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3 Ways to Get From “Burned Out” to “On Fire”

Written by: Laura Baecher
Published on: Jan 9, 2023

Photo credit: insta_photos/Adobe Stock

We hear a lot about teacher/faculty burnout these days—but can we “use fire to fight fire” in our personal and professional lives? Fire can be a force that paves the way for new growth (like in the picture below), and effective fire management can help this growth along. Temporary feelings of burnout can be reframed as a needed and expected part of the life cycle.

new growth after bushfire
Photo by Christian Bass on Unsplash

Let’s explore the metaphor of fire a little further as we address “burn out” and being “on fire” as educators. Take this from the National Forest Foundation:

Fire can be damaging, and its effects certainly scar once verdant landscapes. But this destruction can also prove beneficial. In recent decades, ecologists and land managers have realized more fully how important fire is to the natural patterns of many ecosystems. This pattern, known as a “fire regime,” is different for each ecosystem…Typically, species that regenerate by re-sprouting after they’ve burned have an extensive root system. Dormant buds are protected underground, and nutrients stored in the root system allow quick sprouting after the fire.

Each of us has within us such protected stores of nutrients to continue to fuel us through all seasons of our careers. Sometimes, it takes burnouts to help us tap into them. Whether you are feeling burnout lately yourself, sensing it in those you work with, or designing an upcoming professional development activity, here are three possibilities for addressing burnout among your staff and educator participants.

Possibility 1. Recognize and Acknowledge Burnout in Yourself and Your Colleagues

According to Lipsky and Burk, Signs of burnout might look different in you versus those you work with or at your institution and include:

  • Helplessness and hopelessness
  • Reduced creativity
  • Loss of patience with those around us
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Decreased performance or productivity
  • Increased isolation
  • Feeling of dread, avoidance, and procrastination
  • Minimizing others’ concerns
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Inability to listen
  • A sense that one can never do enough
  • Cynicism
  • Anger
  • Increased addictions (substance abuse as well as eating, shopping, social media scrolling)
  • Fear or guilt

Taking a self-scored inventory of “perceived stress” can be a way to step back and see how we are coping. The Perceived Stress Scale was developed in 1983 but has remained remarkably popular and meaningful today. You could try it out yourself, and share with family, friends, and colleagues to see how accurate they find it. It can be a great warm up to a faculty or staff meeting to open up an honest conversation about burnout. The idea is to “name it to tame it”; by identifying what is causing us stress, we can better distance ourselves from the surrounding emotions and problem-solve effectively.

Too often, professional development leaders are anxious about creating a “venting” session and worry it will reinforce negativity and get out of hand. However, sometimes it is exactly what everyone is needing—a chance to be authentic, vulnerable, and honest about the challenges they are facing. Just sharing them in a group and seeing colleagues’ heads nodding vigorously can be incredibly uplifting and reassuring. Knowing others are experiencing the same strains actually promotes well-being, rather than decreasing it.

Possibility 2. Identify Primary Sources of Staff Burnout Before Recommending Self-Care Practices

Addressing burn-out must take into account the real lives of educators and the incredibly difficult challenges we are managing. Perhaps like me, when you hear the term “self-care” you roll your eyes and actually begin to feel physically stressed by the notion that someone is going to tell you to just “breathe” or to take bubble baths to get yourself feeling calm. Self care practices—from healthful eating to exercise, mindfulness, and more can truly have a positive impact on our ability to cope with the daily and in-the-moment stresses of our home and work lives—but, as noted in this EdWeek special report,

Mindfulness is not going to help with the kinds of structural problems that stretch teachers beyond their limits. Just telling a teacher to breathe when they haven’t had a break all day is not going to help at all.

Understanding what is really causing strain can enable leaders and colleagues to take concrete actions to resolve or even just to mitigate the sources of stress. In many cases, of course, there are factors beyond anyone’s control at play—but in many other instances, more effective and strategic management decisions and processes can alleviate teacher, faculty, and staff stress. Some ways to identify what the most pressing issues are include the following:

  • Using staff meeting time for attendees to compile and upvote current dilemmas and stressors they are facing, rather than delivering professional development to an audience that cannot absorb it at that time. This can follow the “think-pair-share” activity process.
  • Create a communal bulletin board in a teacher or staff room, or as a group activity in a department meeting with three columns: Rose, Bud, and Thorn.
    • Rose = A highlight, success, small win, or something positive that happened
    • Thorn = A challenge you experienced or something you can use more support with
    • Bud = New ideas that have bloomed or something you are looking forward to knowing more about or experiencing.
  • End sessions with a round of Appreciation, Apology, Aha: Have participants get in a circle and share an appreciation, apology, or realization with the group. Encourage authentic and timely apologies, and let everyone know that they don’t have to name who they’re apologizing to.
  • Invite educators to reflect on the idea of “locus of control”—that is, where in our lives lies the power to change. They can complete a quick assessment and then discuss which challenges happening at the workplace can be actually addressed by policy, personnel, and practice—within our locus of control.

Each of the activities suggested here can lead to focusing on concrete changes we can make toward improvements that can uplift individuals and the entire community.

Possibility 3. Find the Fuel That Ignites Growth

Create space so educators can tap into what will ignite their spark. After considering the signs and sources of burnout in yourself and staff—now try considering what can spark positive self-development. What “fire in the belly” do you have for activism or innovation in your context? How can you use your energies to address the challenges in your workplace with others? What are ways to use the time you have in your day to reflect, regroup, and reconnect with what matters to you?

This is where self-care practices that encourage creativity, reflection, connection, and play can open us up for energizing new possibilities. The definition of self-care is any action that you use to improve your health and well-being. According to the National Wellness Institute, there are six elements to self-care:

  1. Physical
  2. Psychological
  3. Emotional
  4. Spiritual
  5. Social
  6. Professional

This inventory can be another way to explore how these six areas of our lives are balanced.  Taking time alone or with colleagues for appraising our self-care efforts can help everyone recognize where we need to care for our individual well-being as well as care for the community’s well-being. In purposefully creating time to discuss what energizes and renews us, we rediscover buried riches of nutrients that are held deep within our root system and regain our sense of strength, purpose and our fire.

About Laura Baecher

Dr. Laura Baecher is professor of TESOL at Hunter College, City University of New York. Her research interests and publications relate to teacher education, including educational technology in teacher learning, observation and coaching for English language teaching, and professional development in TESOL. Her recent books are Reflecting on Problems of Practice in TESOL and Video in Teacher Learning: Through their Own Eyes. She has served as TESOL International Association’s Teacher Education Interest Section chair, as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State, and as president of the New York State TESOL affiliate.

View all posts by Laura Baecher →

This post first appeared on the TESOL Blog. Reprinted with permission.