Recharging My Batteries

During episode 68 of The PE Umbrella podcast, Sarah mentioned how she experienced a teaching rut during the fall. After listening to the podcast, Naomi messaged Sarah and said that teacher burnout was a topic she had been wanting to write about for a while. Naomi suggested writing a joint blog post about teacher burnout. When Naomi and Sarah mentioned their idea to the rest of the team, everyone quickly admitted that they were either currently experiencing teacher burnout, had recently gotten over it, or struggled with it in the past. As a group, we have been wanting to write about more serious topics within teaching and we think this is a great place to start. During the next month, you will read each of our stories about teacher burnout. Naomi starts the series with a post about her experience recognizing, coping with, and overcoming teacher burnout.

Three years ago I sat in my seat staring at a convention program and read through all the different sessions I could choose from. I came across a session about teacher wellness and remember laughing at it thinking, “Why on earth would anyone want to go to a teacher wellness session? All you need to do is workout, hang out with friends and leave your work at school. It has been preached to me since I first started teaching. Easy, right?” I wanted a session that could help me with my teaching and help me with my students, not a Zumba session I had to participate in.

Little did I know, the teacher wellness session was the most important session for me at the convention.

I was missing all the signs of burnout. The increasing pressure on my shoulders, the uneasy sick feeling in my stomach, being tired all the time, and the feeling of dread when I would wake up in the morning. This had become my normal as I had been in survivor mode all three years of teaching.  

My workload the previous school year took its toll on me. I taught 15 courses that year: physical education 3-9, physical education 30, math 9, math 10 workplace & apprenticeship, math 10 foundations, career guidance 7 & 8, and health education 7 & 8. I was also coaching jr. girls volleyball, jr. girls basketball, badminton, track & field, and was the athletic director for the school. I would be at the school by 7:30am and get home after supper. I would stay up until midnight to make sure I was prepped and ready to go for the next day, just to do it all over again and again and again. I was one stressed out teacher.

I always said teaching was a lifestyle choice, not a career choice. I felt there was no such thing as work-life balance. My life was teaching. I was always on and could never shut myself off from it. Nor did I want to, as I felt I would get too far behind.

In my last four months of teaching, I felt as though I was caring less and less about teaching. My staff and students always called me the Energizer Bunny because I would keep going and going and going, but my battery was being drained. One of my colleagues had even approached me to see if I was doing okay because she noticed I hadn’t been myself. It took all my strength not to break down, cry, and tell her how much I needed help. Instead I just told her I was okay, and I was just going through some things.

The truth was that I wasn’t okay. I loved the idea of teaching, but hated the reality it had become. I was not having fun anymore. I was burnt out. I was still passionate about teaching, but began to recognize that if something didn’t change, I would need to change careers. This was a heartbreaking realization for me. 

When I stopped teaching and transitioned into a new position I had a hard go of it internally. I was still in the education field, but my identity was that of a physical education teacher. That was my life. Nothing else. Now that I was not teaching anymore, who was I? I didn’t have any hobbies because I spent all my time teaching, coaching, or talking online about PE.

It has taken the past two years to grasp what I went through, understand what happened and learn who I am in the process. I was so angry, upset, frustrated and confused about burning out that I left all my teaching and coaching resources at my parents place in Canada (I currently live in the United States). At the time my thought was that I would never need them anymore. I am over it. Done. I didn’t want any memory of it and wanted to get as far away from it as I could. Over the past two years I have been slowly working through the anger I have towards burning out. I am working through the anxiety that had come with it as well. When I went back home to Canada for Christmas I looked through all of my teaching and coaching resources and wondered why I ever left them behind… My resources were amazing! But that is what burnout did to me, it made me hate the things that were most important. 

I used to read fiction books all the time in high school and university (The Wheel of Time and Harry Potter series were my favorite), but when I began teaching I lost my love for it. I felt guilty if I started to read a book that had no relevancy to teaching. There was so much professional reading or school work that needed to be done, that I could not allow myself to pick up my favorite books. One small win I had this year was being able to finish five books from The Redwall series! So my love for reading fiction is slowly coming back. But I’ll be honest, I still can’t finish a nonfiction book. I have read the first chapter of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell three times and have a stack of ten nonfiction books on my shelf that are collecting dust. Unfortunately, there is a mental block right now that prevents me from being able to focus as I start to read them. One day I will get there. Baby steps.

