Just recently I was sitting with one of my teachers and we talked about the issue of burn out. I am blessed to have staff that are willing to have honest conversations with me, and this particular teacher is one I depend on for regular reality checks. We started our meeting with the usual routine, Regents projections, lesson plan talk, and then I mentioned a few other notes about recent walk-throughs, and I could tell that something was just not clicking. I stopped talking for a moment, and the honest hits came out: frustrated with attendance, concerns about expectations and kids waiting for the last minute to turn work in, and the biggest one- not making a difference like before.
We finished our chat, and I certainly hoped I made that teacher feel better, but I certainly did not. As we enter our fifth year of operation and the stress of charter renewal is on us like a vice, burn out from stress is a real thing. If my teacher who was always honest with me about things like this was struggling to find his motivation and mojo, that means so many more of my people are feeling the same exact way. In fact, if I were to be perfectly honest with myself, maybe I was too. And when the Principal is burned out and ragged, that trickles down quickly to everyone else. Had I set this ball in motion inadvertently?
The short answer to that question in no, but it resonated a bigger, longer answer in combating burnout in high-risk school communities. My dissertation is based on the impact that the School Improvement Engine tools has on schools like mine- high poverty, urban, and with a young teaching staff. Incorporating the tools and building a healthy school community through empowering teachers to become leaders in their own capacity is just one of the ways that we are supposed to be combating burnout.
New Dawn is a unique school. We have students that are here for a few weeks and then they disappear. This can happen for a number of reasons- illness, family responsibilities, having children, and crime. This puts specific stress on our teachers in a number of ways. They have to figure out how to build a strong relationship with the students while they are in school and find ways to get in touch with them when they disappear. They plan lessons for a class of 12 and then 5 show up. The next day a different set of students will likely be in class the next day, making fluency a hard to grasp regularity. This is why the workshop model and the use of conferencing is so important to our instructional design. It allows teachers to sit with kids and figure out where they are and where they could be going. Teachers must constantly revise their lesson plans to make sure the kids they have in class are getting the “biggest bang for their buck.” Now add the behaviors of students at-risk and afraid to make relationships with adults, distractions with social media, peer pressure, and general grumpiness, and you get a very small picture of the things that my staff fights on a daily basis.
Charters schools have been accused of not retaining teachers. While we had a bumpy transition in our first and second year, teachers who started with us in year 2 and have stayed with us (almost everyone!) are certainly feeling the fatigue that comes staying for awhile in one place, on top of the unknowns and the what nexts. And the big question: Can I make it another year? Another month? Another day? It’s. Just. So. Much.
So I’ve pointed out these reasons why we are all burned out, but we should talk about the ways that we can release some of the frustrations associated with working so hard and often getting back so little in return.
The first is to look at the big picture. Often we get mired in the little details of what isn’t working instead of looking at what is working. We have graduated so many students that wouldn’t have had a chance at anything if we weren’t here. Just yesterday I was sitting in an observation and a student talked about how important our school is to her. She was a student that argued and flipped out and had fights just one year ago. She has a long road ahead of her but yet she can see how being with us has changed her life for the better. Today in a parent meeting we had a guardian talk about an alumnus who recommended our school to her and talked about the opportunity that she otherwise never would have had. Add those two incidents to the countless others out there, and you have a story of a school that was created specifically to make a difference to students who have struggles in their lives. Right now we have some challenging kids, and they give us all a run for our money, but a year from now, they will be different kids. And that’s so much why we are all here- because our kids inherently change to productive adults over time. It really does work.
The next thing is to let it loose. On days that may have been tough, we will reschedule a meeting and let folks leave a little early. We also try to throw little get-togethers for holidays and other occasions to come together and not talk shop. Laughing and sharing good food is a very big stress reliever.
The last thing, and the hardest thing for some people, is to be open and honest, and let people be open and honest with you. It is so important for teachers and other staff to have a safe space to work in and freely vent when needed. When you know you have someone in your corner in that way, it makes it okay to have negative feelings from time to time and work through them. When we start adding years to our stay in a work place, it is totally normal to get burned out on the daily grind and the hurdles that come with growing up. One day we won’t have growing pains from being new, but we’ll have different problems to work through. It is our hope that our staff now will be with us to experience those new issues and bring their talents to the table to work through them with us.
I certainly hope that I have helped my staff work through some of their burn out, and that through little activities and open communication they feel better about being so tired from this very hard work on our plates. This coming year is going to be a tough one for us. We have our renewal to get through, and that means we really have to be open and honest about our work and how we need to continue to improve. As we get through that phase, the outcome will only benefit our kids- make us more effective educators, communicators, and supporters to a group of kids who so strenuously depend on us to make it work for them.