When I burnt out and how I recovered
I’ve had a few people contact me recently saying they are experiencing intense feelings of burnout.
“I’ve just finished my NQT year and the burn out is absolutely unreal, was not prepared for this at all!” Said one.
I have experienced complete burnout once in my career. It crept up over time, almost like a battleship not detected by radar, and suddenly it’s upon you, firing all it’s guns.
The causes for me – intense workload over time, huge mental strains, daily pressure to perform at a very high level, a full timetable as a middle leader. Work was on my mind incessantly. Weekday evenings, weekends, holidays, Christmas Day, it didn’t matter when it was, I was consumed by this feeling that can only be described as a constant, nagging stress. Over a few years, I was slowly but relentlessly ground down to near collapse. And then I did.
One Wednesday morning, I woke up to my usual alarm but I couldn’t do it anymore. My head was cloudy, my mind saturated with a dense fog. I was exhausted to the point where I couldn’t even imagine driving to work, let alone teaching a full day and then attending meetings. I was dreading teaching, an activity which I had always loved since my early days as a PGCE student. This wasn’t just the usual nerves or uncomfortable anticipation, something I had dealt with daily for years up to that point. This was more than that. I knew something wasn’t right. I was signed off work for 2 weeks. At the end of that period, I extended it for another 2 weeks. At half term, I handed in my resignation. I never returned. I quit half way through an academic year. This is something I never, ever would have imagined I’d have done. I had this deep-set desire to do well, to keep going no matter what. I’d done that right up to the point where my brain said “no more”.
I wanted to, but once that switch in your mind flips, once you mentally break, there is no going back. I didn’t know that at the time.
The signs of teacher burnout can be:
Constant illness – picking up one thing after another as your immune system collapses
Teachers always tend to pick up colds, flus, infections, viruses. These tend to be much worse than if they’d been contracted during a “healthy” period. The difference between my “ill” during burnout and post burnout was marked. During burnout, a common cold could knock me out for a week or more. Post burnout, I’d brush it off. I’m not a medical expert, but I know that my mind was hurting my body at that time.
Not being able to concentrate
I found my brain was tired. It hadn’t had a rest for too long. I struggled to focus on anything requiring cognitive challenge for too long.
Dread at the thought of teaching, the physical school building and/or the school environment
All kinds of emotions became wrapped up in the idea of teaching. Of course, some of these emotions were based on very real concerns, others had wrapped themselves around actual concerns to make the problems seem unsurpassable. Whilst “in the moment”, it’s hard to recognise the job as something you had enjoyed before, perhaps even within that same teaching environment.
Feelings of depression, sadness and inadequacy
The idea of staying off work or leaving a job due to burnout can cause intense feelings of guilt in “letting down the students”, inadequacy at “not being good enough to cope” and sadness at seemingly hating a career once loved. I felt all of these to one degree or another. Of course, once recovered from burnout (which took many months in this case), I soon realised none of these were true. Nevertheless, within the burnout period, these feelings can be strong, overwhelming and unequivocally convincing.
Feeling unproductive and useless after a long period of excessive strain
This applies to people experiencing teacher burnout during holidays, periods of absence or after they have left that job. Due to the excessive and unhealthy workload requirements, or the expectation to work placed on self, many teachers who go from crazy but normalised in school work patterns to “nothing” experience a fidgety sense of emptiness, stopping them from resting and recuperating effectively. During the period leading up to my own ultimate burnout, I rarely spent holidays resting, I was more often that not in work mode or thinking about the next time I needed to work. Over time, this led to my body eventually saying “stop”.
Of course, there are many other symptoms of burnout, these just happen to be ones I have experienced myself.
Some strategies that helped me to recover from burnout:
ASMR – Don’t laugh, but it really did help me! Seriously. Most of my friends think (know) that I’m slightly mad. I wrote a blog featuring an explanation of what this is and some unintentional examples of it in the education world. I was speaking to a relatively high-profile historian involved in lots of broadcasting last week and he told me this is the one thing that helps him switch off. I concur. It can actually become quite addictive. I don’t concentrate on the content, only the sounds of the words. I zone out.
Re-connecting with old friends – During this period, I re connected with old friends, ones I’d known long before my journey to burnout. I chatted a lot to Katy, an American friend of mine I’d met whilst volunteering post uni. I sought out Ian, a long-time friend (who is sadly no longer with us), who would always make me laugh hysterically and remind me that I wasn’t stuck in a bubble. There were so many more. Reconnecting with people like this helped me to remember who I was in the first place. It was almost like my “fun” side was being taken from me. These people helped me get it back.
Time – I’m afraid it took me a while. After quitting that job, It went in the following phases. Phase 1 > Rest. This lasted about 4-8 weeks after I left that job. Phase 2 > Reassess. This was the part where I started to figure out who I was again, what I wanted, what had changed. Phase 3 > Action. For me, this was taking another permanent job role, but much more than that, starting to do more of what I wanted to do, say more of what I wanted, show more of me, be more of me. That journey, which continues, has meant my more instinctive creative side has come out. I’ve branched out, creating lots of different projects, including Teachmeeticons, Edudate and Teachers Talk Radio.
Writing – Writing a diary always helped me as a teenager, so I started this again, in blog form as an adult. This proved quite cathartic. I enjoyed connecting with others, it made me feel less alone.
What about you? If you have experienced burnout, what did you do to feel better? Give me a shout at @rogershistory and let me know.