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Catching Up With Our Bodies:
Reflections on Teacher Burnout

Voice of ExperienceDoes teaching consume your life? In this candid reflection, teacher Brenda Dyck describes the signs of teachers consumed by the job. Have you experienced some of the signs of burnout Dyck describes? Read what a teacher whose mind and body are in sync might look like. Included: Tips for tackling burnout plus links to teacher wellness resources on the Web!

"In the deep jungles of Africa, a traveler was making a long trek. Coolies had been engaged from a tribe to carry the loads. The first day they marched rapidly and went far. The traveler had high hopes of a speedy journey. But the second morning these jungle tribesmen refused to move. For some strange reason they just sat and rested. On inquiry as to the reason for this strange behavior, the traveler was informed that they had gone too fast the first day, and that they were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies."

-- Lettie Cowman, Springs in the Valley

It happened again last February. Once again I found myself thinking about the profession that I've been a part of since I was 21 years of age. Back then, February had more to do with Valentine's Day, the upcoming school musical, and most importantly, my new husband. Over the years, I have noticed that February is a time when many educators start to question

  • why they chose this profession in the first place,
  • why the line between personal and professional life is so unclear,
  • why so many teachers are weary and cynical,
  • whether it is possible to regain their previous zeal.

February is the time of year when teachers who have had one too many February experiences may choose to leave the profession.

In the past, I would silence those February questions by going to bed early for a few weeks, temporarily cutting back on the hours I spent at school, and cutting back my marking load. Within a few weeks, I'd be back in the saddle not only feeling better but also feeling rejuvenated for the last term of school.

I've been thinking about how it has become much more common to see teachers withdraw to refuel or even disappear from the profession altogether. Perhaps as a result, there seems to be a growing awareness within the teaching profession that overwork by teachers is, in the end, counterproductive to creating a healthy learning community. "Teachers who experience burnout are less sympathetic toward students, are less committed to and involved in their jobs, have a lower tolerance for classroom disruption, are less apt to prepare adequately for class, and are generally less productive," observed Kenneth Leithwood, professor and head of the Center for Leadership Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

This year it occurred to me that my little February regime was really a Band-Aid solution -- a quick fix that temporarily solved the problem. Lettie Cowman's insightful tale caused me to consider whether each February my soul was actually trying to catch up with my body.

Like most educators, I spend most of my year thinking, breathing, and living school, so it was quite possible that this absorption had left my soul far behind! Fueled by that thought, I determined to use Stephen Covey's method of "beginning with the end in mind." What would a teacher whose body and soul were in sync look like? After talking with colleagues, and those outside our profession, I came up with a few benchmarks. An "in-sync" teacher, I've determined, might

  • take care of self and family first;
  • reclaim time to think;
  • put a little more life into self;
  • leave paperwork at school;
  • limit late hours at school; and
  • make a concentrated effort to think and talk and dream about family and interests.

It is interesting to note that in Lettie Cowman's story, we never find out how long it takes for the soul to catch up with the body. Maybe that's because it's the lessons we learn while waiting that are the most valuable.


  • Creating Balance
    This article examines "being in balance," "balancing," and the importance of knowing the difference.


Article by Brenda A. Dyck
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Updated 01/18/2008