Burnout and The Curse of Now

If the end of the year were a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor, it’d be called Bliss, Burnout & Blame. The label would feature the iconic cow, standing on a mountain of papers, holding a coffee cup in one hoof and swatting flies from her eyes with the other.

We’ve all heard the term burn-out, but other than just being “so done”, I wonder how many of us have thought about it as an actual health concern.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine attributes the origin of the term to psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who “first used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals experienced by people in “helping” professions”. Here, helping professions are defined as those that require significant intellectual and emotional support, maintenance, and management. Need we cycle back to the argument about the number of decisions teachers make on a daily basis?

The National Center for Biotechnology Information defines burn-out as a period of long-term psychological exhaustion [that produces] symptoms similar to those of clinical depression”. If that definition seems extreme, here’s a list of those symptoms: mood swings, over- or under-sleeping, anxiety, short temper, loss of interest in daily pleasures, excessive hunger, fatigue, guilt, loss of traditional routines…

Clinical depression? That list looks like everything I experienced on Friday. (Am I the only one who’s ever hid in a locked classroom mid-assembly to eat Cheetos and rejuvenate for the returning crowds?)

With burn-out comes blame: tiny statements that assign responsibility for wrongs to others. I like to call this The Curse of Now. My theory posits that whatever you’re doing now is seen as the only thing you ever do, which directly correlates with whatever is bugging someone else. The Curse of Now results in statements like these: “All she ever does is show movies”; “All they ever do in that class is take notes”; “He never teaches anything, he’s always at his desk”; “She’s always hogging the copy machine”; “All they ever do is color and have fun”; “Nobody ever shows up for duty”. Sound familiar? This is the soundtrack of burn-out.

Ironically, this is also the most blissful time of the year. Remember: Freudenberger’s definition applied to people under duress who maintained high ideals. (FYI: ideals is a synonym for standards). Many teachers I know are working just as hard as their students on their own final projects simply for the satisfaction of seeing students surprise themselves. This kind of daily dedication is difficult to maintain—indeed, it’s accomplished at the risk of our own personal relationships (read: “Hi honey, I got burritos. Also, I won’t be capable of human conversation for at least two hours.”).

It’s worth noting that Teacher Appreciation Week happens at the height of the burn-out and bliss season. Like a cosmic gift, it starts the same day we begin to slip-up on positive self-care. Thoughtful cards from students and teachers appear on our desks with the exact sentences we need to remember we can do this. That one kid who’s been trolling you all year suddenly declares to the class that you’re the best teacher he’s ever had. A parent randomly sends a box of Goldfish for your 7th hour class. These tiny gratitudes carbonate our enthusiasm and remind us why we do what we do.

I write this post today to remind you that these feelings are normal and surmountable. A lot of uninformed chatter on social media suggests that teachers have no reason to be tired because they had an extra six-day “vacation” (i.e. Walk Out). This statement is absurd. Every teacher I know who participated in the protest, even in strange little forms, returned unusually stressed. They lamented lost instructional days, battled negative public opinion, and faced a laundry list of insecurities including the fear of losing their jobs.

This profession is more than a career for us: it is a thread of our very identities. Remember to nurture yourselves so that you can care for others. Take some time to reflect on your many growths and successes. Journal some of the funny moments.

And then on your way home, maybe pick up some ice cream.


Angela Buzan

Angela Buzan is a full time English teacher in the Flagstaff Unified School District. She has thirteen years’ teaching experience and has taught all grades seven through twelve. In 2010, she received a Fulbright Teacher Exchange fellowship to Kolkata, India; in 2012 she achieved National Board Certification; in 2014 she earned a Master’s Degree in Curriculum Design and Instruction. Her current challenge is to out-read Gavin, in third period, who typically polishes off three novels a week.

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