Is gratitude a source of renewable energy?
“I felt so overwhelmed and exhausted by the spinning plates. I realized I shouldn’t rely on summer vacation to recharge my batteries. I need to be able to deal and be present,”
Lisa*, a second-year teacher.
For Lisa, the excessive job demands in teaching left her feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. I also am inspired by her call to action; let’s stay in the moment and let’s not work for the weekend. Lisa’s concerns are so common among us teachers. In fact, numerous studies have shown teaching is one of the most stressful professions (Larrivee, 2012). Those of us who experience chronic stress may be at risk for developing burnout. Given that our work is challenging and stressful, how can we reduce or avoid burnout so we can continue to do our important work?
What is burnout?
Burnout is a term used in professional settings when individuals continuously expend more internal resources then they think they possess. Symptoms of burnout include feelings emotional exhaustion such as hopelessness. Burnout can manifest in our behaviors as hyperactivity, outbursts, and overconsumption of caffeine and alcohol. We can also experience social problems such as isolating ourselves and detaching from others. We can even have physical symptoms like headaches, sleeplessness, pain and even pesky prolonged colds and flus (Schaufeli & Buunk, 1996).
Even though burnout is a bummer, it’s important to understand burnout because it has serious consequences for us, for our students, and our schools. Currently, an estimated 41% of new teachers leave the profession by the end of the fifth year, with the highest teacher turnover rates in urban and rural schools (Ingersoll et al., 2014). Retention statistics are dramatic in California (where I teach) with 20% of new teachers leaving the profession within three years, and in urban school districts close to 50% leave the profession within five years (California Teachers Association, 2015). Additionally, workforce projections predict that California will need to replace one third of its teacher workforce (approximately 100,000 teachers) within the next decade despite the fact that enrollment in teacher preparation programs is declining (California Teachers Association, 2015). Teacher shortages and high turnover (especially in high-need areas) cause many problems for students. High turnover leads to staffing problems, especially in content areas like math and science, and again, are concentrated more in urban and rural schools. Our teaching skills develop and improve over time but our profession fails to collectively benefit from this if a large percentage of the workforce is continuously on quitting.
Renewal is the opposite of teacher burnout. Renewal occurs when we continuously replenish our internal resources. Like Lisa, many of us talk about needing vacations and weekends to recharge our batteries. How can we continuously nourish ourselves during the week as well so we can be present to enjoy our careers, feel engaged at work, build positive relationships with students and families, and celebrate our students’ achievements? I highly recommend Barbara Larrivee’s book Cultivating Teacher Renewal: Guarding Against Stress and Burnout as a well-researched resource packed with strategies to reduce teacher burnout and even improve classroom outcomes for our students. It’s filled with ways to help us develop some habits, behaviors, and practices to reduce our stress, improve our classroom management, regulate our emotional responses, and reframe our thinking to bolster resilience. These are skills I didn’t learn in my teacher preparation program but have helped me enjoy teaching more and be a better teacher.
Building the Skill of Boosting Positive Emotions
One strategy Larrivee (2012) discusses for our own personal practice is to increase our gratitude because gratitude produces positive emotions. By increasing our positive emotions, our thinking becomes more expansive and increases our internal resources. She notes good feelings also may have an “un-doing” effect on the negative emotions we may be experiencing under stress. Additionally, she also states we can learn to look on the sunny side, it is a skill we can master with effort. She also shares some research about teachers that found those of us who experience positive emotions in the classroom may be more highly skilled at regulating emotions and may even experience lower levels of burnout.
In Naomi Klein’s book No is Not Enough, she points out that teaching is not only a green job (it’s very low-carbon) but also education can be a powerful source of renewable energy for students, communities, and even our nation. However, I would add that in able to be catalysts for renewable energy, we need to also consider they ways we renew our own energy.
In previous posts, I have shared my gratitude journals along with some information about how it may increase positive emotions. To give it a try and see if it works for you, check out the free digital and print journals (download below) I have made here. Also, check out Barbara Larrivee’s book Cultivating Teacher Renewal: Guarding Against Stress and Burnout for tons of ideas and strategies to support you.
*name changed, also Lisa gave me permission to record our conversation and include it in publications.
California Teachers Association. (n. d.). Issues & Actions. Retrieved from http://www.cta.org/Issues-and-Action/Retirement/Teacher-Shortage/Impending-Teacher-Shortage-Crisis.aspx
Ingersoll, R., Merrill, L., & Stuckey, D. (2014). Seven trends: The transformation of the teaching force, updated April 2014. CPRE Report (#RR-80). Philadelphia, PA: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.
Schaufeli, W. B., & Buunk, B. P. (1996). Professional burnout. In M. J. Schabracq, J. A. Winnubst, & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Handbook of work and health psychology (pp. 3121-3146). Chichester, England: Wiley.