Getting Off the Hamster Wheel

Maura O'Reilly

This is the 6th in a series of blog posts I am writing as I interview teachers. Having dealt with teacher burnout myself, I wanted to determine what factors educators consistently experience that lead them to struggle with and/or leave the profession as well as the positive aspects that keep them in the classroom.

“High anxiety...feeling like you’re drowning, like there are not enough hours...feeling that you can’t catch your breath, that you have no time to breathe, to process...You are constantly in hyper mode.”

That is how Toni describes her experience with teacher burnout. At the time, she was an elementary classroom teacher in the U.S. Her story of teaching is somewhat unique in that she left the profession and then returned. She has been in the classroom for 21 years, but not in a row. Having mainly taught math and science to Grades 4 and 5, she currently teaches 6th-grade math at the American School of Milan in Italy. She has found private schools to be a much more enjoyable work experience. Smaller class size, a full-time assistant, more prep time in the private systems considerably reduce the stress level.

After many ups and downs, Toni says she is now content as a teacher. Her genuine love of teaching means she plans to stay in education, though she would be willing to leave the classroom if the right opportunity presented itself.

Evolving” is the word Toni uses to describe her career. She began teaching and decided it was not for her. Once she had her own children and began volunteering in their classrooms, she saw a different side of the profession. She realized she could make it work with a different approach, by setting boundaries for herself.

This is vitally important and Toni mentioned it a few times in our interview. I believe part of the reason burnout exists for teachers is that they are praised as these wonderful people who sacrifice everything and that creates pressure to make sacrifices. But please recognize when you need to draw the line and say no. If you don’t feel you can say no, explore why and be sure to speak with colleagues.

What caused burnout in Toni’s case?

“Take-home work on nights and weekends, not enough prep time, lots of discipline issues, 32 kids in the class, lunch duty with constant fear of losing control of the kids, admin issues that didn’t help...I took the kids problems home with me.”

Having good mentors has helped Toni through the difficult moments in her career. When feeling stretched too thin, Toni realized, “you can’t be a perfectionist”.

A mentor once told Toni she “had better learn how to do things half-assed”. The mentor was not a subpar teacher, she had simply learned that it is impossible to do everything with perfection and excellence. There are too many responsibilities for an educator to excel at every one. This mentor “knew how to set boundaries...refused to do certain things”. If you are feeling overwhelmed in your teaching position, consider taking this advice.

Perfectionists strive to control all aspects of everything they do, in order to ensure no errors or omissions are possible. It is an attempt to avoid being embarrassed, having to apologize, to fix things, etc. Perfection is an illusion, so the pursuit of it can end badly. Imagine being a perfectionist in a situation where you can’t survive unless you do a mediocre job. Something has to give. You have to reassess your approach, your time management, your priorities, your expectations, something.

“I had the realization as a young teacher that I couldn’t save the world. It’s going from idealistic to realistic. It’s hard to separate the two.”

Differentiation is key to student success, but as Toni points out, “too much differentiation leads to burnout: develop plans for each student, within reason”. A healthy way to do this is to stay current in your methods with continued professional development and stay open to making changes and trying new approaches.

Supportive administrators make all the difference. Ideally, you feel most supported by management who have been where you are and want what is best for students above all else. “It’s important to have a good relationship with (administrators) but it’s a two-sided coin. You don’t want to feel they are trying to ‘catch’ you or critique you.” Taking the time to not only observe teachers but provide constructive feedback means the administrators, educators, and students are working in an environment that is open to growth and positive change. “There are outsiders who’ve never been in the classroom that get a lot of airtime for how things should be done but haven’t experienced the reality.”

I asked Toni what she does to overcome/lessen the stress she experiences in and from the classroom.

We can get on a hamster wheel...

“We can get on a hamster wheel. With elementary and even high school, (we need to) reconnect with kids. Read for a a news clip and have a discussion...this gets you out of the frenetic pace.

“I’ve learned to do breathing to refocus myself. Time management helps. Make sure you do other things outside of school.”

What aspect of your job would you like to never have to do again?

“Narrative report cards. It is a superfluous amount of writing. It is mind-numbing and time-consuming. You write the same things again and again.”

What aspect of your job do you love (not just like)?

“I love getting to know the kids, and sometimes their families, if it’s a good relationship.”

Read more real-life stories from teachers here.

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