Author Talks: How educators can avoid burnout and embrace self-care

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Elizabeth Newman chats with Jamie Sears, founder of Not So Wimpy Teacher and author of How to Love Teaching Again: Work Smarter, Beat Burnout, and Watch Your Students Thrive (Portfolio/Penguin, April 2023). Sears is a former classroom teacher and mother of six who shares how she’s learned to reduce burnout and how teachers can find joy in their jobs. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote How to Love Teaching Again because I am a former teacher and I’ve seen firsthand how teachers are becoming burned out in the classroom. I know that really quality educators are leaving long before they truly wanted to because they have no choice. They need to leave the classroom.

I feel like our children really need the best educators possible in the classroom. I’m hoping that the strategies that I share in this book are things that teachers can implement tomorrow to see a better work–life balance.

As a society, should we be thinking differently about homework?

I have an unpopular opinion: we need to do away with homework. The reasons that we assign homework are no longer valid. We need to get real as a society, not just as teachers.

I want teachers to find success in fewer hours. Overworking is not sustainable. I wondered, “Where did we learn to overwork? Where did we learn that being a good worker meant putting in more hours?”

We learned to overwork as children. We went to school for seven or eight hours each day and then went home to do homework. From those early years, we learned that working eight hours a day is not enough—you need to do more. No wonder adults don’t know when to say no.

We went to school for seven or eight hours each day and then went home to do homework.

We don’t know when to go home. When we finally do go home, we take work with us because that seems normal. We’ve had that ingrained in us since we were young. People say, “Homework helps students practice what they’ve just learned in school.” The problem is that if a student just learned something in school, they may not be ready to practice it independently. If you are a parent, you probably have sat with your child doing homework and felt like crying yourself or worked through the tears of your child through the assignment.

Children need to have family time. They need to be able to talk with their parents, have hobbies, and eat dinner together. These types of things are so important, more important than a worksheet—and that’s coming from a former teacher.

I am a proponent of teaching students responsibility. They can start by checking out books from the library, taking care of classroom pets, or working a classroom job. Parents have opportunities to teach responsibility at home through chores or family responsibilities. Let’s do away with homework; let’s take that off the plate of students, parents, and teachers.

As for grading, I want to challenge people to rethink it. What if we place activities in front of students to allow them to practice but hold off on grades until students are ready to show us that they’ve mastered something?

It’s OK for a child to do an activity and practice a skill, but we can use informal assessments. A student can do a problem on a whiteboard and show it to us as we walk by. This could eliminate those lower grades that scare students and parents, give back the time that teachers spend on grading, and reduce the stress and anxiety that students feel.

What are some strategies for building relationships with parents and setting appropriate boundaries?

It is crucial for teachers to create a team relationship with parents. This can be very challenging. Remember, the parents and the teachers want what’s best for the students. But it is also crucial that teachers and parents have boundaries with each other. That can be tough to establish in an age where emails are sent directly to our phones and are accessible at any time.

I encourage teachers to put an out-of-office notification on their email. You decide when you’re done for the day. When you leave work at 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., turn the out-of-office on and reply to your emails the next day. I do encourage parents to respect that boundary.

Parents will still send emails in the evening, but you do not have to know about it. Once you set that boundary—it is hard at first—people will expect and respect it.

How do you define what makes a good teacher?

When I was in the classroom, I found that administrators and society were getting into my head and telling me what it meant to be a good teacher. Being a good teacher meant needing a Pinterest-like classroom filled with beautiful bulletin boards and labels. I told myself, “I’ll be the teacher who’s here until 8:00 p.m. because I love my students. I want them to have the best.”

Teachers unconditionally love their students. That love is why teachers think they must be there late and do everything they can to be successful.

I love to encourage teachers—and really everyone—to write a definition of success based on things you have some control over. For example, a teacher doesn’t control a student’s test scores. Even with fabulous lessons, great resources, and lots of time put into a student, the test scores might not be that high, because some students don’t test well. Some students started several grade levels below, and you are working to catch them up.

We have control over what we put in, not always what comes out.

How can teachers prioritize their own physical, mental, social, and spiritual health?

When I was a teacher, I came close to burnout. It made me sad to know the way that I was working was not sustainable. I wasn’t the mom or wife that I wanted to be. I was suffering with my health: I have epilepsy. Year after year, I had more seizures in front of my students.

Taking care of yourself as a teacher is important, but it seems impossible. Teachers in my communities ask, “Self-help? Who has time for that?” We think working more is the only way to help our students. Students need a refreshed teacher to enter the classroom on a Monday morning. It’s more important than if she graded the last essay you wrote.

It is hard for teachers to believe this until they make that happen. They can’t imagine a way of teaching without working every weekend. In my book, I give them practical ways to get more done during the week so that they can permit themselves to do the things they love on the weekend.

When we write our definition of success, it should also say, “So that I have the time to ____.” We should fill in that blank with something else that we love to do. “I’m going to work only 40 hours per week so that I have time to put together puzzles with my children on the weekend and so that I have time to go on bike rides with my husband.” This makes working fewer hours more exciting because we want to get to the prize—doing something else that we love to do.

What advice do you give to teachers or others who are feeling overwhelmed by their jobs?

Educators and noneducators must learn how to celebrate their wins. We’re waiting for our boss to come and tell us, “Good job.” We’re waiting for someone on social media to comment, “You’re doing great.” When those things happen, celebrate them. However, it’s not as likely to happen as often as we need our tanks filled—and you need your tank filled, so sometimes you must be the one to celebrate.

I was not taught to do that. Instead, I learned to be humble and that you shouldn’t celebrate all your successes. I encourage everyone to get a notebook and schedule 30 minutes once a week to write down your wins. It doesn’t matter if they’re big or little—don’t put a size on a win. A little win could be just that you were able to have a great class meeting and discussion. A little win could be attending all your scheduled meetings for the week. Big wins could be leaving work on time and not taking any work home with you.

Educators and noneducators must learn how to celebrate their wins.

At first, your brain will tell you that you didn’t have a good week, you didn’t get it all done, and you’re not enough. We have got to tell our brain, “Actually, I am. I did get things done. Look at the amazing things that I accomplished this week.” After a while, your brain will start looking for wins and recognizing them, but first you must train your brain to find those wins throughout your day.

If you can’t think of any wins, then start considering writing down daily wins until your brain gets better at it. A win can be as simple as getting out of the house on time with three kids. You must recognize these types of wins because no one else will. Say it to yourself!

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