by Carla L. Sparks
assistant professor of educational leadership, National Louis University
Chase Mielke nailed it in his “A Letter to New Teachers” (2019). His advice to new teachers on staving off burnout is exactly on point, based upon my own experiences as an educator over the last 40 years.
Mielke admits that conditions affect our passion for teaching, and I agree with his conclusion that while conditions affect us, they do not define us. His strategies, or five “passion stokers” (p. 2), resonate with me.
When I first began teaching, a wise veteran teacher told me to avoid the teachers’ lounge. That was good advice, as that room is often the place to complain, lose focus, and cultivate fruitless relationships.
Mielke suggests finding the teachers who still love their work and spending time with them. I agree wholeheartedly. His second passion stoker is based upon deciding to focus on positive thoughts and words. In other words, do not dwell on mistakes, disappointments, or hurtful words. Instead, acknowledge them and move on to something worth dwelling on.
Mielke’s third passion stoker is forgiveness. In my experience, we really cannot thrive in any aspect of life if we harbor hurt, pain, and anger. If we want to be whole and effective in our teaching, then we must forgive others for hurting our feelings, for not doing what we think they should, for not living up to our expectations; that includes our students, our colleagues, our educational leaders, and even our governing leaders.
Mielke’s third passion stoker is perhaps my favorite because he discusses recognizing what is within our control and what is not. He reminds me of the the importance of understanding what we can change and what we cannot change. Mielke claims that focusing on what we can control is empowering, and I agree. I know it is frustrating to focus on things we want to happen but cannot control; conversely, making things happen that enrich the lives of others is not only empowering but it is rewarding.
During the first few years of my career, I was asked to teach students who were identified as gifted intellectually. That meant I had to complete a series of courses on how to work with the gifted subgroup of students.
During that time, one of my instructors explained the continuum of mastery. The concept is that a teacher begins the first year of teaching at the frustration level on the continuum and operates at a very challenging pace throughout that first year. Then in the second year of teaching, things begin to make more sense and become more manageable.
In year three, a teacher often hits a level of mastery that causes the work to be more fun and much easier. Eventually, the fun fades to boredom. At that point, one of two things will inevitably happen: a change or burnout.
Teachers who thrive make some kind of change involving a new challenge; for example, a change of grade level, a change of subject area, a change of strategies, a change of curriculum, a change of school, a change of position, and so on. Teachers who reach mastery but do not take on a change that involves a new challenge will burnout.
Mielke’s fifth passion stoker is very similar to the admonition my instructor gave me—change or burnout. The longevity and joy of my career as an educator has been founded on two things: persistence and change.
Many educators and other people now use the term “grit,” along with “resilience.” Those terms are encompassed in persistence. Similar to Mielke, I encourage new teachers to persist, surround themselves with successful and encouraging educators, grip positivity, focus on things they can control, and continuously maintain a forward momentum that demands new challenges.
Why bother? Because teaching involves meeting the needs of others, guiding them to develop goals and build the skills they need to achieve those goals, and helping them to progressively earn the credentials they need to reach their highest potential. What could possibly be a more purposeful, fulfilling, rewarding life!