It’s been quite a year so far in American education. Between school board battles over Critical Race Theory to protests over mask mandates, we are seeing significant social strife playing out in the context of our schools. We’re also seeing school staff shortages, leading to constant challenges in finding bus drivers, cafeteria personnel, and substitute teachers. Many exceptional learners are still waiting for an instructional aide.
As educators, we anticipated some of this before the school year began. However, some of these moments have caught us off guard. A former teacher I used to work with texted me the other day noting, “I knew this year would be a challenge. I knew it would be tough to enforce the mask mandates with eighth graders. But I just did not have the ‘kids stole our soap dispensers because of a Tik Tok challege’ on my pandemic teacher bingo card.”
Teaching has always been a tiring profession. At every level, teachers pour their heart and soul into their craft. But this year feels different. Teachers started experiencing December-Level (or even May-Level) teacher tired mid-September. It’s no surprise, then, that so many teachers are saying, “I can’t do anything new right now. I can’t try another innovative approach. I can’t pivot. I’m all pivoted out.”
They still care about students and love teaching but they are exhausted.
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What Type of Tired Are You Experiencing?
Note: This next section deals with educational issues that also loosely connected to psychology. I am not an expert in psychology and I strongly recommend that any teachers facing either burnout or trauma see a professional therapist.
I’m exhausted right now. I am eating right, exercising, and going to bed at a decent time. However, life is a little chaotic right now. My daughter had shortness of breath yesterday before P.E. In previous years, we would treat this as allergy-induced asthma that hits each fall. But this year, it means a COVID test and 24 hours symptom-free afterward. My wife and I are helping our daughter navigate her first year of middle school and our middle son’s first year of high school. Meanwhile, my oldest son is exploring college opportunities and things like prospect camps and showcases for baseball.
I’m teaching eight classes this semester and I’ve worked with a few colleagues on how to shift toward using Canvas as an LMS. I’m also leading professional development, doing keynotes, and creating content. I don’t feel overwhelmed or even all that stressed about my daily schedule. I am not burned out by my work. In fact, I love being a dad, a husband, a professor, and an author. I am, however, tired at the end of each day.
The main culprit is decision fatigue. When a person makes too many decisions, they often have a reduction in the quality of their decisions over time. The sheer number of decisions and the challenges in making tough decisions can lead to a sense of exhaustion. When this occurs, people are more likely to avoid making decisions and to make impulsive negative decisions. It can become harder to self-regulate.
At the end of the day, I am fighting back the desire to procrastinate or avoid decisions altogether. I’m more likely to say, “I’ll decide on that tomorrow.” Last night, I thought, “Can someone else decide what I should eat for dinner?” This is wild because I love food and I love having a sense of autonomy over my eating decisions. But last night I was just tired of making decisions. I was also far more tempted to grab junk food from the cupboard (the impulsivity of decision fatigue).
I’m seeing decision fatigue all around me in education. In a typical school-day on a typical year, teachers are constantly making decisions. How do you modify this instruction? Do you increase this pair-share activity because of the rich discussions? If so, what do you change in your lesson plan? Three students raised their hands. Who do you select? A student interrupted you. How do you deal with it? What’s the best response? How should you have handled a question three minutes ago? You make big decisions regarding feedback when you’re grading and you’re then using the data you collect to design new lessons.
We work in a profession packed with decisions. This is part of why so many new teachers crash at the end of the day. They are drained from the sheer number of intentional decisions they have to make. While veteran teachers have routines and certain skills that have become automatic, new teachers are learning these skills for the first time. They don’t have the same muscle memory.
Now, amid the pandemic, many teachers are feeling like new teachers all over again. With the context changing so rapidly, it’s hard to plan in advance or create any kind of predictable routines. I’m leaving most in-person classes feeling tired, due, in part, to the way I am constantly having to modify a typical face-to-face activity for social distancing. A simple gallery walk or Socratic Seminar requires a new set of decisions in advance and in the moment.
In some cases, teachers aren’t just feeling decision fatigue but also cognitive overload. This occurs when one’s working memory cannot keep up with new information. For students, cognitive overload might occur when a teacher has given too much information in direct instruction without allowing students to summarize it, discuss it, and commit it to long-term memory. It also happens when introducing too many new ideas or giving directions with too many steps.
But teachers right now are also facing a heavy cognitive load. They are learning new skills and are faced with new challenges. Meanwhile, many teachers are stuck in a situation where they have to multi-task — which is actually split-tasking, meaning teachers have to move back and forth between tasks. This can create the split-attention effect, where a teacher isn’t truly able to engage in meaningful deep work. For example, a teacher who is teaching in a hybrid model with students in person and at home faces a heavier cognitive load because of the need to switch back and forth between virtual and in-person modes.
Many teachers are also facing change fatigue. While decision fatigue involves the challenge of making too many decisions, change fatigue occurs when an institution implements too many systemic and structural changes in a given period of time. This is what happens when a teacher says, “I’m all pivoted out.” Often, change fatigue leads to apathy, resignation, stress, and fear. So many teachers right now are facing change fatigue. It’s why they brace against a term like “disrupting education” or the calls to “use this time to re-imagine learning for students.” In this moment, many teachers want some level of normalcy. They miss fist bumps and high fives and facial expressions. They miss the days when board meetings were bored meetings.
