The road to recovery

Yesterday, I started out by going for my morning run.  After that, I started sanding down my kitchen walls for a much-needed paint job.  My son showed up however, reminding me that I’d promised to go geocaching with him.  One of my favorite hobbies – how could I possibly have forgotten!  So I packed in my painting gear and off we went on a 30 kilometer bike ride, picking up a few geocaches on the way.  After we got home, I resumed painting the kitchen.

Somewhere during the bike ride back, I realized I was actually quite tired.  Hardly unusual for me, after years of burnout recovery.  This time, however, there was a change in my feelings towards my tiredness.  I was tired, yes, my legs ached and my feet were begging for a rest, but I wasn’t afraid.  For those who have never experienced a burnout, this may seem strange.  After all, what’s there to be afraid of, if one is just a bit tired?  After my burnout manifested itself, however, I found myself measuring everything I did in terms of energy output.  Everything I did – climb the stairs to the laundry room, walk to the store for a bit of shopping, make a phone call, all of it cost me precious energy.  For years, I’ve had to weigh everything in to see if I could afford the energy it cost.  The question I had to answer, time and again, was “will this be the thing that sends me back to the ground zero of my energy?  How much will this put me back?  How much time will I need to recover?”  And now, here I was, on a bike, without having weighed it in ahead of time.  I had energy to spend on time with my child.  I wasn’t afraid, but could even enjoy the feeling of tiredness.  That realization was liberating.

I was one of the lucky ones.  Many people who have gone through burnout also fall into some form of depression.  As I have opened up to people around me about my own experience, I find more and more who have gone through this experience.  Countless times, their recovery was paired with use of an anti-depressant, and for some, they remained dependent on their medicine for years afterwards.  I was different, however.  Once I was able to accept my lot and allowed myself to fall into the burnout, I maintained my confidence that my body and mind, though tired, were built soundly and healthily, and they would get me through this experience at their own tempo.  I just needed to trust myself.

Falling into the burnout was crucial to my being able to move forward.  I remember once, watching my son fall off the coffee table he’d just climbed onto.  As I sucked my breath in in apprehension, he reacted to my reaction, stiffening in mid-air and hitting the ground far harder than he otherwise would have had he remained relaxed.  I remembered this lesson as I fell into the burnout, reminding myself that a relaxed fall would save me painful bones and bruises later on.

Another part of my recovery was the realization that burnout, in and of itself, is not a failure.  Not in the sense of being a failure, at least.  What it is, is a failure to realize that crucial limits have been approached, or that these have been crossed.  In failing to notice these limits, it is also a failure to take steps that might help avoid hitting the point of no return.   Burnouts can be avoided.  In order to do, however, people need to know what burnout is.  How it can be spotted, and how it can be avoided, are also important bits of information that need to be spread and taken seriously.

First off, let’s talk about factors that contribute to a burnout.  There are two sets of factors: internal and external factors.  Very often, people attribute burnouts to the internal factors, ignoring the external factors that also play a very real contributing role.  Internal factors that play a role in burnouts and their prevention include emotional intelligence, personality, and people’s perception of how much their work meets their expectations.  It’s quite easy for employers to focus on these issues, calling work-related stress “experienced stress.”  In other words, the stress that one experiences, which can differ from person to person.  Experienced stress is entirely between the ears of the employee, which means the employer is unable to do a single thing about it.  I remember sitting across from the well-meaning psychologist, who spoke with me about my mother before recommending me a book about how to adjust my emotional attitudes towards my work.  I was confused, since I had applied every single trick in that book for years, and still there I was, burnt-out and too tired to protest.

External factors, however, also play a role.  For me, for instance, I remember when the school days suddenly started a quarter hour earlier.  For me, that meant I had to get out the door a half hour earlier to catch the train, so I was suddenly short two hours sleep every week.  Every month, that was an entire night of sleep I lost.  Of course, I tried to catch up, but with two little ones to care for, there wasn’t much catching up I could do at the weekends.  Later, the times were adjusted again, and I lost yet another hour of sleep every single week.  My school days started at 7:30 in the morning, and I worked without a single break until 3:15 every afternoon, going from class to class, carrying my books and supplies to every lesson.  It was simply physically exhausting.  I remember being asked to supply teach on the days we were short too many teachers due to sickness, and I happily complied as this meant I would have the luxury of getting to sit down during snack time with a 30-minute lunch break in-between.

There’s also something to be said for the fact that teaching, is, in fact, a very demanding job.  It’s very rewarding, of course!  But do let’s be honest: being in a classroom with dozens of very different children, teaching them the stuff of life, dealing with their various physical, emotional, and intellectual needs all of the time is simply very demanding.  Talks with parents who may (or may not be) supportive, the demanding principal, and the total lack of support in the media means that when teachers need to have a groan, they are often met with blank looks of non-understanding.  They do, after all, get weeks of paid vacation?  And they can go home when the bell rings, can’t they?  Long-retired teachers show the least understanding of all, not realizing the changes that the world of education has undergone since their retirement, in their ignorance undermining any attempts to better the situation at hand by discrediting the teachers’ voices.  So the teachers grin and bear it, exhausting themselves because no one really understands and of course, they are strong.  They are determined.  And they will carry on, because their class needs them to.

Earlier this year, Sander Dekker, the Undersecretary for the Ministry of Education went to great lengths to gather information about work-related stress.  Twitter, Facebook, and his own blog page were inundated by teachers begging for reinstatement of the caretakers and teacher assistants who for years had been responsible for a lot of the smaller tasks like repairing material, copying, reading to children and allowing teachers toilet breaks, until they’d been fired due to budget cuts.  Teachers asking for a much-needed salary raise after the freeze they’d been forced to accept five years before.  Teachers asking for extra assistants to help deal with the special needs children they were no longer allowed to send off to special education as part of a new inclusionary reform.  Teachers, basically, explaining that they just needed to be valued, in very concrete ways.  After gathering thousands of contributions from teachers from every layer of education, from all around the country, his response was astounding.  Sorry, the Ministry of Education was not responsible for the working conditions of its employees.  That was something that only school boards could deal with, one school at a time.  Teachers felt seriously taken, instead of taken seriously.  This was not the kind of message that was going to stimulate the changes so direly needed to stop the spiral of burnout currently taking place in education today.  Instead, the Undersecretary took the very safe road that nearly every other employer has done so far, calling “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard – and therefore not my problem) and placing the problem… elsewhere.

If we are ever to take the growing problem of burnout in the world of education, it’s time for us to call “YIMBY” (Yes, In My Back Yard).  We need to realize that educators are more than happy to go to bat for our kids every single day, often working through hell or high water, but that we need to back them up 100%.  We need to take them seriously when we give them extra responsibilities, instead of shrugging our shoulders and expecting them to figure out how to make everything work out.  We need to give them extra pairs of qualified hands in the classroom, so they can actually meet all of the demands being made of them.  And we need to value our teachers, every single day, in concrete, real ways.  Stop the lip service, and give them time, space, and trust.


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