Improve your personal boundaries.
I work with teachers that are in burnout in my private practice as a psychologist. They arrive saying their jobs are too big. That the demands placed on them aren’t reasonable. That what they’re asked to do in a day isn’t reasonable.
The demands on teachers are huge
Teachers I work with say they are asked to write emails to each student’s parents with updates on the child’s progress in class.
That their class sizes are too large.
That they are given too many children with behavioural problems but that there aren’t enough teacher’s aids to work with these special needs children.
That they are told to not leave their classes unattended but that they are not given enough breaks.
That parents can be too demanding and sometimes out of control.
They share stories about how principals haven’t backed them.
They talk about other teachers with difficult personalities that no one reigns in.
I believe the stories. I have no doubt that bad administrations and principals and parents are out there.
Some need medical leave to recover
Sometimes the teachers I work with need to take stress leave so they can recover. If you ever wonder what someone does on stress leave, the answer is that they work quite hard. They sleep until their energy levels recover, which can take more than eight weeks, depending on how exhausted the teacher has become before they step out. Sometimes, when they have been in burnout for years, they might need to rest for five or six months before they begin to recover.
These teachers almost always need to work on their physical fitness levels because they have neglected to care for their bodies. They can end up in physiotherapy for the same reason.
In my office, we work together to develop better self-care skills and personal boundaries, so they are able to prevent a recurrence of burnout after they return to their jobs. What kind of self-care skills and personal boundaries? I have attached a short list of ideas below.
8 tips to help you thrive
1. Identify role models and observe them
We discuss the idea that there are some good teachers with strong personal boundaries appear to thrive. My clients say they know some of these teachers. They say they don’t know how they do it. They say the children in their classrooms benefit from excellent teaching, and that the teachers leave their classrooms at reasonable hours.
I ask my clients whether these teachers may have figured out something they need to personally learn. I suggest these teachers know how to keep themselves on their feet. That they have enough energy at the end of the school day to enjoy their lives outside the classroom. That these teachers have figured out how to survive within the current system.
Using these teachers as role models, we discuss the idea of sitting at the back of the room at staff meetings rather than at the front. I suggest my clients learn to sit on their hands. I suggest they avoid making eye contact when volunteers are asked for to man evening events or to coach sports teams.
2. Don’t challenge authority
Similarly, I suggest teachers that are prone to burnout not give their opinions when asked for them because giving their opinions might mean they are perceived as challenging the administration, which can make their lives harder. If they are asked, I suggest they say they have listened diligently to what has been discussed in meetings and that they will need 48 hours to mull over what has been presented.
If this approach won’t work, I suggest they say they have received bad news and have been distracted in the meeting, which means they don’t have an opinion to share. I suggest they apologize and say they will ask a colleague to review the meeting’s content with them the next day.
3. Get faster at grading papers
I suggest that my clients get faster at grading papers. If a child has given the correct answer on a math test, I suggest they not review the child’s work on the question. I suggest chances are high that the child has grasped the material if they got the answer right.
Teachers know the abilities of the children in their classrooms before they grade their papers. A teacher knows whether a child has done the work correctly. There is little risk the teacher will miss something if they speed up how quickly they grade.
4. Don’t spend time on things that don’t matter
I suggest teachers not spend a lot of time decorating their classrooms. We explore the idea that they do a good enough job, but not indulge their artistic side.
As a general concept, I suggest that teachers work at 65% of their capability and keep 35% of their energy for home, and for those days when crises arise.
5. Stay home when you are sick
I suggest teachers stay home from work when they are sick. People may be praised when they show up at work with the flu, but they aren’t performing well and they’re exposing others to their germs. Instead, I suggest that teachers that are ill stay home and crawl under the covers.
6. Take mental health days
Another idea I suggest is that teachers take two or three mental health days every year. Everyone has a couple days when they are not at their best and don’t feel up to working . On these days, I suggest teachers call in sick and nurture themselves. Maybe curl up with a good book or nurture themselves in some way.
7. Protect your personal time
Want a couple more ideas on how to improve your self-care skills if you are a teacher? One, which is healthy, is to say you need to use the bathroom or that you’re expecting an important call when another teacher that routinely consumes your time without giving back enters your room. Remember, your goal is to get home so you can enjoy your personal life. Don’t freely give your time to someone that doesn’t give as much as they take.
8. Don’t take on too much
I will share one more idea. I often meet teachers that take responsibility for more than is reasonable. For example, teachers sometimes tell me they have to try to bring a group of children up to grade level when they arrive in their classroom three years behind where they should be. I tell these teachers that taking on this level of responsibility is not reasonable. They haven’t caused the problem, and it is not theirs to fix. The problem is a larger, societal concern. Instead, I suggest these teachers feel sad for the children. But then I suggest they go home, and maybe go for a bike ride with our own kids.
In general, I try to help teachers improve their self-care skills so they can continue to work in an occupation they enjoy, and to establish better personal boundaries so that they can better survive their jobs and hopefully thrive moving forward.
— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta