For eight years, I had loved my job as a high school teacher, approaching my work with passion and integrity. But I had just interviewed to be a curriculum developer for a furniture company and was considering quitting teaching. That was the moment when I asked myself: How had this happened?
My pending attrition was not uncommon. A 2016 report on teacher shortages cites that after five years, 46 percent of teachers either move to new positions or quit teaching, often because of overall job dissatisfaction, loss of autonomy, and lack of feedback. I found myself about to become a statistic because of these and many other reasons.
Teachers, maybe you’ve been in this situation, too. Even if you haven’t considered giving up teaching, you might be feeling drained, impatient, burned out, or dispassionate. So, what do you do?
After that phone interview, I decided not to give up but to dedicate the next year to applying the science of well-being to my job. Ironically, I had been teaching a 12-week positive psychology class for high schoolers for years, based on research about engagement, positive emotion, meaning, and accomplishment. But I wasn’t practicing what I preached.
By applying the science of happiness and meaning, I learned to love teaching again. I’m convinced that positive psychology can help any teacher reduce burnout, even if it’s just to help us get through the next year, next week, or next day with more joy and purpose.
We can change our attitude toward our jobs
The first keystone of motivating change in ourselves is Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon’s Sustainable Happiness Model. Their studies suggest that our circumstances—factors often beyond our control—typically only account for 10 percent of the variance in happiness between people, while 40 percent is determined by our intentional actions and daily habits.
This means our well-being is within our influence. While there are a host of external factors contributing to teacher burnout, we can still take specific actions to increase our engagement, improve our relationships, and thrive within our conditions.
Even the basic shift of realizing that we have some control can boost our well-being. Workers who focus on their own control are more likely to use problem-solving strategies and less likely to experience psychological strain at work. Educators who adopt an internal locus of control feel less stress, resulting in better relationships with students, administrators, and parents and fewer discipline problems and conflicts.
Once we adopt an internal sense of control, we can find ways to change our awareness, our attitude, or our actions at any time, no matter the context, to improve our well-being. My book, The Burnout Cure: Learning to Love Teaching Again, dives into dozens of research-based strategies for doing this, but here are three tips that most reduced my burnout and helped me learn to love teaching again. They have to do with an awareness, an attitude, and an action.
1. Awareness: Mindfulness
The minds of educators are bound to elicit discontent. We are constantly thinking about the future—the next lesson or the next question—or we are mulling over our students’ past performance. We also fight for progress and change, which makes it hard to cultivate equanimity. I felt this personally as I was often on edge worrying about something, never feeling settled.
As the Dalai Lama said, “Some of your thoughts don’t have your best interest in mind.” We teachers often have to fight two beasts of burnout: rumination and resentment, which erode our well-being. How can we fight these? With mindfulness.
It’s easy to approach mindfulness with reservation (“I’m a teacher! When do I have time to meditate!”), but even the most basic practices of mindful breathing benefit us. We can take two slow deep breaths before speaking our first words to our class. When we get emotionally worked up, we can use thought and emotion labeling to activate the frontal lobe and calm the amygdala. And we can use common disruptions—like slamming lockers in the hallway or random phone calls during a lesson—as reminders to take a moment to breathe and be present.
I’m not surprised that studies find mindfulness affects teacher stress management and the culture of the class. One study randomly assigned 224 urban elementary teachers to either a mindfulness-based stress management program or a control group. Those who practiced mindfulness improved their emotional regulation and reduced their psychological distress and urgency about time. Observations showed that they also had more positive interactions with students—taking more calming deep breaths, remaining curious instead of rushing to judgment and punishment when students misbehaved, and even smiling more.
The moments we practice mindfulness, even for just taking a few deep breaths, are like stones dropped into a pond. The benefits ripple out to our students, our teaching, and our lives beyond the classroom.
2. Attitude: Gratitude
Teaching can be challenging because we are constantly engaging in comparisons. We compare one class to another, one student to another, one set of data to another. And, as growth is a major goal, we usually compare the present to how things could be better. For some, this can be motivating.
But, if we spend too much time focusing on how it could be better, we lose sight of the gains we’ve made and the good fortune we have.
When we notice that comparing is eroding our well-being, we can reframe our view of our current situation using gratitude, focusing on what’s going well, how we might be fortunate, and who has provided good things to our lives.
One way to infuse gratitude into our lives is instituting “Gratituesday” with students. Each Tuesday, you can spend a few minutes practicing a brief gratitude intervention, whether it’s logging thoughts in a gratitude journal or discussing adversities we’ve overcome that have helped us become better people.
Rather than hanging on to negative emotions and focusing only on bad things that have happened to us, we can take time to notice and discuss the good things about our jobs. Challenge students and colleagues to join a “24-hour No Complaining Challenge.” How long does it take us to go 24 hours without voicing a single, petty complaint?
Education can be filled with things that aren’t good enough (and social media isn’t shy of zeroing in on these). But it’s also filled with victory, hope, and positivity. Gratitude is better than griping when it comes to our well-being; so, focus on things that inspire you.
3. Action: Job Crafting
In just about every school, there are teachers who are languishing. And, in just about every school, there are teachers who are thriving, even though they work in the same contexts with the same students. Why?
Passionate teachers aren’t born that way. They just practice what researchers call job crafting: taking intentional actions to change how we interact with our tasks and with others. We can craft our calling to our profession by reflecting on the following:
Boosts: What makes me love this job and how can I do these more?
Burdens: What frustrates me about this job that I can reduce or shift?
Gifts: What are my strengths and how can I apply them more?
Gaps: What are my weaknesses and how can I outsource or get help with them?
Once we get intentional about our boosts, burdens, gifts, and gaps, we can apply our internal locus of control and make strategic changes with our tasks and relationships. This doesn’t mean adding more to our lives, which none of us needs; but it might mean doing less of something or doing it differently.
I recommend starting small. For example, grading was a burden for me. So, I shifted to do more pre-writing conferences with students. The benefits? Less time grading after the assignment, more time using a boost (one-on-one conversations with students), and more quality feedback to help students learn.
We can also make relational shifts, like mentoring a student or colleague during lunch rather than sitting in a teacher’s lounge (often a complaint zone). Or we can nurture our inner introvert by taking time after school to reflect, or help our inner extrovert by finding colleagues who want to share victories instead of venting. We can’t always choose whom we work with, but we can choose how we navigate our relationships.
In hindsight, I’m grateful that I didn’t take other job opportunities and, instead, applied the science of well-being to invest in myself. I know it can be hard to take care of ourselves as educators; we’re so used to giving.
But to give our best we must be at our best. If you’re finding yourself languishing—or even if you’re not—take some time this year to reframe your awareness, your attitudes, and your actions. That way, you too can refresh your love for this critical work called education.