stress-induced exhaustion and depression because we always had something else in our lives besides the stressors that carried us mentally away from our troubles. In other words, we’ve got hobbies. Lots of ‘em. Turns out he was right. There are tons of studies and books on the positive effects of hobbies on mental health. Unfortunately, one person’s hobby is another person’s snooze-fest. All I can do is tell you what works for me.
So many hobbies….
I’ve been a martial arts practitioner since I was a little boy. One of my uncles started training my siblings and I in Tae Kwon Do way back in 1988. I fell in love with the fighting arts. I went on to earn my black belt in TKD, then expanded my training over the years to include Russian Sambo, Muay Thai kickboxing, Filipino Kali, Judo, Krav Maga, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I did have to give it up for a few years as mentioned earlier, but now that my wife’s work schedule has become more family friendly and I myself have grown to be more organized, I’m back at it again. My training academy of choice is Kali Method in Upland, CA, owned and operated by the great Guro Jason Cruz, who instructs me in the arts of Kali and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’m telling you, there are few things more satisfying than taking your work frustrations out on a punching bag or even a sparring partner. Plus, the mental and physical discipline required of long-time martial arts practitioners allows me to self-calm. For example, Guro Jason trains his students (like me) to recover from exhaustion quickly through special breathing techniques, which help to slow down the heart rate, relax the muscles, and re-energize. It just so happens these techniques aid in stress reduction as well. Often times, all I have to do to take my stress levels down a notch is by breathing the way Guro Jason taught me.
Another hobby I enjoy is tinkering. One of the reasons I’m a science teacher is because I love learning how things work and solving engineering problems. Google and YouTube are my professors, and through them, I’ve learned the ins-and-outs of a computer so well that I’ve built 3 PCs for my home, at a fraction of the cost of store-bought ones, I might add. I still play with and upgrade them every so often.
My tinkering interests don’t stop at computers. If there’s anything in my house that needs fixing or improving, I prefer to have first crack at it before hiring a repair person. In the last year alone, some items that needed repair/upgrades in my home have been my washer and dryer, the kitchen sink garbage disposal, the kitchen sink faucet, my doorbell camera, the garage door, and the garage door opener. I didn’t know a single thing about how any of the above work, but I paid attention to my classes at the University of Google and YouTube. After taking a few days to learn the inner workings of the appliances, I fixed/upgraded them all.
Currently, I have a 15-year-old laptop sitting in my home office that my brother-in-law gave to me. He got a new one, so I decided to take his old one off his hands. I’m waiting for the summer so I can tinker with it because I’ve got something special in mind for it. I’ve heard whispers here and there of Linux, an open source operating system for computers. That last statement represents everything I know about Linux, but I want to see if I can breathe new life into a relatively ancient laptop, and I’m curious enough about the OS to invest a month or two of my summer to get it working on my brother-in-law’s old PC. Slowly researching computer hardware, home DIY stuff, and Linux constantly give my mind somewhere else to go to get away from stress.
