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Be Extraordinary: How One Teacher Dodged Burnout and You Can Too

How One Teacher Dodged Burnout and You Can Too

In 2004, Danielle Sullivan was working as a legislative aid when she had an Aha moment. In the years that she’d worked in Washington, nothing had changed in education. Sullivan decided to trade her desk on the Hill for one in a classroom. That year, she joined the DC Teaching Fellows and started teaching special education in DC’s Logan Circle.

Four years later, she had moved back to New York to teach in Ithaca, and found herself in the same boat as so many other teachers—burnt out, miserable, and struggling to reclaim her passion for education. Looking for a change, Sullivan signed up for a four-week National Writing Project seminar and found inspiration. “Being in a room, writing, with other teachers blew my mind,” she remembers, “and put me on a trajectory for personal happiness.”

The experience of collaborating with teachers prompted Sullivan to start Extraordinary Teachers, her organization dedicated to empowering teachers to reignite their passion and take back their classrooms.

Now, after five more years working with students and teachers, Sullivan is convinced that teachers have what it takes to fix education. “Teachers have a ton of knowledge that we seldom tap into,” she says. “A lot of schools will bring in the new guru [to fix a problem], when you have teachers in the room solving problems all the time.” The problem she sees is how teachers feel about their work.

In April, 2014, Sullivan posted an online survey about happiness and was surprised at how fast the 300 responses came in. Only 31% of teachers reported being happy with their work, while 69% felt “okay” or worse. These results weren’t surprising. Teachers, says Sullivan, feel underappreciated, undervalued, and overwhelmed. They don’t have enough time for themselves, or to teach things that matter. “I want to help people remember the reason they became teachers,” says Sullivan. “Whatever your entry point is, you lose it along the way and it’s really sad.”

Through her research and work with teachers, Sullivan has identified the top five qualities that make for a happy teacher. Take her tips to have your happiest school year ever:

How You Can Relax, Destress, and Enjoy the School Year1. Don't Grade When You're Grumpy

It’s inevitable that your day will be a series of interruptions, from fire drills to calls from the office. Those interruptions can take you from your morning coffee through dismissal leaving you feeling overwhelmed and under-achieving.

Do Now: Schedule your day to maximize your time. When you’re tired during an afternoon planning period, you’re more likely to spend it doing a less important task—organizing the classroom library—than the more important task—grading papers. Structure your day to take advantage of your energy levels. Tackle the most important tasks (grading papers, making parent phone calls) in the morning when you’re fresh, save classroom tasks for 3:30 after dismissal when your brain is tired. (Check out Sullivan’s FOCUS video for more tips.)

2. Make a Monday Folder

Sullivan found that, even as teachers are happy with their students and colleagues, they’re overwhelmed with everything from the Common Core to school climate, making it difficult to hone in on the reason they became teachers in the first place—the kids.  

Do Now: Create a Monday Folder. Each week, put notes from students, inspirational quotes, and other pick-me-ups into a folder on your desk (like a real-live Pintrist board). When you get overwhelmed, read through that folder to re-center yourself.

3. Find Your Reset Button

There’s no shortage of reforms, change, and new mandates in education. Too often, these programs cause frustration and add work to teachers’ already full to-do lists.  

Do Now: Get a go-to reset activity. When she was frustrated, Sullivan turned up the music and danced around her classroom. Know what works for you when you have a frustrating moment (or two). Whether it’s writing, moving around, or singing, it’s okay to take a minute to channel Frozen and let it go.

4. Preserve Your Identity 

It's easy to feel burned out when your entire life is grading, lesson planning, and stopping middle schoolers from running in the hallway. But you are more than that. Yes, you!

Do Now: Teaching can take over your life. Carve time out during the week (not the weekend) to do something that you love. Take a writing or language class, form a Meet Up group for runners, get a weekly yoga pass. Whatever it is, keep that time sacred.  

5. Save an Awesome Lesson for a Not-So-Awesome Day

You know the school year’s rhythm—the autumn lull, holiday rush, the mid-winter blahs, test anxiety March. By the time October rolls around, it’s easy to forget all the great ideas you were so excited about in August.

Do Now: You know what’s coming, so at the start of this year, write down a few ideas that energize you and save them until mid-year when you, and your students, need a pick-me-up. 

Samantha Cleaver is a former special education teacher, current education writer and always an avid reader. 

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