40% of new teachers leave the profession after just five years of teaching and 9.3% are leaving within the first year.
I have been teaching for eight years now. That isn’t very long, but it is often longer than many of my co-workers. I have taught at a hand full of schools, each school year watching sometimes half the school needing to be replaced. Eight years is strangely a long time to have under my belt, and they haven’t always been the best of times.
I love my job. Full stop. This post isn’t about the difficulties of teaching, the politics involved in our quality of life, or the reasons we deserve better. This is a post about how I have managed to cope over the years. With 12- 20% of teachers reporting experiences of burnout symptoms at least once a week, I hoped to find tangible information on helping teachers manage these emotions only to come up rather short. So here is my experience – maybe it will be helpful for someone.
I have experienced anxiety and depression over the years in a variety of ways. This current year I have started to explore my mental health more, and am on a journey figuring out ways to manage my recently diagnosed Bipolar Disorder. Since the school year has started in August I have started and stopped a variety of medications, spent a week in a mental hospital, started weekly therapy sessions, and got my diagnosis of Bipolar. One medication caused me to rapid cycle, causing me to shift moods quickly from day to day, with no predictability. Starting another medication caused extreme fatigue and lack of emotion. I slipped in and out of mania while rapid cycling, starting and not following through on projects or provocation ideas.
I have also since August started and continued my first toddler project group. I have worked through new teaching team struggles. I have brought my kids on some their first field trips, walking further than they have literally ever walked in their life. I have collaborated with my co-teachers to create rich curriculum in the classroom, in addition to project work. I have created a teacher research topic. I have thought deeply and acted intentionally with anti-bias goals with an age group I have never done so with before. I have maintained a steady flow of documentation and blog posts.
I am, well, exhausted.
Teaching is emotional labor. We spend our day reigning in our emotions for the benefit of the children and families in our care. Emotional labor is always difficult, but when you add mental health issues, it becomes that much harder. When I am already having trouble getting out of bed and coming to work, it becomes much harder to respond calmly to O biting H for the third time today. When I just spent my Uber ride crying in the backseat, which cost me my last 5$ by the way, it is much more difficult to remain calm when after 40 minutes of getting every toddler in their sweaters, winter coats, snow pants, gloves, hats and neck warmers outside, N poops her pants – causing us all to have to go back inside. It is hard to respond with sympathy when a parent is upset they can’t find their child’s missing plain white sock when I have barely made it through the last 7.5 hours.
Luckily, this has been one of my most enjoyable years’ teaching, or I might not have made it through the year.
I noticed I was able to manage my emotions easier once I opened up to my co-teachers about my mental health. We had a rocky start getting to know each other, and so I hesitated to share at first. But once I did, it was a huge relief. One morning I had been dissociating during a family potluck which triggered some social anxiety – after, I was able to tell my co-teacher I needed to use our planning time, rather than going to our Studio for a collaborative Provocation like we had planned. She was of course more than happy to reschedule, and it felt so good to be able to say what I needed and why.
I have always been rather honest with children about my emotions, stating how I feel when I am frustrated or tired. I found myself doing so even more this year, and it has also been a huge help. “I am feeling rather tired and cranky today, I am sorry that I was rushing you while we were getting ready.”
One biggest piece of advice is to have a life outside of the classroom. This may seem silly, but I found myself at one point funneling all my energy into the classroom, leaving little to no room for anything else. Now, rather than going home and writing blog posts or doing documentation or checking emails, I spend time with my roommates, I go out with friends, I go to concerts, I do one of the many things I have discovered a love for recently. I recall reading something Loris Malaguzzi wrote on the importance of teachers being well-rounded and having a rich life outside of teaching. I took that to heart, and once I did I found myself being better able to manage my workload.
The last thing I want to say is geared more to admins of preschools. Having a system in place to support teachers who are experiencing burnout, and hopefully to avoid burnout, is vital to a thriving school community. Being able to say, “I am not sure I can be in the classroom right now, I am feeling hyper-sensitive and need a moment.” has saved my sanity more than once. Make sure your teachers know they can always be honest about their mental health and their needs. Have resources available for managing burnout, and systems in place to support teachers who display or state they are currently experiencing it. I am in the process of writing a document on emotional labor in the classroom and ways to manage in a job that requires lots of emotional labor – I hope it will be a helpful resource within my school. Don’t have any sort of system in your school yet? Consider creating a committee and having teachers state what they would want and need out of a system for mental health.
I plan on adding a resource tab to my blog that will include resources on managing depression, emotional labor, and other mental health-related topics. Have a question, additional tips to offer, or your own story to add? Please share! I wish I had known when I was a fresh-faced teacher that the burnout I was feeling wasn’t just on my shoulders to deal with, and it wasn’t unique to me.