Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D., teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at University of Cambridge and is a former junior high school teacher, recipient of "Teacher of the Year" award, technology coordinator, school administrator, and district administrator.She is also author of Designing Data Reports that Work: A Guide for Creating Data Systems in Schools and Districts and How to Make Data Work: A Guide for Educational Leaders.
Our Interview with Jenny Rankin
1. What motivated you to write First Aid for Teacher Burnout?
Teachers face burnout more than any other field, are leaving the profession in droves, and are faced with declining morale and skyrocketing stress when they remain in the profession. Teachers deserve SO much better from what is arguably the world’s most noble calling. From my time as a teacher and my roles working with thousands of teachers, I have always been passionate about helping teachers implement strategies that make their jobs easier and that diminish the many demands placed upon them. I was frustrated to find books on teacher burnout dealing solely with the need for teachers to “have a better attitude” about their job demands. All of these factors inspired me to write a book that shared advice, research, and tips to help teachers proactively reduce demands and streamline operations so teachers can find the peace, joy, and success at work that they deserve. Likewise, I was excited to deliver these strategies in a light, digestible way that won’t bog down already-busy teachers.
2. Why do you think many teachers aren’t prepared for the stress of teaching in schools today?
While teacher preparation programs cover learning theories and instructional matters, they do not typically address – in a direct, dedicated way – how to juggle the growing mountain of demands teachers face. Worse, many preparation programs are antiquated and do not cover (again, in a direct, dedicated way) more recent yet inextricable aspects of the profession, such as using data to better understand student needs or using educational technology to streamline classroom operations. These conditions portray a simplified, misleading image of the profession to aspiring teachers. Worse, this means that capable, educated, intelligent teachers are still left scrambling to keep up with growing demands while simultaneously learning aspects that could have been taught to them earlier but weren’t.
3. From the book, what is your favorite piece of advice to teachers about using technology to their advantage?
It’s hard to choose here, because technology holds so much potential to make teachers’ jobs easier. My favorite is using the right software to let an $8 webcam grade anything multiple choice, such as student feedback surveys or portions of assignments or tests. For example, students can simply drop their papers in a tray under a webcam or hold papers in front of a teacher’s laptop webcam, and (1) students will instantly see how they performed; (2) the teacher will instantly see visual displays and scores of performance for the whole class, each student, student groups, etc., and can instantly group students and differentiate wisely; and (3) scores can instantly and automatically load to the teacher’s gradebook, the school’s data system, the student and parent portal, progress reports, transcripts, etc. Though this setup works fastest with objectively-scored items, open response questions and tasks can be accommodated in slightly different ways. Thus open-response items can still be supported, but teachers can get immediate, easy feedback on some items in the meantime without the hassle of hand scoring.
4. One of your chapters is entitled, “Overstimulation: "My Brain Needs a Union Rep." In a couple sentences, can you describe this chapter?
As teachers, our mental capacity is stretched to the limit by demands that are constant, diverse, urgent, and high-stakes. Our brains need rest if we are to avoid burnout and be at our best for students, so this chapter helps teachers employ tips that hold overstimulation at bay.
5. From your experience, what’s the biggest challenge educators face today?
In my opinion, the biggest challenge educators face is navigating the onslaught of demands. Teachers have so much thrown at them that they have to do, they are constantly having to shift directions as new tools and curriculum are adopted, and they are constantly having to learn and implement new approaches to teaching and classroom management. If you read a book on any aspect of teaching (differentiating instruction, helping ELs, using data, etc.), the book will often contain overwhelming suggestions for how to do a good job with that particular aspect of teaching. Yet that would be just one aspect of teaching. To do everything as well as is recommended is overwhelming when suggestions and implementations don’t take into account the need to be practical and to fit in with all of a teacher’s other responsibilities. For teaching to be a sustainable profession, each endeavor must be approached with an eye for what is practical and what will be efficiently effective.
6. Your book provides a range of practical strategies for teachers. If you could share only one piece of advice with an educator about preventing burnout, what would it be?
Since teachers were drawn to a profession where they are often the only adult in the room, and where they “run the show” on their own, teachers tend to be highly self-sufficient. For this reason, they often operate at a level where they do “everything” themselves. My biggest piece of advice would thus be to collaborate. Partner and plan with a team of teachers. “Divide and conquer” to get lessons created, resources found, activities run. Collaboration efforts can be hard to begin and to get to a smooth-running, I-don’t-know-how-I-ever-lived-without-this point, but it’s possible with key steps. Most of all, effective collaboration is absolutely invaluable to making a teacher’s job doable and enjoyable.
7. Tell us one of your favorite stories about a student you’ve worked with.
I had a student named Matthew who the other junior high teachers called “a terror”. I adored Matthew. He was extremely witty, highly energetic, and always ready to smile. When given opportunities to move in class (“Matthew, can you please pass out these papers?”), boundaries for his contributions (“Please raise your hand, and make sure it’s a contribution about what we’re learning that will help the class”), and love (“Matthew, you get me to see things in new ways, and I’m so grateful you’re in this class”), he thrived. One day I had just had a disagreement with another teacher in the staff lounge who was disparaging Matthew. When I got back to my room, Matthew was waiting for me with something he had made. I had recently divorced and had just purchased a very small home, which I had told the kids about. Mathew had made a house for me out of popsicle sticks. Through its windows I could see a popsicle stick version of me inside, and a popsicle stick version of each of my dogs. The roof opened on top like a box, and in the back was a heartfelt letter about how I deserved to be happy in my house like I made kids in my classroom. I was moved to tears, and that was before I even saw Matthew’s hands. Because he had cut the popsicle sticks with a knife to make the house so lovely, Matthew’s hands were covered in cuts. That little house is a beautiful reminder that every single kid – no matter how “bad” some people might think he or she is – is a precious person capable of great things.
8. What or who inspired you to become an educator?
Although my father wasn’t a teacher by profession, he was an exceptional teacher. I believe his instruction throughout my life, as well as the manner in which he taught (with love and humor), inspired me to help kids in a similar way. I picked the junior high school level because that age marked a difficult time in my life. I didn’t understand or enjoy the cattiness and social jockeying taking place when I was a young teen, and I liked the idea of being there for students who were having to navigate similar terrain.
9. What has been one of the proudest moments of your education career so far?
My proudest professional moments have been winning Teacher of the Year, teaching at University of Cambridge, and having the U.S. flag flown over Capital Hill in honor of my dedication to students. But when I reflect on teaching, I don’t think awards and honors can compete with how proud I felt each time a struggling student “got it” during a lesson, or hearing my students tell me how I helped them, or seeing my now-adult students thrive in life. Nothing beats getting to see your impact firsthand. Those have got to be my proudest moments in life. I love that hardworking teachers get to experience those proud moments every day.
10. And finally, please tell us your favorite thing about being in Education in one word.