Becoming Through Burnout


I’ve always heard burnout framed as a fight to be had. A battle to be won. An obstacle to overcome. But after multiple rounds of burnout, I’ve learned a few things along the way. In this episode, I’m going to share those lessons with the intention that you might be prompted to reflect, connect, and take action to use burnout as an opportunity to become a more confident, conscious, and authentic version of yourself.





My first experience with burnout happened during my 4th year of teaching. That year, I was in a team of 2, the other 4th-grade teacher was relatively new and going through her evaluations, we were tasked with rebuilding all the curriculum for every subject area…from scratch, and to top it all off - I had a huge group of students that year who really really needed a lot from me emotionally. I didn’t immediately recognize that I was burning out but I did know that I was exhausted. I was frustrated and I was growing bitter. A few months into that school year I identified my feelings as burnout but I thought that it was just par for the course - I was miserable and I couldn’t do anything about it, I was just how things were. I finished the year feeling defeated and helpless.

The next school year I moved districts and for a while everything was fine. Then, in year 6, my burnout struck again. This burnout was different, it was slower to develop and the challenges were more unseen. My frustration was directed at the system in which I was expected to operate and the narratives I was supposed to believe about "good" teaching. I was starting to become aware of how much of my time and energy I spent on teaching while leaving nothing for anyone or anything else.


So, I ran - or at least I tried to. Between November 2017 and May 2018, I applied for 6 or 7 jobs during that school year with the hope (and almost expectation) that something would come through.


By July 2018, nothing had materialized. Not so much as an email or a callback. I had to face that I would continue teaching and I was disappointed, frustrated, angry, and anxious. I remember sitting in the waiting room lobby of a doctor’s office almost in tears at the realization that there would be no “new” job. I called a good friend of mine to vent and we planned to meet in person the next day so that could I openly express my frustration to her. Somehow between the time that we spoke on the phone and the time that we met the next day, I had another more powerful realization - I knew that if I was going to continue teaching and do so with some ounce of joy and satisfaction, I had to accept some responsibility to move out of my own way.


Now, let me be very clear here - I’m not at all stating that what I was experiencing with teaching was completely my fault, the many issues that exist in our profession have deeply buried systemic roots that we’ve internalized and integrated with our belief systems. While we are not to blame we have to identify and evaluate the narratives we have adopted and determine what is truly helpful...what is truly authentic..what is truly best for our students…and what are we doing because we just feel like this is how things are.


In evaluating this for myself, I recognized that there were some very narrow beliefs that I held about my job and that adjusting those might be the boost that I needed. I knew it would never “fix” everything that was wrong, but I knew I didn’t have to stay where I was - I couldn’t stay there. I needed to be better for myself and for the students that I would impact, and there were 5 things that were instrumental in my decision to become through rather than battle my burnout.


5 Things Instrumental in my Decision to Become Through My Burnout


1. I got quiet with myself so that I could understand what exactly I was frustrated/unhappy about.


It wasn’t enough for me to just sit in those feelings, I needed to get more specific. That clarity allowed me to look for resources that I felt would provide a fresh perspective. I knew I needed to get out of my own head and stop telling myself the same harmful stories about why I was so unhappy and how powerless I was to affect change amid the challenges.


2. I read Unshakeable by Angela Watson.


If you have followed me on IG for a while or listened to any of the guest spots I’ve done on a number of podcasts, then you know how much I respect and idolize Angela Watson for the work she does for and with teachers. She just gets it. Reading her book was incredibly affirming and it was the first time I truly felt like I was a good teacher. Many of the things she mentioned about ways to enjoy teaching were things I was already doing, but because I wasn’t doing the same things other teachers were doing, I had made myself believe that I still wasn’t doing enough. Unshakeable helped me realize that I had already laid a foundation for teaching with joy but I wasn’t experiencing joy because I refused to accept or affirm what I was already doing well.



3. I sought connection and started talking.


Once I decided to seek connection, I also began sharing my experiences with Twitter and Facebook, and Instagram, and I very quickly found out that I wasn’t alone. I was already on social media, but it was reserved for close family and some friends. I had not been very intentional at all about connecting with other educators or education professionals outside of my local network. After reading Unshakeable and feeling the support that stemmed from knowing I wasn’t alone, I began to create intention around connecting with other teachers and The AfroEducator was created. This podcast, some of my best friends, and some incredible opportunities were born from my decision to find community.


4. I reconnected with myself beyond who I’d become as a teacher.


I thought about what it is that I bring to the table and how my special sauce makes me a commodity in the classroom. I realized that, unlike my previous thoughts, it wasn’t trends or strategies that made me a great teacher. I also started noticing how things I did inside the classroom affected me outside the classroom and vice versa. This was the beginning of my journey with teacher wellness and establishing boundaries and prioritizing myself. I realized that teaching was what I did not who I was.

5. I decided to be honest with myself, with my students, with the families I was working with, and with my administration.


One of the feelings teachers identify as “draining” is feeling like they have to be “on” and “off.” Many of us feel (or have felt) like we’re performers on a stage..and to a large degree, we work in environments where we’re expected to do just that. But here’s the thing…if that isn’t genuinely who you are, the performance becomes more and more difficult and resentment sets in as we attempt to repeat inauthentic actions for inauthentic reasons. But I realized that authentic actions can only come through transparency and being honest is an inside-out process. It begins with the self first and then radiates outward.

These 5 things have been instrumental in my own journey and I’m not suggesting that they are relevant solutions or strategies for everyone listening here today. I am, however, asking you to consider how your current idea about burnout could be amplifying an already challenging experience. When you imagine burnout as a war to be waged, you are already communicating to your brain that you are stressed or in danger and your body does what it does best to try to offset the stimulus. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing increase as your body launches into protective mode. You’re ready for battle but at what cost to your mental, emotional, and even physical well-being?


My blood pressure meds and beta blockers are my daily reminders that the stress of burnout and the ensuing fight is real. Right now, burnout is very much an enemy and that’s not unwarranted.


But I think there’s another option when it comes to how we frame & address burnout, one that offers a larger return on investment of your mental and emotional energy. Instead of waging war against your burnout, I want to invite you to think of it as a unique opportunity for growth and transformation.


I want you to imagine coming out of your burnout as a beautiful butterfly, fresh from a metamorphosis that has literally forced you to change from the inside out. These changes won't only shift your perspective, but your changes prompt the people around you to change too. Your interactions are different. You’re more confident about your ability to tackle hard things. You communicate your boundaries and you create space for yourself in a way you never have before.


I want to let you know that all of this is possible. And it starts with deciding to take the first step to reflect, connect, and reframe your burnout experience so that you feel empowered rather than disenfranchised.


It won’t always be easy but remember that there is joy in the journey because the journey leads to transformation.


Resources Mentioned in This Episode


 

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