I cried every day of the first two weeks in my first post-graduation job. No hyperbole: I went through my entire tissue box in my car and I knew exactly what spot to park in so the cafeteria staff couldn’t see my tears. I'm grateful to report that it got better. My first experience with burnout wasn't my last, but each time has taught me to be more patient and gentle with myself and others.
Still, it sucked.
My first job out of graduate school, I was excited but pragmatic. I wasn’t planning on changing the world, I just wanted to be a good speech-language pathologist. I wanted to help my students meet their goals, I wanted to turn in all my paperwork on time, to feel good about the work I did with kids, and have a real life outside of work.
When I woke up I felt I had enough energy and resources to pick two of those things and let the other two slide. I was miserable. I privately wondered if I was burnt out already, only a few months in.
I wasn’t burnt all the way, but the edges were pretty rough, a little toasty if you will, and it was obvious in the day-to-day. I was physically sick more than I’d ever been. I was short with people that didn’t deserve it. Every little ask or additional work felt like I was being personally singled out. Didn’t anyone care?!
The truth is, in education, we care and we are surrounded by people who care. We care so much, all day long, without ceasing, and the unpaid emotional work comes at a cost. In many cases, especially for those of us who work with students who have experienced trauma, it can come on acutely with compassion fatigue or slowly with burnout.
The Life Stress Test is one tool to help gauge how susceptible you are to stress-related illness. Notice that happy things, like marriages and vacations, contribute to stress just like deaths and job changes. Just before I started my (tear soaked) first two weeks:
Got married (50 points)
Had a change in financial status (38 points)
A student loan over $30,000 (31 points)
Change to a different line of work (36 points)
Finished School (26 points)
The month before I started school racked up enough "stress points" to put me firmly into a category of moderate concern, let alone everything else weighing on me up to that point. With all the “happiest time of your life” cards I’d gotten, it seemed wrong to be feeling stressed and upset. Looking back, I wish someone had said that I could be really happy to be married and employed and really unhealthily stressed at the same time, just to relieve some of the guilt.
It's interesting to note that most of these "stress tests" are very adult-oriented. What would it look like for many of our students? I imagine:
Walked into school late (15 points)
Unexpected substitute teacher (22 points)
High-stakes test (40 points)
Surprise convocation (13 points)
Something bad happened at home but the adults won't explain it to me (20-60 points)
Life has since changed for the better because I made changes. I surrounded myself with wonderful, positive people who listened and taught me how to manage my work. I said “no” to some things so I can say “yes” to self-care. I created new schedules. I learned new paperwork management techniques. I applied UDL principles in my work for my students and for myself. I had fun! PATINS had a wonderful twitter chat about mindfulness on Tuesday, many shared tools and ideas I want to try. Take a look at this calendar from Montgomery Co Public Schools around self-care (thanks for sharing @PossBeth). Try a few in the upcoming week, see how you feel!
While most of the things on this list helped me overcome my temporary bout with high-stress and burnout, sometimes we need more assistance and help to find that help. The correlation between burnout and depression is strong and, for many, these techniques aren't enough. Before I stepped foot in a classroom I was given training on the ways my students could access more mental health services and support but it took years before I learned about help for me and my fellow educators, such as:
Seek a professional. Many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs or other opportunities to take advantage of free or nearly free counseling services.
Suicide prevention hotline, 1-800-273-8255, with accessible services for people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing and in Spanish.
Consider getting trained in responding to someone who is in crisis. Many districts offer training in Question, Persuade, Respond program or other crisis response techniques to empower all people to intervene and prevent suicide.
My hope is that you know you're not alone. My deepest wish is that when you reach out for help PATINS can help you feel less "toasty-to-burned out" as you manage new expectations and challenges, you'll find an enthusiastic colleague and listening ear.
We're rooting for you!