Why did you click on this article? You may feel world-weary, exhausted. You may be asking yourself whether teaching is the job for you. Larger educational policies and practices may leave you feeling helpless and deflated.
Yet you want to feel hope. Despite your worst days, you may often feel committed to your work and your students, yet you crave some emotional sustenance for the days and weeks ahead.
The fact is…teachers everywhere are experiencing burnout and demoralization—feeling dispirited, losing confidence and hope. The top words they’re using to describe their feelings are anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed, and sad. While no one wants our pain to be contagious, this predicament can affect our students.
As a long-time educator, I’ve experienced all these emotions—often in cycles (across days, weeks, months, and years). Surrounded by students for much of my life, I’ve craved time and space to reconnect with myself, my purpose, and my pathway forward. Do you have moments of reckoning when you ask yourself, What do I need to move forward with hope in this career?
Researchers describe two fundamental components of hope: agency thinking and pathway thinking—a will and a way. When we’re hopeful, we act with intention and confidence, keeping our goals in mind. That confidence helps us navigate obstacles, seeking alternative paths to meet those goals. With strategies and options, we can keep moving forward.
Hope is a commitment to believing in your ability to see your way forward—and a skill you can develop with time, care, and attention. Many educators struggle to commit to self-care practices—largely because institutional demands leave them with little time and energy to invest in themselves. But all the stops and starts I’ve experienced myself as an educator have shown me that my well-being and sense of hope are essential to being an inspired and inspiring teacher.
My new book, Surviving Teacher Burnout: A Weekly Guide to Build Resilience, Deal with Emotional Exhaustion, and Stay Inspired in the Classroom, is a 52-week self-care guide for educators. Here are three low-lift practices from the book to help you find a “will” and a “way” forward this month.
1. Believe in yourself
When I sat down for a coaching session with an anxious new teacher, she described cycles of nervousness and self-consciousness while she was teaching. “It’s not about what I’m doing; this is in me,” she explained. “My colleague says that she can sense my lack of confidence.” As she described her childhood and her intense training as a musician, she pinpointed her ingrained need for perfection.
Of course, teachers contending with workload and classroom stress can also experience lower self-efficacy—the belief in your capacity to handle the tasks and challenges of your job. And even if you have been in the profession for a while, your confidence can suffer. Daily stressors can pile up, leading to emotional exhaustion, a sense of detachment from your work, and the feeling that you simply aren’t as capable as you thought you were. These are the three characteristics of burnout.
Bottom line: Whether you’re new to the profession or have been in the game for years, your belief in yourself as an educator plays a fundamental role in your day-to-day motivation and job satisfaction. It’s important to learn how to navigate self-criticism, soothe yourself, and redirect your thoughts and feelings.
How to do it. The next time you feel criticized or worried about your work performance, draw on one or more of the following questions to clarify your values and reframe your thinking:
- What do I value in myself?
- What do I “stand for”?
- What is important to me?
- What are some of my successes and accomplishments?
Research suggests that teachers who reflect on prompts like these feel less anxious immediately, and more positive over time. Which of the prompts above are most effective in shifting your thoughts and emotions? Why?
Now, sit down with a journal and identify at least three things you generally do quite well. (If you’re a classroom teacher, consider these three domains of educator self-efficacy: instructional strategies, classroom management, and student engagement.)
- How do these three skills or capacities align with your values?
- How might these skills or capacities influence your students’ or colleagues’ personal and professional growth?
- How can you draw on these skills or capacities in the coming week?
I need these reminders, too. Recently, I participated in a panel discussion about burnout and well-being, and afterward, I found myself running through everything I said and how I said it—faulting myself for stumbling over my words and neglecting to share what I thought would be most helpful. (Ha!) Then I remembered this practice, and drawing on the questions above, I discovered how “in the weeds” I was. The performance minutiae receded when I began to reconnect with what is important to me—and how I uphold my values. What a relief. This activity helped me to detach a little as I held on to my big-picture vision of supporting educators with love, compassion, and hope.
2. Find inspiration
I’m a little weary of the teacher-as-hero metaphor. I resist watching films about larger-than-life, inspiring teachers. Maybe that strikes you as strange, but it may be because I feel protective of my people. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves in the first place, and there are plenty of days when we don’t live up to our self-imposed expectations—much less the image of the teacher-as-savior.
Regardless, teachers undeniably play a lead role in their students’ lives, so where do we find the zest and energy for our work when inspiration is waning?