My newest hobby is 3D printing. I bought me a Monoprice Select Mini 3D Printer V2 for $120 from eBay some time ago. It can’t produce very large objects (maximum printable dimensions are 120mm x 120mm x 120mm), but it’s good enough to get me started. Haven’t you ever bought something you knew was really overpriced and thought to yourself, “If only I could have made that?” Well, with 3D printers, YOU CAN!!! A year ago, someone created a custom charging stand for a particular smartwatch I owned. He charged about $10 for it, so it’s not like it was ridiculously expensive, but I still felt it was an unnecessary “luxury” item and I decided to go without. But then I got my 3D printer! The same man who created the charging stand was generous enough to freely provide the files needed to print the stand on the internet. I downloaded the files back in January of this year, plugged them into my 3d printer, and printed the stand out myself, which only cost me a few cents worth of PLA plastic. A month later, for Valentines Day, I printed out a dozen plastic red roses for my wife. They’ll last practically forever and cost a small fraction of the real thing. WHO SAID SCIENCE AND ROMANCE DON’T MIX? I’ve even printed out stuff for work. My students were learning about the James Webb Space Telescope. All the lesson materials I had only showed drawings of the telescope and I thought it would be nice, especially for my EL and RSP kids, to have some realia in the class. So, I went to Thingiverse.com and typed in a search for the Webb Space Telescope, and sure enough, someone had drawn up the plans for it and posted them for anyone to download for free. I printed the telescope out over the weekend and showed it to my students the following Monday. It wasn’t amazing, but the kids thought it was soooooooo cool and were so blown away by the idea that people can just print out physical objects the way others print documents on conventional printers. A week after that, I did a favor for a kid who WAS NOT MY STUDENT by printing out a replacement miniature cannon turret for his model battleship. I made him find the print plans for the turret and make all the measurements himself. This 7th grader totally loves me now and drops by my class to visit briefly with me every day. He’s even joined my after school Active Club. He constantly tells me he hopes I’m his science teacher next year in 8th grade. All this because I spent half an hour printing him something that only cost me a few cents worth of material.
I’m on thingiverse.com incessantly looking for new models and objects. I have plans to print out the starship Enterprise, a miniature Iron Man, a charging cable wind-up organizer, a 3-light switch cover, an angled base for my front doorbell camera, and much more. Of course, it’s not as simple as it sounds. I’m having to adjust model sizes and printer speeds all the time. It’s not uncommon for a job to come out all kinds of ugly. Searching for (and sometimes designing from scratch) these objects and fine-tuning the print process is extremely time consuming, but it’s so much fun for me that I easily forget about all my worries. My stress just fades away into the background when I’m concentrating on my 3D printer.
The above hobbies work for me, but if they don’t speak to you, don’t sweat it. All you’ve gotta do to find some that work for you is to think about what you’ve always wanted to try/learn. Don’t worry about requisite skills or knowledge. Google, YouTube, and knowledgeable friends and family will guide you. You’ve just gotta have a “can-do” attitude and a willingness to give it a go. As I stated earlier, I didn’t know squat about any of my hobbies before giving them a try. For example, every martial arts style that I’ve trained in started out with me getting my ass handed to me for weeks and even months before seeing progress. However, I was so curious about them that I kept coming back for more. Isn’t the journey supposed to be the point, not the destination? Also, keep in mind that the more hobbies you’ve got, the better. Lots of tools in your toolbox means you’re more likely to have the right one for a particular job/stress.
Right As Rain
Besides hobbies, there are a couple of other things you should try to manage stress and make you feel right as rain again. We’ll start out with something easy and work our way to the nuclear option.
As I alluded to earlier, we teachers have a lot of duties. Many of us feel stress and even depression when there are just too many responsibilities. This is particularly true for beginning teachers. When I first started, I used to tell people I was going to change the world through my students. We all think/thought this at some point, so we take on all kinds of extra duties to bring about a quicker worldwide revolution. Unfortunately, these duties add up and before you know it, you’ve got an unbearable load. Luckily, no one ever said we have to carry this load for the duration of our careers. To that end, I’ve set down (not dropped) a few of the balls I’ve juggled. For example, I had been a part of my school’s AVID and National Junior Honor Society committees for years. I very respectfully bowed out of both. I still supported the committees and helped out on occasion, but I stopped attending their meetings. Also, I reduced my tutoring hours to just after school on Mondays. It’s shocking how getting that one hour back for myself on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays gave me so much extra peace. In addition, after 5 years of having 2 preps, I asked my principal in 2016 to give me a break by taking 7th grade science away from me so I could focus on teaching just one class, 8th grade science. This last one was the heaviest of duties I was able to let go of because the new NGSS has forced all veteran science teachers (in states that adopted them) to pretty much start all over in terms of content and pedagogy. It’s tough enough relearning just one grade level, much less two. Now, when I finish lesson planning, I’m actually done and I don’t have to start planning for another class.
