Avoiding Burnout: ‘A Quiet Education’ chapter.
02 Jan 2020
‘Take a rest. A field that is rested gives a beautiful crop’ Ovid
A short journey through the etymology of the adjective “quiet” proves interesting in the context of burnout in teaching. It stems from the Latin quietus, meaning to be calm, at rest and free from exertion, and is borrowed from the Anglo-French and Middle French quiete, first appearing in the 14th century. For a modern teacher, deep into the demands of a term, is there a time when we feel truly free from exertion? Do the words “calm” and “at rest” spring to mind when we consider our day with young people? Exertion and teaching are interconnected. Quiet and teaching, unfortunately, do not have such a strong relationship.
Stress affects us all in different ways and everyone, of course, is at risk of exhaustion. People with quieter, more introverted dispositions, as we shall see, can be even more susceptible to burnout. Being self-aware and taking the necessary steps to protect your mental health are essential for longevity and happiness in the teaching profession. Importantly, these are also vital for our capacity to teach well. We cannot do our jobs properly when we are stressed, overworked and exhausted.
What causes burnout?
Burnout was first explored in a scientific paper by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974. He described it as a series of symptoms relating to work’s excessive demands.
Ultimately, burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet the constant demands placed on you.
Burnout has become one of the most widely discussed mental health problems in our society. Its prevalence in education in the UK and elsewhere is worryingly high. The reasons for this are complex and varied, but more awareness of what may be contributing to the frequency of burnout can useful for all who are involved in education.
As we shall see later, in a specific chapter on this issue, poor behaviour has the ability to send the stress hormone, cortisol, sky high in teachers. Frequent confrontation and challenge can leave teachers feeling dispirited, stressed and anxious. Stress, of course, is an evolutionary response to danger in which our fight or flight instinct is activated. Hostile and challenging classroom environments inevitably have a significant impact on our stress levels – we can feel the fight or flight instinct far too often.
We have all experienced these emotions, but burnout can occur when behaviour doesn’t improve, leading to sleepless nights and extreme stress over a long period of time. When this is combined with limited support from management, it can become even more isolating.
The risk of burnout rises when there is a lack of work-life balance and when teachers work at an unsustainable rate. The intensity of term time can result in a lack of sleep and long hours, with respite found only in the school holidays.
The fact is that teaching is a job we can never really press pause on. Teachers, who can be among society’s most idealistic and conscientious people, often feel the need to work harder than is healthy. Such feelings can be heightened by the individuals in the staffroom who talk loudly of how many hours they have worked that week and how their weekend will be stolen by yet more marking. Effort often replaces efficiency in the teaching profession. We need to change the conversation so it is about the impact of these hours on young people.
School culture and managerial policies can be hugely influential in the wellbeing of staff. I worked at a school in which the headteacher arrived before 6am and left well into the evening. This sent the message to staff that this was an environment in which long hours took precedence over anything else, including productivity.
Teachers are the masters of the holiday countdown: “Only 15 days to go!” This is not because we don’t enjoy our jobs, but rather that the holidays can be our only chance to catch our breath. What we need is the capacity to rest and recover not only during holidays, but also during our working weeks.
Freya Odell, an English teacher, wrote to me about how she often feels overwhelmed by the interpersonal demands of teaching and how she prioritises quiet to ensure her own wellbeing:
“The term ‘introvert’ has been a revolution in understanding oneself. While I am happy and confident in the classroom, I really struggle with adults on a larger scale. I hate being surrounded by large groups and find the space quite intimidating. I also hate being surrounded by people I don’t know. I hate public speaking but have tried to conquer that beast. People see me and see someone who is confident. They can’t believe that I am practically phobic about it when I present, but I am, and I have cried and been sick ahead of speaking to a large group of people.
“I value quiet above all else. I think this is because it restores my energy. The staffroom is quite a sociable place, so I tend to go to the library to work instead, where I know it is quiet and I can get my work done. If I am tired, I sometimes find it hard to socialize even with my friends and need some distance…this is especially evident at the end of a term. Sometimes it can come across to people as standoffish, but really I am just protecting myself.”
Introversion and burnout
I burnt out spectacularly in my late twenties. I had taken on far too much responsibility far too soon as an assistant headteacher; this, combined with working ludicrous hours and obsessively running more than 50 miles a week, led to my becoming seriously ill.
