“So Long, Mr. Romero, and Thanks for All the Zombies” A Teacher’s Guide to Self-Awareness and Avoiding Burnout

by Kristin Holst, M.Ed.

"Burnout is nature's way of telling you, you've been going through the motions your soul has departed; you're a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker."-Sam Keen

George A. Romero wrote the book on zombies. In his cult classic film, Night of the Living Dead, zombies are creatures that shamble around communicating in grunts and low moans. But what if they weren't really zombies? What if they were educators, educators suffering from burnout?

As the time of the school year so innocently called "spring" begins, the Standards of Learning assessments loom, special education mandates demand attention, and myriad "other duties as assigned" pile up like the snow in Siberia. The last thing that anyone needs or wants, but often gets, during this stressful period is an increase in students' disruptive behavior. Many attribute it to "spring fever," kids having figured out what buttons to push, or familiarity that breeds the desire to push boundaries. But what if the behaviors have not really changed? Maybe it is the teacher's tolerance for the behaviors that has changed. Perhaps the situation is a product of teacher burnout.

Evers, Tomic, and Brouwers (2004) conducted a study with secondary-level students and teachers regarding their perceptions of teacher burnout. In their report, teachers consistently rated themselves relatively higher than the students in areas such as personal accomplishment (ability to evaluate the self in relation to job performance) and competence in coping with disruptive behavior. Ratings for depersonalization (a negative detached attitude towards coworkers) were considerably lower. The teachers' positive views of their classroom performance were not supported by the student reports, however. Many students felt that their teachers were closer to burnout, more impersonal, and less tolerant of behavior.

This study shows that we, as educators, need to do a better job of assessing our state of mind and how our students perceive that state. Self-awareness, recognizing how we react to stress, is extremely important (Richardson & Shupe, 2003). Educators need to develop "a more accurate understanding of how students affect our emotional processes and behaviors and how we affect students" (p. 8). Richardson and Shupe (2003) identify a variety of strategies that help teachers increase their self-awareness regarding their interactions with challenging students, though these can be applied to any student. Figure 1 describes these strategies.

Figure 1. Strategies to Increase Teacher Self-Awareness

Strategy
Examples

Be proactive in recognizing and nullifying emotional triggers.

Use small timeouts before, during, and after positive or negative interactions with students.


Ask colleagues and supervisors about evident behaviors that impact effectiveness in the classroom.

Look for the good, the desired student behaviors.

Reinforce positive behavior.


Make sure positive interactions are much more frequent than negative interactions.

Nurture mental health.

Think about your conversations regarding students shared with friends and coworkers.

Look for supportive people who will help maintain a positive outlook.

Use humor to build relationships, diffuse conflict, engage learners, and manage stress.

Stay relaxed and upbeat about the many unusual, unexpected happenings in life.


Make sure the humor is appropriate-healing, not harmful.

Celebrate the difference you and others are making in the lives of students.

Let people know that they are a valuable part of the team and school community, and that their efforts are appreciated.


Reflect on a positive impact you had on a student daily.

So before teachers rail against the behavior of their students or write them off as suffering from Prom-itis, they must pause to honestly evaluate themselves. The last thing they or their students want is for a teacher to one day look in the mirror and see an extra from a George A. Romero zombie flick.

References

Evers, W.J.G., Tomic, W., & Brouwers, A. (2004). Burnout among teachers. School Psychology International, 25(2), 131-148.

Richardson, B., & Shupe, M. (2003).The importance of teacher self-awareness in working with students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Teaching Exceptional Children, 36(2), 8-13.

Date: May/June 2007