Speaking of too many duties, maybe you’ve set a few of them down, but there are still a bunch that you just can’t. What do you do when there’s no way to get around the juggling act? You take a second to analyze all the things you’ve gotta do, and then optimize your life for maximum time efficiency. In other words, you’ve gotta figure out how to MULTITASK like a motherf*cker. I’ve already detailed how I multitask in my post entitled “Have Your Cake. Eat Your Cake,” so read that motherf*cker! Ahem! Sorry. My first name is Samuel, like Samuel L. Jackson, and I feel his spirit course through me on occasion. It makes me feel kind of like a BADASS MOTHERF…. Sorry, sorry. Anyway, too many duties can lead to high stress and even depression, but only if we feel we cannot handle them or get them done. If you can multitask like a Samuel L. Jackson expletive, then you won’t feel as stressed because you’ll know you actually can and will get it all done.
You’ve got personal days. Use ‘em. My district offers 12 personal days. As a responsible adult, I conserve the majority of them in case one of my kids gets sick, or there’s some emergency. However, my wife, kids, and I have been blessed with relatively good health (knock on wood), so I have never used up all my personal days. As a result, I typically take a mental health day once every semester. I prefer to call it a “Me Day” because I do whatever the hell I want. I may work, but not a lot. I may exercise, but not too strenuously. I may cook, but not for too long and definitely not too healthy. I usually spend most of the day vegging on the couch and binge watching TV shows and/or movies, or trying out something I learned for one of my hobbies.
Sometimes, I’ll even take a Me Day on a Saturday or Sunday instead of a work day. My wife and kids are understanding enough to leave me alone all day while I chill out upstairs in my bedroom or office. If you don’t have any personal days to spare, then a weekend Me Day works just as well. You can do as I do, or go to a spa, or sleep it all away, or whatever. The point is to let go of all your responsibilities and concentrate on you FOR. THE. ENTIRE. DAY. It’s a wonderful feeling to be the one to call the shots and take back control of your life, even if it’s just for one day. In the future, I may take a “Me Weekend”. I haven’t been brave enough to ask the wife and kids for one of those yet though. To be honest, it’ll probably never happen, but one can dream.
Exercise (along with proper nutrition) is easily the most important of the Right-As-Rain techniques because it gives us the energy we need to do all we do as educators (and human beings). Lets list all our duties in a long run-on sentence, shall we? We teach; we learn new pedagogy; we adjust to new standards; we get to know our students; we counsel our students; we differentiate instruction for RSP, EL, emotionally distraught students; we plan lessons; we cover for our fellow educators during our prep periods; we attend LOTS of meetings; we communicate with parents/guardians; we advocate for our students; we collaborate with our peers; we observe our students for signs of learning or distress; we fill out LOTS of paperwork; we deal with tech issues; we make photocopies; we keep track of supply inventory and order more within our budgets (and from our own bank accounts); we read/write LOTS of emails; we (try to) keep our classes clean; we listen to and console students who have experienced tragedies; we set up activities; we take students on field trips and try not to lose our minds while chaperoning 30-70 kids…. Writing “etcetera” at the end of that last sentence doesn’t quite cover it. If you want to be able to do all this for 10-12 months, you’re going to need a lot of energy, and if you don’t exercise (and eat properly) you won’t have it.
Once again, Google and YouTube searches will guide you, unless you get a personal trainer, but that can be pricey. Just like my tinkering, I didn’t know the first thing about how to exercise on my own. Fortunately, there are free exercise apps you can download and workout videos on YouTube you can watch to get you started. There are some programs you can pay for (like T25, Body Beast, Insanity, P90X, etc, all of which I have tried) if you want to go that route, but they’re still cheaper than paying for a personal trainer. The point is, don’t freak out if you don’t know where to start. There are lots of options that will show you the way. Likewise, for diets.
