On Tuesday 21st July, Rachael delivered a webinar for Macmillan Education called Avoiding Burnout for ELT professionals. I wasn’t able to attend live but have made a deliberate effort to watch the recording as soon as I could because I really do think this topic is SO important. Here is a link to the recording, I really recommend watching it as it is succinct, to the point and full of helpful tips.
I’m not going to summarise it here, because I really think you should watch it (!!); rather, this post is my response to it.
Now, I would say, at this point in time, I am doing pretty ok mentally. Like anybody, I find some days are harder than others, but all things considered I am making big effort to look after myself and my wellbeing, and managing fairly well. I have read and watched a fair bit around the topic of wellbeing, mental health, how brains work and the like, but nevertheless I learnt a LOT from this webinar. There were lots of “oh!” and “oooh!” moments. 🙂
So, there were five warning signs of burnout that Rachael mentioned. All of them are familiar to me. Thus far in my career, I haven’t crashed and burned completely, which I am grateful for, but I have definitely been in a precarious position in that regard. I would say these days I am much better at recognising when things aren’t right and doing something about it, and I am lucky in that I have a supportive line manager to turn to at such times. For example, last term, towards the start of our sudden shift online, probably not a lot more than a week in, my stress levels were through the roof because there was so much to adjust to. I’m sure this sounds familiar to a lot of you! For me, the major stressor was a massive increase in the amount of time spent in meetings, which took place on Google meet, that Covid strategy management required. I’m not a manager but I am an ADoS, and in that role collaboratively played an active part in negotiating our programme’s way through those muddy water, which involved attending a substantial number of lengthy meetings. At that point, I genuinely thought I was not going to be able to cope with the term and would end up getting signed off work for stress and I thought that I would be judged negatively for my inability to cope; everybody else seemed to be able to. So then I had to choose – keep struggling along until I went splat or say something. I opted for the latter and initiated a discussion with my line manager via email, which led to a (ironically!) video chat. I was lucky – my line manager was very reassuring and encouraged me to do whatever I needed to in order to manage better, including not attending some meetings and catching up the content from my co-ADoS. I also tried to work out what it was about these meetings that was so problematic, why they physically hurt and discovered the term “Zoom fatigue” which you may be familiar with. This enabled me to come up with strategies to make things easier for myself/my brain – namely, only have my webcam enabled and everybody else’s on screen at the start of the meeting and then switch mine off, and hide everyone else’s. Between that and knowing that I could opt out of a meeting if I needed to, stress returned to manageable levels.
Why the long and wittery example? To highlight the importance of being aware of the signs that things aren’t right for you – the alternative may be ending up like the frog in the metaphor Rachael used to illustrate how burnout can creep up on you. (Watch the webinar to see what I mean!)
As far as Rachael’s tips go, again, I thought I was pretty on this. I didn’t expect to be surprised or pick up anything particularly new. However, all the research she described about the links between the level of organisation in your environment and the level of stress your brain feels was new to me (really interesting for a brain geek like me!) and I discovered that I could really help myself by sorting out my email according to the system she described. Bleugh inbox. It’s…very full. So, it might take a while to get there but I’m game!
To understand what this ^ means properly, watch the webinar 🙂
I also learnt more about something very dear to my heart – to-do lists. (Who knew they have an effect on how safe or not the brain feels!) I love a good to-do list. Some weeks more than others (I use them more heavily when I need the motivator of crossing something off a list having done it to make me do it!). Rachael’s prioritising system is something I might actually adopt to refine my to-do list usage. I think it was Sandy Millin who described to do lists as a way of outsourcing memory. Outsourcing memory is helpful (hence my recent blog post series about teaching online – those posts will all be there come September when I teach again for me to refer back to and implement what I learnt this term!). Finding a way that works comes down to personal preference (e.g. a colleague of mine swears by Trello, which is useful as it is a collaborative to do list, but I’ve not managed to get into it as yet.) Anyway, I look forward to seeing if Rachael’s system will work for me. I anticipate yes because my current system will integrate quite easily, I can already picture how it will look. <happy Lizzie thinking about to-do lists!>
Another thing I apparently need to try is the Pomodoro technique, which Rachael described very clearly. Particularly timely as there will be a LOT to do in the next 3 weeks (assessment weeks, which are always fraught in our Term 4 because it is shorter than all the other terms, but even more so than usual this time round because of how assessment now works due to Covid19!). Time pressure is always stressful, so having a technique to try which should help me make more efficient use of time has to be a win. 🙂
The final thing which stood out from the practical tips was about set-up, having the right set-up. Rachael helpfully described that. I’d like to add another possibility to what she said (so watch the webinar, then include my possibility and you have options!) – standing desk and large monitor plugged in to laptop (As Rachael said, most of us who have been thrust into working from home have been using a laptop and I am no exception!). I don’t have an office at home, so it quickly became apparent that I needed to do *something* in order to have a suitable set up, despite lack of substantial space for that. The first thing I did was order a standing desk – you can get them quite cheaply. The one I have is adjustable for height and angle of the desk surface. It is also small. It holds my laptop and a notebook on the main desk and I can fit a few little things on the little shelf underneath.