I went from being fitter and healthier than I had ever been (I had never had a day off) to being off work for almost two months. For a time I couldn’t even get out of bed and the experience was terrifying. I was physically and emotionally depleted. I didn’t think I would ever get back to how I had felt before, physically or mentally.
The mental struggle was far more challenging than the physical one and for about a year afterwards I was a functioning insomniac. I felt utterly demotivated and depressed. It was a stark and humbling reminder of just how fragile our mental health is – nobody is invincible. The pressure we can feel in teaching to be a martyr to the cause, and to place all other concerns above our own, is neither healthy nor sustainable.
Today, I am passionate about prioritising care for oneself and others. We often invest a significant amount of time and effort in how we present to the world on the outside, but nurturing ourselves on the inside – our psychological wellbeing – is equally, if not more, important.
There is one common trait of introversion that all quieter teachers will be familiar with: we are prone to extreme overthinking and overanalysing. We have already noted the positives of introversion: self-motivation, the ability to concentrate deeply and a desire to get things right. But that last trait can sometimes veer into perfectionism.
Being aware of this internal voice and its demand for perfection is the first step towards finding balance. Having a designated cut-off time in the evenings or at weekends, after which all work is put away, is one of the best ways to tackle the inner voice. Unfortunately, teaching can be a job in which you never really feel on top of things: there is always more you can do. But we need to learn to recognise when we are no longer able to work and concentrate effectively. Anything we do after this time will just serve to build stress and anxiety, leaving us more susceptible to burnout.
Find a mentor
We all need somebody at work that we can open up to, someone who will help us to gain clarity over that internal wrangling. Quieter individuals are unlikely to share their frustrations and concerns with a full staffroom, so the temptation is to bottle them up. But this can cause stress and resentment.
Quieter characters often prioritise meaningful conversations, which is why mentoring can be an extremely useful process for them. In my first school I had an absolutely terrific mentor; she walked me, emotionally and practically, through my first four years of teaching. She was the greatest listener I have ever come across and had a wisdom gained from a long and successful career in education.
We all need advice and support at times, and mentoring means we have a designated person to turn to. Talking things through with them can restore calm and motivation, and they can help to design that all important defence against burnout: a strategic plan for how we are going to use our time.
Asking someone to mentor you might be challenging for introverted teachers, but the rewards are significant. For those who cry that there is never the time, the reality is that any time invested in mentoring conversations will make us more productive and improve the teaching that takes place in the classroom.
Social media can be a superb resource for teachers: a wealth of information and guidance is available at the click of a button. It can inspire, challenge and allow for collaboration on a scale that has not been seen before. The insight into what other teachers are doing in their classrooms is what I find so useful, rather than the tenuous and ego-driven debates about every aspect of education.
For more introverted teachers, social media is invaluable. It can be a safe place to converse with the teaching community, free from eye contact, noise and the pressure to come up with an immediate response. Yet, for all the benefits of social media, it can fuel the workaholic and perfectionist in us. People can use it as a platform to present a too-perfect version of themselves and what happens in their classrooms. And, in a profession in which time is short, social media can steal precious hours from us. It can lead to a procrastination habit that ends up making us more, not less, stressed.
A social media break can be a very positive way to sustain your energy and passion for teaching. Just one social-media-free day a week can help, but a more sustained break can be even more beneficial. I take two months off social media every year and find this a time of real clarity and focus. Such a long break may not be necessary for everyone, but just being reflective about how we use social media and how it makes us feel can be productive and lead to long-term changes in habits.
Email can also be a real issue for teachers. I moved from a school that had an almost blanket ban on emailing to one in which emails seemed to fly in at a rate of 100 an hour. Of course, perfectionist me tried desperately to keep up, in order to make sure I didn’t miss anything important, but this just sent my stress levels soaring. I have also spoken to teachers who receive emails from parents late into the evening, enquiring about homework and other matters.
I think we should be able to leave our emails behind when we exit the school gates. It should be part of the process of closing off the working day and preparing for a restful evening. Sending or replying to emails late into the evening certainly shouldn’t be seen as a badge of honour.
Exercise can restore the energy that is depleted by a long day of interaction in school. Even a short walk can have a positive impact, bringing some much-needed peace and stillness. It facilitates a switch from high stimulation back down to low stimulation.
