Friday, October 8, 2010

Dealing with a job that's both meaningful and fun - without burnout

When reading Sam's touching post about his work recently and in the immediate future, I realized that I too have been struggling with managing the work load and my own attitudes to work. This post will be about some ways I've found that help me deal with being a teacher.

My first year teaching was wonderful and difficult - I loved the work from day 1 but worked around the clock and on top of that broke my leg mid autumn, missed work 3 weeks, and therefore had a very stressful spring-term.

The second year was supposed to be easier. Then suddenly I was teaching three psychology courses. My head of school agreed to let me off the hook for all extra activities such as sports days etc. Still, I didn't have time or energy for outside interests or even a social life.

This year, I'm teaching a new math course and have a new syllabus for one psych class. The lessons I meticulously planned last year, and the year before - I no longer find satisfactory; and so I'm still putting in crazy amounts of work. I have learned a few things though that are helping me and may be helpful for someone else:
  • It's important to identify Good Enough. I struggle with this, but seem to have found a good-enough level for math teaching that works and doesn't take more than 30 minutes to plan. For psych, I still have little idea but it potentially involves powerpoints. Unfortunately, those take time to create. In math, it does help me distinguish between work that needs to be done and work that I want to get done, which makes a lot of difference for my stress levels.
  • Another thing I find useful is to give less help to students out of class. I even plan class-time to allow me to help students in class. This is working out very well and I now have much more uninterrupted time between classes. 
  • What's proving very useful this year is to think of work as fun. I love this job, and much of what I do no one has asked me to do. This includes attending webinars, organizing meetings, in-depth talks with students and parents, detailed feedback on assessments, and even planning lessons above the good enough level. If I think of it as "working" it has this connotation to it that says it's somehow wrong to do it outside and above the hours I'm payed for. But if I think of it as stuff I love to do, then that means I'm very lucky to get payed for a lot of the time I spend doing these things. It's a happier thought, and by thinking it I can choose work and fun, instead of work or fun. 
  • Finally, when there is insecurity involved (when teaching a new course, or in a new way, or in a new place) it's sometimes tempting to resolve that insecurity by working long and hard hours. It's not fun, it's something we (or at least I) do to escape an unpleasant emotion. But in this case it is often better to just face the insecurities, to feel it and accept it as a natural part of doing something new and caring about how it goes. That way, instead of having the insecurity chase us and catch up with us every time we relax, we habituate to the situation and in the long-term feel less anxious about work. I learned this "trick" from a cognitive-behavioral psychologist and it completely changed my approach to work last year. 
There we go. That's what I do to stay sane. I hope that this will keep me teaching (and loving teaching) for a good many years. And I'd love to hear about what other people have discovered and are using to handle this wonderful, exciting and demanding job. 

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