Four strategies to avoid burnout

I have been doing this teaching thing for a touch over 22 years now. Weird to think that I have been doing it longer than my students have been alive. I have, in fact, been doing it long enough that I now have students who are the children of some of my students from many years ago. When the first of those kids came along, I almost feinted.

As many of us old farts will attest to, there comes a time when we are asked how we avoid burn out. How have we done this for so many years (with the exception of one semester, my entire career has been at the same school)? While it isn’t easy, it isn’t difficult to avoid burnout either. Some suggestions that have helped me along all these years.

I have noticed that the teachers who burnout the easiest tend to be the either the most passionate or have no place whatsoever in the classroom. To the passionate teachers looking for an out, keep reading. For those teachers who realize you are not suited to the classroom, thank you for having the courage to try. Following are some strategies I have used over the last many years to keep me afloat in this profession.

Strategy #1: Throw away last year’s plans…

The teachers who don’t seem to burnout the easiest are those who do the same thing year after year after year. However, these teachers also tend to be the least exciting. They likely don’t burnout because they have their lessons and grading down pat. These are the teachers who still use the same overheads they used 20 years ago when overhead projectors were high tech. These are the teachers who spend their teacher prep days at the beginning of the year making copies for the entire semester. You know this teacher. You have had this teacher. And like me, you probably entered this gig not wanting to be this teacher. Perhaps you don’t use the same handouts and the like, but you’re feeling some burnout. Get rid of last year’s plans. Start over. Try something different with your classes. You might have the same content, but that doesn’t mean you have to teach the same lessons. Let’s face it, what worked last year, likely won’t work for the students you currently have. Don’t do the same thing year after year after year.

Strategy #2: Change your schedule…

A few years back I was in rut. I was looking at want ads. I was looking at what I could do to get out of the profession. I did the math to see what it would take to retire early. So, rather than do something irrational I walked into the scheduler’s office and told her to take my honors English class off my schedule and replace it with co-taught English. In case you’re wondering, co-taught English is as far on the opposite end of the spectrum of honors as you can get. A good chunk of my career has been in advanced classes. This change has done absolute wonders for my perspective as a teacher. It has re-energized what I do. And, it has impacted how I approach my AP and IB classes. If you’re struggling, and it is possible, change a class in your schedule.

Strategy #3: Work with the new teachers…

A couple of years back my school got an infusion of new teachers. They came in with some new ideas and approaches. Where many of us old farts might look at new teachers and say, “BAH! You kids and your new fangled ideas. You’ll learn!” Don’t say that. Sit with them. Learn from them. Mentor them with an open mind and you just might learn something, too. Felicia entered this crazy world of education four years ago after 20 years in retail, a good chunk of that time in management. I have learned so much from her and other new teachers. Their enthusiasm can be infectious. Sometimes it will need a dose of reality, but buy into their enthusiasm. Don’t crush it. Help it come to fruition. There is something quite powerful about reigniting a passion.

Strategy #4: Learn something new…

I am not making this up. One year, close to 17 years ago, when I was almost done with this teaching thing, I wrote the following for my technology goals: I plan on utilizing the light switch so that my students will be better able to read and write. I think about that and I want to vomit. Challenge yourself with focusing on new. New strategies. New technologies. This year I have been working extra time on incorporating PBL in my classes. Trust me, I have messed up more than I have succeeded. But I have had some great success with incorporating these strategies into my classes. Today, in fact, Felicia and I just enrolled in John Spencer’s Design Thinking Master Course. I have also attended many Google Summits, reading conferences, a variety of IB conferences, some design thinking workshops. As well, I have been working on certification in working with ELL students. But whatever it is, challenge yourself to learn something new. It doesn’t matter, as long as you share your struggles with learning with your students. Let them know it is ok to try something new. To experiment. And to fail and work harder to succeed.

There you go, four strategies to help avoid burnout, none of which make heavy use of alcohol, though that has been considered (all right, it has been used) a few times. Sadly, it is easy for teachers to burnout, especially now, when it seems the world wants our collective noggins on a plate. As well, we are at that point in the year where there are exams coming up and standardized testing season on the back end. The pressure is being felt on so many ends.

Either way, hang in there and don’t let the bastards grind you down. Here’s to learning and teaching. Something I hope we are all passionate about. What are some strategies you use to avoid burning out?

The check box syndrome and why we value the process over the product

A couple of weekends ago I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton. I hold season tickets to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (a great value, actually) and this season’s package included Hamilton. For the past two years, Felicia and I have been to many shows and this one seemed a bit more crowded and busy than normal. We couldn’t quite figure out what it was as we had been to many other sold out shows since we started going on a regular basis.

Before the show, there was a larger than normal number of people taking selfies (any picture taking in the theater is forbidden). Mind you, these were not your run of the mill selfies. They made sure they covered all of their bases to prove where they were. They had selfies holding the program. They had selfies with the stage in the background. They had selfies with anything Hamilton in there.