Total game-changer. However, very small screen. 13inch. When you spend a lot of time looking at things on a screen and doing things like assessing writing requires looking at a piece of work and a set of criteria ideally simultaneously, it’s a royal pain in the butt and you lose a lot of time switching between windows and squinting at very small things (enter eye strain headaches!). Solution: buy a large monitor, buy a monitor arm which you can affix to your standing desk and bingo! So now I type on the laptop keyboard which is the right height to type but look at the monitor which is the right height to look at and BIG. So I can have multiple windows open and use comfortable font sizes. Ok I’ll take a photo of the full set-up (the photo above was after stage 1 just!)
This particular standing desk has wheels, so can also easily be moved out of the way when not in use. In practice, it is ok where it is so stays put but it is a useful feature. My final piece of advice about set-up would be to change your screen settings to activate the blue light filter. Research shows that blue light has a negative impact on sleep if absorbed by the eyes too late on in the day and it is widely recommended to use blue light filter on devices in the evening. I say use it all the time! No blue light needed! On my “old” macbook (this one) this is not inbuilt but I could download an app that does it, newer macbooks have an inbuilt setting, Windows have a thing called “Nightshift”. It makes screens SO much easier on your eyes. Another real game-changer and so easy and FREE.
Having talked about practical tips, Rachael moved on to the question of mindset. For example, she talked about unconscious beliefs and how they influence our wellbeing. For me, the biggest change to my stress levels at this time in the term has come about as a result of letting go of the unconscious belief that life should be fair. It isn’t. But oh how my brain would rebel when work expectations seemed “unfair”. Result: stress response (all the physical stuff) being fed by this notion of unfairness. Letting go of the “unfairness of it all” frees up energy for dealing with the actual issue – I will be extremely busy and under pressure in the next 3 weeks, what can I do to help myself get through that? and conserves energy for when it all actually kicks off. Another similarly unhelpful belief is that certain things shouldn’t be difficult, such that when you find something difficult you have a stress/anxiety response to the difficulty as much as the actual thing itself. Result: maybe you avoid the actual thing because your stress/anxiety response is so intense, avoidance is the only thing that relieves it. Whereas if you acknowledge something is difficult and that it is ok for it to be difficult because sometimes things ARE difficult and that is ok, you free yourself up to focus on managing that thing rather than being afraid of it. What are yours? How could you make them more helpful? Worth watching the webinar to see what Rachael has to say about unconscious beliefs!
Amongst other things (watch the webinar!), Rachael also said we should treat ourselves as teachers like athletes treat themselves. I.e. look after ourselves in body and mind. I like this – to function effectively, to help others, we need to help ourselves. My manager encouraged me to look after myself how works for me in order to manage better (managers, it is really important to be explicit about the importance of looking after yourself when dealing with teachers – they may otherwise assume you don’t think it’s important and subconsciously feel it is not ok for them to prioritise their wellbeing when in fact it is central to their ability to function effectively in their role. As with my example about me at the start of this post – as it is, I am doing fine. It could just as easily have gone the other way without that supportive response from my line manager.
The final aspect of mindsets that Rachael talked about was Mindfulness. If you have followed by blog in the last year, then you will know that Mindfulness has become a big part of my personal and professional life – both in terms of informal day to day Mindfulness and the more “formal” meditation side of things. Listen to what Rachael has to say about it – she is right! I can vouch for it with my own experience. It has made such a difference.
The next and final part of the webinar was about what schools can do to help. Though I am not a manager, as a module coordinator I do lead teachers on the teaching side of things and at this point in term that is a bunch of rather frazzled teachers with a lot on their plates. So this part was of great interest to me. I hadn’t come across this article before, that Rachael mentioned to begin with – Teacher wellbeing isn’t compulsory yoga and cakes Tom Rogers. Teachers’ wellbeing depends on them having two things – time and respect. – have you? She made some very interesting points, most of which implementation is above my pay scale but I want to pass on some of the ideas to my programme leaders as I think they will be receptive to them (indeed some of them we already do, though I think it all falls apart a bit at key pressure points…). Any managers out there, please at least watch this portion of the webinar (it starts at around 42 minutes in and finishes around 47.22 so not exactly heavy on time!) but ideally the whole thing 🙂
What really struck me overall about this webinar was that for a webinar dealing with a potentially negative topic, it managed to stay positive throughout with its focus on what we CAN do as teachers, as managers, as humans to make a job that will always be stressful to varying degrees by its very nature more manageable and enjoyable. Relating to this webinar, Rachael runs a great Facebook group aimed at educators that I am in, called Life Resourceful – Lightbulb Moments, in which she does lives, hosts guest lives, and regularly shares interesting content as well as posting thought-provoking questions and statements for discussion. It is one of those rare things on Facebook – something consistently uplifting! Well worth joining. She also has a website with lots of useful content such as free downloads and all her blog posts (which she shares links to in the Facebook group too). NB I am not getting any kind of commission for promoting the webinar or the Facebook group or the website. I just really believe in what Rachael is doing and have benefited enormously from it. Thank you, Rachael!
I’m glad that we are having this discussion about burnout and teacher well-being in our field. I burned out in 2015 after a 20 year career. At the time, I didn’t know what was happening to me. Even my colleagues who had known me for 5, 6, 7 years had no idea that my erratic behaviour was due to burning out. In my entire career, I’ve never had a discussion about teacher self-care or burnout so let’s keep these discussions going!
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