In some cases, the issue goes beyond fatigue. Certain teachers are experiencing vicarious trauma (or secondhand trauma). As teachers build relationships with students, they come face-to-face with the trauma students are facing during the pandemic. The constant empathy and engagement can lead to symptoms that resemble actual trauma. Many teachers are experiencing behavioral challenges in students who have faced trauma during the pandemic. In some cases, teachers are experiencing firsthand trauma as well. If you are experiencing trauma, please seek out professional help. It’s a sign of strength and humility to go to a licensed professional so that you can heal.
What Do You Need Right Now?
I’m experiencing decision fatigue and I know that my next steps need to involve rethinking some of my commitments and asking for some help in certain areas of decision-making. For me, the issue isn’t as simple as taking a day off or doing less. It’s about the types of tasks I do and the cognitive demand on each task.
There is no one-size-fits-all for preventing burnout or for dealing with fatigue. It is not as simple as taking a day off, focusing on self-care, or choosing to stay positive.
About eight years ago, I made this continuum for myself to think through whether I’m tired or actually injured. This isn’t scientific or anything. It’s just a tool I made for myself eight years ago, when I faced true moral injury and realized I needed more than just rest. That was my hardest year of teaching. We had a new principal who led from a place of insecurity and it led to a culture of fear. Ten teachers quit the profession altogether. Many more transferred. It was the only time in my life I experienced panic attacks. For me, I needed something more than rest. I needed healing.
Here’s how it works:
- Rest: I need a break but I’m also ready to learn
- Recovery: I need a longer break with deeper processing
- Restoration: Something was taken from me this year and I need systems changes, culture change, and support
- Rehabilitation: I’m hurting and need healing and therapy to recover from this year
For all the talk of doing “anything it takes” to reach students, I think it’s important that we, as educators, consider what we actually need right now. Self-care is student care. We can’t provide for students if we are depleted. However, self-care can’t be something we find on the side in our spare time. We need to tackle larger cultural narratives and experience significant systems changes. You can’t say to a teacher, “Don’t forget about self-care” and then ask that teacher to take on 27 extra students because there are no substitute teachers. Self-care can’t change a broken system.
The Danger of the Superhero Narrative
There’s a powerful narrative in our culture that the best teachers are the ones who work the longest hours, who always go the extra mile, and who will do anything for students no matter. We see this in pop culture, with the teacher movies like Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds. Often, there’s a touch of a white savior complex mixed into this. It’s the notion that the best teachers are the ones who are saving the world. It’s the belief that you have to be the best all the time. That you have to be like those glorious, brave teachers in movies – that you need to suffer if you want to make a difference.
We see phrases pop up about teachers as rock stars and superheroes. But I actually don’t think that students need Superman. They need Clark Kent. A few years ago, my friend Trevor Muir and I created a sketch video for new teachers about this very idea:
So, on a cultural level, there is narrative that the best teachers are those who sacrifice everything. This is the lie that you aren’t doing enough, that you aren’t measuring up, that it’s you’re job to fix every problem that your students face. But the truth is that martyrs are useless to students. If you sacrifice everything for your students, you have nothing to give to them — as well as to the rest of the people in your life.
However, the martyr narrative isn’t merely social and cultural. It can also exist at an individual level. As an educator, I sometimes battle perfectionism. I feel guilty if I haven’t done enough in grading or lesson planning. I can get down on myself when a lesson fails. I want to be great at the craft of teaching and if I’m not careful, I can shift into perfectionism. When this happens, I put pressure on myself and I start saying yes to every commitment.
Here, I have to remind myself to break up with busy:
There’s a ton of interesting research in the book Rest, that suggests we are more productive and more creative when we spend time resting. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity.
There’s a great article on this, where author Thomas Oppong wrote:
According to research, the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. You lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.
When faced with a long creative problem, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task and improve your idea generation approach. A structured downtime can help you do your best work.
We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don’t take regular breaks. If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression. Your brain needs downtime to remain industrious and generate better ideas.
I love that idea. We need rest. We need the chance to recharge. This isn’t a selfish act. It’s the notion that self-care is student care. Students need teachers who have patience and energy and this requires us to take care of ourselves.
I love the suggestion that Joan Young once gave of rephrasing it from “self-care” to “taking care of yourself.” I would suggest we move it a step further and think of it as “caring for teachers,” because it’s not merely a personal decision. Teachers need professional autonomy and a sense of agency. We need to trust teachers to innovate. We need to honor their professional expertise.
Teachers need systemic support. They need prep time to do their jobs instead of spending that time covering classes. If a teacher doesn’t get a break, then they are the ones who break. Teachers need reasonable class sizes. They need support with behavioral interventions.
Why a Student-Centered Approach Doesn’t Mean Teachers Have to Put Themselves Last
I often write about the need to empower students with voice and choice. It’s the notion of going beyond engagement and to a place of student ownership.