This quiet, solitary time is often what we need to gain perspective and leave behind the classroom. Nelson Mandela, a self-described introvert, had a particularly intense exercise regime. On Robben Island, he would get up at 5am to run for an hour around his cell. “I enjoyed the discipline and solitariness of long-distance running, which allowed me to escape from the hurly-burly of everyday life,” he reflected.
We might not match Mandela’s discipline, but no matter how bad we are feeling, any form of exercise can help to restore a positive frame of mind, even if it is just getting off the bus a stop early.
Stress can lead to tunnel vision that blinds us to the wonderful things that may be happening all around us. Sometimes we need to allow ourselves time to pause and consider what has stood out, resonated and moved us. Writing down three good things that have taken place each day can be immensely powerful, helping to break cycles of negative thinking. We can then start to share this gratitude with others, paying more compliments and generally being more positive to be around.
A diary or journal habit is a useful way to work through feeling and thought patterns that might be preventing us from presenting the best version of ourselves. When I was at my lowest after I burnt out, I started to write in a diary every night. Just ten minutes of writing helped to make sense of my feelings of failure, and seeing my thoughts written down often gave me a better sense of perspective. There is no need to moderate what you write: it is entirely personal and private, so be as searingly honest as you need to be.
Perhaps the most obvious and useful of all solitary activities is meditation. The misconception persists that meditation requires incense and tantric-style music in order to be effective, but fundamentally it just involves sitting in silence for a period of time and concentrating on your breathing.
Meditation is not for everyone, but it has proved extremely helpful for me. For introverts and quieter individuals, the mind-body stillness may well come more easily – after all, we are already expert in all things reflective and internal. I try to give at least ten minutes a day to my own meditation habit. I don’t manage it every day, but it is something that I always come back to. It requires motivation and often I have to drag myself out of bed earlier than I might want, yet the benefits are significant. It also can appear counterintuitive: when you feel extremely busy, how can you possibly prioritise sitting and doing nothing? But when you return to your work, it is with increased focus and energy.
Just ask Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, who goes on 60-day silent retreats and meditates for two hours a day. This is what he has said about his meditation habit: “First of all, it’s the ability to focus. When you train the mind to focus on something like the breath, it also gives you the discipline to focus on much bigger things and to really tell the difference between what’s important and everything else.”
The benefits of mindfulness can be shared with others in the school environment. The teacher Philip Anderson, whose meditation habit is deeply connected with his work, has had a real impact on his colleagues and young people:
“My meditation practice and my teacher training started in the same year; I have never done one without the other. A few years ago, they became more closely linked, and not only do I have a daily meditation practice that affects my teaching, but I also teach timetabled mindfulness lessons to teenagers and a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course to staff.
“My own practice has always influenced the attitude I try to bring to my teaching. Mindfulness gives me a context within which all parts of my job can fit. No matter how awful the day, or the year, or the pressure, or the exhaustion, there is an option to be aware of the wider context of each situation. No matter how excellent the lesson, or the moment, or the pupils’ learning, mindfulness means there is more chance of noticing the experience and being grateful for it.
“The space mindfulness can create allows the opportunity for a broader, more honest and accurate awareness to arise. So whatever the situation – good or bad, stressful or easy – a moment of mindfulness brought on by regular long-term practice of meditation can make you happier, more grateful, or at least less upset. Subsequently, this wisdom will allow more compassion and kindness to arise for yourself and those around you.
“In the last five years I have started to teach mindfulness to pupils within our school curriculum and in the last two years to groups of staff within the academy trust. Teaching mindfulness in the classroom is a fundamentally different way of working. I am offering my pupils an experience and an approach to day-to-day life that they can try. I set ‘home practice’, not homework, which of course is impossible to take in and mark anyhow. But if it doesn’t work for them, no bother – as long as they have given it a go.
“There is no doubt that the mindfulness course I teach is having an impact on the pupils. Each year between 65% and 75% of pupils have said that they are likely or very likely to use mindfulness in the future. This year, when I have started to ask students to write down an example of when they have used mindfulness, the responses were fabulous. The responses ranged from the immense – ‘When my granddad was ill in hospital I used mindfulness and became more OK with my sadness’ – to the mundane – ‘I was worried about my science test but after I did some finger breathing I just got on with it’.