Another hobby I have taken up is baking. I used to help my mom, or at least watch my mom bake all the time growing up, and I’ve always wanted to try her recipes. Now I am making time to try them out. I have also taken up sewing. I made my very first maxi skirt (long skirt) the other weekend and I am pretty proud of myself for it! You can see some pictures of my new hobbies on my instagram feed.

I am slowly becoming comfortable with putting work down at the end of the day and doing something for me in the evening. I am beginning to realize it is okay to have a life outside of physical education, teaching, and work. I am trying hard not to feel paralyzed with fear when I do something for myself. There is always something professionally I could be doing…but I have learned that if I do not put myself first to light my own match, there is no flame to help light others.

Naomi Hartl (@MissHartl)

18 Comments on “Recharging My Batteries

  1. ‘The truth was that I wasn’t okay. I loved the idea of teaching, but hated the reality it had become. I was not having fun anymore. I was burnt out. I was still passionate about teaching, but began to recognize that if something didn’t change, I would need to change careers. This was a heartbreaking realization for me. ‘

    Very interesting to read this as it exactly how I have been feeling recently. For weeks I have been unable to relax, forget about work or motivate myself to do anything on my personal life. Then at the start of the week I started to feel good again. I got some energy and started to relax more I work. I even slept for a full night. I cannot pinpoint exactly what has happened in the turn around, but I know that I am not fully restored yet and I am continually working to stop the burn out overtaking me again.

    • Naomi, thanks for sharing the REAL struggles that more teachers experience than would like to admit. Great teaching is HARD WORK. To be that excellent educator, it truly requires a dedication beyond what most people are willing to give. The longer I teach, the more I believe that “excellence” is a place you visit, not a place that you can sustain living for years at a time. Life has its ups and downs as it ebbs and flows along the way. We all have our own personal lives that overlap into our professional lives and it is the balance of the two that many people find tricky. I know I tend to be a “perfectionist” in many areas of my own life, and that is something that affects my teaching and my own personal well-being. Learning to let certain things go and making time for the really important things (family, relationships, heath/well-being) is what will truly help find the balance that is required to feel comfortable with the level of committment we give to our profession and accepting that level as the healthy limit you are willing to go. There will alway be more work to be done, and each day will present its own challenges to overcome.

      Best-selling author and pastor Rick Warren describes the three levels of living as the survival level, the success level and the significance level of living. The difference between these levels he says is, “Have you figured out what on earth am I here for?” A deep, philosophical question, I know. However, I believe that not until a person really takes the time to stop and think about the deep reaching impact of this statement, does one’s life truly take on significance in both meaning and purpose.

      How exactly does a person get from survival to success and from success to significance? And are many of us confusing success with significance and thinking that the two terms are interchangeable? I don’t believe for a minute that a person ever really makes it to the significance level of living just by showing up for work every day and doing a good job – which many people do. Sure employers like people who perform their job well and make their organization prosper. Everyone loves the person who is the life of the party and puts a smile on everyone’s face. But are those kinds of people truly living a life of significance? I believe that significance doesn’t come from status, sex or salary – it comes from serving. It is in giving our life away that we find meaning. It is how we are wired, I believe by God.

      Every human being has been entrusted with a very unique and specific skill set. All of us possess certain gifts, talents, abilities, backgrounds, education, wealth, opportunities, networks, ideas, creativity… The question is, “What are we going to do with what we’ve been given?” Have you figured out, “What on earth are you here for?” Let me challenge everyone to do something that matters. Make a significant contribution. Don’t be satisfied with living a successful life for yourself – GIVE TO OTHERS! Every time you do, you break the grip of materialism in your own life by placing value on people over possessions – that is living a life of significance!

      I am looking forward to the rest of the #physedogogy team sharing their insights on this topic. Take care!

      • I enjoyed reading your response as much as the original post. Great insight.

