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A colleague of mine recently brought me a big ol’ cup of caffeine (tea…it’s one of my great loves in life). There was no reason for the gift—just a “welcome back from the break” kind of thing. This one gesture put me on a cloud for the rest of the day…I floated freely above all, not allowing any misbehaving kids (or misbehaving adults) to ground me. This simple act could not have come at a better time, either. See, in education, there are a few frustrating weeks between Thanksgiving Break and Winter Break where teachers and students alike can begin to feel weary of their classes. There are a lot of thoughts fluttering about any given school (by both teachers and students) like, “First semester is almost over and I can’t wait to start fresh with second semester!” For non-educators, these weeks are a lot like when you eat an obscene amount of food on Thanksgiving (hold on, I have to loosen my belt just thinking about the 3 slices of pie (a la mode) I ate on Thanksgiving day), and think, “I should probably cool it with the junk food.” But then you remember that the winter holidays are just 3 weeks away—and then you remember all of the glorious junk food that comes with the festivities—and you think, “Eh…I’ll just wait until after New Year’s Day.” What’s so dangerous about this way of thinking is that you start to give yourself permission to lower your expectations (of yourself and others). I call these make-or-break weeks, “burnout season.”
Yep, “burnout season” is a totally real educational phenomenon, and not a made up CBS drama about a thrill-seeking firefighter who can put out any flame except the flame of desire he has for his best friend’s wife. “Burnout season” starts out pretty harmlessly, but quickly (and most importantly, subtly) devolves into something much more sinister. I’ll lay it out for you (see if you recognize any of these thoughts):
· “Man, that Thanksgiving break was soooo needed! I wish it lasted another week!”
· “Ugh, remember when I was able to sleep in and didn’t have to deal with [insert your most challenging student’s name here]’s insane behavior? #TakeMeBackToThanksgiving!”
· “Do these kids not realize how little time they have left to turn their grades around?”
· “Only two more weeks until winter break #SoClose!”
· “I am so over these kids…I really need winter break to get here already.”
· “Last few days, I’m just playing a movie #GoodLuckWithThoseGradesTho #GirlBye”
The thing about “burnout season” is that it unwittingly turns you into a negative person, waiting until the end of winter break to be positive again. Obvious statement alert: Negativity adversely affects your ability to teach effectively.
You don’t start the year this way. Remember how excited you got over your new teacher supplies, or how eager you were to meet [insert your most challenging student’s name here] before they revealed themselves as a black hole of academics and good behavior? You’d probably (justifiably) judge any teacher who started the year off this way. Yet, in the days between Thanksgiving break and winter break, it’s almost become a rite of passage for teachers to replace all their “beginning of the year positive energy” with “just get me to the winter break negative energy.” Is there a correlation between eating too much pie on Thanksgiving and having more negative thoughts than usual? No. Pie is a gift from heaven, and let us never think ill of it again. Honestly, I don’t know why this happens (maybe you do and, hey, now you have a reason to comment below!). What I do know is that regardless of why it happens, it’s crucial for every teacher to avoid falling victim to “burnout season.”
So how do you avoid succumbing to “burnout season?” The answer is different for everyone. For me, I try to take a brief moment to identify and reflect on at least one good thing that happened during the previous class. Sometimes, my good things are VERY good things (“One good thing that happened was [insert your most challenging student’s name here] finally showed some effort and did a great job on today’s assignment!”). Sometimes, my good things are just…nice things (“One good thing that happened was [insert your most challenging student’s name here] was insane (again), but the rest of the kids didn’t let it distract them from their work!”).
Yes, sometimes I find myself reaching, desperately searching for the one good thing that happened during the previous class (we’ve all had classes where everything just falls apart, and you go home and look at your menial retirement funds and wonder just how austerely could you live your life if you were to never go back to work again), but I’d rather spend a bunch of my energy looking for positivity than casually allow negative feelings to wash over me. Frankly speaking, reflecting on the one positive moment after a very difficult class can make my job more palatable on difficult days (a spoon full of sugar, and all that), and reflecting on the many positive moments after a good class can help keep me from neurotically focusing on the few things that didn’t go so well (“Today’s lesson went 99% perfectly, but it could have been 100% had my computer not frozen for that full minute during the MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE LESSON! GAHHH! TECHNOLOGY CAN BE SO FRUSTRATING AND NOW I NEED A COOKIE TO CALM ME DOWN!!!”).
The truth is, while I have gotten better at remaining positive in the face of “burnout season,” I have hardly done anything to help my colleagues. No teacher should be an island off the shores of a burning continent (boy, that imagery got dark, didn’t it?). Sometimes, to truly avoid “burnout season,” you just need a friendly face, reminding you about the positives in your day. Sometimes, you just need a friend to bring you a big ol’ cup of caffeine (tea or coffee).
After all, what’s a better way to put out a fire than with liquid?