Originally published May 2003
First of all, always avoid the word “BURNOUT!”
It is a composite word that serves as a masque for specific concerns. Specific concerns, when faced individually. are fixable. For the same reason, I have personally always hated the word “attitude.” When we tell a student (or in these days they tell us), “I don’t like your attitude,” we are giving a stamp for blanket condemnation without addressing the specific problem or problems. It can also be true with the word “depressed.” The guy who sits alone and says that he is depressed, needs to first of all get rid of the word and answer specifically “why” he is depressed. Perhaps the loan company took his truck, his wife found someone else and the dog ran away. These are obviously specific points or problems (certainly worthy of depression), but now we have something to work with or at least a place to start as we formulate a plan!
So, if this makes any sense at all, the first thing you do if you suspect “burnout” is not to lump all the symptoms into one word. Instead, try to be very specific about the individual situations or problems that are wearing you down. Just having a bad attitude or being depressed or burned out, is not specific enough to actually address let alone try to fix. Sort, list, discuss and address the real issues!
Somewhere in your professional life, you need a support team.
In some schools, it exists by mandate and in other situations, it is as informal as a social club. Several years ago some of my dear friends in northern Indiana had a group that met every other Friday after school. The meeting was held at a local pub and the official name for the organization was the Music Therapy Support Society. At first glance, one might think that this was just an excuse for a cool one after a hot week. It was really much more. The teachers involved cussed, discussed, and collaborated., They soiled out issues and problem made recommendations and supported each other.
I am not necessarily recommending that pub refreshment is the answer, but the association with a support team IS! Your support team may be the colleagues from your school or similar colleagues from other schools. Your personal family can be of great help, but unless they are directly related to what you do, they will tire of your complaints. (They eventually may tire when they are in your field and do understand.) Many times members of a professional organization can also be members of your support team. If you are not operating with some type of support then create your own team. I certainly would not have made it for 34 years without wonderful, caring and helpful professional friends.
Find avenues to see your students, their parents and your colleagues in other walks of life.
I always enjoy my colleagues away from the job despite any minor differences on the job. Sometimes your best friends will be parents that you work within a church group, neighbor group, community group. or any group other than school. Support your students by attending their athletic events, plays or community service organizations. Associations away from your direct job (outside your classroom) will not only strengthen the associations dealing directly with your job, but it will also allow you to view your direct situation more objectively.
Get A Life!
I don’t care how many hours a day you feel you need to work at school-the old saying that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” is absolutely true! If Jack can use a break, then so can you! You need to have interests outside of the classroom! You need to have friends outside of the classroom. You need to have fun and/or productive activities outside the classroom. One of the biggest secrets to not burning out is to “Get a Life,” yes, outside the classroom!
Several years ago I made a few great friends who were totally “outside” the school environment. They would laugh at me because my entire approach to the year was by semesters. Imagine my surprise when I realized that there were people that actually believed the year began January 1 and not the middle of August.
Get in shape!
Being physically less than your very best makes a huge difference with your overall outlook on life. There are tons of studies on physical fitness and the direct relationship to productivity, self-esteem and mental alertness.
If you are in the best shape possible and you are getting lots of rest and regular exercise, you will be surprised how differently you perceive your life, your attitude, and your job!
Many years ago I did a survey and later an article entitled: “Is There a Ratio Between Creativity and Burnout?” The teachers who participated overwhelmingly agreed that those who were either in positions where it was easy to be creative or they were supported in creative endeavors, were much less concerned about burnout. The teachers who felt they were in the burnout syndrome were teachers who either had difficulty being creative or were in positions where creativity was either stifled or not appreciated. Most of us tend to be very creative by nature. Have you forgotten how neat it is to have a great new idea? (… and be able to use it.)
Do not do everything the same way every year.
Even great ideas get old and certainly your groups do differ from year to year. How long has it been since you respected tradition, but reached for exploration? Consider this: You do not have to do everything the same every year. Attend professional meetings, pick the brains of your professional friends and be flexible. Maybe skip contest this year and schedule your own in-house festival. Try to find new ways every year to address both old and new issues. Work with your colleagues and don’t be afraid to try something different even if it fails.
Change your focus.
Many years ago a very successful band director spent twenty years preparing for and winning contest after contest. He became bitter because newer administrators seem to lack appreciation of his work. newer students seemed to be less dedicated, and newer parents seemed less organized and supportive. Instead of loving kids and music he began to hate everything, including getting up in the morning. He quit his job for two years and worked in a gift shop. Today he is happy and he is teaching. Instead of focusing on the unappreciative administration, the less than talented children and the disorganized parents, he focused on truths.
Spoil yourself sometimes!
We older teachers complain that we do not understand the “me” generation. You are correct, they can learn a lot from our dedication. However, we can learn a great lesson from them, and that is to take care of ourselves first. Many older teachers experience “burnout” because they have spent years and years putting themselves last. If you have worked so hard that you are physically depleted (and it is easy to do), then it is no wonder that. you think you are experiencing burnout.
Get totally away!
This one is for the teachers who live in the same community as they teach. Or for the teachers who schedule straight through Spring break and Summer vacation. How long has it been since you did something that took you totally away from your job? Travel is great, but it should not always be to a professional meeting or to the next drum corps show.
Review your baseline philosophy.
Philosophy is not just some big word or non-applicable class for the college classroom. Philosophy is really very basic, very simple and very important. Philosophy does no more than answer the BIG QUESTION. Why do you want to teach?
College students always have great philosophies. Here are some quotes: “I want to teach to share with students my love for life and music:” or “I want to teach so all students can participate on a winning team;” or “I want to teach because I love kids and I love music and combining the two will make this world a better place.” These are actual wonderful sincere thoughts from college seniors. Perhaps your thoughts were similar when you first started to teach.
It is my belief, however, that we get too far away from our baseline philosophies. For example, the same teacher who wanted to teach because band was the ultimate “winning” team, and all students should have an opportunity to participate, may be the same teacher who is complaining about inclusion or becoming terribly frustrated because all kids aren’t talented. Hey, your baseline philosophy said nothing about kids with limited abilities and less than perfect dedication.
So, now take each of the above and turn it into a question for yourself so that you can be sure that you stay on fire!