Belief in our abilities develops as we experience successes and learn to affirm ourselves, but self-efficacy also flourishes as we witness others’ growth through “vicarious experience.” In other words, we teachers also benefit from observing models.
When your intrinsic motivation is waning, you can draw inspiration from others—near or far, real or fictional. According to research, the individuals we admire represent some aspect of our ideal selves as they demonstrate moral courage through difficult times—and a desire to do good in the world.
I recently asked colleagues to describe their personal heroes, and they primarily identified people in their immediate circle: family members, colleagues, and mentors. Their heroes were “nurturing,” “kindhearted,” “resilient,” “a force to be reckoned with,” and “loved learning for learning’s sake.” On days when you feel anything but heroic—whatever that means to you—you can summon up images of people you respect.
How to do it. This week, consider at least three of your personal heroes (real or fictional). If possible, print images of them, and post them in your classroom or office as reminders.
- Who inspires you? Why?
- Describe each person briefly. Consider the characteristics you share with them—or aspire to emulate. If each of these heroes were to identify a central goal or motivation in life, what would it be?
How does this exercise help you to clarify what motivates you?
Studies suggest that seeing images of heroes may inspire us to sense greater meaning in our lives—and even increase our drive to help others. And our enthusiasm for our work can influence our students’ engagement and academic performance.
After reviewing research about heroes, I see why idealized, based-on-a-true-story teacher movies irritate me. Apparently, fictional heroes can be more motivating because we’re less likely to measure ourselves against an abstract symbol and find ourselves wanting. They’re less psychologically threatening and allow us to protect our self-esteem.
Of course, it’s also worth exploring how we define “hero” in the first place. My heroes are quietly courageous humans; they are real and vulnerable and authentic. My witty and wise aunt lives a simple life focused on being rather than performing. She makes me feel seen. My favorite co-teacher always invited me into her office, laid out an array of tea options, and then quietly prepared a cup for each of us, no matter how busy we were. This ritual, a calming act of attention and care, captures the person she is—and the kind of teacher I aspire to be.
3. Move forward
For me, hope appears as a moment of spiritual resonance when I just can’t help feeling purposeful. It emerges, settles on my figurative shoulder, and gently guides me. Problem is—these poignant moments of clarity aren’t always accessible to me. Instead of a lightness dwelling in my soul, I often feel forsaken, weighed down, and dark.
As much as I love hope as a pure feeling, it comes and goes. It’s also not something that magically reveals itself out of the vastness of the sky to save me. I urge it into being. In fact, hope grows out of pragmatism, commitment, and action.
If pathways and actions are the building blocks of hope, we might consider the secret sauce that enriches them to be our values. Research points to the undeniable links between goals, hope, and meaning in life. And our values play a powerful role in guiding our intentions—especially long-term rather than short-term actions.
For example, I value human connection and want to build trusting relationships with my colleagues. However, if my focus is on short-term, day-to-day stressors like unanticipated meetings or mounting paperwork, the resulting exhaustion can prevent me from reaching out. But if I keep my head up and focus on the long-term benefits of healthy, emotionally sustaining relationships, I’m more likely to move forward with a plan for nurturing those relationships. Research suggests that we’re more likely to act on value-based intentions when we connect them to a more distant future.
To foster hope, have a long-term goal based on a valued “why” that gives you meaning, map out several ways to get there, and believe that you can.
How to do it. I invite you to identify one long-term goal (for the upcoming season, the next six months, or even the next academic year) aligned with a value or values you hold. Outline three concrete steps you’ll take to meet your goal. For each step, identify a possible obstacle and a way around it. Then take 20 minutes to visualize, as vividly as possible, how you’ll meet this goal. As you imagine meeting this goal, draw on all your senses and picture what it would feel like to experience this outcome you desire for your life.
- How does this journey align with a value you hold?
- Do you have a mentor or supporter who might help you move toward that goal and navigate the obstacles?
- What do you feel when you envision meeting your goal?
People who participated in an activity like this reported increases in hope, purpose, and sense of calling at work (compared to a control group); and one month later, they reported greater practical progress toward their goal. Additional research with teachers suggests that hope influences the actions teachers take to enact a vision. If we can see a pathway forward and believe in our ability to navigate it, we’re more hopeful.
Yes, hope can be savored and experienced as a beautiful feeling full of possibility, but it also drives us forward as we enact our values and goals. And hope doesn’t have to perch quietly in each of our souls—we can share it and live it, collectively. As an African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”