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Avoiding Burnout Through a Mindset of Acceptance

Posted on: April 2, 2024

This blog post was written by Jay Schroder, author of Teach From Your Best Self: A Teacher’s Guide to Thriving in the Classroom. He has taught high school English and social studies for the past twenty-four years in both mainstream and alternative education settings. Jay is also the 2022 recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English Teacher of Excellence Award. 

Whether you are a brand-new teacher or have been at it for a few years, I want to say, welcome to the best job in the world. That you’ve made this decision says a great deal about you. You’ve entered education in the face of grim news headlines and, likely, had to fend off some well-meaning, but skeptical, comments from loved ones (“…are you really sure you want to be a teacher?”). 

You took the leap because you want to make a positive difference in the lives of young people. As a teacher, you can do that. 

But teaching may also be the hardest job in the world. As you endeavor to make a positive difference, you will likely feel thwarted. Large scale frustrations, such as statewide budget cuts and the passing of restrictive laws and mandates that reduce your ability to make a difference for kids can leave you feeling disempowered and unappreciated. You may also experience frustrations at your school and in your classroom, such as an unsupportive administration, an overwhelming workload, policies that reduce your agency, disruptive student behaviors... These and other challenges can smother your passion and leave you exhausted at your desk, despairing at your giant to do list. 

Pressures like these lead good teachers to leave teaching, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Here’s something that can help. 

I started teaching with preconceptions of how the students in my classes would be. I imagined students would be open to my guidance, amenable to seeing new perspectives, and engaged by the lessons I had worked so hard on. When my students didn’t live up to my preconceptions, I tried to get them to change by telling them that they should value their education. I threatened them with failing grades. It didn’t help.

Although I thought I was holding high standards, I was actually judging my students for being the way that they were. I was holding so hard onto my judgments for how my students should be that I was sabotaging my ability to form constructive relationships with them. My resistance against their apathy only deepened their resistance to me and to learning. 

One day, standing in front of my third period class, I realized that if I didn’t first accept these students as they were, I would never be able to help them learn and grow.

As hard as teaching is, my resistance had been making it harder.  

I call this kind of judgmental mindset “putting people (or circumstances) into boxes of should.” Essentially, I was holding a shape in my mind that circumscribed how I thought my students should be, how they should act, and then I judged them for not fitting the shape of my box. People sense when someone else is trying to squeeze them into a box of should. They feel judged. They feel controlled. It feels lousy.

This is an easy trap for teachers to fall into because a large part of a teacher’s job is to evaluate student work and behavior. Grades and report cards are based on judgements. If we allow a judgmental mindset to become defining of our teaching, two things are bound to happen. One, we will lose touch with our spark for teaching and two, our students will resist our attempts to teach them. 

Dealing with student resistance had been a source of stress. Once I released my resistance to my students, their resistance to my teaching relaxed into receptivity. Having receptive students made my job easier. My influence increased. Student misbehavior decreased. Students learned and I started having fun.

I quickly realized that I had been putting school policies and my own administrators into boxes of should. When I relaxed into acceptance for how things were, energy freed up that I could apply toward positive change. 

As great as this was, to thrive in education, I needed to take one more step; I needed to bring the same level of acceptance to myself. 

I would often despair at my inability to do my job as well as I thought I should. I would try to live up to my ideals by working harder, working later, working on weekends. But hard as I tried, I continued failing to measure up to my own impossible standards. Trying to fit into my own box of should as a teacher had me on a fast track to burnout. 

Teachers are given all sorts of messages about how we should be—we should be able to manage the workload, we should be able to achieve a work-life balance, we should be able to get all our students to productively engage… Without even realizing it, we can internalize these messages and put ourselves into boxes of should. As the pressure we put on ourselves increases, we work harder, trying to avoid feeling the hopelessness of not being able to measure up. At some point, we break down. 

From inside our boxes of should, we lose touch with the reason we became teachers. We begin measuring our value by how much we accomplish, whether we are caught up on our planning and grading. Before we know it, we are struggling to make it to summer vacation. 

Liberating ourselves from boxes of should reconnects us to our authentic passion for teaching. Though we will still feel frustrated by things outside of our control, from a mindset of acceptance we can more effectively take the actions that are most likely to change the things that aren’t working. Acceptance increases our agency. 

Although I will never be a perfect teacher, by releasing myself and my students from boxes of should, I am better able to bring my best self to teaching. My best, and your best too, is enough. Remembering this and accepting our students and our own human limitations helps us make the difference we became teachers to make, putting us on the path toward a long, fulfilling career in education.