If you’ve never really been very physically active, you needn’t worry about that either. Exercise takes many forms. My favorite exercise is walking because it’s not strenuous at all. I got a treadmill recently. I’ve walked at least 200 miles on it, and I’ve only run maybe 10 miles on it. Who says you’ve gotta run and overexert yourself to exercise? Walking does the job, too. If walking on a treadmill is too much for you, an elliptical machine is a wonderful alternative. I have one of those too, and I’m not afraid to use it when my knees and I are having a disagreement.
Now, you’re gonna get really tired when you start any new exercise routine. You’ll probably feel that way for a couple of weeks. However, once your body gets used to the routine, it’ll process and release oxygen and nutrients more efficiently, and your energy levels will rise. You’ll suddenly be able to do all the crap in that long-ass run-on sentence and still have some energy for the good stuff in your life outside of work. And when you have more energy, you’ll feel better overall, which naturally serves as positive reinforcement so you’ll exercise more/differently and eat even healthier. Before you know it, this snowball effect will lead you to excellent physical fitness. All those stories you see, hear, and read about people who have lost tremendous amounts of weight and gotten fit began with regular people who started with small changes and gradually worked their way up. They weren’t superheroes. They’re just like you and me.
Many workers (teachers, too) succumb to stress and even depression when they’re struggling with a work environment they don’t feel they can change. In the case of educators, this could be unsafe working conditions, incompatible coworkers, demands from admin, the mistreatment of students, etc. Hobbies will take your mind off these things for a little while, but prolonged exposure to this feeling of helplessness will make anyone’s life spiral into the abyss. My suggestion then is to take the nuclear option: if you’ve tried your hardest to change your work environment and they remain unmoved, then you should move… to another school that is, or perhaps to another district entirely.
As I wrote in my post entitled “Why, When, & Where You Should Transfer,” I worked at the same school I had originally been hired at fresh out of my TEP for 14 years. I truly thought I was going to be there for my entire career, but after over a decade, it became difficult to show up for work, even after I had gotten over my burn-out phase. Basically, I no longer felt appreciated by my administration and the colleagues I interacted most with. There are still some great people at my old site, but I needed to be in another environment more conducive to my growth as a teacher. Luckily, I already had a job and good stress management skills, so I was able to take my time in search for a new site. The idea of finding a new school popped into my head during the Spring of 2017, and I had made a point to peruse the job postings my district put out every so often. Each time I saw a potential job opening, I did my research on the admin, students, and science department. I didn’t find an opening that fit my criteria for those 3 categories until the summer of 2018. In my research, I discovered that the admin, students, and science department at Colton Middle School were exactly what I was looking for. So, I jumped ship. As of this writing, I am at the end of my first year at CMS, and I am so much happier and much more relaxed since I made the switch. It’s been such a dramatic change that some of the colleagues I’ve run into from my former school have told me I look much better. Apparently, they could tell I wasn’t happy because my eyebrows and forehead were often furrowed. They aren’t anymore, at least not as much. So, keep in mind that a building does not make a home. It’s the people that make a home. Right now, Colton Middle School is my home, but only because of the admin, the students, and the science department it houses. If you feel like leaving education behind, try leaving your school behind for another one first. Yes, it can be scary to transfer to a new school or district. That’s why I call it the nuclear option. But if you do your research by talking to or emailing teachers at prospective schools/districts, you can get a very nice picture showing you whether you should go there or not. The research will make the decision a much less scary one.
Um… I think that’s it. All the strategies I mentioned in this post are things I have tried and benefitted from myself. So please, please, PLEASE, try them if you have not already and you’re feeling like finding another career. We need good, compassionate teachers who want to be there for the kids. Chances are, your reasons for wanting to leave the job (if you have any) don’t have anything at all to do with the students themselves. It’s usually a gripe with admin or other teachers, or something else not related to kids. Try changing those things before leaving the students you love and who love you back. Oh, and pick up them hobbies. You’ve always wanted to try them, and there’s no time like the present to give them a go. If you have any other strategies you’d like to suggest, please comment away.