“In the MBSR courses I have run for staff, the reactions have been equally positive. But I am always wary of claiming a measurable impact from mindfulness. I do not want people to come to mindfulness or meditation wanting to achieve a goal. In A Monk’s Guide to Happiness: Meditation in the 21st Century, Gelong Thubten writes: ‘If we are meditating for wellbeing, we are telling ourselves we don’t have that wellbeing; and so we perpetuate a state of deficiency.’
“Instead, I believe that mindfulness and meditation are providing children and adults with the opportunity to be happier in their lives and kinder to those around them and also to themselves.”
We are, as the poet William Ernest Henley would have it, the captains of our own souls, but often what happens in the school environment lies out of our control. We have to find what makes us feel calmer and better about our life and our work, and what works for one teacher may appear utterly ludicrous to another. Then, once we have found our own strategy, we must be disciplined and prioritise it, even in the face of seemingly endless to-do lists.
A quiet reflection
Tom Rees (@TomRees_77) is the executive director of school leadership at the Ambition Institute. This is an extract from his excellent book Wholesome Leadership.
It was about 18 months into my first headship when my body finally said: “Enough is enough.” It came about a month after an Ofsted inspection – one that had been long awaited and had been the focus of our work pretty much since I started at the school. It was successful, but the process was gruelling.
I was a young head, desperate to prove myself through the challenges which had come thick and fast, including tackling underperformance, parental challenges and the pressures of trying to secure a good Ofsted judgement in a village school where the expectations were high. Every school has its challenges and, while I would be the first to acknowledge the difficult work that goes on in more deprived communities, the raised expectations and sometimes vigorous parental engagement that come with working in a more affluent community bring about their own pressures.
Looking back, it was pretty obvious that I was heading for a fall. The hours and intensity just weren’t sustainable, yet I was so determined to succeed and for the school to do well that I just kept adding everything to my job list and saying yes. There were lots of bad habits that I’d fallen into; it is not difficult to see why I got to the point of burnout, particularly while trying to juggle the demands of a young family at the same time.
Exhaustion, anxiety and panic attacks were the price I paid: debilitating and terrifying moments that would creep in and get me at any time of the day or night. It was a difficult period and I still have a note that I wrote describing my symptoms from that time, which reads as follows:
- Not myself
- Feel like I’m living in a bubble
- Can’t face things or cope
- Want to stay in bed
- Stomach and chest pains
- Short of breath
- Nothing’s real
- Want to switch off
- No emotions/unsociable
I keep this as a reminder of how bad things got, and a prompt to keep a healthier balance and never to take good times or wellbeing for granted. This perspective is important to me and the reason why I’ll either be out on my bike or running on Sunday mornings, rather than opening my laptop.
Actively acknowledging our own vulnerability to stress and working on strategies to counter this is really important – particularly when working in a challenging environment. In areas of high deprivation, when facing ongoing external scrutiny or at times of significant change, it is inevitable that the level of challenge and stress will be higher. Failing to acknowledge and work deliberately on our wellbeing in these situations is like trying to walk on the moon without a space suit; no one is superhuman.
By no means can I say that I’ve cracked it, but I love my work and I am usually happy to put in long hours, with strategies in place to avoid it getting unhealthy again. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I believe this to be true in most cases.
Thankfully, through support from my family and time with a counsellor, I learned about various wellbeing tools and techniques, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, which helped me through. Although difficult, this experience helped me to build resilience to cope better with challenges in the future.
If you are reading this and recognise some of the same unhealthy habits in yourself, do yourself a favour and get some help to get it all in order – make it a priority. If you are reading this and haven’t experienced it, you could do worse than to work on some wellbeing tools anyway, as everyone is vulnerable – particularly in the high-stress roles that working in some schools can involve.
- Do you recognise any of the symptoms of burnout in yourself?
- Could you find a mentor or coach to support you in school?
- Have you identified the positive aspects of your day in school?
- Does your use of social media drain or inspire your teaching?
- Can exercise play a bigger role in your life?
- Have you tried mindfulness to combat feelings of stress?
This is a chapter from ‘A Quiet Education: challenging the extrovert ideal in schools’ which is published by John Catt Educational on the 3rd of February. It is available to pre-order here. Thank you for reading.