      • Thank you for reading and commenting, Mike! I love that you said “The longer I teach, the more I believe that “excellence” is a place you visit, not a place that you can sustain living for years at a time.” This reminds me of conversations with Judy LoBianco about teacher effectiveness and how she says that distinguished teaching is a place that you visit, not a place you live. It is very true, and I think the more educators that can understand that can be okay with the ebbs and flows.

        I am very interested in what you said about the survival level, the success level and the significance level of teaching. I was in survival my whole teaching career (three and a half years). The aftermath and reflection on it has given me a drive now to support teachers in ways I hadn’t felt supported. I believe that is part of my reason for being here…. but only part. I still need to dig deeper.

        I do feel that living a life of service is very important… service to our families, service to our students, service to our profession, and service to our communities. The one thing I have come to realize thought is that when I was teaching I was giving, and giving and giving… and I was being drained to the point of no return. Am I mistaking giving with serving? How much can we serve others if we do not take care of ourselves first?

      • So unbelievably refreshing by both Naomi and Mike! Along with a lot of driven and impactful teachers, I share the physical, emotional, and mental need to be a perfectionist. I feel as though it’s in my DNA and its almost impossible to turn off. Be the best Physed teacher I can be, HAVE TO. Best Dad, best Husband, best Coach, best Christian I can be, YOU BET. Unfortunately, such a quest comes at a price. Thankfully, it’s the people in our lives that love and care for us that let us know when they can see it taking a toll. Taking a toll on our health, our tone, and our overall well being. That’s why the “me” time and the time you choose to spend with family, friends, and a faith is what keeps that match lit. It reminds us why we are perfectionists. Because we want to make those people, including the students in our lives so proud.

        “The longer I teach, the more I believe that “excellence” is a place you visit, not a place that you can sustain living for years at a time.” – Mike Graham. Hearing this quote couldn’t have come at a better time. Though I’ve worked very hard the past year to let some things go amidst my quest to be the best I can at everything I am, it’s still difficult. I’ve put off going back to school to acquire my masters because I have feared that I won’t be able to do it ALL as perfect as I want to. Nevertheless, I am taking the leap and my first class is tonight. So thank you Mike, thank you Naomi. Though excellence is what I will continue to strive for in all facets and titles of my life, this simple blog post and confession will guide me through the ups and downs that will come with that pursuit.

        Past, present, and undoubtedly the future, I thank you both for your inspiration. More so, I thank you both for all that you do for the world of Health and Physical Education. I still wake up every morning and thank God he blessed me with the opportunity to do what I do. And even better, get paid for it 🙂

        God bless,

        Randy Spring

      • Thank you for your inspiring words Randy. We have an amazing community and I am so thankful to be part of it. The ups and downs are tough… very tough, but each of you help me embrace them. The good and the bad times are supported and I thank each person who has taken a moment to read, comment, share or reflect on what I have written. It is not always easy to be completely honest about the struggles, it is hard to show vulnerability. But when we do, I feel it brings our community together even tighter. I am also thankful each day that I get to do what I do. I am not in the gymnasium anymore, maybe that will come again one day in time, but for now I get to support teachers in ways I never felt supported and I am truly thankful for that opportunity. Thanks again, Randy.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Michael. I am glad that the start of the week you have some energy and are able to relax a bit more. I think it’s important to recognize when we start to feel “out of sorts” and then making sure to take some time to bring ourselves back. Hopefully this will help us prevent the burn out from happening.

    • Great read and insight Naomi. As a young-teacher (only my sixth-year) I have found that what truly leads to happiness is when our avocation aligns with vocation – this is no easy task, but is vital for student engagement – especially when teaching in highly impoverished districts. Students in such districts require much more engagement from their teachers to help them overcome and balance their stress-filled lives. It is hard to be engaged when our cups run empty, so we must fill them up ourselves. Whether that be by partaking in conversations such as these with other fellow professionals to ignite our inspirationa- flames or by aligning those avocations with our duties as educators. We are all made to be great, but our purposeful actions determine our success. I like the quote, “We can do no great things, only small endeavors- with great love”. Thanks for sharing and all the work that you do for the profession.

