The best way to fight the creeping depersonalization and pessimism that underlie burnout is to take active steps to address and resolve the problems that threaten to consume us. Included: Five conversations that drive educational excellence.
A little more than 50 years ago, forest service smokejumpers learned that, in certain crucial circumstances, the best way to save their own lives was to do something outrageously contrary to their natural tendencies.
In August of 1949, 15 men parachuted into a mountainous area of Montana to put out a growing fire. Within minutes, the fire exploded out of control, spreading at 660 feet-per-minute and threatening to consume the 15 firefighters. Fourteen of the men turned away from the fire and ran for the ridge. One did not. He turned toward the approaching inferno and set the grass in front of him on fire. As the grass finished burning, he yelled for his comrades to drop onto the resulting ashes to save their lives. In the end, he was the only survivor.
Teachers often find themselves caught in a fire. Challenges, such as overcrowded classrooms, poor administrative and parental support, loss of control in the classroom, and bureaucratic red tape, are enough to make any teacher want to abandon the fight for educational excellence and run for the ridgeline. But we cant outrun those fires either. With research showing that one in three educators report stress-related problems, teachers who run from the flames end up burned out. Additionally, running from the flames not only sacrifices educational excellence, it actually increases our risk of being harmed.
When we retreat, we cross a line between simple stress and more serious burnout. In burnout, our relationships become increasingly depersonalized, and we become chronically pessimistic. As we withdraw from relationships, and grow convinced of our own powerlessness, we enter a downward spiral of pessimism that can feel impossible to escape.
Teachers in, or approaching, burnout suffer depleted energy, lowered resistance to illness, increased absenteeism and decreased effectiveness on the job. Consequently, everyone suffers when teachers are trapped in that cycle of stress, withdrawal, and burnout.
But not all teachers are consumed in the cycle. Some cope well and remain resilient in the same environments that overwhelm others. We surveyed more than 400 educators, and discovered that nearly one in five have figured out how to approach even the toughest fires and quench them. We can learn from their successes.
It turns out that a significant key to coping with stress in the classroom is akin to running toward the fire rather than running away. Specifically, the best way to fight the creeping depersonalization and pessimism that underlie burnout is to take active steps to address and resolve the problems that threaten to consume us.
That path begins with investing time and effort to hold five crucial conversations. In our research, we learned that teachers can master the stressors in their environment by engaging more consistently and more effectively in five conversations that are common, impactful and, too often, undiscussable.
See all four parts of David Maxfields series, Speak Up or Burn Out: Five Crucial Conversations that Drive Educational Excellence.