And I asked in my head, how many of these people were at the show so they could do the metaphorical check list of things to do before one turns in this mortal coil. I wondered how many people that evening missed out on the full, honest experience of going to a show in order to check going to Hamilton off their list. As my classes tend to be on my mind more often than not, I wondered how many of my AP students are in the AP class in order to check taking AP English off their list and end up missing out on the experience of completing a project or a class.

If you have ever been to the Louvre in Paris, you have been rushed past the Mona Lisa. In doing so, perhaps you missed the Titian piece hanging behind it (this from the days when she was not in her own room). When we do something because it is what we are supposed to do, we often miss out on the honesty of the experience. By honesty of the experience, I mean that idea of taking it all in, doing something because we truly want to, not because it is what we are supposed to do. When I wrote my post regarding colonization, part of the question in my mind is if my students take my AP class because that is what they are supposed to do, they don’t seek the experience of growth, they seek the badge of AP. They seek the credential, the grade. All of this takes that metaphor of colonization a bit further.

This harkens back to my struggle with grades and grading. I have been working with my students this year to focus on the process and not the product. And for many students (and teachers) this is a tremendous leap in thinking and understanding (again, for both students and teachers). They have been brought up in a system that focuses primarily on the end product and the content. I am working the help my students realize that their education should be more about the process and the skill acquisition, not the product or the grade.

This is brought up by George Couros who quotes A.J. Juliani and John Spencer’s book Empower:

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.

This is where focusing on process and 21st century skills comes into play. By keeping our students and teaching focused on these two items, the hope is that students will see that school has relevancy beyond the classroom door. While I freely admit to my students they will never, ever write a literary analysis beyond the confines of a classroom (unless they become English professors or literary critics), they will, however, use the reasoning and critical analysis required to complete that writing throughout their lives in any endeavor (I will engage my students who work at Wal-Mart into role playing with me as the customer and they are helping me to decide a product. The rest of the class will explain the deductive and critical thinking skills the student went through to compare and contrast products). The same goes for math. The same goes for history.

Ask yourself as a teacher, what are the skills your students need to complete an activity and where are those skills used beyond your content and your classroom. How are those skills necessary in the process?

If we focus on skills and process, I hope that no class becomes a check box for a student. I hope that when they leave my class, they realize that it was about the experience. I hope that they are willing to look around when in the midst of checking a box to realize that there is so much more happening around them. As nifty as it was to see the founding documents at the National Archive this past summer, it was so much more fun to try and find those damn eagles placed around the room (I think Felicia and I missed one or two before we were forced out of the room).

What are some ideas you have in helping your students focus on the process? What do you do to focus your classes on the process and not the product? Let us know in the comments.

Collaboration and the frame of mind

I am a fan of adjusting student groups in my classes. Of course, this drives my students up the wall, but the work I get out of them when they are in groups I set up can be wonderful. When I told my AP English Language and Composition class that I was putting them into groups, they balked and groaned. But, they moved to their assigned spot for the day.

With the students newly organized, I turned on my doc cam and projected a page from my notebook. At the top of the page I had written “What collaboration looks like.” In the middle, written in large letters, “A group of people gathered for a common purpose.” The rest of the page was empty.

I asked them what they feel like collaboration looks like. I poised my pen over the page ready to scribble. And I waited.

For 15 or 20 seconds the silence was deafening. I did not want to start this conversation. I wanted this list to be on them. Finally a kid chimed in: discussion. Good, I say. Tell me more about that, in a collaborative environment, what does discussion look like? A few students suggested some details about the idea of collaborative discussion in small groups. From there, the list took shape and the map filled up. We talked about the role that compromise, performing at the best of one’s abilities, leadership, and ego play in effective collaboration. Most importantly, we pulled this away from school and talked about what it looks like in sports, on a stage, at work, at home.

We talked about what usually happens in classes when they are asked to collaborate. They divide the work up between them, do their own part individually with little communication, and compile their work into one document. They agreed that this is not collaboration. They will readily agree that all they want to do is get their work done so they can move on to better things like Snapchat.

With the mindset established and roles assigned (scribe, researcher, and speaker), students collaborated in small groups with the purpose of using our unit question (What role do social institutions play in determining the level of power derived from authority?) in order to develop a stronger understanding of the arguments presented by Machiavelli, Thomas Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The conversations were insightful and productive. I wandered about my room and heard students seeking more depth from their peers as they pushed for deeper understanding in their responses.

From here, we switched to using their collaborative mindset to developing skills and approaches for the AP exam in May. Again, they collaborated and pushed for deeper and richer understandings in order to present a more compelling analysis.

I sometimes forget the importance of getting them in the right frame of mind for working in class. I teach in 90 minute blocks and to spend the first 10-15 minutes helping them to get into the right frame of mind is well worth it. As noted in my post on skills over content, if I want them to utilize these skills in class, then it is upon me to spend the necessary time in order to help put them in the right mindset for using those skills in class. So, rather than a bell ringer activity or whatever they might be called, I wonder if we would all be better suited by letting students know of the skill they will utilize that day and what it looks like.