How to avoid burn-out in the first five years.
In 2015, I began my first full-time teaching job and published a reflection on my experiences of teaching high school history for ten weeks. As the Australian school year winds down, and I’m about to finish my fourth full year in the profession, I have begun to reflect on what I have experienced as an early-career teacher and why, against the odds, I am choosing to embark on my fifth year in the classroom.
A multitude of news articles suggest that almost half of all new Australian teachers quit within the first five years in the profession. In fact, when you run an innocuous Google search on “Australian teachers” you will also have suggested searches which are very telling signs of the times — “teachers leaving profession in Australia,” “teacher stress Australia” and “teacher burnout statistics Australia.” When testing out a few other search terms, it is clear that other countries have their own unique teacher retention issues as well — American teachers are critically underpaid, New Zealand is undergoing a teacher shortage and British teachers are so stressed they’re leaving to work in Australia!
While teaching is certainly a profession with many crises and difficulties that should not be overlooked, I would like to provide some balance to the prevailing perspective of the media that being a new teacher in Australia today is all doom and gloom. Here are some strategies and experiences that have helped me stave off disillusionment in a career that continues to challenge but also inspire me every day.
I would probably not be a teacher anymore if it weren’t for the help of those more experienced than me. I was fortunate to land a job at the school where I completed my final university practicum and was able to, from the get-go, have my practicum mentor transition into becoming my work mentor. My mentor has a lot more experience than me, boundless patience and complete confidence in my abilities. I believe that having a mentor is crucial to success in this industry because unlike many other professional jobs where you start out as a junior with fewer responsibilities and more supervision, a new teacher on their first day is required to perform the exact same tasks as a teacher with years of experience. The first year of teaching has a steep learning curve that is much more easily bridged and managed by the wisdom of a caring colleague. However, where this is not possible, find a “virtual staffroom” in the form of an online community of teachers (there are many on Facebook) who will collegially share resources, ideas, and advice. Teachers by nature are generally caring people and I’ve found that as a result, there is always help if you seek it.
Each year, one of my top priorities is to work on obtaining a better work-life balance. My first and second year of teaching were brutal; most days I felt like I was a sleep-deprived hamster running in a wheel. I was exerting every effort in my work and in many ways, was mostly driven by an innate sense of perfectionism that I have yet to fully outgrow. By my third year, I felt like it was necessary to really get a handle on the way I used my time as my efficacy at home and at work was markedly in decline. The most important change that I made to my mindset was to really start valuing my personal time. I had to begin accepting that it was not selfish to need personal time and that the tasks that I “needed” to complete for work could wait. I had to stop saying ‘no’ to my friends and family as much because I was busy and make time to engage with people because it is simply so important to maintain relationships and have a social life. While our work is important, there is life beyond our work that must be preserved for our health and well-being.
Travel and learning opportunities
Being a teacher has made travel more meaningful and in some cases, more accessible to me. Teaching history has meant that I have been given many opportunities to travel and see the world at a discount or even at times for free, while on my school holidays. In Australia, teachers are able to make tax deductions on purchases that directly relate to their learning and maintenance of skills. For example, when I took a trip to Europe in 2016, my visits to the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum were completely tax deductible as I teach an extensive unit on these sites as a core component of the Year 12 Ancient History course. That experience greatly enhanced the way I taught the source-based course as I had been able to learn first-hand about the layout of the towns and view buildings and artefacts that I taught about in the classroom. In 2017, I applied to undertake a Holocaust Studies Program at Yad Vashem in Israel and was successful in receiving a scholarship from Gandel Philanthropy to complete the course. It was an incredible, hands-on and immersive experience that has informed my practice immensely. There are many other organisations that are willing to organise, subsidise or even fund interesting and worthwhile teacher professional learning. Whether you enjoy travelling abroad or would prefer to stay near your home, I would strongly encourage early-career teachers to be personally proactive about their professional development — take every opportunity to learn and grow because it can make a huge impact on how equipped you feel to continue in this career.
While it may come as a cliche, for most teachers, the reason they keep coming back day-after-day is primarily for their students. This is certainly the case for me. Over the past four years, I have been able to watch my students learn and transform over their high school years. It is incredibly satisfying to be a part of another person’s development in their most formative years. Lessons are learned beyond the classroom at school, and I am privileged to witness the personal growth of others as they face challenges and try to learn from mistakes. While teachers don’t teach to receive thanks, the special thank you notes, cards, hand-shakes and hi-fives I get back from some of my students make it all seem worthwhile even when faced with the stress and difficulties that are an unavoidable part of the job. Being in the classroom is my favourite part of the work day and I would choose class-time over any administrative task. Not all teachers work in environments where their students are willing to or are able to express their thanks, but I hope teachers everywhere know how much they are still needed.