cc flickr photo by shareski

People who say they’re burned out, probably were never on fire in the first place!

On several occasions, I have seen this quote circulating in the Twittersphere, and each time it pops up, I cringe a little.  Now let me preface any further discussion by saying that the quote is used in several of Todd Whittaker’s books, where he attributes the comment to a friend.  I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Whittaker’s writing, and in fact, I have recently re-read two of his books (Shifting the Monkey and What Great Principals Do Differently) for ideas, and inspiration, as I struggle through my own challenges as a school leader.   In his books, the statement is actually used in the context of emphasizing the importance of protecting good teachers from overload.  However, taken out of context, I am not comfortable with the dismissive attitude directed at the challenges (and associated feelings) faced by many in their professional lives.

Teaching, while potentially very rewarding, is an extremely challenging profession.  We are all familiar with the countless variables that impact student learning, many of which are beyond the immediate control of classroom educators.  In all schools, but especially those serving areas of high poverty, there is no escaping the challenges that many of our students face when they leave campus — hunger, lack of resources, lack of guidance, violence, homelessness, etc.  While not a reason for despair, these issues have a direct classroom impact, influencing student attention, interest, performance, and behavior.  Add to these challenges, issues of school funding, standardized testing, a plethora of red tape and hoop jumping, and you have enough to periodically shake the foundations of the most experienced, and committed, teachers.

The reality is that almost every one of us in the field of education (as well as other professions) can relate to the notion of feeling “burned out.”  The key lies in our response  — wallow in self-pity, give-up, or evaluate the situation and begin taking small steps to turn the tide.  In his book, When Teaching Gets Tough, another one of my favorite authors, Allen Mendler, explains that when it comes to challenging situations, “attitudes are at least as important as strategies.”  Mr. Mendler suggests that the two most important attitudes for teachers are to:

  1. Live each day as if there is no tomorrow
  2. Understand that change is a roller coaster ride

While both are fairly broad statements, they are sound advice.  I often find that I get ahead of myself — spending an excessive amount of time worrying about issues that may never materialize.  Living more in the moment, and understanding how I can make a difference now, seems like a pretty good strategy.  In addition, we have to recognize that teaching is a dynamic profession — change is constant.  As educators, we have to be prepared for the “ups and downs” and be sure to celebrate success — especially when it seems hard to come by.  If you are struggling in the profession, or know someone who is, Mendler goes on to outline some concrete steps you can take to right the ship.  It is definitely worth the read.

Feeling tired, overwhelmed, and even burned out, at times, is acceptable — and perhaps, even inevitable.  It is nothing to be ashamed of.  Be mindful of this as you interact with colleagues, or with your professional learning network on Twitter.  Encourage others.  Offer help.  Share your own challenges — and the steps you are taking to overcome them.  And remember:

If you want your life to be a magnificent story, then begin by realizing that you are the author and every day you have the opportunity to write a new page.  ~ Mark Houlahan (from When Teaching Gets Tough)


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3 thoughts on “When Teaching Gets Tough

  • March 19, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Living more in the moment. Great advice. These past two years have bene extremely challenging for everyone in the biz. They’ve been particularly challenging for me, moving to a new school, developing this new community of gifted learners, being an educational leader, etc. At times I wanted to give up or stop giving so much of myself to my job. But I knew this would never happen. I have to stop worrying about the things I can’t control and make sure I’m the best at those I can control.

    • March 19, 2013 at 8:43 pm

      Thanks for the comment Michael. The past few years have certainly been eventful. Arizona seems to be fairly adept at ensuring rigor in the education profession (i.e. raise expectations and reduce resources). I know that this year in particular has been very trying for our teachers. We have to stay focused on what we can control, and look for wins. Hang in there…I know you are doing great things at Knox!

  • July 12, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    Hey Pal,

    First, I wanted you to know that this is a GREAT piece — and an important reminder for all of us in education, whether we are teachers or not. The roller coaster we’re on can throw us around like nobody’s business — but like roller coasters, when the ride is over, it’s full of pretty darn great memories.

    I needed that metaphor today. I’m stuck in one of those low points professionally.

    Second, I wanted to know I miss “seeing” you! I hope you’re doing well, that’s for sure.

    Here’s to hoping that we “cross digital paths” a little more often in the future.

    Rock right on,


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