How to battle burnout with kindness and why it’s the only thing that will work

Yesterday I published an article in Quartz arguing that teacher burnout is one of the biggest social justice issues of our time. I really mean it… if our passionate teachers continue to burn out and leave education, our most vulnerable kids will suffer, the opportunity and achievement gaps will widen and the health of our economy will continue to erode.

But do you know who else is suffering?  THE EDUCATOR. And that’s at least as important; burnout is so painful when you are passionate about your work. It feels like a major betrayal to the part of you that loves your students and honors your role as the caretaker of our nation’s future success.  I know, because I’ve been there.

About a year ago I was in the throes of major burnout myself. I just didn’t give a sh*t anymore, despite being a person who is always, always deeply committed to my work.  I was wrung out by the pace, hadn’t had a real break (even a weekend) in months, and finally just ground to a halt. Exhausted. Miserable. Done.

Battling burnout with KINDNESS!

Within that Quartz article is this provocative statement “When you start to feel the first signs of burnout, the worst thing you can do is push through.”  This statement sits on two pillars of evidence:

  • Real World Experience.  Lately, I’ve been talking to educators who have come out the other side of burnout (in preparation for the Group Hug and Summer Institute).  We call ourselves the survivors of burnout because we have been able to turn the corner and care deeply about our work again. There are so many different tips and tricks we’ve come up with (I’ll share them with you in the Group Hug) but the one thing we all agree on is this: You can’t just push through. Burnout doesn’t resolve through SHEER FORCE OF WILL.  You have pull back and give yourself a break. You need to create space where you aren’t doing the work nor are you thinking about the work.  If you check out the Quartz article you’ll see a quote from a seriously talented veteran educator, Justin Ashley, making this claim better than I ever could.
  • Psychology. When I think of burnout from a psychological perspective, I see it fall out into two categories. One side of it is the accumulation of small emotional traumas until it feels like full-out emotional crisis. The other side of it is the deterioration of your ego recovery program.  Both of these require KINDNESSS, not brute force to resolve.

Ego Recovery

The newest part (evolutionarily) of your brain is the pre-frontal cortex. It’s responsible for helping you to make decisions, make interesting connections between the things you see and suppress your negative responses.  Think of these things as ego management.

The interesting thing about your ego is that it gets tired.  Other parts of your brain don’t get tired. Your limbic system doesn’t ever get tired of helping you to breathe! But maybe that’s because its way, way older and our evolution has fixed it. Who knows.

But this newer part of our brain does run out of energy.  Think about it- by the end of the day you are way more likely to eat a whole box of cookies, yell at your husband and cry. Right?  You’re also way more likely to avoid making hard decisions and avoid new and novel problems like the plague.

But that’s OK! Because you are about to unplug, decompress, and sleep.  These things give your brain the time it needs to take care of business (to consolidate memories, resolve open loops, and generate resources) and rebuild your ego for all the new innovation, creativity, decisions and negative suppressions you’ve got going on tomorrow.

But wait- what happens when you are SO BUSY that you aren’t sleeping? When you aren’t taking time off on the weekends, and not ever decompressing?  You will begin to fray around the edges, starting each new day further and further behind. This will make you feel like a crazy person and you’ll wonder why you aren’t even able to avoid hollering at your kids when they’ve only asked a question.  This is a VICIOUS cycle that can’t be resolved with anything but REST. You need to take a REAL BREAK.  Read more about that here.

Emotional Crisis

The other side of burnout for teachers (and others, but teaching is a particularly emotional job, especially if you work in a high-poverty urban school) is emotional wear and tear.  A teacher may move from a break-through with a student that sets her heart alight, to being called a bitch in the hallway by a student she knows is living in a homeless shelter, to being informed by her school leader that she has to change the way she teaches Math starting today. This is all in a day’s work for teachers in US urban public schools. And it’s exhausting, demoralizing, and can cause a teacher to doubt her own professional judgment.

Part of the work of resolving burnout is to process this reality. And you can’t just tell yourself to “deal with it” indefinitely. Think about a child whose feelings have been hurt because another child she considered a friend has told her she’s stupid.  How effective is it to get in her face and yell “DEAL WITH IT! THAT’S LIFE!” Not very.

So stop doing it to yourself!  You get enough emotional trauma from the outside world, your job is to offer kindness. Space to heal. A hug that might take the shape of a skein of fancy gold yarn, a Friendly’s ice cream sundae, or a whole- hour- long walk with your dog. Whatever is going to give you some some space to heal and regain some inner balance.

After you’ve regained some footing, then I would do some more formal work to recalibrate your response, refocus your energy and reassess how you are structuring your life… but not yet. This summer, we’ll return to it. Right now, at the end of the year it’s all about the Group Hug (see below).

There you have it!  The solution to burn out– whether its primarily one of a self-care deficit that has crippled your ego response system or an accumulation of emotional trauma– MUST be handled with kindness. This brow-beating that you’ve been doing is making everything worse. So stop it right now!


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