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?
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.
Trees have hope – ode to life after a burnout
Let me tell you about this picture. It’s a tree, hit by lightning years before I came across it in the French Pyrenees during a morning hike. Half of the tree is dead, lying among the ferns, decaying and enriching the soil below. The other half stands, hollow, deformed, with fresh leaves forming on its branches year after year. Its deformity, and its survival nonetheless, struck me as I walked past. My family took a break a bit later, and I went back to take this picture. Something in me knew I’d be needing this image later on, but for what, I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
Years later, I heard my husband chattering away about the coming school year as we biked together through the summer afternoon sun. I had just had five weeks of summer vacation, but somehow couldn’t get my head wrapped around the idea of another school year. I wasn’t ready, I was too tired, and panic clawed its way upwards as I found myself in tears on the side of the road, because I just couldn’t take the idea of going to work and teaching one more child. My burnout was manifesting itself, and I fought it back, tooth and nail, yet again.
How had it ever come this far? I remember sitting across from my doctor, who matter-of-factually told me that I had just hit the wall that everyone hits, sooner or later. My experience was normal. In my case, as an intelligent, strong, talented woman, I had managed to hit this wall quite hard, so I may as well relax, accept this twist in life, and take the time I needed to recover. It was when my employer replaced me with two people that I realized that I really had been working too hard, and I finally learned to accept my burnout – a key step in my later recovery process.
I remember the questions asked by well-meaning colleagues and employers: the summer visit from your mom, was that too much? Was it the care for your father-in-law? What was it that pushed me “over the edge”? And of course, when could I come back, and take over my old work again? I knew that people were caring, and really trying to understand me and what I was going through, but none of them really addressed the core of the problem. I needed to get stuff straightened out in my head, and in a time when my brain was so fried that speaking in full sentences required my full concentration, this process of sorting was a challenge I could only dream of surmounting.
A friend of mine later remarked that my recovery would take at least as long as the build-up to the burnout. I laughed it off, saying I could hardly afford that much recovery time, as it had been at least five years in the making. Outwardly, I laughed it off, but inwardly, I knew that I was going to have to take a very serious look at all aspects of my life, if I wanted to avoid ever having a burnout again.
In the coming few blog entries, I’m going to take a look at what it means to have a burnout, and to explore various aspects involved. This is an important topic, especially in education, where the burnout rates are higher than in any other employment sector, but where it is taboo to speak about this openly. I will argue that only when we, as educators, dare to break the taboo on this topic, will we be able to turn the tide and actually work to prevent burnouts. It is important to spread knowledge about this topic, especially to those who have not (yet) had a burnout, so that we can learn to recognize the symptoms and undertake appropriate action. We must take action, in order to retain our intelligent, creative, and caring professionals. It is my hope to take a step in that direction with this blog.