  2. Oh, Naomi!! When I started reading this article, I was thinking, “ya, I went to a convention like that. These courses she taught sound like SK curriculum. That could be someone in my school.” Then I read about “a co-worker asking if I was ok” 😌. I thought “Wow! I remember doing that with Naomi when she was in Star City.” I continued reading, but then couldn’t finish without scrolling the bottom to see the writer!!!
    I had no idea what you were going through! Why do we feel that we can’t admit our burnout?? And get the support of our co-workers? A couple of weeks ago I asked the question of my fb friends, about how I could work online, from home, and not deal with teaching anymore.
    Unfortunately, I think there are more burnt out teachers out there, that are afraid to make a change, because of the unknown future.
    Thanks so much for sharing! I’m so glad to hear you’re coming back into a better place.🙂
    Sorry I missed you at Christmas!

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Norma! I was very excited to see that you did as I thought of you a lot when I wrote it and our conversation that we had. I think the reason I couldn’t admit burnout was pride, fear, and a system that tells us its okay to fail but does not support us when we do. So when we are asked if we need anything, we silence the voices in our head that are yelling for help and say “I’m fine”. I think it got so bad that I felt it was beyond the point of fixing and if I would give up some of my responsibilities, others would then be burdened with it.

      My question is how do we have teachers from all levels and experiences facing burnout? That is a red flag. It is time the system is fixed. It is not just one population experiencing it, it’s them all. I think it has to start with us to not be afraid to speak up about what we are struggling with, asking for help and demanding that we get it. We did not choose the path of teaching because we were going to make millions of dollars. We went into teaching to make a difference in the lives of millions of children. BUT, our passion to make a difference should not be taken advantage of and unfortunately I feel like it is time and time again.

      Slowly I am working towards a better place and healing. Maybe my post should have been titled “The process of healing” as there are still wounds that are open and festering, and some that are scared over. Some days I am still bitter and angry, and other days I am at peace. But I know in order to heal, I need to reflect and push forward. I guess this blog post is my starting point.

      • The timing of your article is perfect! At this point in my career, my 20th year of teaching, but only my 2nd year of full-time teaching, the feeling of burn-out is getting heavier and heavier. I’m at the point of entertaining thoughts of what else can I do as a 50-year-old teacher, that will sustain me both mentally and physically? Can I maybe go back to part-time? (what will that do to my pension?) Should I look at a different career? A job that is simply 9-5, with no required work-related thoughts beyond office hours? At this point, I don’t know if I’m brave enough to step away from teaching, or strong enough to stick with it.

  3. Hey Naomi! I know exactly how you feel having to be the jack-of-all-trades, wear multiple hats at your school just to make sure that your students get the most.

    Last two years, I’ve had to coach all, and I mean all, the sports teams at my school without any support from my colleagues (except my principal) and I can understand how burnout happens. I find it awesome that you mentioned reading as one of the hobbies that you’ve gotten into since transitioning out of full-time teaching and it can be a great stress relief. I am always looking for new series to take my mind off of my work when I get home.

    I find that when we dwell on what we have done during the day when we get home, we rob our families or even ourselves of the relaxing calm that should come after a hard days work. We were meant to work and then to take a break, that’s how we are wired.

    It’s tough, especially between October-November and January-March when I am coaching every night because I drive my students to games, practices, or tournaments and home afterwards. My wife is so awesome and understanding and it works for us because we still don’t have kids. But the reality for me is, as passionate as I am about teaching P.E. and coaching my students, when I have a family, they come first, and I believe that teachers need to know that when they start – make sure you know your priorities right out of the gate and make sure you are comfortable with them.

    Thanks for sharing! I love how passionate you are in what you do and that keeps us other P.E. teachers fire fueled! Great stuff!

    • Hi Matt, thank you for reading and commenting! It is definitely important that any new position we go into we keep our priorities at the front of our minds as it is easy to loose track of them when responsibilities start to pile up. Knowing what you will and will not do, and making sure to stand up for yourself and your family is very important. If there is one thing that I have learned from this whole process it is to stand up for myself. I am not great at it yet, but I recognize when it needs to happen now. Thank you for your blog post as well!

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