The school doctor looked at me while typing into his laptop, eyeing me carefully. How soon did I think I could start going back to school, was the question. I thought it over, doing the maths. What could I expect myself to do, without pushing myself over the edge? Of course, the doctor continued, the goal of the recovery process was to get me back to work, back to where I was before my burnout had manifested itself. I decided an hour a day was reasonable, he made notes, saved my file, and I went home.
On the way home, I recalled an earlier conversation with my co-ordinator, after I had asked her (yet again) for a different piece of work than the stuff I was doing. Could I do some research, or material development, or something else? Her answer was unequivocal: I had been hired to teach English, and teach I would. There was nothing else I needed to do. I’d felt like I’d hit a brick wall, full-on, after recieving this bit of news.
Life has its funny coincidences. This time, I happened to find a book on my shelf that I knew I’d never seen before. It was one of my dad’s old books, called “The Artist’s Way”. I perused it, and decided to try out the twelve-step plan to recovering my creative self. Who knew, maybe it would help me. I started to read, allowing myself to take breaks whenever needed. I still had difficulty understanding long sentences, and after a few minutes I had to put the book down and process what I’d just read. But it was a start. After finishing the first chapter, I decided to follow this path, and to see where it led. It would take some time, but that much I had in abundance.
While I worked my way through the steps, I started to take a careful look at myself and my professional surroundings. The book focuses on artists in the classical sense: painters, actors and musicians, but I choose to view myself as the artist teacher. I realized that my creativity was the basis for my teaching, as I crafted my lessons and created materials so my children could learn and enjoy learning English. In my work, I was constantly thinking “out of the box”, and now I decided I was going to use my creativity to feed my burnt-out being. I started writing, got back into quilting, and started sketching again.
I also started this blog, and began reaching out to people. Just to say hi. Just to talk with them, about education now, about what we thought education really ought to be and how we wanted to improve the world. I started finding people via Linkedin, via the newspaper, via Facebook, asking them to join me for a cup of coffee. Only once was I refused. Most times, people were willing to spend an hour of their time with me, often giving me the name of someone else they thought I should meet at the end of our conversation. And so I carried on, slowly but surely, meeting new people and making new connections.
It started to dawn on me that I wasn’t going to be happy returning to my old place. As much as I loved my job, the children, and my colleagues, I wasn’t getting the energy out of my job that I needed. It was time to look forward. I continued shaking hands with new people, but now with a new purpose, of finding a new road for myself.
In retrospect, I realize that it would have been a handy thing for the doctor to take a better look at me during our ten-minute talks. I wasn’t going to get better by moving back into the old situation. I needed a change, and it would have been nice if that had been put on the table. Instead, I ended up putting that on the table myself, which also worked, in the end, but it leaves me wondering if that’s not something that should have been done earlier.
When I had asked for a change in my work, what if that had been taken seriously? What if I had been allowed to work on research or develop new products part-time, while someone else took over some of my teaching tasks? Could my burnout have been avoided that way? What if…? Who knows?
This makes me wonder how much burnout can be avoided by investing in active career counselling, especially in education. Not just for getting people into the job market, but once they’re there, making sure they’re in a good spot, that they can grow when needed, and that their talents are used in a healthy fashion. People are growing, developing, learning organisms, and I honestly believe that if employers really want to cut down on burnout in their businesses, they would do well to look at their employees to make sure they are growing in their profession. I wonder what it would take to realize an idea like this?