In August of 1949, fifteen men parachuted into a mountainous area of Montana to put out a growing fire. Upon landing, the fire quickly exploded, growing at 200 meters per minute, threatening the lives of the firefighters. Fourteen of them turned from the fire, running toward the ridge. One did not. Instead, he turned toward the approaching inferno and set the grass in front of him on fire. As the grass finished burning he yelled for his team members to drop onto the ashes to save their lives. In the end, he was the only survivor.
Similarly, teachers often find themselves caught in the fire. With research showing that one in three educators report stress-related problems, while over 1/3 of all new teachers drop out in their first five years, we start to see that we can’t outrun the flames. How can teachers who find themselves caught in the fire, avoid ending up burned out?
Challenges faced by educators are aplenty, from overcrowded classrooms, to poor administrative or parental support, loss of control in the classroom, to bureaucratic red tape. Not to mention, running from the flames not only sacrifices educational excellence, but it actually puts a teacher’s health and career at risk. It’s not hard to see how some teachers want to abandon the fight for educational excellence and run for the ridgeline and attempt a retreat.
When we attempt a retreat, we cross a line between simple stress and more serious burnout. In burnout, our relationships become increasingly depersonalized and we become chronically pessimistic. As we withdraw from our relationships and grow convinced of our own powerlessness, we enter a downward spiral of pessimism that can feel impossible to escape.
Teachers who are in or are approaching burnout often suffer depleted energy, lowered resistance to illness, increased absenteeism, and decreased effectiveness on the job. Consequently, everyone suffers when teachers are trapped in this cycle of stress, withdrawal, and burnout.
And yet, not all teachers are consumed in this cycle of flames. Some cope well and remain resilient in the same environments that overwhelm others. After surveying more than four hundred educators, we discovered that nearly one in five have figured out how to approach even the toughest fires and quench them.
So, what have they been doing to keep themselves from begin devoured by the flames? It turns out that a key to coping with stress in the classroom is to take action akin to running toward the fire rather than running away. Specifically, the best way to fight the creeping depersonalization and pessimism that underlie burnout is to take active steps to address and resolve the problems that threaten to consume us. To head out on the right path to safety and sanity, it’s important to engage consistently and effectively in difficult or challenging conversations that address a teacher’s underlying sources of burnout.
The question is: are you having those conversations, or are you running from the flames?