I tend to focus on how this shift toward empowerment helps develop soft skills in students:
However, this shift toward student self-direction can benefit teachers as well. Consider the role of self-assessment and peer assessment.
When students engage in self-assessment and peer assessment, it frees you up to have one-on-one conferences with students and to give more meaningful feedback on student work. You are taking some of the assessment load off your back and ask students to do more of the mental work involved in assessment.
When students get the chance to choose the topics and use things like choice menus, it potentially reduces your own cognitive load and helps prevent decision fatigue. It can also boost student engagement and make the job more enjoyable for you. When I taught language arts, I had students create their own Geek Out Blogs based on their own geeky interests. They chose the topics, found the resources, engaged in research, and ultimately crafted the blog posts. This freed me up to do mini-workshops and small groups.
When students ask their own questions, I spend less time coming up with my own questions. So, if students are doing a Socratic Seminar, I might prepare the class with a set of resources for them to read and a structure to use. However, they own the discussion. They ask the questions, share their insights, and navigate the discussion. I am merely a referee stepping in when necessary.
If students engage in an inquiry-based mini-project, they are the ones who ask the questions, find the answers, and share their insights with others. It can be something as simple as a Wonder Day Project:
When students own the project management process, you spend less time tracking student progress, sending email reminders, and managing systems. Instead, the burden is on the project manager within each group. They can help their group facilitate every part of the project management process.
When students learn how to self-select the scaffolds, differentiation becomes simpler and more feasible. It’s less time-consuming and energy draining because students learn how to find the tools and resources that they need. This UDL approach also reduces the stigma attached to being an exceptional learner while promoting neurodiversity.
When students engage in project-based learning, you spend less time preparing slideshows and materials for class. In my experience, the act of teaching feels more relaxed because I’m not having to be “on” the entire time. I spend less time engaging in direct instruction and less time redirecting behaviors; which in turn, helps me thrive as an introverted educator.
Sixteen years ago, when I first shifted toward empowering my students, I asked the question, “What am I doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?”
My focus was on my students. However, I noticed something else. I was less exhausted. I shared this idea with a colleague who said, “Of course you’re less tired. They’re doing all the work.”
That wasn’t entirely true. I built so many of the systems used for empowering students. I was actively monitoring their learning. I still pulled small groups and, yes, we still had direct instruction. But the truth is, I was less exhausted because I no longer had to own everything. Going student-centered actually freed me up as a teacher to do more of the work I love to do.
Small Changes Make a Big Difference
A few weeks ago, I led a training on on the Blueprint for Empowering Students. I began with the disclaimer that my goal was to affirm teachers in what they were doing rather than asking them to radically change their practice. At one point in the workshop, a teacher said, “I love these ideas and I’m on board. However, I don’t know to start.”
“You’ve already started,” I told him.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
Together, I had everyone brainstorm ways that they were already empowering their students. They started with individual brainstorms and then moved to small group brainstorms and discussions.
We then reconvened as a group. I asked, “Where have you already started? What are you already doing? How can you build on these things?” I was blown away by the work they were already doing.
I think it’s important to recognize that innovation doesn’t have to mean a giant leap into something new. It’s often about making small tweaks that yield big results. It’s about experimenting through little iterations and over time building momentum. It’s about the overlap between the “best practices,” of what you already doing and the “next practices” of things you want to try:
However, none of this can happen unless teachers feel supported and empowered as well. I am sympathetic toward building level administrators. This has been an incredibly stressful and challenging time for them. But I also know that as an educator, I am far more likely to empower my students when I feel empowered by my leadership (which was true with my former principals and is true with my current director at the university where I work).
The following are a few ways school leaders can empower their teachers:
- Give teachers the resources that they need. This is the hardest, given the challenges with staffing issues. But it’s the idea that teachers can’t take on the burden of the substitute teacher shortage or the lack of staff for duty.
- De-emphasize the role of standardized testing. We have to recognize that this isn’t a normal year and teachers shouldn’t have to feel the pressure of high test scores. I get it. We want to have high academic standards. However, the pressure from the test is a large contribution to the fatigue teachers feel. Also, if we want teachers to experiment with student-centered learning, they need to know that a failed experiment is allowed. Teachers need to feel the permission to take risks.
- Allow teachers to own their professional learning journey by providing them with voice and choice in their professional development. They might choose book clubs or discussion groups. They might go to a professional development class or they might want on-demand professional development where they can choose the timing, the pace, and the location of their learning.
- Provide teachers with packaged curriculum but treat it as a resource. Some teachers will use the curriculum with slight modifications. Others will want to make huge revisions. Some will want to mash it up with other resources and materials but some teachers will want to abandon huge parts of the curriculum in order to make their own resources. Honor their creative approach and give teachers the permission to make those curricular decisions.
- Design some school-wide structures that will build student ownership across the grade levels and subject areas. This can help reduce the upfront work that teachers need to do as they design systems to empower students. Thus, a whole grade level, can choose a few protocols to use. They might work together on a template for a choice menu or a self-assessment that can be modified. Or they might get together and create a shared curation of resources for students as they self-select the scaffolds.
In the end, it just might be that when we empower our students, we are able to find the restoration and renewal that we need as educators.
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