Teaching seems to be a profession in which there is more burnout than is usual. Partly I think this is to due to the guilt trip effect, as Katie points out. We feel guilty any time we are not physically able to go in to school to teach our pupils, who we tend to think depend on us – so we go in even if unwell, sacrificing our long-run health on the altar of short-term guilt.
Partly it is due to the intensity of the term-time workload, because you could always do more: an extra phonecall home to tutees’ parents, an extra cycle of marking and feedback, another extra-curricular club or cross-curricular trip, an unusual lesson to resource… the list of potential extra time investments for teachers is endless.
Perhaps it is due to the emotional drain of making some 200 decisions every day, unlike in other jobs which only require around 20; perhaps it’s due to the exhausting confrontations that seem to be normal in challenging schools; perhaps it’s due to the regime of surveillance, monitoring and scrutiny that teachers seem to be labouring under, as articulated here with Nietzschean sound and fury:
Whatever the reasons for it, one of the results of burnout is that around half of teachers leave the profession within five years.
How can we prevent burnout? I think it comes down to habits, and here we might learn a little from medicine.
My Dad’s a surgeon, a professor of urology. He likes to help his patients start and sustain lifestyle change before and after his operations. He’s come up with an acronym mnemonic, PLACE, to help them remember how to get to a better place in their health:
He says that having this on a small card as a reminder helps patients change their habits, often the habits of a lifetime, as they approach and recover from their radical prostatectomy (prostate cancer surgery). One, for instance, lost a third of his body weight, shedding 6 from 18 stone, and ran the London marathon.
For us in teaching, there may be a couple of lessons to be learned from this. One is that small habit changes make a big lifestyle difference. Another is that simple mnemonics can be useful triggers for changing our habits.
I’d like to suggest a simple, cheeky acronym mnemonic that might help us keep a couple of key habits in mind: SEX. It stands for two simple things:
When I get into the habit of doing both of these things – getting to sleep early, and exercising every day – my energy levels in the classroom are high, I feel purposeful, and that enthusiasm transmits to my pupils. I haven’t taken a day off work ill in my time in teaching because of these two tiny things. But when I get stuck in a rut of getting to sleep late, and forgetting to do any exercise, my energy levels in the classroom are low, I feel sluggish, and my exhaustion transmits to my pupils. I also feel myself getting more likely to get ill.
At the start of the year, my parents, my sisters and I each started using a tracking wristband. Initially I was very, very sceptical. I’d heard the BBC’s Rory Cellan Jones, talking about wearable technology on BBC Radio 4.
The wristband tracks how long you sleep for each night, and how many steps you take each day. The average sleep is 6 hours long, and 7 is recommended. The average number of steps is 6,000, and 10,000 is recommended. I’ve found out that some nights I sleep less than six hours, and some days I take less than 6,000 steps.
Last Sunday, for instance, I only got 3 hours sleep. Not enough: I started the week totally exhausted. But where once I was blind to it, now I can see why and how:
The wristband is a nudge. It nudges me to improve my decisions. It nudges me to get to sleep that little bit earlier, and jog that little bit more often. That, with the SEX mnemonic, gives me that little bit more energy to give to my pupils. And it’s the first line of defence against burnout.
My Dad has not taken a day off work in over four decades in medicine. Two small habits are the big reasons for this: he gets to sleep early every evening, and goes for a twenty minute run every day. Simple to remember, but easier said than done.
Maybe we need a nudge towards a little more SEX in our lives.